Native American oral literature has been commonly categorized as originating thousands of years ago as some kind of ancient artifact, which comes down to us from a distant past rather than moments of a living poetry. In an effort to explore this myth, I investigate the literature of modern-day Native American song lyrics taken from the 2011 Native American Music Awards (NAMMYS) winning Pop, Rock, and Song-Single of the Year songs.
The limitation or exclusion of Native oral literature from the 21st century American canon is what Jace Weaver calls “a way of continuing colonialism…and denies to Native literary artists who choose other media any legitimate or ‘authentic’ Native identity.” Oral poetry, or song lyrics, are another literary avenue in which Native Americans can express their worldviews and demonstrate what Gerald Vizenor calls “survivance,” Weaver calls “communitism,” Robert Warrior calls “intellectual sovereignty,” and Georges Sioui calls “autohistory.” Although some critics have described Native Americans as finding themselves in-between two cultures, the most recent song lyrics indicate they are participating in both cultures.
Selecting a few threads from the mainstream cultural cloth and pulling them through to the Native cultural fabric (such as the musical award format, song verse configuration, and elements of Western technology) is a way for indigenous people to stabilize identity by getting recognition, reinforce traditional values and customs between generations, and share worldviews.
The Internet is the new campfire.
The result is not only survival of a culture, but the beginning of vocalizing a resistant, yet positive identity by dispelling the historical, descriptive inaccuracies using worldviews to illustrate new perceptions of identity. There is an ongoing process of negotiating the forces of assimilation into mainstream American culture, but modern song lyrics are one way Native Americans appear to regenerate and maintain their foundational culture.
M.A. in English candidate
University of St. Thomas