Pre-Colonial Literature Notes


What is Pre-Colonial Literature? It is the study of literature in existence before colonization.


Pre-Colonial Literature was generally not recorded.  The majority of stories existed as oral tradition.





-           Advantages- can be adapted to fit any number of situations.


-           Disadvantages- only recorded in the mind- can be changed beyond recognition and original story can be lost.



-           Who would tell this story (sing this song)?

-           To whom?

-           For what purpose (lessons inherent in the story)?


-           Circle= Strength, power, unity - EX:  sun, moon, days, weeks, years, life cycles, etc.

-           Nature=equal (often personified as a living thing) - EX:  mother earth

-           Balance= necessary for living truthfully – EX:  happiness cannot be understood/realized without sadness, day without night, etc.


-           Metaphor – draws connections between unlike things to make lessons known   

-           Personification – gives nonliving things human characteristics to show connection to natural world/ to make lessons known    

-           Repetition – repeats lines/phrases to reinforce memorization (oral stories would be forgotten if not memorized), to show importance of specific information and/or to show movement in the story line (segues).

-           Symbol – specifically the circle symbol to represent strength, power and unity



-                     Creation Stories- stories that instill awe, explain the way the world (or things in it) came to be, support customs/survival skills of the people and guide people (shaped values). 

These stories cannot be told when snow has fallen- considered extremely disrespectful by many tribes.  


-                     Tricksters’ Tales- stories that using tricksters, explain the way the world (or things in it) came to be, support customs of the people and guide people (shaped values).  The tricksters vary from tribe to tribe, but are often ravens, coyotes, fox or raccoon.  These tricksters are cultural heroes (they create something or shape the behavior of large groups), are clever deceivers (they trick people into doing something they want) and/or are numbskulls (they do dumb things usually out of arrogance). 


-           NOTE:  Sometimes these story forms overlapped- tricksters often appeared in creation stories. 

-           NOTE:  Many tribes had similar stories, showing the fluid nature of oral tradition. 

-           NOTE:  Because of our history, many tribes lost many members very quickly (disease, war, relocation, etc.).  Tribal culture (including their use of oral tradition as a means of sharing/passing down information) could not compensate for the loss of many adult members.  Many children were left without stories, many stories died.


Telephone game works really well to illustrate the fluid nature of oral tradition.  Assuming each person in the class is a different generation, note how different the original story is by the time it reaches the last “generation”.  Discuss how students had to “fill in blanks” when they forgot portions or couldn’t understand the given message (tie to pros/cons of oral tradition).