Generally speaking, the act of Indigenous storytelling is a sacred practice that passes culture and wisdom from one generation to another. While there are some similarities among the storytelling practices of all Indigenous peoples, each tribe has unique methods of storytelling and attempts to generalize Indigenous storytelling as a whole are problematic. With this in mind, I have compiled a short list of resources for instructors looking for texts on storytelling. The list mostly focuses on recent texts, but includes a few dated resources that are necessary for this conversation.
My goal is to provide a launching pad for conversations about Indigenous stories and storytelling, and I hope those ideas will be shared and celebrated among as many people as possible.
Brill de Ramírez, S. B. (1999). Contemporary American Indian literatures and the oral tradition. Tucson: University of Arizona Press.
This book argues that because American Indian literature is written in the oral tradition, a reader must become a “listener-reader” who becomes “an active participant in the written stories.” The text goes on to state that the writer and reader co-create the stories much like the storyteller/audience member relationship formed in oral stories. The book uses decorated texts to argue its point, and it does so convincingly. The bibliography should not be overlooked; it contains a wealth of information.
Bruchac, J. (2003). Our stories remember: American Indian history, culture, and values through storytelling. Golden, CO: Fulcrum.
Joseph Bruchac is a master storyteller whose gifts know no limits or genre restrictions, and this book may be his greatest. In it, he uses examples to summarize the historical and contemporary importance of storytelling and explain how now is the perfect time to revitalize storytelling in all Native communities. The book is inspiring and is written by a man who understands the importance of stories.
Collins, R., & Cooper, P. J. (2005). The power of story: Teaching through storytelling. Long Grove, IL: Waveland Press, Inc.
This is not an Indigenous storytelling guide, but I like that it explains storytelling to an audience that may not be aware of its power as a teaching tool. The book is filled with terms, activities, and resources for those wishing to find a Western perspective on the power of storytelling in a classroom. The book will be of most use to those who intend to use its methodology with children.
Frey, R. (Ed.). (1995). Stories that make the world: Oral literature of the Indian peoples of the Inland Northwest. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1995.
This is an important text that collects traditional stories and tribal perspectives through anthropologic research. The stories are invaluable, but what I love about the volume is that the stories are arranged thematically and formatted to show inflection and pauses. Moreover, the illustrations provide readers with an enriched perspective of what the stories are conveying.
Geiogamah, H., & Darby, J. T. (1999). Stories of our way: An anthology of American Indian plays. Los Angeles: UCLA American Indian Studies Center.
Without debate, contemporary American Indian Theater is an extension of the oral tradition, and this collection is a great introduction to the genre. The text collects plays from Hanay Geiogamah, Lynn Riggs, Diane Glancy, Bruce King, and even Spiderwoman Theater; moreover, it collects compelling scripts from a variety of genres and writing styles. I recommend every single text from UCLA’s Project HOOP, but this is the one I teach from every semester. The plays span 60 years’ worth of staging the oral tradition, and it is a must read for fans of storytelling.
Henry, G. D., Jr., Soler, N. P., & Martínez-Falquina, S. (Eds.). (2009). Stories through theories/Theories through stories: North American Indian writing, storytelling, and critique. East Lansing: Michigan State University Press.
Equal in ambition to Louis Owens’s seminal work, Other destinies: Understanding the American Indian novel, this text begins with Gordon Henry’s essay, “Allegories of engagement: Stories/theories.” In the essay, Henry summarizes and examines the history of American Indian writers and the ways in which their texts engage with Western theoretical approaches. The collection includes essays that explore the bonds between theory and story, as well as the relationships among the writers, the readers, and the critics of contemporary Indigenous writings. This book also offers new approaches to thinking about the role of the biographer and the storyteller; that chapter alone is profound and worth the cost of the text.
Kenny, M. (Ed.). (1999). Stories for a winter’s night. Buffalo, NY: White Pine Press.
Even though today it is only available through used book dealers, this collection of stories from multiple American Indian authors is my personal favorite. I used to teach it in my American Indian Literature course, and I reference it whenever I talk about storytelling both within and outside of the classroom. In short, the book collects close to forty stories from as many well-known and relatively unknown Native authors, and the stories range from funny to cautionary to inspirational. This collection is best read aloud around a fire.
King, T. (2005). The truth about stories: A native narrative. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
This is the most important and most enjoyable text ever written about American Indian storytelling. It is impossible to talk to any Native scholar about storytelling and not reference this text. The text challenges and empowers readers by stating things such as, “Stories are wondrous things. And they are dangerous,” yet King also engages his audience with humor and personal experience. This book will forever affect one’s views on stories.
Kroskrity, P. V. (Ed.). (2012). Telling stories in the face of danger: Language renewal in Native American communities. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press.
This collection of essays focuses on the importance of storytelling in language and cultural renewal in American Indian communities. The authors seek an academic audience, but the examples of efforts to revitalize communities, traditions, and education are captivating for all audiences. This is a book that could be used to jumpstart storytelling in a place where stories are not used to their potential.
Momaday, N. S. (1976). The way to rainy mountain. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press.
Before Momaday won the Pulitzer Prize in 1969, only nine works of fiction attributed to American Indian writers had ever been published; hence, no list on American Indian storytelling would be complete without Momaday’s 1976 book. Moreover, he wrote this book in a style of great storytelling, shifting from descriptive to expressive to instructive styles, and blending them seamlessly to share Kiowa and Momaday’s family’s oral traditions. The book is narrow in length, but the scope and depth of the text warrants that its readers reread it over and over again.
Womack, C. S. (2009). Art as performance, story as criticism: Reflections on native literary aesthetics. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press.
This book mixes Native literary criticism with the author’s personal perspective and original stories. It also challenges the notion that critics can only engage with a text or historical event as a researcher or astute observer, and it proposes that a critic of Native literature should respond as an almost equal participant in the conversation. The book has been labeled “groundbreaking,” but that assessment seems too simplistic. Womack responds to a story by telling a story; the way he addresses his responsive stories to the deceased is awesome, ambitious, and fitting.
Angilirq, P. A., Cohn, N., & Kunuk, Z. (Producers), & Kunuk, Z. (Director). (2001). Atanarjuat (The fast runner). Canada: Columbia Tri-Star.
This is the first Inuktitut-language feature film, and it tells a traditional story of love, deceit, and revenge in Inuit history. The preeminent Native filmmaker, Chris Eyre, calls the film an “inside job,” meaning that the film tells a truly Native story without an outsider’s perspective. Upon viewing, it is obvious that the film was a labor of love for the director and actors, because it is so beautifully, brutally honest. It will reaffirm why film is such an important vehicle for storytelling.
Halmi, R., Sr. (Producer), & Barron, S. (Director). (2003). DreamKeeper [Motion Picture]. United States: Hallmark Home Entertainment.
This is an American Indian road trip film that puts a troubled teenage boy on a cross-country journey with his traditional grandfather. Along the way the grandfather tells stories that span many tribes; these stories are fully acted out in the film. The film is engaging, the overall story is heartfelt, and the content is appropriate for the whole family to enjoy. I recommend that humanities instructors show sections of this film in all of their classes because it truly captures the power of stories.
Chapman, M. (1995). “The belly of this story”: Storytelling and symbolic birth in Native American fiction. Studies in American Indian Literatures. Series 2. 7(2), 3-16.
In this essay, the author argues that the creation of an American Indian story is linked to the gestation and birth of a child. The essay focuses on the male storyteller in particular, and it builds its argument using the works of N. Scott Momaday and Leslie Marmon Silko. The essay is thought-provoking and it provides a fine foundational summary of the American Indian literacy renaissance’s storytelling theory.
Howe, L. (1999). Tribalography: The Power of Native Stories. Journal of Dramatic Theory and Criticism. 14(1), 117-125.
This essay changed the way Native scholars describe the interconnections between Native texts, stories, genres, and boundaries. In short, Howe argues that history, fiction, theater, and the very act of storytelling are all interchangeable. She says that stories are based on a perspective, but also that they are passed down through seven generations. To Howe, stories cannot be labeled, and she argues that Native stories have always been that way. This essay provides storytellers with words to explain why Western story practices cannot contain Native writing.