This story, like many transcribed oral narratives, invites a host of questions about authorship and textual preservation. It’s worth noting that the version the anthology provides by way of Deloria’s translation is not identical to the original, having lost the performative qualities of an oral narrative and the tribal sense of audience that the oral tradition assumes. Even so, the tale is remarkable for its stylistic contrast to the personal and historical narratives written by the Spanish and English during this period. Its relevance to our course lies primarily in its glimpse of a worldview other than the Judeo-Christian tradition and in the ways it and other oral narratives anticipate literary conventions that define American literature in the nineteenth century.
From its opening lines, “Ikto” piques the imagination. Iktomi is “wandering,” presumably without purpose, when he happens upon Iya. Both startle each other, and their debate about who is the elder establishes a conflict that moves toward a climax and denouement, the way a work of short fiction might. The characters are colorful, memorable for their imperfections (such as Iktomi’s cursing and Iya’s unwieldy girth), and unpredictable. As dull as Iya seems, bent only on eating everyone in his path, he is distinctive because he seems not to destroy the people he eats (whole tribes still live in his belly, as Ikto observes through his mouth as he sleeps). He poses a real threat, but he seems slow-witted as he confesses his vulnerabilities to Iktomi.
Iktomi is distinctive in other tales for his shape-shifting and caprice, but in this text his cunning is chiefly impressive. Rather than attempting to stop Iya through brute force, a match he would surely lose even if he is the elder, Iktomi lures him into confessing his vulnerabilities, then exploits them. As the footnotes suggest, this is a rare instance where Iktomi eases rather than causes human suffering, reinforcing the nuanced view of good and evil in the Iroquois and Navajo creation stories, where no deity or human is wholly good or wholly evil.
European writers of this period – Columbus, Casas, Cabeza de Vaca – stress the factuality of their writing, sometimes explicitly claiming not to lie or exaggerate. Iktomi makes no such promise to Iya, and his deception becomes a key stratagem for survival. Whereas a veneer of naiveté and honesty pervades the Spanish writings, cunning (even outright lying) is the mark of a superior mind in the Sioux tale. As we’ll see in the Puritan writings, Europeans often attributed this kind of cunning – when they observed it in their dealings with Natives – to evil, even satanic qualities. Doing so meant misunderstanding the reasons indigenous people had for speaking warily to Europeans – and the value that deception might have as a survival strategy.
But this quality – outwitting an antagonist or character foil – is often celebrated in short fiction. For instance, Irving’s prankster Brom Bones, in “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow,” dupes Ichabod Crane to the reader’s great satisfaction and, potentially, to the benefit of the community. One of the hallmarks of Enlightenment writing was satire, which might be seen as a close cousin of a lie: saying one thing but intending another. A satirist is a kind of trickster, one might say, who might use irony as an instructional tool or purely for entertainment.
These are only a few reasons why I believe it is imperative to frame the American literary tradition with the oral tradition. Trickster tales and creation tales not only reveal a rich literary history in North American before European contact, they also emphasize storytelling conventions that white authors would emulate as American fiction, poetry, and essay writing came of age in the nineteenth century. As Craig Womack suggests, “Without Native American literature, there is no American canon.” Not only should the American canon include Native American literature, it should recognize the influence of the oral tradition on literary style in America. Whatever innovations Washington Irving, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and other writers of the American Renaissance might have pioneered, they also owe a debt to the First Nations storytellers they emulated in part.