"That's What They Used to Say": Reflections on American Indian Oral Traditions

By Donald L. Fixico. 2017. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press. 272 pages. ISBN: 9780806157757 (hard cover).


Reviewed by Thierry VeyriÃ, American Indian Studies Research Institute

[Review length: 554 words • Review posted on July 11, 2018]


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Writing on oral traditions is always a challenge, even more so in a way that can convey the specific quality of Native oral traditions. Donald L. Fixico produces in “That’s What They Used to Say”: Reflections on American Oral Traditions an audacious emulation of practices that have sometimes lost the savor of their oral quality in the writing process. For Fixico, stories are powerful, and provided a good teller and a good listener the spiritual energy that circulates in the Indian household when an elder’s reminiscences can be felt through reading.

Using the devices of the storyteller, such as humor, personal implication, and formulaic phrases in the Mvskoke Creek language, Fixico recreates some of the interactive nature of Native verbal arts. He nevertheless reviews oral traditions following the canon of work in folklore, genre by genre, and with the codes of a scholarly publication: an introduction containing the purpose, literature review, and organization of the book; a conclusion; endnotes, bibliography, and even an index. But Fixico warns us that “this volume is more than an academic book” (8); it is also conceived as in the medallion we can see on the cover, representing a family sitting around the fire, and the man pointing as he talks toward the sky in the direction of the elevating smoke, a time for spiritual wandering and unity with creation.

Throughout the chapters, each illustrating the cultural value of oral traditions, Fixico encapsulates many of his family and travel stories, with the appearance of sometimes going off-track. Certainly, one has to take the long road to appreciate the message delivered. At times, however, Fixico flirts with the stereotypes he condemns: when he reviews galleries of great Indian chiefs and prophets (Geronimo, Crazy Horse, Black Elk, Wovoka), or when he narrates his touristic daytrips to famous places of Indian history (Black Elk Peak, Bear Butte, the Medicine Wheel). One wonders if this is a statement favoring the erasure of tribal differences and contexts, and what is gained in such simplifications of the diversity of Native cultures and histories.

Nevertheless, with this dose of candor, a provocative sense of humor, and a great sincerity in personal exposition, Fixico does not fail to touch the reader and pass along a unique sense of life and transmission in the practice of oral traditions. The constant inclusion of Fixico’s ancestors, and the stories involving his family, materializes the strength of the bond that unites generations of Indian tellers and listeners, a link that never fails to actualize in performances with new family members present. The mention of Fixico’s son Keitha as the silent observer and listener of his father’s research casts a light of confidence and hope in the vitality of Native oral traditions.

Crucially, this book proposes an example of what the field of Native American studies can add to the centenarian scholarly research on Native American cultures. Fixico brings back a topic of research from the dust of detached scholarship into the realm of the living and organic, and in doing so, he debunks the stereotype of oral traditions being old-fashioned, by effectively revitalizing them. Fixico also avoids making this a world closed to noninitiates; he proposes a resolutely inclusive view of oral traditions, one that surpasses tribal difference, cultural difference, and more interestingly, the epistemological difference between the written and the oral.

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© Journal of Folklore Research, 2020. Last revised January 22, 2022.