American Indian Literatures

The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.

American Indian Literatures


oral and written poetry and prose of the Indians of America. Epic legends about the fate and fortunes of tribes existed among the Indians long before the discovery of America by the Europeans; some of these legends, such as the Walam Olum of the Delawares, the chronicles of the Dakota and Kiowa, and the hymns of the Ojibwa, as well as myths, tales, work songs, and proverbs, were preserved in pictographic form. Indian literatures attained their greatest development in Central America and the Andes—regions in which slave-holding societies originated. With the formation of class relations, the glorification of rulers and the aristocracy and the celebration of military victories and of the omnipotence of the gods became the main themes; literary canons were developed. Religious and magical beliefs permeated many literary works, such as hymns to the gods of the Aztecs, Maya and Incas, and verse accounts of myths, prayers, and prophecies.

The formation of class society gave impetus to the development of secular literature and changed the ideological trend of the old literary genres—for example, the epic (the Popul Vuh of the Quiche). The chronicles of the Maya, Aztec, and Chichimec set forth in rhythmic prose the history of various city-states. Subsequent chroniclers (Tezozómoc, Ixtlilxochitl, Chimalpain, and Garcilaso de la Vega), who wrote in the Latin alphabet after the conquest of America, made extensive use of these chronicles, thus ensuring their preservation. Dramatic works that were mythological and historical in content and closely associated with dances were very popular. Of the dramas, only the Rabinal Achí of the Maya and the Ollanta of the Incas have survived. A greater number of poetic texts have been preserved: war songs, poems about spring, poetry about the brevity of life and the fickleness of fate, and love lyrics. Modern American Indian folk literature is represented by dramatic ballets (primarily on themes of the Spanish conquest and Christian legends), fairy tales, and lyric poetry. The influence of American Indian literatures may be seen in the work of some modern North American, Mexican, Guatemalan (M. A. Asturias), and Peruvian writers.


Popol’-Vukh.Moscow-Leningrad, 1959.
Zubritskii, Iu. A. “Apu-Ol’iantai.” In the collection Kul’tura indeitsev.Moscow, 1963.
Kinzhalov, R. V. Kul’tura drevnikh maiia.Leningrad, 1971.


The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.
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