The Path on the Rainbow, edited by George W. Cronyn, , at sacred-texts.com
The poetic faculty is, of all man's modes, the most responsive to natural environment, the most sensitive and the truest record of his reactions to its skyey influences, its floods, forests, morning colors. It is the first to register the rise of his spirits to the stimulus of new national ideals. If this were not so there would be no such thing as nationality in art, and it is only by establishing some continuity with the earliest instances of such reaction that we can be at all sure that American poetic genius has struck its native note. Therefore it becomes appropriate and important that this collection of American Indian verse should be brought to public notice at a time when the whole instinctive movement of the American people is for a deeper footing in their native soil. It is the certificate of our adoption, that the young genius of our time should strike all unconsciously on this ancient track to the High Places.
Poetic art in America, at the time it began to be overlaid by European culture, had reached a mark close to that of the Greeks at the beginning of the Homeric era. The lyric was well developed, the epic was nascent, and the drama was still in the Satyris stage of development, a rude dance ritual about an altar or a sacrificial fire. Neither poetry nor drama were yet divorced from singing, and all art was but half-born out of the Great Mystery. Magic was sung, and songs had magic power. Both were accompanied by appropriate bodily movement, so that an Indian will say indifferently, I cannot sing that dance, or I cannot dance that song. Words, melody and movement were as much mixed as the water of a river with its own ripples and its rate of flowing. Hum a few bars of a plainsman's familiar song, and he will
say, puzzled, "It ought to be a war song," but without the words he will scarcely identify it. Words may become obsolete so that the song is untranslatable, but so long as enough of it remains to hold together the primary emotional impulse out of which it sprang, the Indian finds it worthy to be sung. He is, indeed, of the opinion that "White man's songs, they talk too much."
This partly explains why most Indian songs are songs for occasions. The rest of the explanation lies in the fact that songs have magic power. Tiráwa, Wokonda, The Friend of the Soul of Man, is in everything; in the field we plant, the stone we grind with, the bear we kill. By singing, the soul of the singer is put in harmony with the essential Essence of Things. There are songs for every possible adventure of tribal life; songs for setting out on a journey, a song for the first sight of your destination, and a song to be sung by your wife for your safe return. Many of these songs occur detached from everything but the occasion from which they sprang, such as the women's grinding song, measured to the plump, plump! of the mealing stone, or the Paddle Song which follows the swift rhythm of the stroke. Others, less descriptive and retaining always something of a sacred character, occur originally as numbers in the song sequences by which are celebrated the tribal Mysteries.
Back of every Indian ceremony lies a story, the high moments of which are caught up in song, while the burden of the narrative is carried by symbolic rite and dance. The unequal social development of contemporaneous tribes affords examples from every phase of structural development from the elemental dance punctuated by singing exclamations to the Mountain Chant of the Zuñi in which the weight of the story has broken down the verse variants into strong simple forms capable of being carried in a single memory. Halfway between them is the ritual sequence of the Midéwan.
The practical necessity of being preserved and handed on by word of mouth only, must be constantly borne in mind in considering the development of Indian verse forms.
It operated to keep the poetry tied to its twin-born melody,
which assisted memory, and was constantly at work modifying the native tendency to adjust the rhythm to every changing movement of the story. Ancient Chippeway singers kept ideographic birch bark memoranda of their songs, and wampum belts commemorated the events that gave use to them, but the songs themselves came down from their ancient sources hundreds of years in the stream of human memory shaped by its limitations.
From the Zuñi Creation Cycle with its sustained narrative style to the Homeric Epic is but one poetic bound, the space between them, represented in old world literature by the Norse Sagas and the Kalevala, indicated but not filled, in America, by prose relations. It is probable that if we had anything like adequate records of the literature of vanished tribes, this pre-Homeric period would show notable examples of epic stuff. Nobody really knows how the Walam Olum or the Creek Migration Myths were recited. They embodied whole epochs of tribal history, to which the known literary remains were merely the mnemonic key, a tally of significant items. In every tribe are floating songs which appear to be fragments from a story sequence the key of which has been lost, and it is not unlikely that records like the Red Score would have owned complete, if detached, narratives of the historic events so slightly indicated, some of which may yet yield themselves to the patient researcher.
For the casual reader more interest attaches to the personal songs, the lullabies, love songs, most of all the man's own song which he makes of his great moment. This is a peculiar personal possession. No one may sing it without his permission. He may bestow it on a friend, or bequeath it to the tribe on his death, but it is also possible that he may die without having sung it to anyone but his god.
On one occasion in the high Sierras I observed my Indian packer going apart at a certain hour each day to shuffle rhythmically with his feet and croon to himself. To my inquiry he said it was a song which he had made, to be sung by himself and his wife when they were apart from one another.
It had no words; it was just a song. Wherever they were they turned each in the direction he supposed the other to be, when the sun was a bow-shot above the edge of the heavens, and sang together. This is the sort of incident which gives the true value of song in aboriginal life. It is not the words which are potent, but the states of mind evoked by singing, states which the simple savage conceived as being supernally good for him. He evoked them therefore on all his most personal occasions. Poetry is the Path on the Rainbow by which the soul climbs; it lays hold on the Friend of the Soul of Man. Such exalted states are held to be protective and curative. Medicine men sing for their patients, and, in times of war, wives gather around the Chief's woman and sing for the success of their warriors.
"Calling on Zeus by the names of Victory" as Euripides puts it.
It is this inherent power of poetry to raise the psychic plane above the accidents of being, which gives meaning to the custom of the Death Song. As he sees his moment approaching, the Indian throws himself, by some profound instinct of self-preservation, into the highest frame of mind attainable. When men in battle broke into the death song, they had committed themselves to the last desperate adventure. Dying of enfeebling sickness, their friends came and sang around them. One such I heard, the death song of a Yokut Song Maker. It was very simple:
[paragraph continues] What more than this have the schools taught us!
Of Indian meters there has been no competent study made. The whole problem of form is inextricably complicated with melody and movement. The necessity of making his verse conform to a dance, probably accounts for the liberal use of meaningless syllables. To our ear no specific forms seem indicated, yet that the Indians recognize a certain correspondence between
form and meaning is certain. They will readily classify songs of other tribes in unknown tongues into songs of love or war or magic. The genius of the tribal language is a determining factor. No clumsiness of translation can quite disguise the—from our point of view—superior singableness of Chippeway verse. In general, poetry of forest dwellers is more lyric than the songs of mountain and mesa. An inquiry which I once made into the psychology of the Indian sign language with a view to discovering a possible relation between it and Greek manual gesture as displayed in ancient graphic art, led to the conclusion that Indian rhythms arise rather in the centre of self-preservation than of self-consciousness. Which is only another way of saying that poetry is valued primarily by the aboriginal for the reaction it produces within himself rather than for any effect he is able to produce on others by means of it. This is true even of that class of songs which originates wholly in the desire to affect the fortunes or well being of others, songs of healing and magic formulae.
The first stage of Indian magic is the rise of the singer on his own song to a plane of power; only while he is in this plane is he able to bring the wish of his client to pass. It is a natural process of deterioration which leads to the song being thought of as having potency in itself.
Magic songs can generally be recognized by the form of affirmation in which they are cast, as in the Winnebago Love Song, which is not really a song of love, but a song to secure success in love,
or the Cherokee formula to insure the constancy of the beloved, and the Micmac vengeance song
Among the Navajo the magic effect is made certain by the fourfold repetition of the affirming phrase, four being a sacred number.
These are all items which have to be taken into account in interpreting American Indian poetry. It is in the very nature of primitive verse that it should require interpretation, even among the audiences for whom it is originally intended. For verse is to the Red singer but a shorthand note to his emotions, a sentence or two, a phrase out of the heart of the situation. It is the "inside song" alone which is important. Says the Medicine Man, explaining these matters, "You see Injun man singin' an' cryin' while he sing. It ain't what he singin' make him cry; iss what the song make him think, thass what he cryin' about."
This inside song may be a fleeting instant of revelation, or a very long story… as if one should try in the Zuñi fashion to compress the whole Christian myth into one bitter cry,
Whole cycles of tribal or personal experience can lie behind some such simple but absolute phrasing. It is this hidden beauty for which the interpreter must dig deep into aboriginal life.
The Ghost Dance songs included in this collection are scarcely intelligible until the reader realizes that they are supposed to be the flashes of revelation brought from the dead in dreams, foretelling the approach of a spiritual revival.
Thus it came to the Cheyenne:
To the Piaute also
[paragraph continues] For to the Piaute from his flat Reservation on Walker River, the faint young green of the cottonwoods is the first sign of that new growth which follows after seasonal storms. Any adequate rendering of these songs would have to convey in native figures all this sense of immanent world-overturning and spiritual reëstablishment in the Oneness of God and the Brotherhood of man.
[paragraph continues] Thus interpreted they would rank with the prophetic utterances of the herdsman of Tekoa. It is quite possible, indeed, that in time all these ghostly songs would have been detached from their obscure authors and ascribed to the Messiah of the Ghost Dance, who would have been reckoned among the major prophets.
For such illuminating gleams that Indian poetry can throw on the genesis of inspired literature, its study would be worthwhile, even if without the renewal of our native stock of poetic forms and figures.
It is probable that the best Indian poetry has been lost to us in the stamping out of superior tribes.
This would be particularly the case in the south, where
social development had reached a stage which only the pueblos and the Five Nations of western New York approached.
Miss Convers has shown us in the fragments of Iroquois ritual something of what might still be recovered from the remnants of that race, but this single example from the forgotten tribe of Tenasa, on the shore of the Missi-sippu seems to me to overleap all time and space and touch the hidden source of Greek inspiration. It is a marriage song, the faithful translation of an unliterary explorer, Greek in its mode, and in a certain tender irony of mood, but with touches to which only a full knowledge of Indian thought can give their full value, for all of which I venture to give it the isolation of its native quality.
[paragraph continues] The single line which identifies the song of Tiakens as intrinsically American is that one which inquires:
Didst thou understand her signs when she danced to thee? embodying as it does a very widespread aboriginal belief that in the dance and song, more than in any other medium, a maiden revealed the physical capacity and the power of sustained emotion which fitted her for marriage. Since when, and with what unhappy results, have we forgotten that creative emotion is a qualification for marriage! We do shallowly indeed when we dismiss the dance and song as mere millinery of courtship. They are the speech of the spirit identifying itself with cosmic forces. I do not know whether or not the Tenasa had the custom known on the Pacific Coast as the Dance of Marriageable Maidens, but I know that if you cut deeply into any Indian poem it yields that profound and palpitant humanism without which no literary art can endure.
Failure to realize the living background of Indian art has led to singular misinterpretation, in a class of songs common to every tribe, and almost invariably translated as love songs by the novice. These are the songs of the Mystics, Songs of Seeking. They record the unavailing search of the soul for the Absolute, for touch of that Great Mystery which is the object of the Indian's profoundest aspiration. Two such songs may be found in Frederick Burton's collection of Ojibway music, done into rather sentimental love ditties, the "Lake's Sheen" and the "Birch Bark Canoe," though their character as religious songs was so plainly marked that Mr. Burton himself commented on the singularity of Indian sweethearts forever getting themselves lost and requiring to be sought. It is well to remember before attempting the interpretation of an Indian love song, that the great Mystics have always appropriated the intimate language of the heart for the soul's quest. As will be seen from the examples which Mr. Cronyn has included in his collection, the work of interpreting our treasure of Indian verse has been but lightly begun. While some of these, notably Miss Corbin's "Across the River" leave nothing to be desired of the spirit, form and content
of the original, many others have had frankly to sacrifice one of them.
In my own interpretations I have been feeling rather for a full expression of Indian thought, than for lyrical quality.
And in any case, mine is not a singing gift. All Indian verse is either sung or chanted, but the difficulty of fitting Indian rhythms to European music is only surpassed by the difficulty of getting Indian music arranged in European notation.
The long divided Muses of poetry, music and dance must come together again for the absolute rendering. Enough cannot be said in praise of the work of Miss Fletcher, Natalie Curtis, Frank Cushing and Washington Mathews, to mention no others, for the clarity and sincerity of their literal translations. The interpreter's work is all before him. I know of no task so salutory to the poet who would, first of all, put himself in touch with the resident genius of his own land.