Oral Records

Home Up Bushmen Maori Eskimo Bantu Ifaluk North American Indian Bedouin Yukaghir Dekanawidah

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In 1870, the San and !Kun peoples (Bushmen) were nomadic hunter-gatherers found in the southern tip of southern Africa. These people may have lived in Africa for over 20,000 years; at one time they may have occupied a large part of the continent. The more robust Bantu populations expanding from the north probably drove the Bushmen southwards. The stories they tell give us insight into some of the earliest views on natural phenomena, on dancing and drumming, on the place of poetry, on death and natural hazards, and on the struggle between justice and mercy. 


Maori (Polynesia)

The Maoris in New Zealand trace their ancestry back to a migration by canoes from Hawaiki, perhaps 800 to 1,000 years ago.  They are Polynesians, and in coming to New Zealand they brought not only their distinctive farming but also their oral traditions and history, in which songs by women play an important part. Many of their songs are laments for men who have died, others are lullabies, love songs, and songs of defiance. Accounts of the origin of the universe were probably composed by men.



For Eskimos, a hard, stormy winter took up most of their lives, beginning in September and lasting into spring—the middle of June. In winter they had to contend with temperatures that fluctuated between -30 deg. and -50 deg. In these inclement surroundings, human creativity continued, expressed in humor, song, stories and dancing. Most Eskimos had their own songs, composing the words themselves to suit the occasion: hunting, fishing, boat-building, old age, loss, birth, renewal. Their shamans were a key source of traditional knowledge.



A common folk-lore, with local variations, has spread along with the Bantu language across  Sub-Saharan Africa. The traditional stories deal with village life, tribal mythology (comparable to those of Europe and Asia), historical records, and entertainments for children. They also include parables, magical stories about people, stories of weird forest denizens, animal stories, proverbs, riddles, and praise poems of individuals and trades. Many of the stories are used to convey moral teachings.


Ifaluk (Micronesia)

Ifaluk is part of the Caroline Islands chain—dots of land scattered across 1800 miles of the deep Pacific. The Micronesians living there have physical characteristics and a culture distinct from those of the Polynesians. In the absence of writing, their history and culture have been handed down in poetry and song, including the skills needed for crafting and sailing canoes, for navigation and for fishing. As the seas are hazardous and navigation uncertain, many canoes have been lost at sea, and the songs often expressed the feelings of women for men risking their lives at sea: love, pride, anxiety, and sorrow.


North American Indian

For North American Indians the wisdom of the tribe was passed along orally for the most part. Even pictographs recording the history of migrations depended on an oral tradition of interpretation. Similarly, hide paintings and birch bark scrolls required oral interpretation by elders. The extracts given here are the spoken words of North American Indians as written down and translated by anthropologists, sociologists, editors, or by Indians themselves. They deal with attitudes towards children, the passing on of skills, the relationships between men and women, life in Indian society, the role of the family, farming, health, and traditional stories and songs.



The Arabian Peninsula in the Sixth Century contained a rich tradition of oral poetry. In the Eighth Century, much of this  poetry of earlier times was collected by one of the great humanists of Islam, Hammad ‘The Transmitter’, a man of prodigious memory. This he used to good effect in memorizing the poetry he encountered in his travels among the Bedouins. From his memorized collection, seven qasida (odes) by individual authors came to be written down in an anthology. The name of this work, The Mu’allaqat, has been translated as Suspended Odes, or Golden Odes, or Collected Odes. These cover tribal history, traveler's tales, descriptions of people and places, amorous adventures, and panegyrics.



The poetry of the Yukaghir, a poor hunting tribe in eastern Siberia, consists of improvisations or verses handed down from narrator to narrator or from singer to singer through generations. Those handed down can be expected to vary from person to person. In the extracts given here, verses from these people deal with familiar themes in human life: experience of aging, expression of love, appeals to a harsh environment for relief, and celebration of a birth.



Dekanawidah is regarded as the author of the Great Law of the Iroquois Confederacy that bound together five Indian Nations, probably early in the late Fifteenth or early Sixteenth Century. The Great Law replaced the cycle of murder, revenge, and the violent destruction of villages, with a system of justice administered by tribal chiefs. As a result, it is one of the earliest North American constitutions of which we have a record. Its contents have been passed down orally though the generations, aided initially by the mnemonic device of the woven shell-bead belt (wampum).