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The Encyclopedia of Oklahoma History and Culture


From exposure to misrepresentations found in movies and other forms of popular culture, most non-Native peoples possess impoverished and stereotyped ideas about the verbal arts practiced among the Native peoples of Oklahoma and on the North American continent at large. In contrast to the sad speeches of lamentation memorialized in film and literature, American Indian oral tradition is diverse, vibrant and, in almost all its manifestations, an affirmation of community and individual well-being and identity. Regardless of their diverse backgrounds, Oklahoma Indian communities all value speaking as a social practice, and the ability to speak in and about tribal tradition is highly valued.

The Native peoples of Oklahoma possess their own distinctive languages and customs, but tribes cluster into regional groups that share some common backgrounds of history and culture. Long-time neighbors tend to be more like one another in culture and history than groups of more varied backgrounds. These regional traditions are those associated with the northeastern, southeastern, and plains areas of North America. All three of these traditions are represented in Oklahoma, as well as one group, the Modoc, who were forced there from California.

The most widely studied Native oral tradition is storytelling. Oklahoma tribes classify and tell stories differently, but certain general patterns can be observed. Storytelling can encompass narratives that are viewed as truthful accounts of events in the ancient past. For instance, all Oklahoma tribes possess a unique narrative about the creation of the world. Storytelling also embraces stories that could be called folktales. Like sacred tales, these too have been told across the generations, but they are not thought of as representing literal truths. Told for amusement, these stories are often shared among groups and are told when different communities meet to socialize. Legends are a third type of story. They are not set in the ancient past but in more recent eras. These possess an aura of history, but the facts they report cannot be confirmed. Tales of lost treasure are classic examples of this type. While folklorists divide these types into the distinct categories of myth, folktale, and legend, most American Indian people use the English word "story" to label them all. Listeners often make their own judgments about truth. In addition to the content of such narratives Native communities possess rules and procedures for their telling. In some communities, it is believed that such stories should be told only during the winter. Certain behaviors are to be practiced by storytellers, such as spitting on the ground at the conclusion of a story or the use of traditional phrases or introduction or conclusion.

Less-often-documented oral traditions also play an important role in Oklahoma Indian life. Historical information, such as family genealogy and cultural knowledge held within a tribal group, will most often be transmitted between generations through spoken narratives. Talk about tribal history and culture is pervasive in Indian communities. Today, through video and audio recording, Indian people are ever more frequently preserving permanent records of such knowledge. The elders who transmit important information through narrative do more than provide knowledge. They communicate it in locally appropriate ways that are an often-unrecognized form of verbal art.

One particularly obvious example of this process is the speechmaking that accompanies important Native ceremonies throughout Oklahoma. At the ceremonial grounds of the Northeastern and Southeastern tribes, specially appointed men deliver speeches that are important parts of larger rituals. Delivered in English or in Native languages, these speeches are forms of art that explain tribal history, culture, ritual, and proper behavior. Comparable speaking events take place among the Plains groups as well, for instance during powwows and peyote meetings. Like storytelling, such speaking reflects local cultural traditions and norms. Some genres that originated in European institutions, such as the sermons performed in Indian churches, have also been thoroughly transformed into distinctly Native ways of speaking.

Less serious, but also important to Native life, are forms of joking that pervade everyday life. Whenever Native people from Oklahoma meet, storytelling and teasing are often fundamental parts of conversation and social interaction. English is regularly used for such communication, but it is often a distinctly Indian form of English, signaling that special attention is being paid to Indian themes, concerns, and modes of verbal artistry. Few non-Natives ever become fluent in the rich verbal skills associated with Oklahoma Indian life. For this reason verbal traditions—even styles of joke telling—continue to serve as markers of both tribal and more generally Native identity.

Jason Baird Jackson


Daniel J. Gelo, "Powwow Patter: Indian Emcee Discourse on Power and Identity," Journal of American Folk-lore 112 (1999).

Jason Baird Jackson, "Of Bears and Rabbits: Animals in Traditional Native American Art and Literature," Gilcrease Journal 6 (1998).

Jason Baird Jackson, "The Work of Tradition in Yuchi Oratory," Florida Anthropologist 50 (December 1997).

Jack F. Kilpatrick and Anna G. Kilpatrick, Friends of Thunder: Folktales of the Oklahoma Cherokees (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1995).

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The following (as per The Chicago Manual of Style, 17th edition) is the preferred citation for articles:
Jason Baird Jackson, “Oral Tradition, American Indian,” The Encyclopedia of Oklahoma History and Culture, https://www.okhistory.org/publications/enc/entry?entry=OR002.

Published January 15, 2010

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