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Songs of the Tewa, by Herbert Joseph Spinden, [1933], at

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with a selection of outstanding compositions from North and South America

A GIFT of noble art in all its manifestations, destined to gather golden opinions with the passing centuries, forms part of the splendid heritage with which America of the past endows America of the future. The Redman has never received the credit due him for his fundamental contributions to human welfare and permanent civilization. On the utilitarian side stand the remarkable series of economic plants which the Indian brought to a high state of cultivation and the important industrial processes which he invented. On the esthetic side stand beauty in sculpture and architecture, beauty in traditional literature of myths, songs and ritualistic poems, beauty in dances and spectacular ceremonies, and beauty, above all, in the ethical and philosophical attitude of man towards man and of man towards nature.

It is easy enough to show that the useful gifts of the American Indian assume gigantic values today, especially since more than half the present agricultural wealth of the United States comes from plants which he tamed. It is not so easy to estimate the influence of his esthetics upon the present culture of his conquerors, but the coming effect will surely be very great. The Indian has abundantly demonstrated his ability to build up and maintain the social illusions of grandeur. Now between a nation which exists as an accumulation of individual abilities and individual achievements—and we are scarcely more than this today in spite of a certain mechanistic ordering—and a nation which finds a truly artistic and communal expression of its cooperative life,

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capable of enriching and ennobling that life, there is a vast and vital difference. Perhaps in this survey of the poetry of the American Indian I shall be able to define this difference in comprehensive terms.

The creative individuals of the Red race, the poets, the artists, the philosophers, whatever their forgotten names may be, had this in common: they were one and all the architects of mass illusion. They were culture heroes, and to my mind this is the highest purpose to which supreme abilities may be devoted. Seeing in the realities the world about them the indices of divine intention, their minds reached out to win an invisible empire. Although possessing separate abilities they were not individualists in spirit but collectivists, and the self-contained societies which they erected were super-organisms instinct with over-souls.

Perhaps the cultural units of ancient America represent primary or youthful civilization. Such a classification would well fit the first splendid efflorescence of the Mayas which produced writing, astronomical science, permanent architecture and high art. Here, if ever, we find self-sufficiency, a nation growing like a tree. For the Mayas drew wealth from their own soil and developed their supreme arts by an intelligent use of leisure in furtherance of their social ideals. It seems that the same process was repeated elsewhere in America. But also it is clear enough that the Incas and the Aztecs had hit upon the deceptive advantages of aggressive warfare in the quick up-building of their respective states. Their predatory policy was still tentative, for the undeveloped condition of both offensive and defensive military science among the American Indians in general proves that the procedures of conquest, tribute and trade were never fully established. The Redman had to dance

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himself into war or find a just cause for it in the imagined appetites of his gods.


In his relations with the immeasurable world about him the American Indian, even today and whatever the state of his culture, exhibits a single psychological attitude. Man is never the lord of creation but always a pensioner on natural bounty. It has been the custom to dismiss the religion of our Indian tribes as animistic in the lower stages and mystic in the higher ones, a classification which certainly emphasizes the supremacy of spiritual forces over material ones. Beginning with a naive belief that a directive mentality combines with a directed physical body in animals, plants and natural objects as it does in man, the first aim of Indian religion has been to make friends with nature whenever possible and when not possible to circumvent in some way the inimical forces. From this universal animism beast gods emerge as the embodiments of natural powers. Ultimately these beast gods combine into composite monster gods which gradually take on human attributes of shape and character. But very early in the development of this system the idea of a single pervasive control makes its appearance, a primal cause, a creator, a modifier, who may deal out rewards as well as punishments.

The Yokuts Indian of California, after appealing to seven vague deities whom he names in order, ends with the request that he may fit into a universal scheme 1.

My words are tied in one
With the great mountains,
With the great rocks,
With the great trees,
In one with my body
And my heart.

Do you all help me
With supernatural power,
And you, Day
And you, Night!
All of you see me
One with this world!

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In a closing comment on this primitive Californian prayer, Kroeber says: "A certain vastness of conception and profoundness of feeling rising above any petty concrete desire, cannot be denied this petition."

Out on the Great Plains the mystery which pervades the universe is called Wakonda by several Siouan tribes. The quest of Wakonda by the man who would know things "that are fit to serve as symbols" is thus described in the Osage Rite of the Chiefs 2:

In the midst of the open prairie, where trees grow not,
As he sat upon the earth to rest he thought: This spot, also, may be Wakonda's abode!
Then he inclined his head towards his right side,
Bent his body low,
And Wakonda made him close his eyes in sleep.

From the Osage informant who gave Francis La Flesche the important rituals of this tribe comes an explanation of Wakonda 3. It was the ancients who devised the ritualistic songs, the ceremonial forms and symbols out of their insight into natural mysteries, arising from their power to search with the mind. They noted the -mysteries of the light of day by which the earth and all living things that dwell thereon are influenced; the mysteries of the darkness of night that reveal to us all the great bodies of the upper world, each of which forever travels in a circle upon its own path unimpeded by the others. They searched for a long period of time for the source of life and at last came to the thought that it issues from an invisible creative power to which they applied the name Wakonda." This from one American Indian to another!

Wakonda and his congeners—for the name varies with the language—resides in the heavens and sometimes

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appears to his petitioners in human guise, but aged and austere. In literature dealing with the Indian he is generally referred to as the Great Mystery but he might with equal propriety be called Ultimate Good.

The Pueblo Indians of the Southwest speak of their Earth Mother and Sky Father and in a chant of the Tewa (see number XXIX below) ask for a garment to be woven on the gossamer loom, strung from the sky by the desert rains, that they may walk fittingly in a decent world. If only our materialistic civilizations now stripping the earth in a mad holocaust could pause and take counsel from the calm wisdom of this prayer! But it seems that we accept no lesson from the past and owe no duty to the future. The destruction of forests and all natural resources goes on, the flocks of wild birds and herds of wild animals die and we pollute the streams. Enslaving or exterminating undefended peoples around the world we enslave ourselves to sordid appetites and disillusions.

The Aztecs had a vague supreme deity called Ometeuctli—Lord of Duality—who combined the masculine and feminine principles in one creator god dwelling in a topmost heaven.

Nezahualcoyotl, the emperor-poet of Texcoco, is credited by the Mexican historian, Ixtlilxochitl, with having taught that there was one god supreme above all others named Tloque Nahuaque: "In the ninth tier was the creator of heaven and earth, by whom live the created beings: an only god who created all visible and invisible things." This most famous poet of ancient Mexico also realized the ethical implications of this reduction in his emphasis on just deeds as the proper worship to be offered to an eternal principle. In a poem intended to be sung in his presence we find these verses 4:

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Little will fame have to tell of this wondrous majesty, worthy of a thousand heralds, the nations will only remember how wisely governed the three chieftains who held the power.

At Mexico Montezuma the famous and valorous, at Culhuacan the fortunate Nezahualcoyotl, and at the stronghold of Acatlapan, Totoquilhuatli.

I fear no oblivion for thy just deeds, standing as thou dost in thy place appointed by the Supreme Lord of All, who governs all things.

A most splendid Thanatopsis, attributed to Nezahualcoyotl, comes to us through an Otomi transcription, offering internal evidence of its pagan origin. I quote the English rendering of Brinton 5. While faltering here and there in exact phrasing, nevertheless the early American-ist caught the vast scope of this poem. It expresses, as he says, an epicurean philosophy but one permeated by ethical obligations.

1. The fleeting pomps of the world are like the green willow trees, which aspiring to permanence, are consumed by a fire, fall before the axe, are upturned by the wind, or are scarred and saddened by age.

2. The grandeurs of life are like the flowers in color and in fate; the beauty of these remains so long as their chaste buds gather and store the rich pearls of the dawn and saving it, drop it in liquid dew; but scarcely has the Cause of All directed upon them the full rays of the sun, when their beauty and glory fail, and the brilliant gay colors which decked forth their pride wither and fade.

3. The delicious realms of flowers count their dynasties by short periods; those which in the morning revel proudly in beauty and strength, by evening weep for the sad destruction of their thrones, and for the mishaps which drive them to loss, to poverty, to death and to the grave. All things of earth have an end, and in the midst of the most joyous lives, the breath falters, they fall, they sink into the ground.

4. All the earth is a grave, and nought escapes it; nothing is so perfect that it does not fall and disappear. The rivers, brooks, fountains and waters flow on, and never return to their joyous beginnings; they hasten on to the vast realms of Tlaloc, and the wider they spread between their marges the

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more rapidly do they mould their own sepulchral urns. That which was yesterday is not today; and let not that which is today trust to live tomorrow.

5. The caverns of earth are filled with pestilential dust which once was the bones, the flesh, the bodies of great ones who sat upon thrones, deciding causes, ruling assemblies, governing armies, conquering provinces, possessing treasures, tearing down temples, flattering themselves with pride, majesty, fortune, praise and dominion. These glories have passed like the dark smoke thrown out by the fires of Popocatepetl, leaving no monuments but the rude skins on which they are written.

6. Ha! ha! Were I to introduce you into the obscure bowels of this temple, and were to ask you which of these bones were those of the powerful Achalchiuhtlanextin, first chief of the ancient Toltecs; of Necaxecmitl, devout worshipper of the gods; if I inquire where is the peerless beauty of the glorious empress Xiuhtzal, where the peaceable Topiltzin, last monarch of the hapless land of Tulan; if I ask you where are the sacred ashes of our first father Xolotl; those of the bounteous Nopal; those of the generous Tlotzin; or even the still warm cinders of my glorious and immortal, though unhappy and luckless father Ixtlilxochitl; if I continued thus questioning about all our august ancestors, what would you reply? The same that I reply—I know not. I know not; for first and last are confounded in the common clay. What was their fate shall be ours, and of all who follow us.

7. Unconquered princes, warlike chieftains, let us seek, let us sigh for the heaven, for there all is eternal, and nothing is corruptible. The darkness of the sepulchre is but the strengthening couch for the glorious sun, and the obscurity of the night but serves to reveal the brilliancy of the stars. No one has power to alter these heavenly lights, for they serve to display the greatness of their Creator, and as our eyes see them now, so saw them our earliest ancestors, and so shall see them our latest posterity.

The human soul lost in the immensities of a space-time universe has no recourse from oblivion save in those virtues which blossom in the dust. This is the conclusion of the highest paganism. Seeing order in the heavens instills a belief that there may be an ultimate order in the solution of human affairs.

In conformity with the reflections of the great Mexican chieftain are various ancient hymns and orations

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which are ascribed to the kings of the Incas by one Joan de Santa Cruz Pachacuti Yamqui Salcamaygua who wrote shortly after 1600. The hymn to Viracocha, a master deity and creator god of Peru, is an oft-quoted fragment of American Indian literature 6.

O Viracocha, Lord of the Universe,
Whether Thou be male or female
At least lord of heat and generation!
O such a one as can divine with spittle,
Where art Thou?
If only Thou wert near thy son!

Thou mayest be above,
Thou mayest be below,
Or round about Thy rich throne or staff.
O listen to me!

From the sea above in which Thou mayest dwell,
From the sea below in which Thou mayest be, Creator of the world,
Maker of man,
Lord of all lords!

With my eyes on Thee which fail to see Thee
Yet desiring to know Thee!
Might I behold Thee,
Know Thee,
Consider Thee,
Understand Thee!
For Thou beholdest me,
Knowest me!

The Sun, the Moon
The Day, the Night
Summer, Winter
Not vainly, in proper order,
Do they march to the destined place,
To the end!
They arrive wherever Thy royal staff
Thou bearest.
Hear me!
Heed me!
Let it not happen
That I grow tired,
That I die!

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So all prefiguring of space and time draws down to the focus of human needs, of human understanding, and of human recognition of something that goes beyond this understanding! Man is the animal who learned to wonder, who learned to question the world, who learned to question himself. Through the length and breadth of ancient America we discover this primitive inquisitiveness and even in the songs of our Indians of today. Here is one from the Pawnee 7:

Let me see, if this be real,
Let me see, if this be real,
Let me see, if this be real,
Let me see, if this be real,
This life I am living?
Ye who possess the skies,
Let me see if this be real,
This life I am living.


"All poetry," says Grosse 8, "comes from feeling and goes to feeling, and therein lies the mystery of its creation and influence." This writer of forty years ago did not have much truly primitive poetry before him nor did he have much sensitive knowledge of the uses to which that little had been applied in the life of primitive man. His basic definition, "Poetry is the verbal representation of external or internal phenomena in an esthetically effective form for an esthetic purpose," implied that the successful uses of words to express great thoughts and tender feelings were, from the first, intentional creations of specially gifted artists. But was this really the case?

Today, as a result of ethnological studies among nearly all the surviving groups of low-cultured humans, we have masses of traditional myths, songs and ritualistic

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proceedings. The native forms of speech have been written out phonetically, translated in the light of local associations, and coordinated with the rhythms of musical accompaniment and with the ordered action of dancing and ceremonial dramatizations in sound-and-sight records. This slow and searching investigation has proceeded without undue benefit from a priori considerations and without undue loyalty to slender and precious definitions of what distinguishes Art in a matrix of Custom.

The idea that the separate fine arts sprang full-armed from the brow of, let us say, Apollo and that artists were, in the beginning or ever, touched with divine afflatus has no more truth in it than the companion concept that kings operate under a heavenly sanction. Anthropological science can demonstrate easily enough that beauty emerges from use, and that many ancient things which according to our specialized appreciations are merely and completely beautiful were nevertheless conceived for some magical or pseudo-practical service.

Poetry can hardly be called a primary art, at least that class of it which needs only to be spoken or read. As used by the American Indians and other so-called primitive groups, such as the Polynesians, poetry is still a servant of music and ceremony rather than a freestanding utterance. Perhaps this was also its former state in those classic lands where lyrics no longer need the lyre and where ballads are seldom actually sung to dancing feet. Owing to the lack of stringed instruments in ancient America and the slight development of wind instruments the drum exerted an outstanding influence on song, with some help from the steady pulsations of canoe paddling, corn grinding and similar exercises.

Among the Eskimo is found the Arctic tambourine

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and throughout the New World drums of one kind or another are in use. In ancient Mexico the two-lipped log drum had a double pitch and was capable of producing a wide variety of sound patterns through manipulation of the double tones in light and heavy strokes and changing tempo 9. We must imagine that melodic measures coincided with these drum beats and furnished a still more intricate lay-out into which it was the poet's job to fit intelligible words. The drum rhythms are indicated imitatively for a considerable number of old Mexican songs and their variety may be guessed from three examples 10. While the iambic meter goes especially well with the Aztec language, other meters were also employed: else how can the following onomatopoeia of drum strokes be explained?

Tico, tico, toco toto, and as the song approached the end, tiqui, titi, tito, titi.
                  *         *         *
Quititi, quititi, quiti, tocoto, tocoti, tocoto, tocoti, and then it is to turn back again.
                  *         *         *
Toto, tiquiti, tiquiti, and then it ends, tocotico, tocoti, toto, titiqui, toto, titiquiti.

Modern examples of the ways in which words are forced into inflexible moulds of music have been studied in phonographic records of songs from the Eskimo, the Ojibwa and other tribes. Often the distortion is so great that a song has meaning only for the composer. The expression may be obscure enough in itself with farfetched figures of speech and various poetic licenses. On top of this the warping of the words to the rhythmic pattern sometimes calls for drastic syncopations and reduplications, not to mention the interpolation of meaningless syllables. Poetry schooled under such rigid restraints, and finally overcoming them, inevitably becomes

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differentiated from prose. There is a survival of the fittest expressions until a standard of poetic phrasing becomes fixed.

The common use of extra, meaningless syllables to dilute the intelligible parts of speech is illustrated in a Mide song of the Ojibwa analyzed by Miss Densmore. The words are 11:

Ni wá waké abog´
Wé wendjí dji wûñ´

A bubbling spring
Comes from the hard ground.

The pulse of the drum is regular and the quarter note is maintained except for the fifth and sixth measures. To fit a combination of 2–4, 3–4 and 4–4 time the words of the song are repeated and stretched out as follows, the italicised syllables being interpolated.


ke a bog

o ho ho ni

wa a ac

ke a bog

o ho ho ho ho ho ho ho ni

wa ha ha

 wac ke a bog

o ho ho ni

wa ha ha

wac ke a bog

o ho ho ni

wa a ac

ke a bog

o ho ho ni

wa a a

wac ke a bog

o ho ho

we wen

dji dji wuñ

e he he

we wen

dji dji wuñ

e he he he ne

wa ha ha

wac ke a bog

o ho ho ni

There are many songs in which the burden is carried entirely by meaningless syllables but it is not clear that such songs intergrade as a class between instrumental music and songs with intelligible words. In some cases the meaningless syllables may represent old songs, the words of which have been distorted and forgotten, or foreign songs, the words of which never were learned. It would help if we could really measure the life of a song. We only know that the rich repertory of the Aztecs and the Incas has been finished for centuries and that long life in an unmodified state cannot be proven

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for European ballads. Yet there is a common belief that the songs and ceremonies of lowly cultured peoples are maintained from ancient times. "The Amazonian," says Thomas Whiffen 12, "treasures the songs of his fathers and will master strange rhythms and words that for him no longer have meaning; he only knows they are the correct lines, the phrases he ought to sing at such functions, because they have always been sung." This assumption of longevity for traditional songs is, I believe, nothing more than a romantic exit for ignorance. Rather, it seems that generations of song and ceremony succeeded each other like generations of human beings, albeit with a longer natural life, and that survival of traits, or at best survival of broken fragments, is all that should be expected across a span of several centuries. A constant process of leavening the present with the past is sufficient to explain all certain facts.

Words adjusted to the metronome of the throbbing drum, or embodying a rhythmic formality once removed, were composed by the American Indians for various purposes and occasions. Many songs were framed for the uses of magic, others to vivify ceremonies, others to express the deep religious feelings of the social group. Relatively few Indian poems have the strictly individualistic cast which distinguishes so many products of our super-civilized nation. It seems that Indian singers did not consciously cultivate the violent personal emotions for the trade, but ventured only to put into words the social illusions in which they were immersed. Now to examine the outstanding classes of Indian poetical compositions.


Indian mothers generally sing their children to sleep with wordless songs but sometimes they use true lullabies

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as may be seen from the Tewa examples given below. There is, moreover, a very special kind of lullaby which deals with reincarnation.

The Eskimo and several other northern tribes believe that the soul of a dead relative enters into a new born child and watches over it during its tender years. This person may be addressed, therefore, in the child's lullaby and, vice versa, the child's prattling tongue may drop words of wisdom, thanks to its experienced soul. While the lullabies of eastern Greenland, which Thalbitzer calls petting songs, are of this type they mostly lack artistic form and some are frankly licentious, ascribing to the infant child the vices and ailments of its spiritual tutor, perhaps as preventive magic. There are a few exceptions. A widow whose dead husband had entered into his brother's son saw in this male child her future provider, and addressed him with a song more befitting our idea of what a lullaby should be. I quote the first of three similar verses 13:

How bland he is and gentle, the great little one there!
How bland he is and gentle—
How amazing he is, the dear little creature!

Among the Tlingit of southern Alaska and the Haida of Queen Charlotte Island are found reincarnation lullabies of dignified phrasing which Swanton has translated 14. One such song apologizes for the mean life of the present as compared with the exalted past; it is addressed to an old woman whose spiritual personality continues its existence in a baby girl.


You need not think that the smoke of your house in the middle of Skeedans will be as great as when you were a woman.


You need not think they will make a continual noise of singing in Skeedans Creek as they used to when you were a woman.

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In still another reincarnation lullaby the fond mother beholds a famous chieftain in her crawling infant.


He says it is Nañkilslas's great father moving along so greatly

Halloo, great chief moving about!


Halloo, he moves along greatly like something extending to the sky.

Halloo, great chief moving about!

We must now note that as the child grows older his proper soul gradually gets control over the body and the reincarnated adult soul fades away into nothingness. So these northern peoples also have other songs fitted to the understanding of little boys and girls. For instance the Ammassalik Eskimo have a myth for children which tells how a raven teased the geese and how the geese in revenge enticed the raven far out over the sea. When they settled on the water, he was unable to swim. A song describes his fate 15:

Halloo, I sink, help me up, Ugh!
Now the water reaches my great ankles,
Hallow, I sink, help me up,
Ugh! Now it reaches my great knees.
Hallow, I sink, help me up, Ugh!
Now it reaches my great groins
Hallow, I sink, help me up, Ugh!
Now it reaches my great navel
Hallow, I sink, help me up, Ugh!
Now it reaches my great breasts
Hallow, I sink, help me up, Ugh!

And so on until the water reaches the great eyes of the insolent raven; then the song ends with an expressive Ugh!

Elsewhere songs for children and songs in myths which are used largely in the education of children

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emphasize the magical factor. A selection of songs for children from the village of Picuris in New Mexico has been published by John P. Harrington and Helen Roberts 16. A story tells how a child-stealing giant is overcome by a youth's magical songs. The boy's first song sung while he is being carried away in a basket, ends with the phrase:

A person who is very kind is carrying me on his back.

[paragraph continues] This has the magical effect of increasing the load and tiring out the giant. Later when the giant covers the youth with pitch and throws him in the fire a second song is sung the burden of which is:

A person who is very kind has put me in a warm place.

[paragraph continues] This has the magical effect of lulling the giant to sleep and the youth steps out of the fire and kills him. The point of this tale is that songs are more potent than common prose, a lesson which the Indian carries through life.


Indian boys of many tribes, and sometimes girls as well, were accustomed to pass through the supreme experience of having revealed to them in a vision a guardian spirit, their special link with the mystical hinterworld. The oldest and best songs of the Plains tribes are said to have been "composed in dreams'' and Miss Frances Densmore thinks that this is only the Indian's way of expressing what we mean by "poetic inspiration." But there was perhaps more method in the Redman's madness.

The Indian youth sought his vision with hope and faith, keeping a lonely vigil till common realities faded and subconscious desires became manifest as spiritual realities. The guardian spirit song of one of my old

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[paragraph continues] Nez Percé friends was a vividly descriptive phrase or two set up in the midst of meaningless syllables. His vision revealed Coyote returning from successful warfare and the intelligible part of the song ran as follows:.

Ravening Coyote comes,
red hands, red mouth,
necklace of eye-balls!

The man's sacred name was Silu-we-haikt which means Eyes-Around-the-Neck. The dream song was first revealed by the dreamer in the annual Guardian Spirit Dance where each dancer costumed himself according to the nature of his vision. Guardian spirit songs could be inherited and so might pass into a tribal thesaurus of poetic expressions. There was undoubtedly a bond between persons with the same protecting animal, a fact of interest in relation to the origin of totemic clans and esoteric societies. Among the Nez Percé, where neither clans nor warriors' societies had developed, there was an unusual number of mad coyote songs, the result of visions which ensured military success. One ran about like this:

Mad Coyote,
madly sings,
then roars the west wind!

and another:

Day break finds me,
eastern day break finds me
the meaning of that song:
with blood-stained mouth,
comes mad Coyote!

Among the Teton Sioux the men who had the unusual success of obtaining a Thunder-bird vision fell in a special group called Heyoka and at certain times had

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to express themselves in an opposite fashion from normal people. Lone Man of this tribe put on record the details of his vision and the four songs given him by the Thunder-bird people who appeared as horsemen in the clouds. The last one can be arranged as follows 17:

Friends, behold!
sacred I have been made.
Friends, behold!
in a sacred manner I have been influenced.
At the gathering of the clouds
sacred I have been made.
Friends, behold!
sacred I have been made.

A Thunder-bird song of the Ojibwa seems to depart still farther from the realities of earth 18:

I go pitying
while I am carried by the wind across the sky.

Thunder-bird songs were also developed in connection with the Ghost Dance Religion which I discuss in another place. Such a piece from the Arapaho has always had for me a strong appeal 19:

My children, my children,
It is I who make the thunder as I circle about—
      The thunder as I circle about.
My children, my children,
It is I who make the loud thunder as I circle about
      The loud thunder as I circle about.

Among some of the Plains tribes there were dream societies formed by men who had visions of the buffalo, the elk, the bear, etc., which were believed to convey special powers and faculties. Thus the men who dreamed of the bear had songs which helped in curing ceremonies.

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Believing in the spirituality of plants, animals and even stones it is not surprising that the Indians found ways to make special appeals to the personalities in nature who exemplified special faculties and who might be induced to tutor man. Thus the Eskimo hunter sings 20:

What animal's sharp sight
Have I for my sharp sight?
The gull's sharp sight
Have I for my sharp sight!

This song is not to be construed as a boast but as a petition. It seems that mere statement when made in the form of a song is compulsive. Indeed, "to sing" often means "to make magic," and back of it all lies the idea that the song has been ordained. The Pima put the matter thus 21:

Earth Magician now comes hither,
Earth Magician now comes hither.
From the depths the songs are rising
And by him are here established.

The hunting animals sing their songs in myths and on inquiry it transpires that these same songs are re-sung by men who wish to have success in hunting.

Of course this procedure is merely an aspect of sympathetic magic in which descriptive words in a musical setting are held to be as potent as painted symbols in other circumstances. A myth of the Pawnee tells how a boy recovered a stolen robe bearing symbols of the storm, invoking the storm itself to destroy the thief. I quote a portion of this myth 22.

The young man went through the village from one tipi to the other asking for his robe. The people had not seen it. At last he went up to the Witch-Woman and asked if she had

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seen anything of his robe. She said: "No, I have not seen your robe." At the same time she made faces at the young man, saying to herself: "You will never find the robe. I now have it for a skirt." The young man went through the village again. He stood in the west, then walked through the village singing:

I am hunting a robe.
My painted robe I am hunting.
The heavens are painted upon it.
Attention! It is among the people.
Attention! It is among the people.
Attention! It is among the people.

When the old woman heard this she began to clap her hands and said: "The robe must be a wonderful one, but you shall never again have it in your hands, for the robe is my skirt." The boy sang again:

I am hunting a robe.
Who picked it up?
Flocks of swallows are painted upon it . . .

When the woman heard it she said: "It must be a wonderful robe, but you shall never have it again, for I now have it for my skirt." The boy continued to sing:

I am hunting a robe.
Who has picked it up?
Dragon-flies are painted upon it . . .

At last the boy began to sing:

I am hunting a robe.
Who has picked it up?
The lightning is painted upon it . . .

I am hunting a robe.
Who has picked it up?
The thunders are painted upon it . . .

I am hunting a robe.
Who has picked it up?
The winds are painted upon it.
Attention! It is among the people.
Attention! It is among the people.
Attention! It is among the people.

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The Witch-Woman heard this song and she said: "Do you think I am going to be blown away when I have more power than you have?" The boy cried again. As he finished he blew his breath from the west to where the woman stood. Then he cried again and this time clouds were seen coming from the west. Clouds blew over the land. When the boy cried the fourth time the old woman took the robe off and threw it down and said: "My grandchild, there is your robe. You must not let the storm blow me away." Just about that time the wind caught the old woman and whirled her up into the heavens as if a whirlwind had struck her. It began to rain all over the land.

When we find in Indian poetry what seems to be an individual's emotional reaction to natural beauty, in keeping with our own romantic traditions, we should ask whether this is not a purposeful appreciation of the friendly aspects of nature in keeping with the Redman's philosophy that to imitate the way in which good is done is to insure the repetition of that good. For instance, take a Papago song recorded by Frances Densmore 23:

By the sandy water I breathe the odor of the sea,
From there the wind comes and blows over the world.
By the sandy water I breathe the odor of the sea,
From there the clouds come and the rain falls over the world.

To us these simple and majestic lines present a moving picture. From the given objective facts we construct some old experience and feel the immensity of the roaring ocean while storm racks pile up from below the horizon. Perhaps there comes over our minds a shadow of loneliness for we are accustomed to be sad in the presence of natural beauty—as though we had lost an animal birthright on getting civilized. We may even recall the similar lines which Gustavo Becquer wrote while starving in his garret in Madrid. But what a difference between the two songs when one scans the innermost

p. 26

sense. The first verse of Becquer's rhyme can be put in English as follows:

Waves gigantic that break yourselves roaring
On beaches deserted and distant,
Wrapped in the sheet of the seafoam,
      Carry me with you!

[paragraph continues] In this verse, and the three others that follow it, the German-Spanish romanticist dramatizes his personal despair.

Sometimes I think that individualism is only another social mode, and that it is made possible as a literary method by the psychic unity of mankind. Each person may find in himself a microcosm or miniature world and by correctly representing his own emotions discover a key to the microcosm, or great world. Nevertheless the individualist goes through the motions of being antisocial, using society's words and society's conventions and shouting independence in accepted patterns through the bars of his prison cell. But the Papago song of the salt-gatherers is no enactment of personal joy or anguish but a rehearsing of nature's drama for the good that it may bring. This ulterior thought does not impair the validity of the esthetic experience and its proper expression any more than a fulfillment of function impairs the perfection of a wild rose. To be sure artificial cultivation for either a poem or a flower may proceed at the expense of function and end in sterile beauty.

It is difficult to say at what point beauty is recognized for itself alone, as a purely sensuous gratification. Of course, it is often possible to construe an Indian poem as a mere lyrical outburst. For instance, there is this one 24:

As my eyes search the prairie,
I feel the summer in the spring.

p. 27

[paragraph continues] Yet we are informed that this belongs in the magical category of dream songs.

By and large, the more backward tribes of both North and South America pay much attention to magic songs and some tribes possess little else. On the higher planes of culture the magical uses of poetry expand into great religious pieces. The Osage invocations to their sacred animals, patrons of tribal divisions, friends and benefactors of man are examples of this expansion. I quote the first and last passages in the wi-gi-e or introduction to the ceremony of incensing the seven sacred skins in the Rite of the Wa-xo-be. The lynx, the gray wolf, the puma, the black bear, the buffalo, the elk and finally the deer are set forth as symbols of courage 25.

What shall the little ones make to be their symbol of courage as they travel the path of life? it has been said, in this house.
The little mottled lynx that lies outstretched, they said,
He who is their grandfather, a person of great courage, they shall make to be their symbol of courage, it has been said, in this house.
At break of day
My grandfather rushed forth to attack a deer with curved horns.
My grandfather struck the deer and made it lie outstretched in death.
My grandfather approached the fallen deer with an air of exultation;
He gave a cry of triumph, and spake saying:
When, towards the setting sun the little ones go forth to strike the enemy,
In this manner they shall always triumph.
Their hands shall ever be upon the foe, as they travel the path of life,
Here he made a curve it is said in this house.
                *    *    *    *    *
What shall the little ones make to be the symbol of courage, as they travel the path of life? it has been said, in this house.
The little animal that lies outstretched, they said, He who is their grandfather, although he has no gall,

p. 28

They shall make to be their symbol of courage.
It was he who came upon four villages.
Close along their borders he ran swiftly without harm.
Even when he runs close to the borders of a village,
The arrows of his pursuers flying about him,
He escapes all dangers.
He it was who said: When the little ones make of me their symbol of courage,
They shall always escape dangers,
So shall it be even with one of the little ones,
They shall cause their hands to be ever present upon the foe,
as they travel the path of life, it has been said, in this house.

I suppose the average modern city-dweller sees in these sentiments of primitive religion merely the workings of the pathetic fallacy. Properly here are shifting lights from an old American world of ordered loyalties, which a hundred generations past our own forefathers of weald and down might also have understood. But with hard-bitten logic and under the sovereignty of our own destructive powers we have withdrawn from all democratic contact with the animate children of Mother Earth—except, perhaps, when a lonely man finds something unpurchasable in the companionship of a dog. Even those plants and animals which are necessary to our well-being are no longer the recipients of our gratitude. Our religious sentiment outlaws them as it outlaws the sun and rain. Nature and all its works are merely materials to be taken, wasted and destroyed without responsibility to the past or to the future. But let us not make the mistake of thinking that the throwing off of natural bonds has been an act of wisdom or of intellectual freedom, for today we make a less worthy obeisance to our own inanimate machines, setting up a thousand nervous gods of speed and death and a thousand fleshy gods of comfort and decay. Have these things given a truer purpose to our lives and a finer inward happiness?

p. 29

Under the inspiration of religion, albeit pagan, the makers of ceremonies, as Emerson says, "built better than they knew." One finds passages of great beauty in the rituals of the Redman. In the Osage Rite of the Chiefs there are descriptive touches such as the following 26:

In the fourth valley
He beheld seven bends of a great river
Enwrapped in a cloud of white smoke from many fires.
Seven villages he saw among the seven bends of the river
Enwrapped in a cloud of white smoke from many fires.

But are not ceremonial vestments embroidered and sacred altars enriched?


In the Far North enemies engage in poetic duels and intone their pleas for the public ear to the beat of the Arctic tambourine. Here nith songs, also called juridical songs and drum-contest songs, take the place of courts of law, the two contestants having it out with each other in a rival display of argument and vituperation. Undoubtedly the Eskimo in general get much pleasure in listening to these contests and the contestants themselves are not moved by bitter feelings alone. The airing of grievances and the gaining of public sympathy were undoubtedly the original purposes of the drum-contests but the theatrical opportunities were too great not to be seized upon. Drum-contest songs are still in use from Eastern Greenland to Western Alaska and their influence continues well down the Pacific coast.

Something of the yearning to excel in this strange practise is expressed in the following verses which tell how a man on shore sees a stranger on the sea and desires him as a drum-contest opponent 27.

p. 30

Again, it seems that he down there will come ashore,
That that great kaiak down there will come ashore.
Will he not come this way, too, he down there,
One from another place than ours, will he not come here?
What a surprise! I can not forbear looking at him.
Will he not come this way, he down there, who does not belong here?
It's as if he down there is suspicious and wary of one,
How often has lie down there sung drum-fight songs?
How many opponents in the drum-fight has he had?
What if he also made me one of his opponents!

An old pair of juridical songs concerns antagonists by the names of Pulangit-Sissok and Savdlat, who rail at each other in the approved fashion. The text was collected by Rink in the late ’60's but the first half of the dialogue was recovered by Thalbitzer some 80 years later in a somewhat softened form 28.

Savdlat speaks:
The South shore, O yes, the South shore I know it;
Once I lived there and met Pulangit-Sissok,
A fat fellow who lived on halibut, O yes, I know him.
Those South-shore folks can't talk;
They don't know how to pronounce our language;
Truly they are dull fellows;
They don't even talk alike;
Some have one accent, some another;
Nobody can understand them;
They can scarcely understand each other.

Pulangit-Sissok speaks:
O yes, Savdlat and I are old acquaintances;
He wished me extremely well at times;
Once I know he wished I was the best boatman on the shore;
It was a rough day and I in mercy took his boat in tow;
Ha! ha! Savdlat, thou didst cry most pitiful;
Thou wast awfully afeared;
In truth, thou wast nearly upset;
And hadst to keep hold of my boat strings,
And give my part of thy load.
O yes, Savdlat and I are old acquaintances.

The drum contest songs were used by both men and

p. 31

women and the next example shows one woman paying her respects to another. It seems that the "poor Saatina" could not sing but was efficient enough at playing the tom-boy 29.

I recognized the poor Saatina
Who could not sing.
I recognized the poor Saatina
Who could not make drum songs.
No, she was not such a one.
A right merry person,
A bright woman,
Who always sang on the island Aaluib,
Who always squalled with all her might.

It was doubtless through the training received in drum-contest songs that the Eskimo reached their rather exceptional ability at expressing moods. Also the Eskimo lack the intensively developed ceremonialism of American Indians in general, although possessing its rudiments, and they live close to hard realities. Take for instance the following piece which exhibits a quality of subjective insight rarely met with in primitive poetry 30.

Great grief came over me—
Great grief came over me,
While on the fell above us I was picking berries.
Great grief came over me
My sun rose quickly over it.
Great sorrow came over me.
The sea out there off our settlement
Was beautifully quiet—
And the great, dear paddlers
Were leaving out there—
Great grief came over me
While I was picking berries on the fell.

A much quoted poem exhibits a love of natural beauty apparently for itself alone. But there may have been in the author's mind an ulterior thought concerning seasonable weather 31.

p. 32

I look toward the south, to great Mount Koonak,
To great Mount Koonak, there to the south;
I watch the clouds that gather round him;
I contemplate their shining brightness;
They spread abroad upon great Koonak;
They climb up his seaward flanks;
See how they shift and change;
Watch them there to the south;
How the one makes beautiful the other;
How they mount his southern slopes,
Hiding him from the stormy sea,
Each lending beauty to the other.


While genuine love songs doubtless exist among some Indian tribes, their importance has been over emphasized in many articles dealing with Indian poetry. Indeed love songs are most in evidence in those localities where the Indian women have been exposed to make-and-break contacts with whalers, fur-traders, buccaneers and whatnot. Thalbitzer has no divisions devoted to love songs in his work on the poetry of the isolated Ammassalik Eskimo, nor do they exist among the Yuma. In southern Alaska and British Columbia where fur-traders and whalers began to congregate after the voyages of Cook and Vancouver there are songs of stranded and forsaken women, some in the jumbled words of the Chinook trade jargon and others in the native languages. The so-called love songs of the Northwest Coast which seem most authentic fit into the pattern of the poetic duel ridiculing persons who have inflicted harm and with their answers are more like public quarrelling than expressions of tender passion.

The following piece is translated from the Kwakiutl by Franz Boas and is entitled a love song. It was sung by a jilted man 32.

Oh, how, my lady-love, can my thoughts be conveyed to you, my lady-love, on account of your deed, my lady-love? p. 33
In vain, my lady-love, did I wish to advise you, my lady-love, on account of your deed, my lady-love.
It is the object of laughter, my lady-love, it is the object of laughter, your deed, my lady-love.
It is the object of contempt, my lady-love, it is the object of contempt, your deed, my lady-love.
Oh, if poor me could go, my lady-love! How can I go to you, my lady-love, on account of your deed, my lady-love?
Oh, if poor me could go, my lady-love, to make you happy, my lady-love, on account of your deed, my lady-love!
Now, I will go, my lady-love, go to make you happy, my lady-love, on account of your deed, my lady-love.
Farewell to you, my lady-love! Farewell, mistress on account of your deed, my lady-love!

In another example a woman complains that her lover goes to Japan to hunt for seals. Her plaint brings a rejoinder from the man that he is returning post haste. Then there is a third song by him showing him dismissed for all his pains. I give part of the song of Menmenlequelas after Tsak Edek deserts him 33.

Ye yaa ye ya ha!
You are cruel to me, you are cruel to me, you are cruel to me, my dear!
Ye yaa ye ya ha!
You are hard-hearted against me, you are hard-hearted against me, my love!
Ye yaa ye ya ha!
You are surpassingly cruel, you are surpassingly cruel against me, for whom you pined.
Ye yaa ye ya ha!
She pretends to be indifferent, not to love me, my true-love, my dear.
Ye yaa ye ya ha!
Don't pretend too much that you are indifferent of the love that I hold for you, my dear!
Ye yaa ye ya ha!
Else you may be too indifferent of the love that I hold for you, my dear!
Ye yaa ye ya ha!
My dear, you are too indifferent of the love that I hold for you, my dear!
Ye yaa ye ya ha!
My dear, you go too far, your good name is going down, my dear! p. 34
Ye yaa ye ya ha.'
Friends, it might be well if I took a new true-love, a dear one.
Ye yaa ye ya ha.'
Friends, it might be well if I had a new one for whom to pine, a dear one.
Ye yaa ye ya ha!
I wish she would hear my love-song when I cry to my new love, my dear one!

Among the Ojibwa are found songs which can hardly be called love songs in the ordinary sense since they are magical formulae with a practical rather than a sentimental value. Frances Densmore gives four examples to be used against the males, each song having its mnemonic picture on birch bark 34.


What are you saying to me?
I was arrayed like the roses.
And as beautiful as they!


I can charm the man
He is completely fascinated by me!


I can make that man bashful.
I wonder what can be the matter
That he is bashful?


In the center of the earth
Wherever he may be
Or under the earth!

There are, however, real love songs among the Ojibwa. These songs, according to Miss Densmore, "mark a distinct phase in the development of music as a means of expression." The words frequently run through the entire song with little repetition and may be impromptu in their exact form. The Ojibwa sing their love songs with a nasal twang which also characterizes the

p. 35

songs of the scalp dance although this similarity may be fortuitous. Some of them are known to be old and may be sung with slight changes by either men or women. Here is a good example 35:

Although he said it
I am filled with longing
When I think of him.

Schoolcroft gives us an Ojibwa love song of a hundred years ago, which whether strictly aboriginal or not, does have the iterative Indian style 36.

I will walk into somebody's dwelling,
Into somebody's dwelling will I walk.
To thy dwelling, my dearly beloved,
Some night will I walk, will I walk.
Some night in the winter, my beloved
To thy dwelling will I walk, will I walk.
This very night, my beloved,
To thy dwelling will I walk, will I walk.

Love songs, except those which are supposed to have a magical and coercive quality of gaining affections and which might better be called love medicine, are not common among the tribes of the Great Plains. Nor are such songs listed by Ruth Bunzel among the kinds in use at Zuñi. The Tewa have them and I secured several examples in the forms of soliloquy and colloquy. While these are clearly enough of Indian composition, I believe the ultimate inspiration to have been Spanish. The same may be said of numerous pieces in Mexico and Guatemala.

European influence of a still different sort has been noted on the Mosquito Indians of Nicaragua. Cape Gracios á Dios and the hidden lagoons on either hand were long the haunt of pirates and buccaneers, and I

p. 36

fancy these cutthroats might, in their softer moments, have been sentimental enough. At any rate, in the middle of the last century the natives of this adventurous shore had love songs, several of which were written down by English residents. At the present time such songs are rare for in several journeys to eastern Nicaragua I could not secure a single example.

A fine piece, with original text and translation, is found in Charles Napier Bell's Tangweera 37. He explains that "the young men and women are melancholy, and it is singular that all their music is melancholy. Cheerful music is quite beyond them. Their love songs are plaintive and sad, always the same tune and time, but the words are extemporized by them with a facility which to us would be almost impossible.


My girl, some days as you walk with your companions,
When the mist settles over the river mouth,
And the smell of the pitch-pine woods comes from the land,
Will you think of me and say:
"My lad have you really gone away?
Alas! my lad have I seen the last of you?
Shall I really never hear your voice again?
Alas! Alas! Alas!"


My girl I am very sad for you,
I remember the smell of your skin.
I want to lay my head on your lap,
But here I am lying under a tree.
In my ear I only hear the noise of the sea
The surf is rising in the offing;
But I cannot hear your voice.
Alas! Alas! Alas!

The Mosquito Indians were at the time of Columbus’ Fourth voyage about the most uncivilized people in Central America. Originally from the wooded lowlands of South America they still have ceremonies which point to their first home.

p. 37

The Tupi, of the lower Amazon and the coast of Brazil, have long had a reputation for poetic compositions especially among the French. This may date from 1550 when a large band of Tupi Indians took part in a festival at Rouen. In 1557 Jean de Lery recorded during voyage in Brazil several fragments of songs which had impressed him deeply. Much later the eminent Montaigne was provided with a few examples of Tupi songs by a man who had spent several years among these Indians, and was moved to declare that the verses were worthy of Anacreon.

Couto de Magalhães publishes the text and translation of two Tupi songs which are clearly love charms. One is addressed to Ruda who figures in the myths of the Tupi as a warrior residing in the clouds. He creates an amorous melancholy in the hearts of men, making them return home from long canoe trips. The song is translatable about as follows 38:

O Ruda, O Ruda,
Thou who art in the skies
And who lovest the rains,
Make it so that he,
No matter how many women he has
Will think them all ugly.
Make him remember me
This afternoon
When the sun gets in the west.

Another song, addressed to the Moon, also must be regarded as a magical prayer rather than a mere outpouring of emotion. It takes this form:

New Moon, Oh, New Moon
Remind that man of me!
Here am I in your presence;
Cause it to be that only
I Shall occupy his heart.

p. 38

The Brazilian ethnologist of half a century ago was quick to realize that many pieces in the Tupi language were nevertheless inspired by Portuguese models. He went so far as to demonstrate how, even in these secondhand compositions, there was a definite deterioration. Portuguese words replaced Indian ones until, finally, only a few meaningless syllables of the original Indian phrases were retained as a refrain. He might have gone farther and shown, how, in the breakdown of the truly Indian mode, magical prayers are replaced by sentimental praises.


Not all Indian songs about death are mourning songs; perhaps the most remarkable and beautiful ones are songs in which the dead reappear in dreams. Mourning songs are common enough among some tribes while among others they are eliminated by the taboo which forbids mention of a dead person's name. When permissible they have a somewhat broader appeal than love songs. The latter are, or should be, a private matter between two lovers while the former are a family or clan matter which often touches the entire community. The theme of communal loss is struck in the beginning lines of a Tlingit dirge 39:

The nation's canoe is drifting ashore with him
My uncle is already dead . . .

Another one, following Swanton's text, deals with the all-encompassing mystery 40:

I always think within myself
There is no place where people do not die.
I do not know where my uncle is:
Down into the spirits’ cave around the world
The spirits threw my uncle.

p. 39

More poignant and less philosophical are the ending lines of a woman's song about her drowned brother 41:

Perhaps he went into the sun's trail
So that I can never see him again.

I quote a mourning song of the Kwakiutl relating to a certain Moda’ena, member of the Cannibal Society, who was drowned with his sister. It was sung at his house by all the people of his village 42.

Ye he he ya!
It deprived me of my mind when the moon went down at the edge of the waters.
Ye he he ya! Ye he he ya!
It deprived me of my breath when the mouse-dancer began to gnaw on the water.
Ye he he ya! Ye he he ya!
It deprived me of my mind when Moda'ena began to utter the cannibal-cry on the water.
Ye he he ya!

From the icy shores of Greenland comes an Eskimo song, translated by Thalbitzer, which voices the pretense that death is a new thing and not so bad at that 43.

People have begun a new custom.
People die now at intervals,
Chopping out the little step,
People die at intervals,
After they have stepped through their heavy troubles.

The Papago believe that the dead return in dreams and teach curing songs. Many spiritualistic pieces are accredited to definite individuals and it is said that the dreams in which the songs were received usually took place immediately after death although in some cases months or even years elapsed before the spirit of the

p. 40

dead person returned to deliver his vital message. Some of the most striking songs seem to picture the last thoughts or, more daringly still, the flight of the soul. I give several examples in the fine renderings of Frances Densmore 44

In the great night my heart will go out,
Towards me the darkness comes rattling,
In the great night my heart will go out.
                 *    *    *    *    *
A low range of mountains, towards them I am running
From the top of these mountains I will see the dawn.
                 *    *    *    *    *
I am dead here, I die and lie here,
I am dead here, I die and lie here
Over the top of Vihunput I had my dawn.

One gathers that elegies were common in ancient Mexico and in ancient Peru as well. This is natural enough in regions where aristocracy was recognized.


Purely vocational songs are relatively unimportant in American Indian poetry partly because nearly every vocation is drawn into the ceremonial or religious field. There are paddling songs in the Far North while in New Mexico and Arizona men often sing to the scraping of hand stones while the women grind corn. More widespread still are gambling songs. Washington Matthews gives some of the songs used in connection with the moccasin game of the Navaho, played at night in the winter time. There are many animal songs, mostly derisive in character, the following ground squirrel song being typical 45

The squirrel in his shirt stands up there,
The squirrel in his shirt stands up there;
Slender, he stands up there; striped he stands up there.

p. 41

The playing is terminated at the first streak of day when the magpie song is sung 46.

The magpie! The magpie! Here underneath
In the white of his wings on the footsteps of morning.
It dawns! It dawns!

Perhaps under vocational songs it would be well to place the curing songs of medicine men. Most of these are dream songs, however, or follow the pattern of songs used in magic.


Songs of sequence is a term applied to sets of songs dealing with the same theme and following each other in a definite traditional order. Long ceremonies having such songs are especially developed in the Southwest whence the idea seems to have spread rather widely over the Plains and into some parts of California but without the same richness of detail as in the place of origin. The Mountain Chant of the Navaho has thirteen sets comprising 161 songs, the greatest number in a sequence being 26 and the lowest seven. Says Washington Matthews 47:

But how does the shaman remember the order of these songs of sequence? Does he possess any mnemonic key? He does. There is a myth for each set of songs, and this myth is the key. The song myths of this tribe are very numerous, and few songs except extemporaneous compositions, exist independently of a myth. In some instances the myth is the more important part of the work, and we are impressed with the idea that the myth maker composed his story first, and introduced his songs afterwards as embellishments; but in more cases the myth is a trifling element, and seems devised merely as an aid to the memory or as a means of explaining or giving interest to the songs.

I give an example from the myth of the Mountain Chant of the Navahos to show the relation of prose and poetry 48:

p. 42

The clouds hung over the mountain, the showers of rain fell down its sides, and all the country looked beautiful. And he said to the land "Aqalàni!" (greeting) and a feeling of loneliness and homesickness swept over him, and he wept and sang this song:

That flowing water! That flowing water!
My mind wanders across it.
That broad water, that flowing water!
My mind wanders across it.
That old age water, that flowing water!
My mind wanders across it.

The First and Twelfth Song of the Thunder in the Mountain Chant are translated by Matthews as follows 49. They show an artful use of repetitions and parallel constructions.

First Song of the Thunder


Thonah! Thonah! There is a voice above,
The voice of the thunder.
Within the dark cloud,
Again and again it sounds,
Thonah! Thonah!


Thonah! Thonah! There is a voice below,
The voice of the grasshopper.
Among the plants,
Again and again it sounds,
Thonah! Thonah!

Twelfth Song of the Thunder


The voice that beautifies the land! The voice above,
The voice of the thunder
Within the dark cloud
Again and again it sounds,
The voice that beautifies the land.

p. 43


The voice that beautifies the land!
The voice below;
The voice of the grasshopper
Among the plants
Again and again it sounds,
The voice that beautifies the land.

The Night Chant by the same author is an even more monumental handling of the songs of sequence in a great curing ceremony of the Navaho. Here there are twenty four sequences with a total of 324 songs, strung like beads upon strings. Again we find the parallel constructions which seem to produce stanzas, as in the Last Song in the Rock 50.


At the Red Rock House it grows,
There the giant corn-plant grows,
With ears on either side it grows,
With its ruddy silk it grows,
Ripening in a day it grows,
Greatly multiplying grows.


At Blue Water House it grows,
There the giant squash-vine grows,
With fruit on either side it grows,
With its yellow blossom grows,
Ripening in one night it grows,
Greatly multiplying grows.

Next we have a song to Nayenezgani in two stanzas 51.


The Slayer of the Alien Gods,
That now am I.
The Bearer of the Sun
Arises with me,
Journeys with me,
Goes down with me,
Abides with me;
But sees me not.

p. 44


The Child of the Water,
That now am I.
The Bearer of the Moon
Arises with me,
Journeys with me,
Goes down with me,
Abides with me;
But sees me not.

A second pair of poems to the same personage:


I am the Slayer of the Alien Gods.
Where’er I roam,
Before me
Forests white are strewn around.
The lightning scatters;
But ’tis I who cause it.


I am the Child of the Water.
Where’er I roam,
Behind me
Waters white are strewn around,
The tempest scatters;
But ’tis I who cause it.

While a third concerns the bluebird 52:


He has a voice, he has a voice.
Just at daylight Sialia calls.
The bluebird has a voice,
He has a voice, his voice melodious,
His voice melodious, that flows in gladness.
Sialia calls, Sialia calls.


He has a voice, he has a voice.
Just at twilight Sialia calls.
The bird tsolgali has a voice.
He has a voice, his voice melodious,
His voice melodious, that flows in gladness
Sialia calls, Sialia calls.

p. 45

Also in this ceremony there are songs and prayers in which repetitions are made in accordance with colors, plants, and so forth, assigned to the four directions.

If the formal use of songs of sequence, as the first stage in ceremonial consolidations, extended across Mexico and down into South America no satisfactory evidence exists at the present time. F.P. and A.P. Penard report from Surinam that the Caribs have songs which are the aula or "word" of various spiritual beings. These may well belong in such a category. The word of the Snake Spirit they give in parts 53:

I am the force of the spirit of the lightning eel, the thunder axe, the stone.
I am the force of the fire fly; thunder and lightning have I created.

The word of the Thunder they give entire:

I am the thunder, the terror of the earth reflects my one-ness.
The earth I do vibrate, I the Thunder.
All flesh fears, that reflects the one-ness of the Thunder.
I pass along my field.
With swiftness all must clear the way.
The lightning precedes me.
The thunder-axe I have made, I the Thunder.


The Ghost Dance Religion was a rather recent and most startling manifestation of Indian mass psychology, producing much fine poetry during the brief span of its existence as an organized cult. It was the united answer of the wilder tribes of the western states to alien aggressions which had destroyed the economies of Indian existence but had not yet completely broken the Indian morale. The new religion rested upon ancient fundamentals, upon ideas of coersive magic expressed in the forms of art. It attempted to reapply these ideas, as it

p. 46

were, to the violently new conditions of life. Perhaps it drew something from Christianity.

There were two cycles in the spread of the Ghost Dance Religion. The cult began either in western Nevada or eastern Washington about 1870 and the first expansion was towards the west. The originator of the movement is generally stated to have been a certain Tävibo, a minor chieftain of the Paiute tribe in the Walker Lake region, largely because he was the reputed father of Wovoka, hailed twenty years later as the Indian Messiah when the rejuvenated Ghost Dance was sweeping eastward over the Great Plains. But the evidence concerning the part that Smohalla, a medicine man living near Priest's Rapids on the Columbia River, played in the formation of the cult is more explicit and of earlier date than that of Tävibo.

The Indian office took notice of Smohalla in 1870, although the following clear statement of his beliefs is not so early 54:

They have a new and peculiar religion, by the doctrines of which they are taught that a new god is coming to their rescue; that all the Indians who have died heretofore, and who shall die hereafter, are to be resurrected; that as they will then be very numerous and powerful, they will be able to conquer the whites, recover their lands, and live as free and unrestrained as their fathers lived in olden times.

This was still the essence of the Ghost Dance Religion when it swept the Plains in 1890 but along the Columbia it was always referred to as the Dreamer Religion. The credo from the lips of Smohalla himself was taken down in 1884 by Major MacMurray who had been commissioned to persuade the Indians to take up homesteads and abandon their free life 55.

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You ask me to plow the ground! Shall I take a knife and tear my mother's bosom? Then when I die she will not take me to her bosom to rest.
You ask me to dig for stone! Shall I dig under her skin for her bones? Then when I die I cannot enter her body to be born again.
You ask me to cut my hay and sell it, and be rich like the white men! But how dare I cut off my mother's hair? . . .
All the dead men will come to life again. Their spirits will return to their bodies again. We must wait here in the homes of our fathers and be ready to meet them in the bosom of our mother.

But Smohalla is said to have begun preaching "his peculiar theology" about 1850 and to have been instrumental in consolidating the western Shahaptin tribes in the Yakima war of 1855–56. If the story is true that he made a great pilgrimage down the Pacific coast to Mexico about 1860 and returned to his own people by way of Arizona and Nevada, he must, I think, be given the credit for spreading the seeds of the Ghost Dance Religion.

Both the first and second stages of the Ghost Dance Religion responded to a psychology of protest against an overwhelming material power. Smohalla's teachings were the result of aggressions which came thick and fast after the Nez Percé had extended an invitation to Spaulding, Whitman and their fellow zealots to preach at Lapwai and other missions. For other white men came to trade, to settle and to seek gold. The Modoc War of 1873–74 and the Nez Percé war of 1877 were the result of wrongs and coercions by the whites but perhaps the Indians found spiritual aid in their new religion.

Unfortunately there is a dearth of recorded songs of an early Ghost Dance type unless we imagine that unmodified Guardian Spirit songs were in use. If Kroeber is correct in stating that the first spread of the cult into California in the early ‘70's gave immunity against its

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second spread in the late ‘80's then the following piece from the Yokuts may be old, although I suspect it really belongs to the second epoch. The song was received in a dream by a shaman named Mayemai from his father 56:

Listen to me
There in the east I shall emerge
My hand feathers.

The second stage began with revelation of Wovoka when he was ill with fever during an eclipse of the sun. "When the sun died," he said, "I went up to heaven and saw God and all the people who had died a long time ago." He was hailed as a Messiah largely because the economic condition of all the tribes who had lived on the buffalo was then desperate.

The destruction of the great buffalo herds—millions of valuable food animals being slaughtered for petty profit on their hides alone within the space of four years (1880–84) by the whites—illustrates how inevitable was the clash between two philosophical systems of man's relation to nature. The Indian has ever abjured the waste of natural bounty and his religion has sought to give thanks for this bounty and at the same time assure its continuance. The white man's civilization, on the other hand, has most unwisely subordinated the conservation of public wealth to the acquisition of private wealth. A rapid exploitation and liquidation of natural resources in all parts of the world is now being carried on by the dominant white nations threatening the exhaustion of many materials. But if the Indian idea that nature is benevolent be a naive untruth then the white man's idea that nature is inexhaustible is just as naïvely untrue

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and much more menacing to the future welfare of mankind.

The Ghost Dance Religion in its second phase spread out from the Paiute tribe and the earliest and simplest songs must therefore be sought there. Mooney, in preparing for his sympathetic study of the Ghost Dance, was able to secure but nine Paiute songs. Reduced to their briefest statements these sacred pieces are but two lines long. Always there are repetitions, however, which enlarge this briefest length. The first song refers to the open dance place in the dead of winter with the stars overhead. The Milky Way among American Indian tribes is the Spirit Road or the Pathway of Dead Warriors 57.

The snow lies there, ro-ra-ni!
The snow lies there, ro-ra-ni!
The snow lies there, ro-ra-ni!
The snow lies there, ro-ra-ni!
The Milky Way lies there.
The Milky Way lies there.

Then come simple invocations to elemental forces. In one song the line ''the wind stirs the willows" is repeated thrice and "the wind stirs the grasses" is also repeated thrice. Another invocation goes:

Fog! Fog!
Lightning! Lightning!
Whirlwind! Whirlwind!

The change is coming like a great storm and is pictured by the simplest but most powerful words, the songs rising to a climax.

The whirlwind! The whirlwind!
The whirlwind! The whirlwind!
The snowy earth comes gliding,
The snowy earth comes gliding,
The snowy earth comes gliding,
The snowy earth comes gliding. p. 50

There is dust from the whirlwind,
There is dust from the whirlwind,
There is dust from the whirlwind,
The whirlwind on the mountain,
The whirlwind on the mountain,
The whirlwind on the mountain.

The rocks are ringing,
The rocks are ringing,
The rocks are ringing.
They are ringing in the mountains,
They are ringing in the mountains,
They are ringing in the mountains.

Then, after the storm has passed, comes a picture of spring, implying the happy ending of the cataclysmic change.

The cottonwoods are growing tall,
The cottonwoods are growing tall,
The cottonwoods are growing tall,
They are growing tall and verdant,
They are growing tall and verdant,
They are growing tall and verdant.

Among other tribes who took the Ghost Dance ceremonial from the Paiute the songs are generally more elaborate. Repetition still serves to give a strange form to some of the songs, but as a rule one restatement is deemed sufficient. The subject matter becomes more specific with references to the Crow, the Eagle or Thunderbird, the Buffalo, etc., as well as to psychic experiences in meeting the dead.

Mooney gives 73 songs for the Arapaho tribe, most of them based on individual dreams and resembling the old time Guardian Spirit songs. But they often refer to encounters in the spirit world with dead friends at which games were played over and happy hunts were renewed. And there are some pieces which advance the argument in other ways. For instance, the following

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song tells how the father will withdraw his favors from the whites and give them again to his red children 58.

My children, when at first I liked the whites,
My children, when at first I liked the whites,
I gave them fruits,
I gave them fruits.

Or this piece which thrills with the joy of living.

My children, my children,
The wind makes my head feathers sing—
The wind makes my head feathers sing—
My children, my children.

Then there are sudden turns from ecstasy to pathos.

Father, have pity on me,
Father, have pity on me,
I am crying for thirst,
I am crying for thirst;
All is gone—I have nothing to eat
All is gone—I have nothing to eat.

Next to the end comes a song to the Morning Star.

Father, the Morning Star!
Father, the Morning Star!
Look on us, we have danced until daylight,
Look on us, we have danced until daylight.
Take pity on us—Hi-i-i!
Take pity on us—Hi-i-i!


Poems which deal with historical characters or events were rather common in ancient America and some of them approach the epic as giving extensive narratives lighted by nationalistic ideals. For instance among our northern Indians there are such pieces as the Walum Olum or Red Score of the Delaware which presents historical traditions reaching back several centuries and has

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some passages of literary merit. Then there is the Iroquois Book of Rites which memorializes the Great League, a consolidation of related tribes following the breakdown of the Mound Builder civilization. This wide-spread calamity may have been brought about by the introduction of European epidemic diseases after the voyage of Columbus. The Great League rested on the teachings of Hiawatha for its ethical features while its legal form was evolved in council and over much opposition. The Book of Rites, composed long after the events, is essentially a recitation broken by occasional hymns and dirges. Perhaps the most notable is a summary which in poetic form is arranged as follows by Hale 59:

Woe! Woe! Hearken ye!
We are diminished!
Woe! Woe!
The cleared land has become a thicket
Woe! Woe!
The clear places are deserted.
They are in their graves—
They who established it—
The Great League,
Yet they declared
It should endure—
The Great League
Their work has grown old.
Thus we are become miserable.

Probably the oldest fragments of New World literature are laments for the great Toltec captains of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries 60. The best preserved hymn refers to the rise of the Toltec power in Yucatan and its fall in the valley of Mexico, corresponding to the winning of the Maya city of Chichen Itza by Nacxitl-Quetzalcoatl

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in 1191 and the abandonment of Teotihuacan by Matlaxochitl and other Toltec lords in 1220 A.D.

A Toltec Lament

Here begins the kettle-drum hymn
Tico, tico, toco, toto, and the hymn ends
With tiquiti, titi, to titi.
In Tollan, alas! stood the House of Beams,
Where still the serpent columns stand.
But Nacxitl, our noble lord, has departed,
He has gone into the far country.
(Already our lamented princes have departed!)
And there in the Red Land he is undone.
In Cholula we were when we set forth
For Poyautecatitlan to cross the water in boats:
The wept for ones have departed!
I have come to the foreign boundaries
I, Ihuiquecholli, I, Mamaliteuchtli:
I am sad for my lord Ihuitimalli is gone.
He deserts me, I who am Matlacxochitl.
Weep, weep! O, weep, weep, weep!
That the mountains tumbled, I wept
That the sea rose up in dust, I lamented,
Wailing that he, my lord, had gone.
In the Red Land, alas! thou art awaited
And there thou art bidden to sleep!
O only weep, weep!
Thou hast already set forth my lord Ihuitimalli,
Xicalango-Zacanco has passed to thy command.
Alas and nevermore! Weep, weep!
Thy house will remain forever, thy palace
Carried across the sea will always stay.
Thou hast left Tollan of the boundaries
Desolate here, weep, ah weep!
Without ceasing that lord, that Timallo wept:
Thy house will remain forever.
Thou first didst paint the stone and wood in Tollan
There where thou earnest to rule, Nacxitl our noble lord!
Never will thy name be forgotten,
Always will thy people mourn thee, bewail thee!
The Turquoise House, the Serpent House
Thou alone didst set it up in Tollan,
There where thou earnest to rule, Nacxitl our noble Lord!

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The Maya Prophecies of the Katuns contain some references to early times since they are arranged in cycles of 13 katuns of 7200 days each according to the idea that events repeat themselves. These prophecies are constructed in the form of chants. The Prophesy of Katun 9 Ahau, covering events from 1556 to 1575 belongs to the era of persecution under the Spanish Inquisition. History furnishes few more telling indictments directed at their conquerors by a conquered people than this outcry of the disillusioned Mayas. I make three slight changes in Roys’ translation 61 of the latter part of this prophesy although aware that more extensive re-phrasing would emphasize the poetic character of the satirical statement.

Then began the building of the church
Here in the center of Tihoo:
Great labor is the destiny of the katun.
Then began the execution by hanging,
And the fire at the ends of their hands.
Then also came ropes and cords into the world.
Then came the children of the younger brothers
Under the hardship of legal summons and tribute.
Tribute was introduced on a large scale,
And Christianity was introduced on a large scale.
Then the seven sacraments of God's word were established.
Receive your guests heartily; our elder brothers come!

No epics pure and simple have survived from ancient America but there are epic-like compositions. The Cakchiquels of Guatamala have an Odyssey which tells how people under valiant leaders set out from Tollan, overcoming natural and supernatural difficulties. Most of this tribal narrative displays a poetic imagery and some of it a distinctly poetic form. If this be history then it is history in a cosmogonic setting with heroes who bulk large in a twilight of the gods. An early passage is about as follows 62:

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And soon the divination began with them. A bird called the guard of the ravine began to complain within the gate of Tollan as we were going forth from Tollan.

"You shall die, you shall be lost, I am your portent," said this brute to us. "Do you not believe me? Truly your state shall be a sad one." Thus spake to us this brute as is related.

Then another bird called the owl, seated on a red tree, complained and said thus: "I am your portent," he said. "You are not our portent, although you would like to be." we answered this owl. Such were the messengers who gave them their idols said our fathers, our ancestors of old.

Then another bird called the parroquet complained in the sky and said: "I am your portent, you shall die." But we said to the brute, "Do not speak thus: you are but the sign of spring. You wail first when it is spring; when the rain ceases, you wail." Thus we spoke to him.

Even more remarkable is the Popul Vuh or Sacred Book of the Quiché tribe for here there is, as Alexander points out, "the element of critical consciousness, giving the flavor of philosophical reflection." The recital of Creation resembles that of the Bible, nevertheless we cannot be sure that it is not a pagan parallel.

The self-glorification motive is put to scorn in a passage of the Popul Vuh which relates the unkingly end of a certain Vukub-Cakix. He was perhaps a Toltec overlord who hoped to lead the Quiché to the light in a cultural sense 63

I will be their sun, I will be their light, I will be the moon to illumine them . . .
For of silver are the balls of my eyes and their sockets are set with resplendent jade; my teeth shine like precious stones, like the clarity of heaven . . .
In this manner, then, I am the sun and the moon, the cause that civilizes and makes wise the sons and daughters of the land.
So spake Vukub-Cakix. But really he was not the sun, and it was only the pride of plumes and metallic glitterings that make him speak thus.

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Next it is explained how two young heroes despoiled Vukub-Cakix of his glory by pulling his teeth!

No examples of pre-Columbian drama have come down to us, but there are references enough to plays and pageants. Father Coto says of the Cakchiquel: "They are friendly to making colloquies and speaking verses in their dramas." At Copan we find theater-like constructions and at Chichen Itza there are platforms upon which it is presumed dramas were enacted. Several post-Columbian plays after the European religious models have been reported in Central America while from eighteenth century Peru comes the famous drama of Ollanta. It shows no traces of pre-Spanish poetic style and seems to have been modelled directly upon a mediocre European work. While agreeing with Hills 64 that it has little intrinsic merit, I certainly cannot agree with him when he says "Ollanta is the most important literary work that has been composed in any language indigenous to America." Rather its European reception was a reflection of Victorian taste.


Hundreds of mutually unintelligible languages are spoken by natives of the New World and even if most of the consolidations suggested by scientific linguists hold true, there must remain fifty or more unrelated linguistic stocks. For practical purposes each strongly defined language is an independent analysis—the terms of which exist only in the group mind—of all the material facts, actions, mental states and social conventions in settings of time and space, of which the members of the group are conscious, and concerning which they wish to exchange communications.

Language, like any other social tool, refines itself

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through use and takes on appreciated characters of ease and beauty. The deliberate application of the more precise and pleasing ways of communicating thought everywhere gives rise to high style and fine art. Style is so intimately involved in the organic possibilities of a particular language that it cannot, properly speaking, be translated except in so far as it concerns the sequence and arrangements of materials. It can be matched in general effect, and that is about all. In translating poetry, then, the thought and the emotional environment of the thought, can be restated but not the poetic style per se.

But, it seems that ideas, quite aside from the streams of sound which impart them, may have absolute distinction, crystalline simplicity and other gem qualities. Ideas can be looked upon as arrangements of thought stimuli and sometimes a single simile, which we call poetic, may hold a vital comparison or imagery capable of passing freely across the frontiers of speech. It is style of thought rather than style of words which principally concerns the translator.

Indeed, it is difficult enough even to define style in any particular language. Speaking of the esthetic character of Mohave myths Kroeber says in one place 65:

We are thus face to face with a style of literature which is as frankly decorative as a patterned textile. The pattern is far from random; but it is its color and intricacy, its fineness and splendor, that have meaning, not the action told by its figures.

In another place the same writer speaks more broadly 66:

For centuries hundreds of thousands of human beings have been forming a style, a variety of styles, according to

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nation and occasion, in which they expressed some of their profoundest feelings; and we cannot make a single exact and intelligible remark about their accomplishments.

It is of course true that we cannot judge style in the Redman's use of words except in so far as it is discernible in concentration or picturesqueness of thought above the mill-run of ordinary speech and in unusual rhythmic effects and balanced logical constructions. Among the Tewa, for instance, the poetic style is much more concentrated than the colloquial one and it contains "high words" and ceremonial phrases. Sahagun complained that Aztec poems and religious chants were esoteric to a degree. "They were composed," he says, "with such deceit that they proclaim only what the demon demands." When, however, an Aztec poet uses such a phrase as "I, the singer, polished my noble, new song like shining jade" we may be assured that style had passed out of the stage of natural selections and into the stage of purposeful cultivation.

The device of rhyme seems not to have been used by the most cultivated Americans of pre-Columbian times, although some interesting uses of it are found in post-Columbian poems from Peru. Nor were there any certain stanza forms except such as were brought about by the repetition of phrases. The outstanding feature of American Indian verse construction comes from parallel phrasing, or, let us say, repetition with an increment, which gives an effect not of rhyming sounds but of rhyming thoughts. Sometimes the ceremonial pattern demands a repetition for each world direction with formal changes involving the color, plant, animal, and so forth, associated with each station on the circuit. But there are other manifestations of parallelism of a more subtle cast. For instance, the Osage ritualist threads the labyrinth

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of apparent fact to reach ultimate truth in the Little House of Mystery in the following parallels 67:

Towards what shall they direct their footsteps as they travel the path of life? They said, as has been said, in this house.

It is toward four little valleys that they shall direct their footsteps as they travel the path of life.

Verily, it is not four little valleys that is meant.
It is towards four herds of animals that they shall direct their footsteps as they travel the path of life.

Verily, it is not four herds of animals that is meant.
It is the little house toward which they shall direct their footsteps as they travel the path of life!

I have explained how poetry is racked upon musical frames and how it develops artistically out of what survives with least mutilation from the bed of Procrustes. While rhythm might conceivably arise as an absolute esthetic invention, actually in American poetry it is induced by drummings and other pulsations. "The rhythmic sense of primitive people," says Franz Boas 68, "is much more highly developed than our own." He adds: "It requires careful study to understand the structure of primitive rhythm, more so in prose than in song because in this case the help of the melodic pattern is lacking." Here rhythm is conceived as a complex undulation in spoken or chanted words which represents ease and is capable of producing an effect of pleasure. But I think a close analogy holds between the esthetics of poetic diction superimposed on music and the esthetics of decorative art superimposed on a textile fabric. In both cases there is a regulating order which reveals the certain road to beauty.

Many figures of speech and circumlocutions have their origin in the uses of religion, and perhaps we might

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say that the emotional enlargement of religious concepts gives the poet his first opportunity. Aztec ceremonies, grim and grisly with human sacrifice, albeit spectacular and dramatic to the last degree, gained little from the plastic art of the sculptor but much from the euphemistic phrasing of the singer. The latter was able to disclose the hidden spirituality and sincerity of acts, which judged out of their context, could only arouse the sensation of cruel horror.

Take, for example, the Aztec hymn to Xipe Totec, Lord of the Flayed, a foreign god who acquired a wide vogue among Mexican tribes. His ritual challenged all others in the sheer achievement of grewsomeness. But except for the opening passage the hymn addressed to this god deals with returning springtime and the green of corn fields which must be brought to maturity 69

Song to Xipe Totec, Lord of the Flayed

Thou Night-toper, who so bashful?
Then don thy masquerade,
The golden raiment, put it on!

Let thy jade waters descend, my Lord:
To green plumes the cypress turns,
To green plumes the fire-snake turns,
And the season of hunger leaves me.

Perhaps I shall be stricken
Upon the ground, I, the young maize stem.
My heart is like jade but I would
It were golden. Joyous! when first
It is ripe and the war-chief born!

With a plenteous maize field, my Lord,
Thy worshipper looks to thy mountain
And thee! Joyous! when first
It is ripe and the war-chief born!

There are phrases here which may seem somewhat cryptic. The golden raiment is, of course, the skin of the

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flayed victim. In the second verse the fire serpent of the dry season changes to the feathered serpent of the rainy season.

More occult still is the hymn addressed to the Fire God of the Aztecs, here called the Yellow-faced One but also known as the Turquoise Lord.

Song of the Yellow faced Ones

In Tzommolco, my fathers, shall I affront you?
In Tetemocan shall I affront you?

In the House of Music, oh my Lords, the yucca tree booms
In the House of Disguises the masquerade has come down.

In Tzommolco they have begun to sing;
In Tzommolco they have begun to sing.
Why come they not hither,
Why come they not hither?

In Tzommolco human beings shall he given,
The Sun has come up!
Human beings shall be given.

In Tzommolco now ceases the song,
Without effort he has grown rich, to lordship he has attained,
It is miraculous his being pardoned.

Oh, little woman utter the speech,
Lady of the House of Mist, utter the speech abroad!

His priests prepare a sacrifice to the Sun in Tzommolco, a temple in the ward of the travelling merchants in ancient Mexico City (Tenochtitlan). In the House of Music the shell trumpets and the drums were kept: "the yucca tree booms'' refers to the latter, for the hollow log drums of the Aztecs were commonly made of this wood. At the conclusion of the human sacrifice to the rising Sun the offerer of the ceremony receives his reward in wealth and honors. These the Sun has power to convey while a mountain goddess of the morning mist broadcasts his action.

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Concentration of thought reached its peak in the monosyllabic language of the Mayas. The original text of the Maya chant printed below has 90 syllables, while Brinton's English rendering contains 118 syllables or thirty per-cent more 70. But English is itself a speech which excels in brevity.

Eat, eat, while there is bread,
Drink, drink while there is water;
A day comes when dust shall darken the air
When a blight shall wither the land,
When a cloud shall arise,
When a mountain shall be lifted up,
When a strong man shall seize the city,
When ruin shall fall upon all things,
When the tender leaf shall be destroyed,
When eyes shall be closed in death;
When there shall be three signs on a tree,
Father, son and grandson hanging dead on the same tree;
When the battle flag shall be raised,
And the people scattered abroad in the forest.

The one thing that remained to be developed in the poetic expression of the American Indian was the individual point of view. But perhaps the world is richer by reason of this lack which leaves the social mode uncompromised.


It is perhaps inevitable that many translators of Indian poems should color, or discolor, primitive ideas with civilized conventions, and this without any intention to deceive. Often their renderings depart so widely from the original texts—as ethnologists know the sense of them—as to leave nothing that is validly Indian, especially when rhyme or warping verse forms are employed. It is well, therefore, to consider the translator's handicap, and also to establish standards of success.

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First of all it must be admitted that some pieces are falsely called Indian, being actually nothing more than compositions by whites in what is fondly believed to be a savage mode. The Taensa songs perpetrated by Parisot in a fabricated language were an elaborate fraud but most writers of spurious Indian songs do not bother with native texts.

Longfellow's Song of Hiawatha is not itself a translation but it has affected translations. It is essentially a literary creation in a peculiar style which the public has come to accept as one befitting Indian materials. Longfellow had before him only Schoolcroft's stilted transcriptions of a few Indian myths. He did not know that Hiawatha flourished about 1600 A.D. and was one of the founders of the original League of the Iroquois. Also he wove into this poem, with its strange medley of mythological incidents mostly taken from the Ojibwa, a love theme which joined the Iroquois of New York with the Sioux of far-off Dakota. He patterned his verse form, with its effective iterations, on the Scandinavian Eddas. It is irony indeed, that Longfellow's Indian Edda—to use his own phrase—should be accepted as archetype not only of Indian expression but also of the Redman's sentiment.

Four great recorders of American Indian poetry have established standards by which the work of others may be judged. The first and greatest of these is Bernardino de Sahagun, conservator of the soul of ancient Mexico. This Spanish priest arrived in Tlaltelolco in 1529, only eight years after Cortes had taken the nearby capital of the Aztecs. He devoted a long life to compiling information on the pre-Spanish culture. The second is Dr. Washington Matthews who served for many years as a physician on the Navaho Reservation. His lasting monuments

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are The Mountain Chant and The Night Chant. The third is Francis La Flesche, himself an Indian of the Omaha tribe and the best student of his race. During the last years of his life La Flesche freed himself from earlier subordinating influences and achieved a great triumph in recording and translating the sacred chants of the Osage tribe. The fourth most eminent achievement in the field of primitive American poetry is that of William Thalbitzer for his thorough study of the songs of the Ammassalik Eskimo. Although a Dane he exhibits remarkable felicity of expression in putting Eskimo over into English.

Sahagun recorded the Mexican songs in the Mexican language and in the same tongue he added glosses to explain symbolic passages in everyday words. He did not make translations of these pieces into Spanish, which is fortunate, for had he done so it is highly probable that his manuscript would have been destroyed. As it was no publication of this or any other part of his splendid compilation was permitted during his lifetime for fear that it would keep alive pagan beliefs and practices which the church was trying to stamp out. The manuscripts lay unnoticed until the end of the eighteenth century. The part containing the ancient songs was first translated into English by Brinton under the title of Rig Veda Americanus. A better translation has been made into German by Seler but it seems that there are archaic expressions which even Sahagun could not explain in his glosses.

The other writers whose works are to be commended from the double standard of fidelity to the original sources and artistic quality in the rendering belong to the school of modern ethnology. They preserve a golden mean while many other moderns incline to one of two

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extreme: some give prosaic renderings of poetic texts and some give poetic renderings which wander so far from originals that they no longer serve as true indices of Indian mentality. After all translation is the carrying over of the totality of expressed thought from the terms of one language to the terms of another.

There is over translation and under translation. Let us consider examples of each for the purpose of defining somewhat more precisely the personal equation of the translator. The Hako Ceremony of the Pawnee possesses dignity and poetic quality of high order and its interpretation with all covert meanings was an achievement of Alice Cunningham Fletcher at the turn of the century. She was assisted by James R. Murie as interpreter and Tabirussawitchi, an elder of the Pawnee tribe, as interpreter. The songs were recorded by phonograph and transcribed into scale music. This Hako Ceremony was an elaborate prayer for children and the welfare of the tribe expressed in symbolical language and action. The fertility of the earth responding to sun and rain produces human food and human happiness. The Corn Mother is the intermediary between man and the cosmic powers.

Admitted that more is meant than the language conveys, nevertheless it is perhaps unfortunate that the English words used by Miss Fletcher in her "rhythmic renditions" go so far beyond the Pawnee words. Implications in regalia, in ceremonial objects and in the pantomime of dancers may form a running commentary in an Indian ceremony and may have esoteric significance in accordance with a veritable philosophy of illusion. But is it wise to enrich the actual text in such fashion as to bring out the context?

Let me illustrate with the first stanza of a typical song as translated by Miss Fletcher 71:

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Tirâwa harken! mighty one,
Above us in blue silent sky!
We standing wait thy bidding here.
The Mother Corn standing waits,
Waits to serve thee here;
The Mother Corn stands waiting here.

The Pawnee text out of which this stanza is constructed is mostly a repetition of the simple phrase,

Mother, now I standing, hold.

How then did Miss Fletcher obtain her opening address to the supreme deity of the Pawnee and her varied renderings of the other lines? Well the Corn Mother is an object held in the hand of the performer consisting of an ear of corn fastened to a stick with a plume at the top and with the uppermost kernels painted blue. The ear is therefore a combination of supernatural powers in earth below and heaven above, since blue is the color of the sky. The feather is a cloud or perhaps Tirawa. Also, according to Miss Fletcher, the symbolism is continued in the bowl of sacred blue paint. There is, I suppose, no reason for doubting that the ceremony as a whole is addressed to Tirawa. Nevertheless the re-assemblage of these intimations into the specific phrase:

Tirâwa hearken! mighty one
Above us in blue silent sky!

seems to me to go far beyond the proper rights of translation. The expansion found in this poem is characteristic of the method used for the entire ceremony with its twenty rituals.

But under translation is also found. For instance, Frank Russell's translations of Pima songs are a sort of blanc mange which do not do justice to the material.

p. 67

Take the Wind Song which he translates as follows in one of his better renderings 72:

Wind now commences to sing;
Wind now commences to sing.
The land stretches before me,
Before me stretches away.

Wind's house now is thundering;
Wind's house now is thundering;
I go roaring o’er the land
The land covered with thunder.
Over the windy mountains;

Over the windy mountains,
Came the myriad legged wind;
The wind came running hither.
The Black Snake Wind came to me;
The Black Snake Wind came to me
Came and wrapped itself about
Came here running with its song.

On the basis of the interlinear words the following is a closer and certainly more interesting rendering of this piece.

Here the wind begins to sing.
There before me stretches the land.
Here the wind begins to sing.
There before me stretches the land. Begins to sing,
There before me stretches the land.

Wind-house thunder! wind-house thunder!
I go there in the thunder-covered land.
Wind-house thunder! wind-house thunder!
I go there in the thunder-covered land.
Wind-house thunder!
I go there in the thunder-covered land.

Over windy mountain! Over windy mountain!
Everywhere centipede gusts came running.
Over windy mountain! Over windy mountain!
Everywhere centipede gusts came running.
Over windy mountain!
Everywhere centipede gusts came running. p. 68

Black Snake Wind! Black Snake Wind!
Here came running in a song, tied up in a song.
Black Snake Wind! Black Snake Wind!
Here came running in a song, tied up in a song.
Black Snake Wind!
Here came running in a song, tied up in a song.

In their study of American Indian Poetry Eda Lou Walton and T. T. Waterman go into a fuller examination of the discrepancies between Russell's literal texts and his literary renderings and also call attention to a Navaho poem doubly translated by Mathews in the Night Chant and by Goddard in Navaho Myths, Prayers and Songs, as poetically very different. But Goddard was able to give considerable distinction to the words of Apache ceremonies where his work stands alone. The short songs by Frances Densmore in her numerous papers on American Indian music are often very fine as are those of Thomas Mooney in his classical Ghost Dance Religion. Ruth Bunzel must certainly be praised for her handling of Zuñi material, where Frank Hamilton Cushing and Matilda Coxe Stephenson had preceded her. William Jones has treated the shamanistic material around the Great Lakes in more delicate fashion than some other writers. As a rule the professional linguists are prosaic: it seems that they pay attention merely to structures and to the denotation of words, neglecting the connotation. It is the old story of botanists not seeing the beauty of flowers.


In the Southwest the social and spiritual entities of ancient America have survived to our times but today the more precious elements are rapidly disintegrating under manifold contacts. The Navaho retain the traditions of a semi-nomadic life and the Pueblo tribes those

p. 69

of sedentary life reaching back to the times of the Cliff Dwellers. The ceremonial and artistic life of Zuñi is better known than that of any other Pueblo group. The other Pueblo groups, including the Hopi villages, the Keres villages and the Tiwa and Tewa villages have been indifferently reported upon, mostly by persons whose ceilings—to use an aeronautic term—are low.

The Tewa constitute a linguistic division of the Tanoan stock and live in the five villages of Tesuque, Nambe, San Ildefonso, Santa Clara and San Juan in the Rio Grande valley north and northwest of Santa Fé. They have been in contact with the white man since the Coronado Expedition and continuously since 1598 when the Spaniards took up residence across the river from San Juan of the Gentlemen—except for the interval of the Pueblo Rebellion (1680–1694). The native culture, always accepting some ideas from the outside, nevertheless managed to intensify its own religious and social life. This was the case until the era of railroad communication when an influx of the whites brought disease and economic pressure. Despoiled of much of their land and water, and burdened with tuberculosis and tracoma, the dwindling villages reached a low level about 1910. Since then there has been some increase in population but the uses of money have struck at the most sacred institutions from the inside.

The examples of Tewa poetry presented in this volume were collected in the years 1909, ‘10, ‘11 and ‘12 while I was engaged in ethnological field work for the American Museum of Natural History. The songs were taken down in native texts, with inter-linear translations and then converted into direct and simple English 73. Fortunately the Tewa language presents no unusual difficulties in translation.

p. 70

While this collection does not by any means exhaust the repertory of the Tewa, it does, I believe, furnish examples of all types of poetic expression in use by them. As regards the secular and esoteric poems the reader will find material for comparison in the recent study of Ruth Bunzel entitled Introduction to Zuñi Ceremonialism. There are other publications which might be mentioned but space does not permit. I close with an invocation to the Makers of Storms recorded at Zuñi 74.

Cover my earth mother four times with many flowers.
Let the heavens be covered with the banked-up clouds.
Let the earth be covered with fog; cover the earth with rains.
Great waters, rains, cover the earth. Lightning cover the earth.
Let thunder be heard over the earth, let thunder be heard;
Let thunder be heard over the six regions of the earth.

Brooklyn Museum

September 18, 1933.

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