spells, prayers, songs

The belief that words in themselves have the power to make things happen—especially words in extraordinary combinations—is one of the distinguishing features of native American thought; and it may be said that for people who share this belief a connection exists between the sacred and the verbal, or, to put it in more familiar terms, a connection between religion and poetry.

When the connection is broken, poetry begins to lose its audience. It may still be admired, but it comes to be recognized as a form of self-expression, unable to establish contact with supernatural forces. Not surprisingly, the word ‘poetry,’ as it is understood in English today, has no precise equivalent in native American languages. What are thought of by outsiders as Indian “poems” are actually spells, prayers, or words to songs.

—John Bierhorst, introduction to The Sacred Path: Spells, Prayers & Power Songs of the American Indians (Wm. Morrow & Co., 1983)

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