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Lakota Myth (Second Edition)

Lakota Myth (Second Edition)

by James R. Walker

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James R. Walker was a physician to the Pine Ridge Sioux from 1896 to 1914. His accounts of this time, taken from his personal papers, reveal much about Lakota life and culture. This third volume of previously unpublished material from the Walker collection presents his work on Lakota myth and legend. This edition includes classic examples of Lakota oral literature,


James R. Walker was a physician to the Pine Ridge Sioux from 1896 to 1914. His accounts of this time, taken from his personal papers, reveal much about Lakota life and culture. This third volume of previously unpublished material from the Walker collection presents his work on Lakota myth and legend. This edition includes classic examples of Lakota oral literature, narratives that were known only to a few Oglala holy men, and Walker's own literary cycle based on all he had learned about Lakota myth. Lakota Myth is an indispensable source for students of comparative literature, religion, and mythology, as well as those interested in Lakota culture.

Editorial Reviews

Pacific Historical Review
“[Elaine Jahner] is sensitive to the analysis of texts, sensitive to meanings hidden between the cracks of texts and correspondences, and sensitive and generous to the scholars—Sioux and non-Indian alike—who preceded her in collecting and analyzing the myths and cultural detail of the Teton Dakota Sioux.”—Pacific Historical Review
American Indian Culture and Research Journal
“A primary source of research and serious study. . . . Ethnology at its best.”—American Indian Culture and Research Journal
North Dakota History
“An immensely interesting and provocative addition to the literature of the Plains Indians.”—North Dakota History
Reviews in Anthropology
“One of the major publications of American Indian myth.”—Reviews in Anthropology

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UNP - Bison Books
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Edition description:
Second Edition
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5.50(w) x 8.50(h) x 1.10(d)

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Lakota Myth, 2nd Ed.

By James R. Walker

University of Nebraska Press

Copyright © 2006

University of Nebraska Press

All right reserved.

ISBN: 0-8032-9860-9


The project that led to the publication of Lakota Myth (1983) and
two other volumes of James R. Walker's previously unpublished
manuscripts-Lakota Belief and Ritual (1980) and Lakota Society
(1982)-began with a discussion at Indiana University one spring
day in 1975. Elaine Jahner was writing her doctoral dissertation in
folklore based primarily on stories she had recorded from members
of the Cannon Ball community on Standing Rock Reservation in
North Dakota, and she had invited me, a new faculty member in
anthropology who had also studied at Standing Rock, to serve on
her doctoral committee as an outside advisor. I was happy to accept,
and when she finally placed on my desk the completed draft of
"Spatial Categories in Sioux Folk Narrative," I read it eagerly. It was
an ideal dissertation, brimming with data and ideas and offering a
literary and language-based perspective on Sioux oral literature.

In enumerating the types of Sioux oral traditions, Elaine had
written: "Myths about the establishment of cultural order are rare
among the Sioux who did not concern themselves with systematic
data about mythopoeic times ..." (Jahner 1975:228). In relation to
this, during the course of the dissertation defense, Elaine brought
upthe Walker myth texts published in his monograph on the Sun
Dance (1917) as the exception. Those stories relate to the creation
of time and space by "gods" oddly called by truncated forms of
Lakota names, and although they are aesthetically appealing to
western readers for their comprehensive narrative structure, they
are anomalous in the corpus of recorded Sioux oral tradition. Because
they are so atypical I expressed my sense that, regretfully, they
could not be accepted as authentic without locating the original
texts on which Walker said they were based. Elaine, on the other
hand, argued that Walker's narratives revealed basic structural and
thematic relations that resonated with well-attested Sioux stories-the
Lakota texts published by Ella Deloria (1932). Suddenly, realizing
that we had left the rest of the committee out of our discussion,
we agreed to return to the topic in the future.

Elaine had come to the study of Sioux folk narrative by means
of relationships she developed at Standing Rock Reservation.
Through her affiliation with Mary College (now the University of
Mary) near Bismarck, North Dakota, Elaine had the opportunity
during summer 1968 to work for the Community Action Program
to find ways to prepare palatable meals from government commodity
foods. (At the time she was a member of the Benedictine
community at Annunciation Priory, which staffed the college; she
continued her membership until 1978.) In this way she became
well acquainted with the women of the Cannon Ball community.
Subsequently, she taught adult education classes in English and
worked with the local school to increase the involvement of parents
in the choice of curriculum and the hiring of teachers. This led the
district council to ask that oral history and folklore be recorded
for use in the school curriculum. Elaine wrote in her dissertation,
"The requests for local studies came from the middle-aged members
of the area, many of whom had rejected traditional values for
a period of time and therefore felt incapable of teaching them to
their children" (Jahner 1975:6). Since she was already working with
the school and was well known to the community, Elaine was asked
to undertake the project. She was also given permission to use the
stories she recorded in her own academic work.

During the four years she spent working at Standing Rock, Elaine
studied the Sioux language (both the Dakota and Lakota dialects).
She realized that the analysis of traditional stories (ohunkakan) required
the original native language text to appreciate the subtleties
of style. Narrators at Cannon Ball did not tell such traditional stories
as part of the curriculum project, which they conceptualized as a
public presentation of local culture. Instead, they focused on oral
history and stories of personal experiences, both of which articulated
the uniqueness of the Cannon Ball community and the trials
that reservation life had forced on them. For native-language texts,
Elaine relied on Ella Deloria's collection, classifying the stories and,
in particular, identifying themes based on spatial relations, which
were expressed in the choice of the rich system of Lakota verbs
of coming and going. (In Language Change and Cultural Dynamics
[1980] she presented an insightful analysis of the Lakota system of
verbs of movement.)

Among the narratives collected by Walker from Oglala Lakotas
at Pine Ridge between 1896 and 1914 are many that match those in
Deloria's collection, either in content or style. One narrator, Left
Heron, gave stories to both Walker and Deloria. Most of the traditional
stories in Walker's collection, however, were written down
in English from an interpreter's rendition of an oral telling of the
story. Walker did obtain a substantial body of Lakota texts from two
narrators, George Sword and Thomas Tyon, who were literate in
their native language and wrote out texts that they then gave to
Walker. The majority of these texts are cultural expositions that
vary widely in length and detail. Tyon, for example, wrote nineteen
texts on various aspects of wakan "sacred power," an account of the
Sun Dance, two texts on men's societies, one on the Lakota kinship
system, and two traditional stories (our English translations of these
texts are published in Lakota Belief and Ritual, documents 44-63 and
89-90; in Lakota Society, document 20; and in Lakota Myth, pp. 166-77).
Sword wrote some twenty texts (several very long) and sixty-seven
song transcriptions that will be published in the final volume
of the Walker materials. It appears that most of these texts remained
untranslated at the time of Walker's retirement from the Indian
Service in 1914, after which he left Pine Ridge and never returned.

Walker did, however, obtain translations of a number of the
texts. During the winter of 1909-10 he hired Clarence Three Stars,
an Oglala who was educated at Carlisle Indian School in Pennsylvania,
to translate Sword's texts; but Walker was dissatisfied with
the result because Three Stars cast his translations into modern
idioms that lost the "spirit and meaning" of the originals (Walker
1980:23). He then turned to Charles and Richard Nines, fluent
Lakota speakers who were sons of a local trader. Charles translated
Sword's text on the Kit Fox society, which was published in
English (Wissler 1912:21-23), as well as Sword's text on the Sun
Dance, which Walker used in writing his monograph on that subject.
Walker also published Tyon's text on kinship relations in both
the original Lakota and English translation (1914:104-9). It is likely
that the "translations of texts"-at least those by Sword and Tyon-printed
as an appendix to the Sun Dance monograph (Walker
1917:152-60) were translated from written texts. However, none of
these original texts has survived, so the assumption that they were
written texts rather than oral ones must remain hypothetical. In any
case, the evidence of his correspondence after leaving Pine Ridge
and of the multiple translation drafts he left in his papers attests to
the difficulty and frustration that Walker had in translating written
Lakota texts.

None of the extant Lakota texts in Walker's papers correspond
to the fascinating narratives of the creation of the world and the
establishment of the four directions and of the divisions of time
that Elaine and I had discussed. She was determined that original
texts must have existed and set out to find them. After defending
her dissertation she took a position as assistant professor of English
at the University of Nebraska where she continued to work on the
Lakota language and developed a series of lessons for teaching


Excerpted from Lakota Myth, 2nd Ed.
by James R. Walker
Copyright © 2006 by University of Nebraska Press .
Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Elaine A. Jahner (1942–2003) was a professor of English and Native American studies at Dartmouth College and the author of Spaces of the Mind: Narrative and Community in the American West (Nebraska 2004). Raymond J. DeMallie is a professor of anthropology at Indiana University and the editor of The Sixth Grandfather: Black Elk’s Teachings Given to John G. Neihardt (Nebraska 1984).

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