EXCERPT: When Dream Bear Sings

The following is an excerpt from When Dream Bear Sings: Native Literatures of the Southern Plains (Nebraska, 2018) edited by Gus Palmer Jr.


From the Introduction

This book comprises Native literatures from storytellers of the Great Southern Plains. Many of the Indian tribes that dwell in these lands share the shifts of great changes of season and weather. Their stories tell of many of the striking and wonderful things that have taken place upon that particular landscape. Here the weather is among the harshest known in the world. In summer the sun plays a central role in the sky, parching the land until it becomes dry and hotter than molten glass. In winter some of the coldest weather in the world is known here when winds come out of the Arctic North, bringing sleet and snow.

Many nomadic tribes moved up and down the corridor between the Rocky Mountains in the west and the great Mississippi River to the east. They camped here and there, ranged far and into the depths of the land following the great buffalo herds. Their stories tell of the wonderful adventures they had, of hunting and camping near the rivers, always keeping within close range and in sight of the mountains where they felt most at home. This was where their gods lived.

Many stories tell of the magical places and things the people saw and heard long ago. It was a time when the land was dark and there was no sun. Dangerous giants and beasts roamed about, and the people were fearful for their lives and hid in the forests and canyons. Some of the stories recount the time when the Trickster called together the people to tell them about the land to the east, where there were strange beings who possessed a fiery ball of light they played with. It was a dangerously hot light, but it lit up the land and everything round about so you could see and move about freely and happily. And so the Trickster organized a detail of animals that went there and took away the light and brought it to their land where it lit up all the world.

This is one version of how the sun came to be. There are many more.

While many of these tribes call the Plains landscape their home, others arrived later, driven forcibly westward by the federal government to provide more space for advancing white settlements in the East. Lest they forget who they were, these recent arrivals brought with them their tribal stories and myths, accounts about their tribal heroes and their emergence into the world. Their stories,  now transcribed from the ancient language of their people, are translated into English. Many of these accounts were committed to memory and but one generation from being forgotten and disappearing forever. They make up the oral tradition of the people and are the best examples of the human experiences of these unique people. Some of the narratives are but remnants of former times when the people thrived in their homeland far away, while others recount the time they were dispersed to unknown places to settle, to a landscape that was strange but that in time they became familiar with and made their own.


While some of the narratives in this volume appear as tribal narratives and stories, myths and folktales, others are personal sketches and poems. These Native literatures appear in their original tribal form and translation or in English only. It should be pointed out that the translation of Native American stories, myths, legends, and other personal narratives into English is difficult and not without controversy. There are, however, also useful things that come out of translation. A translator of an original text will often bring something unexpected to a translation, something different and new; something that will vibrate with an energy; something that will fill the mind of the reader with wonder and awe; something that the reader will want to experience again with the same amount of enthusiasm and will search diligently for in similar sources of pleasure. It is the devoted and responsible translator who will work very hard to assure human experience comes bubbling to the surface of our consciousness when we read his or her work. In this way, we may unexpectedly realize the capacity and potential of language for the first time—not that we haven’t experienced it before, but this time it has perhaps been of a rare quality and rich in feeling, so that we are moved in a profound way. This is of course but one dimension of our literary experience. We are discussing oral literature and not written literature here. We are exploring areas of literature recently discovered and appreciated.

Much oral literature has come down to us in printed form and is often quite technical. Some of the work in this volume has been transcribed by a system of writing that reflects as closely as possible the sound of Native words as they were originally spoken. This is important for many reasons but, for now, if we consider how rapidly these original Native languages are disappearing, it is profound and even heroic that individuals would attempt to present writing forms and narratives as we find here.

Indeed many of the transcriptions in this volume are products of much devoted labor and facilitated by orthographies created by tribal speakers or linguists. These heroes are both Indians and non- Indians. Some are professionally trained; some are devoted practitioners, with boundless energy and determination, of the tribal language. Of these two, I am most impressed with the latter, because these are the ones for whom language survival and continuance is most urgent, for whom heritage languages are the very hallmark of who they are and what is most pressing during these difficult times. But that is something we can discuss later. Let it suffice for now that language survival is at the heart of much of this work and can be seen in the narratives presented in this book.


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