When examining the religions of the world, it is far too easy to get lost in the vast array of diverse beliefs that form like a religious mosaic, representing the viewpoints of an entire world. At times, they may all blend together in our minds, losing their unique voice and understanding of the universe. Perhaps the most likely to lose their unique voice is the indigenous traditions. Compared to other religious segments of society, indigenous traditions seem to have very little written or known about them. However, this lack of knowledge simply leads us to one of the most interesting elements of their traditions—they are primarily oral, with almost no use of sacred texts or writings. Through general analysis, the specific analysis of Black Elk, and the recent film analysis of James Cameron, we see that, while their oral nature makes indigenous traditions difficult to study, it is also what makes them incredibly distinct.
When we analyze the indigenous traditions from a general perspective, it quickly becomes clear that they are often pre-literate. As discussed in class, these preliterate societies represent thousands of tribes and 40,000 years of world history (Lidke 1/13/17). If we look at the general “emanational hierarchical monotheistic” structure that many of these religions embrace, there is so much space for direct encounter with the spirits they worship that texts almost seem to serve no purpose (Lidke 1/25/17). Because these tribes were often pre-literate, they relied heavily on oral tradition. Bowker notes this, stating that “As a whole, native religions are almost invariably strong on ritual and weak on abstract belief or theology. Pre-literate and relying on tradition, they are predominantly religions of practice and activity” (Bowker 2006, 199). Rather than relying on dogmatic doctrines which would require them being written or recorded in some fashion, these traditions were often using oral relaying of information to inform their religious practice. These traditions had no texts, and were often even described as “non-literate,” implying no texts whatsoever in their culture (Lidke PPT 4, 3-4). Interestingly, while qualifying as a form of religion because they possess a “belief system,” this belief system is almost an embracing of a lack of regular or systematic belief as a belief system itself (Lidke PPT 1, 7).
In Bowker’s analysis of indigenous traditions, he points out that there are two main ways of encountering or envisioning the world beyond ours—spirit possession and shamanism (Bowker 2006, 198-199). In the story of Black Elk, we see this emphasis on spirit possession and shamanism, with no mentions of spiritual texts, strengthening the case for these traditions being almost entirely oral. In Black Elk’s first encounter with his religion’s spiritual realm, he experiences a vision and directly encounter two men from the “real world” (Neihardt, Black Elk 2008, 15). While most Berry students would probably remember their first encounter as a Scripture reading or Bible story, Black Elk’s experience is entirely interactive and visible. As he grew older, one of his most formative spiritual moments in his life—his “great vision”—was also a unique encounter directly with his “Grandfathers” (Neihardt, Black Elk 2008, 29). As he begins to do the work his Grandfathers call his to do, one of his first actions is to lament, and in so doing, he seeks their will directly, looking for an audible instruction. He cries out over and over, “O Great Spirit, accept my offerings! O make me understand!” (Neihardt, Black Elk 2008, 145). Texts don’t help him understand—the Spirit’s aural word will. Clearly, all through Black Elk’s life, Black Elk explores his religion through direct encounter, rather than through sacred texts.
However, even beyond these specific examples, it is important to note that the only reason Neihardt sought out Black Elk to begin writing Black Elk Speaks is because he realized that an oral testimony of Black Elk’s religion would be necessary to gain any knowledge on the tradition. Neihardt sits and talks with Black Elk and learns about his religion orally, because that is all that remains of the Ogalala Lakota tradition (Neihardt, Black Elk 2008).
With Black Elk showing us that his indigenous tradition was primarily oral, it is not surprising that James Cameron created a similarly oral tradition when creating the background story for Avatar. While the colonials do not directly establish the orality of their tradition, we see it in between the lines all throughout the film. When the tribe first encounters Jake Sully, they attempt to kill him, but Neytiri intervenes. One colonialist yells at her, “these demons are forbidden here” (Cameron Avatar, 2009; 48:56). She instantly fires back, “There has been a sign. This is a matter for the Tsahik.” (Cameron Avatar, 2009; 48:58). In her mind, the sign justified his life, and all further decision-making depending on the orally declared will of the spiritual leadership of the tribe. While Christianity would defend Jake’s life using the Bible, there is no such text present to defend Jake’s life in Pandora. Not only do we see this instance of oral declaration of beliefs, but later on, we see Jake Sully become a revered leader in the clan because he rides the Taruk. (Cameron Avatar, 2009; 2:10:30). Instantly, he is considered a Taruk Makto, and his word carries weight as a clan leader (Cameron Avatar, 2009; 2:10:42). This whole tradition, as far as the film portrays, has been carried down for generations orally.
Looking across a general analysis of indigenous traditions, and then honing in on Black Elk’s specific tradition, while further examining the work of James Cameron, it is evident on every level that indigenous traditions are primarily oral in nature. While historians may see this as a disadvantage in the study of those traditions, it seems to me that the oral nature of their tradition makes their experience with their religion a beautiful and distinctive one. While other traditions may be bogged down or clouded in a textual study, the lack of texts free indigenous traditions to chase after a full encounter with another world. There is little space for them to use an etic perspective to sit and analyze their traditions externally. Instead, they are caught up in their breathtaking, emic engagement with the gods of their universe.