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Nature's Influence on the First American Literature

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About 20,000 to 30,000 years ago, during the last Ice age, groups of nomadic tribes of early humans crossed an ice bridge over the Bering Strait, between present day Russia and Alaska. These groups spread over North and Central America and separated into different groups called tribes. These tribes lived off the land and flourished until around 1492 when Christopher Columbus officially discovered the New World. At this point there were about 10 million Native Americans in North America at this time. The Native Americans originally welcome their pale visitors revering them as messengers from the Great Spirit, with their fascinating technology and winged ships. However, the white men were not prophets to the Native Americans, but actually more of a plague to the native Americans, harming them at every turn (Donahue, 2007, History of a Proud People, para. 1-5). The New world became a place of opportunity and adventure, and colonists started flocking to the New World in pursuit of freedom. The colonists didn’t think taking the Native Americans land where their people had lived for thousands of years for free was fair so they gave them something in return. Unfortunately, the gift they gave was diseases such as smallpox, measles, and influenza. These diseases were picked up in dirty European cities and given to the Native Americans who had neither the antibodies nor the knowledge to defend themselves. These epidemics of catastrophic proportions decimated the Native Americans by wiping out entire tribes of people. The white men did not stop there and instigated dozens of wars intended to gain control of the Native Americans land. The Native Americans were very well adapted to their environment, but faltered when introduced to the might of European technology and were eventually taken over. They are, however, a very proud people and refused to go quietly.


Native Americans are responsible for the first American literature, even though they generally had no written language. How then did they create the first literature? The answer is that they spread their ideas, and passed down their culture and heritage across generations through oral tradition. They told stories of heroes and battles, but stories were mainly used to explain things happening around them. Native American stories are deeply entwined with their religion. Most Native Americans were Animists, meaning they believed that all living things had a spirit or life force that interconnected all life. In most tribes, there were a few specialized positions that were highly regarded second only to the chief. These positions included high priest, storyteller, and interpreter of dreams. Often times the same individual held more than one or all of these positions because stories and religion were so closely related (Doak, 2001, Native American spirituality, para. 1-11). In the Native American stories, personified traits given to animal spirits were used to represent different archetypes. For example, the Coyote was portrayed as cunning and mischievous, and filled the archetype of a trickster. These spirits then were used as characters in stories used to explain things like the moon changing sizes, or the changing of the seasons.



Literature is formed when people share their knowledge or ideas with others, and thusly you can only write about what you know or believe. The Native Americans knew more about their environment and its inhabitants than they knew about anything else, so it only makes sense that they used members of their environment in their literature. Native Americans were very knowledgeable when it came to animals and nature so it was possible for them to identify with the story when it was told in that context.





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