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“Oral Tradition” on the Walls of the Jefferson Building

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The following is a guest post by Jennifer Cutting.  A longtime member of the AFC Staff, Jennifer is also a trained docent and leads fascinating tours of the Library’s Thomas Jefferson Building.  Her post is part of a series of blog posts about the 40th Anniversary Year of the American Folklife Center. Visit this link to see them all!

Basic CMYKAmong all of the paintings, mosaics, and sculptures in the Thomas Jefferson Building’s magnificent Beaux-Arts interior, two stand out as especially relevant to the mission of the American Folklife Center: Oral Tradition by John White Alexander  and Tradition by Olin Levi Warner. Each work depicts a storyteller passing on the wisdom of a community through the spoken word.

Oral Tradition is a panel from The Evolution of the Book, a series of six murals created by American painter John White Alexander (1856-1915). Located in the Bibles Gallery, in the East Corridor of the Library’s Great Hall, the murals illustrate the history of the printed word. The second one, Oral Tradition, depicts a nomadic tribe’s storyteller performing to a circle of seated audience members, at least one of whom appears to be a small child. The storyteller thus seems to be reciting the stories and legends of his people, keeping their history and values alive, while also passing them on to a younger generation.

Oral Tradition by John White Alexander. Photo by Carol Highsmith. Find out more about the photo here.

As its title suggests, the series of which Oral Tradition is a part represents stages in the evolution of the printed book.  In chronological order, the subjects begin at the south end of the corridor with The Cairn, Oral Tradition, and Egyptian Hieroglyphics, and continue at the north end with Picture Writing, The Manuscript Book, and The Printing Press.

The other work is on the building’s exterior, a bronze relief known simply as Tradition, which was created by Olin Levi Warner (1840-1896).  The panel is located in the deep arch above the leftmost of the three massive bronze doors of the Library’s impressive entrance porch. The relief includes Tradition herself, depicted as a storyteller, and her audience: a child, whom she holds by the hand, and four adult men, who sit at her feet. The five audience members apparently represent types of people to whom oral tradition is particularly important. The adults are a prehistoric man, with a stone axe at his side; a shepherd, carrying his crook; a Viking, with a winged helmet and a battle-axe; and a Native American, with a feather in his braided hair and a handful of arrows.

Tradition by Olin L. Warner. Photo by Carol Highsmith. Find out more about the photo here.

The doors underneath “Tradition” continue the theme.  The left depicts a woman holding a lyre and the right a warrior’s widow clasping the helmet and sword of her dead husband to her breast. The first is titled Imagination and the second Memory. The first, then, stands for folktales and other imaginative folklore, and the second for oral history, two major components of AFC’s collections, which are both passed on through oral tradition.

Imagination and Memory
Imagination and Memory are the two components of Tradition, as imagined by Olin Levi Warner. Photo by Carol Highsmith. Find out more about the photo here.

Of Tradition‘s audience members, it’s the Native American who interests us most at AFC.  According to Herbert Small’s 1901 Handbook of the New Library of Congress, “the face of the Indian is understood to be a portrait of Chief Joseph, of the Nez Percés tribe, from a sketch made from life by Mr. Warner in 1889.”  As it happens, Chief Joseph has a special connection to AFC.

Hinmatóoyalahtq’it, known in English as “Chief Joseph,” in May 1903. Photoprint by Dr. Edward H. Latham, Nespelem, Washington. Find out more about the photo here.

Chief Jospeh (1840-1904), known to his people as Hinmatóoyalahtq’it  (“Thunder Rolling Down the Mountain”), was one of the most famous indigenous Americans of the 19th century. Known primarily for his resistance to his tribe’s removal from their traditional homeland in northeastern Oregon to a reservation in Idaho, he gained a reputation as a fierce but humane fighter, and was respected by the U.S. Army officers who eventually captured him. He is also known for the eloquence of his surrender speech, which was taken down by an army lieutenant and is widely quoted even today:

I am tired of fighting. [Our chiefs are] dead. The old men are all dead. […] It is cold and we have no blankets. The little children are freezing to death. My people, some of them have run away to the hills, and have no blankets, no food; no one knows where they are–perhaps freezing to death. I want to have time to look for my children and see how many of them I can find. Maybe I shall find them among the dead. Hear me, my chiefs. I am tired; my heart is sick and sad. From where the sun now stands I will fight no more forever.

During his later life, Hinmatóoyalahtq’it lived at the Colville Indian Reservation in the state of Washington. He visited Washington, D.C., several times, and once even met with President Theodore Roosevelt. On one of his trips to D.C., he was recorded performing several war and war dance songs by Alice Cunningham Fletcher, probably at her home on First Street, S.E., where the Library’s Madison Building now stands. The recordings are in AFC’s archive, along with some ten thousand other wax cylinder recordings of Native American song and spoken word, which are among our preeminent collections.

Two views of Hinmatóoyalahtq’it, known in English as “Chief Joseph”: a detail from a ca. 1900 photo attributed to De Lancey Gill (more about left photo) and a detail from Tradition (more about right photo). Hinmatóoyalahtq’it’s voice is preserved on recordings in the AFC archive.

Like Alexander’s work, Warner’s relief panel is part of a series, the other two of which are Writing and Printing. So when Warner and Alexander created these artworks, both suggested that the oral tradition was an evolutionary stage on the way to society’s ultimate achievement: the printed word.

However, the Library’s attitude changed with the creation of the American Folklife Center 40 years ago. Public Law 94-201 made it clear that, in the eyes of the U.S. Congress, the Library has a duty to preserve and present the music, songs, stories and other oral traditions that have been handed down through the generations, just like the Library’s most precious books. The Center’s creation has thus brought the oral tradition to a position of parity with the printed word.

Next time you visit us at the Library of Congress, take a peek at the Bibles Gallery and the Entrance Porch, and visit the two storytellers depicted there. Think about the American Folklife Center, and all that we preserve: voices of women and men, people young and old, people of all races…even some of the very people you see pictured in the great works of art on the doors of the Library of Congress.


  1. Fascinating. There’s always more to discover in the Jefferson Building. I love it.

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