Native American Orality

Native Americans did not document or write down their history. Most of what we know about Native American history was documented by Europeans, beginning at the time of Columbus' arrival in 1492.

The Native Americans believe that expressing rituals via song, prayers and stories, breeds life into powerful forces. These orations shape the meaning of traditions and ritual. Native Americans believe “words can cause pain and suffering as well as create beauty and orderliness”.

Omaha proclamations allow the dead to enter the unseen world with their beliefs, aspirations, and thoughts intact. Why is this important? Although the dead have entered the world unknown, their preconceived thoughts of that world can still be preserved when they arrive. Consequently, language can be the creator of such a world, as a person will think or speak about it and it will then be generated.

Native Americans believed that speech and thought had valuable religious significance as well. This is specifically seen most often in creation stories, the parallel seen in the Book of John, “In the beginning was the word”.

Since the Native American’s ritualistic acts didn’t involve a language written down, they had to use linguistics to access the unseen. If they didn’t chant or exercise their voice, they could never enter a trance like state, hence they would not be capable of accessing the unseen world.

Specific ritual examples

Navaho Prayer

The Navaho prayer to the cranes is no different than a Christian praying to God. By orally chanting words to a crane who resides on a dark cloud in the unseen world, the person hopes to gain a pleasant life along with health and the ability to breath, speak and walk.This prayer is often used when someone is dying, is older, or may have been left unconscious.

Flintway

The prayer during the Flintway ceremony is chanted in a hogan, built in the likeness of the creation hogan, to evoke the same entity that brought forth life to the earth’s surface when Navahos were essentially created. In essence the entire story of creation is brought to fruition by mimicking the actual story, therefore connecting one world to the unseen, in a parallel universe.

Navaho Sandpainting

Consequently, Navaho sand paintings breathe life into an ailing person, without the addition of a written or documented language or ritual. The ritual ceremony involves the invocation of mythic beings in the unseen world. These mythic peoples have access to cures (albeit they may or may not use them) and they are once again retrieved for help by oral means with the help of a medicine man or singer. The physical form of the painting is important in that is manifests particular diyin dine’e (holy people) who will then mark the sick person with the same sand that was used to invoke themselves.

Final Thought

It's important to remember that Native Americans did not document or write down their history. Most of what we know about Native American history, especially the rituals previously discussed, was documented by Europeans, beginning at the time of Columbus' arrival in 1492. This history is fragmented. It's quite difficult to reconstruct a history of Native American culture. Although anthropologists have attempted ethnographies, and they are in fact helpful in giving us a glimpse into Native American cultures, they don't fully explain the develpoment of Native American religions, culture, rituals and language.

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Chris Stonecipher
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