Indigenous Origins of American Literature

The earliest Indian legends bear close resemblance to those of China and East India. In Central America, the figure of the savior-god Quetzalcoatl corresponds to the Great Man Panku of the Chinese or the Purusa of the Hindus. The American savior-god, like the sun-god Mithras of the Persians, battles an evil spirit or magician. Like the Greek Orpheus, Quetzalcoatl has the power to charm all nature of which he is a part. His song begins with a remarkable invocation to nature's beauty, differing in this from the European epics. The god sings
As I wander through the forest

There I hear the rocks replyingTo the sweetly-singing flowers;

And the gleaming, chatting waterMakes its answer to the fountain,

To the ever-shining fountain,Sweetly singing, forward springing,

Ever lilting its new song.

There he envisions a land.

Land where there is no affliction;

Land where no one serves a master,

If on earth we ever reach it'

Twill be only through submission

To the Author of Our Being.

Quetzalcoatl, we are told, taught his people all the arts and crafts. Together they built wondrous houses adorned with coral and seashells, emeralds, gold, and silver. They had chocolate plantations and untold wealth. They lacked nothing in their households, and hunger never dwelt among them. The small ears of corn they never had to grind, but used them for heating their baths. Many are the songs which Quetzalcoatl left to his people. Almost all the North American Indian tribes had stories which can be connected with him.

Chief among the stories of the Iroquoian nations was that of Hiawatha, who united them in a confederacy under a rule of law. The Great Spirit or the Indian's Manitou still persists in many forms as an underlying concept of the Deity for most people of Indian background. Several totemistic legends concerning the animals related to the various tribes have come down in the "Brer Rabbit Tales" of Uncle Remus. Many American fraternal organizations (for which the Europeans have no counterparts) include various lodges called the Eagles, Elks, Owls, and Redmen, which have adopted Indian ceremonial rites.

Stories of giants characterize the mythology of all primitive peoples who are forced to wrestle with a powerful natural environment for their existence. The Cherokee Indian has the tale of Tsul Kalu, a slant-eyed giant whose many marvelous exploits are almost completely duplicated by the frontiersman Davy Crockett, the lumberjack Paul Bunyan with his Swedish foreman Ole Olsen, and the Mississippi Negro stevedore, John Henry. American humor, relying for much of its expansive effect upon the narration of highly improbable or "tall" stories, incomprehensible to most Europeans, bears direct relationship to the primitive vigor of the pioneers. This accounts in part for the "resiliency" mentioned by Paul Claudel.

Americans of both continents tend to glorify their heroic democratic leaders -- Washington, Jefferson, Bolivar, San Martin, Juarez, and Lincoln -- conceiving of them not in any sense as deities, but as men of gigantic stature and superhuman achievements. Personification of the various American ideals can be found in the tall figure of Uncle Sam, suggestive of Yankee ingenuity, and in the Goddess of Liberty. The Mexicans have recently pictured Quetzalcoatl, and the Peruvians have their Inca general, Ollantay.

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