Reflecting on Canadian Literary Culture

A Blog by Janine Fleming for ENGL 470A

Finding Meaning in Stories (2.4)

In this lesson I say that our capacity for understanding or making meaningfulness from the first stories is seriously limited for numerous reasons and I briefly offer two reasons why this is so: 1) the social process of the telling is disconnected from the story and this creates obvious problems for ascribing meaningfulness, and 2) the extended time of criminal prohibitions against Indigenous peoples telling stories combined with the act of taking all the children between 5 – 15 away from their families and communities. In Wickwire’s introduction to Living Stories, find a third reason why, according to Robinson, our abilities to make meaning from first stories and encounters is so seriously limited. To be complete, your answer should begin with a brief discussion on the two reasons I present and then proceed to introduce and explain your third reason from Wickwire’s introduction.

Liberal arts education is founded on teaching students that there is a big difference between summarizing course material and interacting with or applying it. However, the word “understanding” incorporates both of these processes. I would argue that stories require a witness (be it a listener or reader) to engage in both forms of understanding—summary and interaction/application—in order to grasp the full “meaningfulness” of the story (Paterson).

Photo Credit: Denverlibrary.org. Story Time. Web.

In Lesson 2.2, Prof. Paterson explains how first stories, as told by West Coast First Nations, were told in the context of Potlatch. Potlatch provides a venue where stories are told through a “social process” (Paterson). In this way, witnesses can either affirm the credibility or challenge the authenticity of a story as it is told. Potlatch stories are significant in that many were used to publically (and democratically) affirm land claims and the distribution of resources. Indeed, according to Harry Robinson, land claims are established through stories (Wickwire 9).

However, laws forbidding these venues for story-telling violated the “ability [of First Nations] to voice or dispute the ownership rights inherent with the telling of stories” (Hanson n. pag. qtd. in Paterson). And these restrictions were further compounded by government-mandated residential schools that tore children away from their families, resulting in “seven generations” being severed from familial and cultural roots (Paterson). These factors combined to limit access to stories and interfere with the continuity of the stories being told.

Equally important to this discussion, is an argument found in Wendy Wickwire’s Living by Stories: A Journey of Landscape and Memory. In the introduction to this compilation of stories by Harry Robinson, Wickwire shares her journey of uncovering the meaning of stories. In particular, Wickwire explains how standard practice in anthropology contributed to misconceptions of Aboriginal culture and heritage. Wickwire explains that by “limit[ing] themselves to a single genre: the so-called ‘legends’, ‘folk-tales’, and ‘myths’ set in prehistorical times,” Aboriginal culture was presented as “static” and archaic (22). This process of editing and compiling records interfered with the integrity of stories by cutting out details for the purpose of concision and brevity (8). Editors took the liberty of merging different versions of the same story and cutting out references to authorship and place (8). Dictated by preconceived notions of what was deemed “‘authentic’ mythological accounts”, anthropologists recorded Aboriginal stories that did not paint a complete picture of the complexities of Aboriginal culture, including how land was assigned by story (9). Wickwire seems to suggest that best practice (in terms of story-telling) involves a process of listening, adding, and sharing, but not editing out or ignoring “anomalies” that don’t fit with our preconceived expectations (29).

Photo Credit: Christina, Greta. Scientific MethodWeb.

To put it another way, Wickwire seems to be suggesting that story-telling and re-telling should be approached with the same precision and care that we use when engaging in research. True research begins with a question—and perhaps a hypothesis—but does not filter out data simply because it does not fit with a preconceived paradigm. True research requires us to listen to the data carefully: to analyze, interpret, and apply our research without misrepresenting our findings. It is the same with stories. If we approach life making assumptions about people and their stories, we will never “appreciate the full scope” of what stories or their tellers have to offer (29).

Photo Credit: Stahlmann, Jenny. Listen. Web.

From this discussion, it would seem that the oppression, maltreatment, and genocide of Canada’s First Nations, Inuit, and Metis could be attributed to the “us” and “them” narrative perpetuated by misrepresentative stories that were collected and published by anthropologists like Franz Boas. I wonder how different things would be if we spent more time actually listening, and less time filtering what we choose to hear. What do you think?

[Side note: I’m not suggesting that Franz Boas, or the other anthropologists, intentionally created this problematic system out of malicious intent.]

Works Cited

Paterson, Erica. “Lesson 2.2”. ENGL 470 Canadian Studies: Canadian Literary Genres May 2016. n.d. Web. 17 June 2016.

Wickwire, Wendy. Harry Robinson: Living by Stories, A Journey of Landscape and Memory. Vancouver: Talon Books, 2009. Print.

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