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Oral Literature in the Digital Age

Mark Turin
Claire Wheeler
Eleanor Wilkinson

II. Engagements and Reflections from the Field

5. American Indian Oral Literature, Cultural Identity and Language Revitalisation: Some Considerations for Researchers

Margaret Field

Texte intégral

The Kumeyaay community of Baja California

1Kumeyaay is the indigenous language of the San Diego area as well as the northernmost part of Baja California, Mexico, extending southward from the US-Mexico border for about fifty miles. Today, Kumeyaay (specifically, the Tiipay dialect of Kumeyaay) is still actively spoken by about fifty speakers who reside in Mexico, but is very close to obsolescence north of the border. The Tiipay community extends from about fifty miles east of San Diego to the coast, encompassing thirteen distinct communities, each with its own slightly different variety of Tiipay. Just north of these Tiipay communities are the related ‘Iipay Kumeyaay communities, which share many similar cultural values, but whose dialects are very different (Field, 2012).

  • 1 See Meza Cuero et al. (2013) for a detailed version and translation of this particular story.

2In all of the Kumeyaay community as well as most of southern California, singers are important repositories of traditional oral literature, as stories are typically not only told but also embodied in song cycles (Apodaca 1999). In the San Diego area, the most well known of these song cycles are “bird songs”, which tell the story of early migrations of Yuman people from the Colorado river area throughout southern Alta California, Baja California, and adjacent Arizona. Other song cycles include Lightning songs and Wildcat songs, and this paper will draw on an example of a story told by a master singer of the Wildcat tradition, Jon Meza Cuero. The story is about Rabbit and Frog.1

3The story “Rabbit and Frog” is probably most closely related to the genre of trickster tales, which are found across all of Native North America, especially in the western part of the US; the most commonly known subgenre being “coyote stories” (Bright 1993). The protagonist in the genre of trickster tales need not always be a coyote, but is always a trickster who displays various kinds of culturally dispreferred behaviors, such as insincerity, gluttony, and above all egotistical narcissism. The Tiipay story of Rabbit and Frog does not feature a coyote, but instead a frog that displays trickster-like characteristics. The other main character is Rabbit, who is duped by the trickster and comes to regret it in the end.

  • 2 See Field (1998) for a discussion of how the pragmatics of directive giving varies across these co (...)

4When sung in song cycles, traditional stories like this one bring together two important aspects of communicative competence: cultural knowledge in the form of social values and behavioral norms and expectations, as well as traditional language. Mr Meza Cuero is one of the few Kumeyaay culture bearers today who is able to tell his stories (as opposed to singing them) in the indigenous language as well. Traditional stories are a key part of the process of cultural continuity. As Toelken and Scott have noted in their study of this genre, coyote stories teach children cultural expectations about appropriate behavior through the use of humour “without resort to didacticism” (1981: 106). Storytelling, in this way, is an important part of child socialisation. The cultural knowledge learned through communicative practices such as storytelling includes cultural expectations about social roles and relationships, including, very importantly for indigenous American communities, how to treat family as opposed to strangers. Each of these communicative contexts involves slightly different social roles that may also be associated with distinct communicative strategies.2 The story of Rabbit and Frog deals with these roles in particular. Forms of knowledge such as these are invariably tacit or taken for granted, and thus less accessible to discursive consciousness (Giddens 1979). Embedded in traditional stories, they provide good examples of what Bourdieu (1977) has called the habitus, or “routine modes of perception, action, and evaluation which guide actors in social practice” (Hanks 1996: 238). In this way, traditional stories and other forms of oral tradition may be viewed as interactional strategies through which cultural identity is discursively produced. Additionally, just as stories act as discourse-level vehicles for the transmission of identity, so does the linguistic variety in which the story is told. Thus, oral literature indexes group identity in multiple ways (Kroskrity 2000) as membership in a larger speech community is indexed through traditional storytelling, yet local dialect indexes membership in a sub-community within that larger speech community.

5For many indigenous communities, the dialect in which a story is told is just as valuable to the community as the content of the story, and both require the careful attention of the researcher. This is especially true in indigenous communities where local dialects are important emblems of cultural and group identity. For example, in the Tiipay-speaking Kumeyaay community of Mexico, there are distinct local dialects across six communities, all located within a fifty-mile radius of each other (Field 2012). Intense lexical variation is found in many indigenous Californian and Mexican speech communities (Friedrich 1971; Golla 2000; Field 2012), as well as many other indigenous communities around the world (Sutton 1978), and is closely connected to group identity.

  • 3 See Field (2012) for a lengthier discussion of language ideologies in Kumeyaay communities.

6Language ideologies in indigenous communities may also reflect beliefs concerning the relationship between local varieties and community identity, but are not necessarily homogeneous across related speech communities. For example, members of US Kumeyaay communities frequently express the belief that their dialects are each different enough to be considered distinct languages. This attitude exemplifies a typical “localist” language ideology,3 which is linked to a discourse of “local control” (Hill 2002: 123) often seen in south-western US indigenous speech communities. Kumeyaay tribes on the US side of the border are often hesitant to share language materials, even with each other, let alone academics or non-Kumeyaay people. In contrast, on the Mexican side of the border, community language ideologies are typically more variationist (Kroskrity 2002; Kroskrity and Field 2009), such that everyone acknowledges dialect variation, yet insists that all dialects are mutually intelligible and therefore one language, shared by all. This difference in language ideologies between US and Mexican communities is no doubt largely due to differences in histories of contact with two different dominant cultures, as well as other considerations too lengthy to include here (but see Field 2012). More to the point of this paper, this difference in language ideologies will no doubt have profound repercussions for the development of future materials for language revitalisation purposes, as well as very different considerations for researchers working on these related dialects on each side of the international border.

7Although geographically connected communities may share very similar, if not identical, versions of traditional stories, storytellers from specific communities inject their own community’s idiom into them, marking them as symbols of local community identity and making them not only very different from each other but clearly indexical of the local community the storyteller is from. These facts lead to a couple of important language-related considerations for researchers of oral literature: firstly, the effects this research may have on language revitalisation efforts; and secondly, the imperative to work collaboratively with the community, and prioritise their wishes concerning access to and future uses of any collected texts. These points are expanded upon below.

8Firstly, when archiving and publishing language materials from communities without a tradition of literacy, it is important to be aware that making any materials public may affect language revitalisation efforts in that community. If there is no standard dialect, or orthography, published research may potentially affect what might be a delicate political balance between factions of the speech community, or may have an impact on language maintenance. For example, if materials from only one dialect are published to a greater extent than another, this may result in de facto promotion of that one dialect to the status of “standard”, and may privilege that variety over others for use in future language revitalisation efforts (Muhlhauser 1996; Hale 2001; Eisenlohr 2004; Hill 2002).

9In Native North America, there is today not a single speech community that is not endangered at some level. According to a study by Michael Krauss done a little over a decade ago, out of 211 indigenous languages still spoken in North America, 85% of them are now moribund (or lack child speakers). Ironically, this situation continues to worsen even as indigenous communities improve their economic conditions, because dominant languages and cultures increasingly penetrate even the most remote communities, along with roads, electricity, and greater access to various forms of media in dominant languages.

10Secondly, even though the goals of research on oral literatures and endangered languages may be to preserve them for posterity, indigenous communities may not all be in accord with this common academic goal, or with the assumption that all knowledge should be shared (Hill 2002). Intellectual property concerns are always an important consideration for American Indian communities. Even though a recorded story may already be published, the language or dialect in which it is told may not be, and the language itself may be considered intellectual property by the speech community. In the US and Canada it is standard operating procedure when working with indigenous languages to request consent from tribal governments (in addition to individual speakers and storytellers) before beginning fieldwork. As Battiste and Henderson (2000) recommend:

Ethical research systems and practices should enable indigenous nations, people, and communities to exercise control over information related to their knowledge and heritage and to themselves. […] To act otherwise is to repeat that familiar pattern of decisions being made for Indigenous people by those who presume to know what is best for them. (Cited in Rice 2006: 133)

11Ideally, initial contact with the indigenous community should include:

  1. Discussion of how any resulting materials may be used to promote or enhance linguistic and cultural maintenance and/or revitalisation effort
  2. Plans for publication and archiving, including the content of consent forms specifying exactly what, if any, limitations the community might prefer in terms of future access to recorded materials

12Great care should be taken in recording and archiving oral literature for posterity. The website E-MELD (Electronic Metastructure for Endangered Languages Documentation) is one of the best places to find information on how to do this. The main goal of this site is to educate researchers on how to archive their audio and video data in non-proprietary formats, so that it will be universally accessible and will remain that way indefinitely. This site also offers useful information on recommended models of recording equipment and methodologies for archiving recordings and associated metadata. If the indigenous language requires special characters not found on an English keyboard, it is especially important to employ a non­proprietary font in Unicode, so that a decade from now transcribed texts will still be legible.

Rabbit and Frog: a Kumeyaay trickster tale

  • 4 See Baumann (1992); Jahner (1999); and Sekaquaptewa & Washburn (2004) for the importance of oral l (...)
  • 5 I am indebted to noted Yuman linguist Amy Miller for her help in transcribing and translating this (...)

13The Tiipay trickster tale of Rabbit and Frog begins with a formulaic opening that immediately indexes the fact that this story is an ancient example of a cultural resource.4 This is seen in the archaic language, which cannot be entirely glossed (personal communication Amy Miller).5 The storyteller Jon Meza Cuero translated (in Spanish) all five of the opening lines as “it’s old”:

14Ke’nápa nyuuchs. It’s an old story.

15Nyuuch yúsa. It’s old.

16Nyuu, It’s old,

17nyuu yus ‘i mat. it’s old, I say.

18Ke’nápa nyuuch nyáasa: It’s an old story I am telling you:

19This formulaic opening is a good example of what Richard Baumann has described as “an act of authentication akin to the […] antique dealer’s authentication of an object by tracing its provenience” (1992: 137). In doing so, the storyteller is explaining that this story has been passed down to him from the ancestors.

20The genre is made clear in the next few lines, which indicate that it refers to a mythic time period found across most of Native America, and especially in California creation stories, in which animals figure largely as creators:

21Matt ‘ekur, Long ago,

22tipay pi tenyewaay, people were here,

23matt pi tenyewaay. they were in this place.

24Tipay máwa, They were not people,

25chiillyich. they were animals.

26Chiillyích pas they were animals, but

27tipay llywíicha. they were like people.

28Tipay aa chuwaay, They spoke the People’s language,

29peyii neyiw, they came,

30peyii naa, and they went,

31matt cham naach, they went all over the world,

32Tipay aa shin chuuwaay. and they spoke the one People’s language.

33Cultural values are also evidenced in the last line of this orientation, which indexes the variationist language ideology most commonly espoused by the Mexican Kumeyaay community.

34The following is a somewhat abbreviated version of the story (see Meza Cuero et al. 2013 for the complete version in both English and Kumeyaay):

There was a Rabbit. He had a house.
Rabbit was in his house, and was warm.
Frog passed by the house.
Frog peeked inside.
Rabbit was sitting inside. He was eating.
Frog passed by and went away.
A few days later, Frog came passing by.
‘Hi! How are you?’ he said as he arrived.
‘I’m fine, and you?’ (said Rabbit).
‘I’m fine. Gee, it’s very cold outside!’ (said Frog).
‘It’s cold? It’s nice and warm in here.’ (said Rabbit).
‘I’m really cold.’ (said Frog), rubbing his hands together. ‘Gee, it’s really cold.’
‘Oh?’ (said Rabbit). ‘Walk around and you’ll be alright.’
‘You are from outside and you must stay outside. God made you so that you would live outside. I do not, I am a rabbit, and I must stay in my house.’
‘Alright, see you soon.’ said Frog. ‘I’m going now.’
And he went hopping away—hop! hop! hop!
In two or three days, he came back.
‘Hello Brother!’ he said. ‘How are you?’
‘I’m fine. How are you?’ (asked Rabbit).
‘Oh, I’m really cold.’ (said Frog).

35This exchange happens three times, but the third time, Rabbit changes his mind, lets him in, and goes out to find some food for both of them to eat:

Rabbit went out looking for food.
He came back much later.
‘What’s up?’ (Rabbit) said.
‘Nothing, I’m fine here.’ (said Frog).
(Rabbit) gave him food, and (Frog) just sat there eating.
‘Oh, the food is really good!’ (said Frog).
One day went by. Two days went by.
(Rabbit) went out again looking for food.
When it was late he came back.
Frog was just sitting in there, big and puffed up.
‘Hello Brother! How are you? Are you sick or something?’ (asked Rabbit).
‘No, I’m fine’ (Frog said).
‘Why are you so big?’ (asked Rabbit).
‘Why am I big? Everyday you bring me food!
I’m just going to sit here getting fat!’ (said Frog).
Three days later, frog was at his biggest.
‘Your belly is really very big!’ (said Rabbit).
‘Oh? So what if it is very big?’ (said Frog).
‘If I am to fit in the house, you have to leave!’ (said Rabbit).
‘No, no, it’s my house!’ (said Frog).
‘It’s really, really, really good, my belly is very big.’ (said Frog).
‘Okay then, you stay here, and I’ll go away.’ (said Rabbit).
He did it very reluctantly.
Frog stayed in the house.
He stayed, and Rabbit went away, looking for another house.
That’ll be the end of it, this thing that I’ve been telling.

36As is usually the case in trickster tales, there is no overt evaluation by the storyteller (Beck and Walters 1977; Toelken and Scott 1981); rather, the listeners must infer the moral for themselves. But it is easy to discern the moral of this story: after inviting Frog into his home, industrious Rabbit loses it to the ungrateful and selfish Frog. What did Rabbit do to deserve this fate? He acted against his initial better judgment (concerning frogs belonging outside) and embraced Frog, a relative stranger, as a kinsman and brother. Following traditional Kumeyaay protocol, Rabbit feeds Frog, but Frog just sits there getting fatter and fatter until there is no room for Rabbit in his own home. One can infer from this tale that in the traditional Kumeyaay view it is important to be selective in deciding whom to offer hospitality, as well as to be suspicious of strangers who are quick to claim a kinship relation.

37Like any good trickster, Frog also displays several negative behavioral characteristics, including laziness, insincerity and greed. Children learn cultural values from trickster tales by learning how not to behave; in this case, from the actions of both the trickster and Rabbit. Stories like this are classic examples of traditional indigenous pedagogy.

  • 6 This work is based upon material supported by the National Science Foundation under Grant No. # BC (...)
  • 7 I chose the AILLA archive because of the compatibility of their mission statement with the goals o (...)
  • 8 We did not record any ritual language or content considered too sensitive to share with the outsid (...)

38The story of Rabbit and Frog was collected as part of a larger project documenting the Kumeyaay dialects spoken in Baja California.6 It will eventually be archived at the Archive of Indigenous Languages of Latin America at the University of Texas, Austin (AILLA),7 so that it will be available via the Internet in both Spanish and English to members of the Kumeyaay community on both sides of the border as well as researchers. The decision to make all language files available via the Internet was made by members of the Baja Kumeyaay community, who came together with project staff repeatedly in community language workshops held every three months over the duration of the project. Mexican Kumeyaay community members especially expressed the desire for community teachers to be able to access stories and other recordings8 for language revitalization purposes. Because this story and others were recorded in both Kumeyaay and Spanish, they will be important for this purpose, but they will also be equally vital as traditional Kumeyaay educational materials that impart more than just linguistic information. In this way, they will be important to future Kumeyaay communities in maintaining not only their language, but their cultural identity as well.



Apodaca, Paul, ‘Tradition, Myth, and Performance of Cahuilla Bird Songs’ (unpublished doctoral dissertation, University of California, 1999).

Battiste, Marie and Sa’ke’j Henderson, Protecting Indigenous Knowledge and Heritage: A Global Challenge (Saskatoon, SK: Purich, 2000).

Bauman, Richard, ‘Contextualization, Tradition, and the Dialogue of Genres: Icelandic Legends of the Kraftaskald’, in Rethinking Context: Language as an Interactive Phenomenon, ed. by Alessandro Duranti and Charles Goodwin (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992), pp. 125–145.

Beck, Peggy and Anna Walters, The Sacred: Ways of Knowledge, Sources of Life (Tsaile: Navajo Community College, 1977).

Bourdieu, Pierre, Outline of a Theory of Practice, trans. by R. Nice (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1977).

Bright, William, A Coyote Reader (Berkeley: University California Press, 1993).

Eisenlohr, Patrick, ‘Language Revitalization and New Technologies: Cultures of Electronic Mediation and the Refiguring of Communities’, American Review of Anthropology, 33 (2004), 21–45.

Field, Margaret, ‘Politeness and Indirection in Navajo Directives’, Southwest Journal of Linguistics, 17 (2) (1998), 23–33.

—, ‘Kumiai Stories: Bridges Between the Oral Tradition and Contemporary Classroom Practice’, in Telling Stories in the Face of Danger: Narratives and Language, Renewal in Native American Communities, ed. by Paul Kroskrity (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2011), pp. 115-128.

—, ‘Kumeyaay Language Variation, Group Identity, and the Land’, International Journal of American Linguistics, 78 (4) (2012), 557–573

Friedrich, Paul, ‘Dialectal Variation in Tarascan Phonology’, International Journal of American Linguistics, 37 (3) (1971), 164–187.

Giddens, Anthony, Central Problems in Social Theory (London: Macmillan, 1979).

Golla, Victor, ‘Language Histories and Communicative Strategies in Aboriginal California and Oregon’, in Languages of the North Pacific Rim, Vol 5, ed. by Osahito Miyaoka (Japan: Osaka Gakuin University, 2000), pp. 43-64.

Hale, Kenneth, ‘Strict Locality in Local Language Media: An Australian Example’, in The Green Book of Language Revitalization in Practice, ed. by Leanne Hinton and Ken Hale (San Diego: Academic Press, 2001), pp. 276-282.

Hanks, William, Language And Communicative Practices (Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1996).

Hill, Jane, ‘“Expert Rhetorics” in Advocacy for Endangered Languages: Who Is Listening, and What Do They Hear?’, Journal of Linguistic Anthropology, 12 (2) (2002), 119–133.

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Kroskrity, Paul, ‘Regimenting Languages: Language Ideological Perspectives’, in Regimes of Language: Ideologies, Politics, and Identities, ed. by Paul V. Kroskrity (Santa Fe: School of American Research Press, 2000), 1–34.

—, ‘Language Renewal and the Technologies of Literacy and Post-Literacy’, in Making Dictionaries: Preserving Indigenous Languages of the Americas, ed. By William Frawley, Ken Hill and Pamela Munro (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2002), 171–192.

—, and Margaret Field, Native American Language Ideologies: Language Beliefs, Practices, and Struggles in Indian Country (Tucson: University Arizona Press, 2009).

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Online Sources

E-MELD (Electronic Metastructure for Endangered Languages Documentation) <>


1 See Meza Cuero et al. (2013) for a detailed version and translation of this particular story.

2 See Field (1998) for a discussion of how the pragmatics of directive giving varies across these contexts for Navajo speakers, as well as Nevins (2010) for a discussion of these dynamics in the Apache community.

3 See Field (2012) for a lengthier discussion of language ideologies in Kumeyaay communities.

4 See Baumann (1992); Jahner (1999); and Sekaquaptewa & Washburn (2004) for the importance of oral literature as cultural resources which retain and reinforce cultural values and group identity.

5 I am indebted to noted Yuman linguist Amy Miller for her help in transcribing and translating this story.

6 This work is based upon material supported by the National Science Foundation under Grant No. # BCS-0753853. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.

7 I chose the AILLA archive because of the compatibility of their mission statement with the goals of this project: 1) preservation of indigenous language materials from Latin America, 2) accessibility of these materials (in terms of making sure that non-proprietary formats are used in recording, consent forms are obtained, and intellectual property rights are respected), and 3) community support for the indigenous speech communities of Latin America, in terms of making sure these materials are also available for them to use for language revitalisation purposes.

8 We did not record any ritual language or content considered too sensitive to share with the outside world. In addition to traditional narratives and narratives about how to perform traditional activities such as basket making and pottery, we also recorded conversation and wordlists which will be used to create a multidialectal Kumeyaay dictionary.


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