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Oral Literature

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Date: 2015
From: Literature
Publisher: Gale, part of Cengage Group
Series: Gale Elementary Online Collection
Document Type: Topic overview
Length: 575 words
Lexile Measure: 940L

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Native American Oral Tradition A Native American man tells a story to women and children from his tribe. Oral literature is an important part of Native American culture. A Native American man tells a story to women and children from his tribe. Oral literature is an important part of Native American culture. Culture Club/Getty Images

People told information to each other in many different ways. For example, they told stories, poems, riddles, jokes, word games, life histories, prayers, and nursery rhymes. They also sang songs. Sharing information in these forms made it easy to remember.

Wide-Ranging Information

The information early humans shared with each other using oral literature was wide-ranging. Some of the stories, poems, and other forms expressed beliefs, values, and ideas. Others told history, shared memories, or recognized important events. The purpose of some was simply to entertain.

Some oral literature was about everyday life. For example, they warned of a danger, set an example, or explained something.

Early humans also created oral literature specifically for children. Stories, poems, nursery rhymes, and songs, for example, contained information that instructed and entertained children.


Many early cultures had official storytellers. These were people responsible for remembering and telling (or singing) the oral literature. They also created new oral literature and taught it to others. Storytellers were important members of their society.

Most storytellers were also musicians, and they played an instrument while telling a story or a poem or a joke. They also acted out stories, either alone or with other people.

Surviving Oral Literature

Over time, humans created written languages and learned how to write. From then on, they wrote down the information that they wanted to share, and oral literature slowly disappeared from most cultures. Some people wrote down some of the oral literature, so a few examples still exist in writing today.

One example is “How Raven Gave Light to the World.” It is a story that was told by the Tlingit people of present-day Alaska. The story is about how a raven brings the light of the universe (the moon, the stars, and the sun) to Earth.

Another example is “White Buffalo Calf Woman.” It is a story that was told by a Native American tribe called the Lakota Sioux, which lived in North America. It is about a beautiful woman who appears one day and teaches the tribe important lessons and rituals. She also gives the tribe a peace pipe.

Oral Literature and Slavery

Long after many cultures were communicating in writing, some still used oral literature. One such culture was the slaves of the American South from about the 17th-century to the mid–19th-century.

Most slaves were originally from Africa, where white European slave traders captured them and transported them by ship to the British colonies in North America. White men who owned large plantations (very large farms where men grew crops to sell) bought the slaves to work in their fields. These plantations were located in the southern colonies, which later became part of the southern United States, also known as the South.

Most slaves did not know how to read or write, and most owners did not allow them to learn. So slaves communicated with each other using oral literature. Some of their oral literature still exists today.

One example is the song, “Follow the Drinkin’ Gourd.” It is about the hollowed out gourd (the hard shell of a fruit similar to a pumpkin) that slaves used to drink water. This song is actually a secret code. It tells slaves how to escape to the North and to freedom by following the pattern of stars in the sky.

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Source Citation   

Gale Document Number: GALE|WKVZRE439707887