The Underlying Meaning Behind the Stolen Document

Lesson 2.2 – Assignment 2.4

Question 5.

“If Europeans were not from the land of the dead, or the sky, alternative explanations which were consistent with indigenous cosmologies quickly developed” (“First Contact” 43). Robinson gives us one of those alternative explanations in his stories about how Coyote’s twin brother stole the “written document” and when he denied stealing the paper, he was “banished to a distant land across a large body of water” (9). We are going to return to this story, but for now – what is your first response to this story? In context with our course theme of investigating intersections where story and literature meet, what do you make of this stolen piece of paper? This is an open-ended question and you should feel free to explore your first thoughts.

Leaping Coyote with Shadow in the Night Sky Rendered in Northwest Coast Native StyleL

Leaping Coyote with Shadow in the Night Sky Rendered in Northwest Coast Native Style.

Robinson’s twins story is a key that can help unlock the door of understanding. When I first read Wendy Wickwire’s account of Harry Robinson’s story about first contact, I had several thoughts (Robinson 9 – 10).

First I could see the blending of two ways of thinking. This is an oral story about a written document, and as a result gives both oral and written literature equal weight. This story in effect creates an intersection between two different ways of being.

Next, I thought the story totally makes sense, because Europeans and their decedents, used the law to cheat the Native Peoples out of their land, and out of the agreements that were made with them This was done using written reports and written documents. According to the governments of Canada and the U.S., these written documents held more weight, and validated the decisions made by the conquering Europeans as well as the subsequent actions of the governments that followed. I found an interesting conference report from the Shuswap Nation Tribal Council that explores the effect of how the colonial doctrine of discovery is used to substantiate the continued subjugation of Indigenous sovereignties around the world. This report uses Harry Robertson’s story, and repeats the tale about the twins showing how the North American lands were assigned (Doctrine 16). In this report, Dr. Ignace states, “The Secwepemc word for paper, before paper, also meant rights and laws” (Doctrine 21).   (The Secwepemc People are a Nation of 17 bands, and they occupy the Shuswup area in British Columbia. Click here for more information about the Secwepemc People (“Our Story”).) This conference report echoes my first impressions about this story that colonial power puts into law the rules that gave the colonizers “a tool to strip them [Native Peoples] of their rights” (Doctrine 3).

Next, I wondered how this story fit in with other contact stories. One story I found was the oral story from Haida Gwaii of Raven and the first men; click here to see a video of the telling of this story (Gibb). In this story Raven encounters supernatural beings. However, when the first men appear, there is no mention of anyone other than the Haida. This fits right into what Lutz said in his article: “When we look at a large number of these accounts, [contact stories] we see a wide variety of stories, not surprising given the amazing diversity of indigenous cultures on the west coast. But … [e]uropeans are shown as associated with the spirit world” (“First” 36).  Robinson’s story is similar in many ways to the Haida version, yet it is also different. Robinson’s version delves into the spiritual, because it explains the beginnings of both First Nations as well as Europeans. His story connects each group to the other, and shows where each culture places value. “Indian’s power was located in their hearts and heads; for whites, it was located on paper” (Robinson 16).  This statement fits in with European traditions of literature, because what is written is given value. This follows into how Western society functions, because value is given to the printed words and written laws.

Finally, I wondered if I was even entitled to hear this story. While I was reading Harry Robinson’s story about first contact (Robinson 9-10), I thought about David Peat’s book, Blackfoot Physics. In Peat’s book, I recalled reading: “[s]ome Elders teach that the [origin] stories are sacred and must never be passed on to outsiders” (Peat 87). I also found this quote from First nations Pedagogy Online, “[s]tories can vary from the sacred to the historical”, and “[s]ome are ‘owned’ by certain clans or families and can only be told by a member of that group” (“Storytelling”).  As a result, I felt almost guilty reading Robinson’s story. However, Robinson wanted his stories to be passed on, and had created “English versions of his stories to audio tape so that they could carry on without him” (Robinson 29 -30). Robinson knew, as Peat wrote in his book that the Elders had acknowledged, “the time has come to speak openly and share their knowledge” (Peat 87).  Robinson wanted Wickwire’s assistance in transmuting his oral stories into written form, and “was very pleased with the book” once the first book was completed (Robinson 21). Living by stories was important to Robinson, and he knew with his death, his stories would die too, unless they were reproduced in written English. Like the story of the twins that melds together European and First Nations culture, Robinson’s stories in print form, also melds together these two cultures.

I felt that Robinson’s story about the twins is important, because it speaks directly to the history of contact between Europeans and Native Americans. The story helps explain the period of conquest and exploitation. Robinson’s story turns the table on the European beliefs and their propaganda, and shows the truth of what actually occurred. The many native peoples of North America have been told (by the Europeans invaders) that they have no real history, because it has not been recorded anywhere, therefore, it does not exist. Instead the Europeans maintained that the natives were savages, because they did not have a written history, and as such are not a distinct people; therefore, they have no rights under the law. The Europeans maintained, that these oral stories, which were told by the Elders, were from memory, and were simply myth and fantasy. Robinson’s story turns this around, and instead validates the Native position, and invalidates the conquerors. The use of twins, sets up the potential for the use of dichotomies, including two different ways of life.

 

Works Cited

Doctrine of Discovery. Shuswap Nation. 30 Nov. 2012. Shuswapnation.org. Web. 16 June 2016.

Gibbs, Jeffrey. “Raven and the First Men”. Online video clip. YouTube. YouTube, 25 Jan. 2011. Web. 16 June 2016.

Lutz, John. “Contact Over and Over Again.” Myth and Memory: Rethinking Stories of Indignenous- European Contact. Ed. Lutz. Vancouver: U of British Columbia P, 2007. 1-15. Print.

“First Contact as a Spiritual Performance: Aboriginal — Non-Aboriginal Encounters on the North American West Coast.” Myth and Memory: Rethinking Stories of Indigenous-European Contact. Ed. Lutz. Vancouver: U of British Columbia P, 2007. 30-45. Print.

“Our Story”. Secwepemc Cultural Education Society. n.d. Secwepemc.org. Web. 16 June 2016.

Peat, David. Blackfoot Physics. York Beach, ME: Weiser Books, 2002. Print.

Robinson, Harry. Living by Stories: a Journey of Landscape and Memory. Compiled and edited by Wendy Wickwire. Vancouver: Talon Books2005. (1-30)

“Storytelling”. First nations Pedagogy Online. Firstnationspedagony.com. n.d. Web. 15 June 2016.

Thompson, Jeffrey. Leaping Coyote with shadow in the night sky rendered in Northwest Coast Native Style. n.d. Vector. 123rf.com Web. 15 June 2016.

 

10 thoughts on “The Underlying Meaning Behind the Stolen Document

  1. Hi Linda!
    I found your post really insightful and it put together pieces of Robinson’s story more in context to today for me. I also found that this story did not make any excuses for Europeans behaviour using their propaganda it was kind of black and white, what had occurred and why it was wrong. Your last paragraph especially is exactly in line with my thoughts, the Europeans maintain that the Natives are savages and their stories hold no real written evidence, yet what else have they lost or stolen from the Natives, this stolen piece of paper seems like it might be symbolizing the missing parts of their history the Natives may have lost because of Europeans. Who says the written documents and literature is more important and reliable than oral storytelling. The Europeans have made this distinction that literature is more important than anything oral. Is it because THEY are the ones who have this evidence and decided it is more valuable, it is entirely dependent on which point of view you look at it from, the Natives think that oral stories are sacred, so why do we give more importance to literature, when we don’t know what the Natives have lost? When oral storytelling maybe more or just as important as literature. Thanks,
    Mariam

    • Thank you Miriam for your comments,

      You make a good point, and I think you are correct. It seems to me that the Eurocentric point of view that you mention does not leave room to consider a different way of looking at history. Instead, the European or Western view is that if the evidence is written, then it can be proven. However, this in fact is not accurate, because much of history has been re-written to fit the agenda of the writer.

      Take care,

      Linda

  2. Hi Linda,
    Thanks for an interesting post! I hadn’t heard of the doctrine of discovery before, but had thought European land claims were based on Locke’s Property Law, otherwise knows as the Labour Theory of Property, whereby Locke asserts that whosoever takes land out of the state of nature has joined his labour to it, and since no one but a person themselves can own their labour, they too must own the land that they laboured. (Two Treatises of Government – the Second Treatise, 27). Jean Barman documents many examples of land acquisition in Vancouver and Vancouver Island through the invocation of the labour theory of property, and I wonder whether the doctrine of discovery and the labour theory of property were employed in different places, at different times, or in conjunction with one another…more research to do, but thank you for the new information and links. Thank you, Claudia

    • Thank you Claudia for your insightful and informative comments.

      Regarding you comment about Locke’s Property Law validating colonization of America, I would have to say that Locke’s Property Law most likely built off of the Doctrine of Discovery, because Locke was born several hundred years after the Doctrine of Discovery was introduced. I found this interesting article that examines Locke’s Property Law: http://www.publicreason.ro/pdfa/21.

      My research shows the Doctrine of Discovery was a decreed by Roman Catholic Popes beginning in 1452 for the purpose of colonization. Click here for more information about the Doctrine of Discovery http://www.danielnpaul.com/DoctrineOfDiscovery.html and this too: http://ili.nativeweb.org/sdrm_art.html

      Take care,

      Linda

  3. Hello Linda!
    I loved your inclusion of the Raven and the first men story! Have you seen the Bill Reid sculpture in the Museum of Anthropology?
    I found your comment about how “Robinson’s story [about the twins] turns the table on the European beliefs and their propaganda, and shows the truth of what actually occurred” stuck out to me because I have often found that the European are not always truthful when discussing what actually happened. There is a general lack of acknowledgement of how the Indigenous people aided the Europeans during their “discoveries.” The more time passes and the more educated I become, the more I am introduced to truer histories.

    • Hi Samantha,

      Thank you for your comments. I have not seen the sculpture in the MOA, but I have seen pictures of it, and it is beautiful.

      I agree with what you said, the Newcomers never would have been able to survive initially, without the aid and assistance from the Native Peoples. This fact is never talked about, nor acknowledged. This fact supports how important it is to continue to discuss what actually occurred.

      Take care,

      Linda

  4. Hi Linda,

    Thanks for your wonderful research and ideas.

    I concur with you – papers have been used to cheat the First Nations out of their land. It sounds just absurd to apply laws to peoples over which they have had knowledge or role in the legislative process.

    I have been dwelling on the Coyote story. What do you think Harry Robinson is trying to tell us? Assuming he sees the audience as strangers to his tradition, is he trying to tell the story? To equalize the positions between the oral and the written? Or even to mock the European illusion over the power of paper?

    I am eager to hear your thoughts.

    – John

    • Hi John,

      I too have been thinking much on Robinson’s story about two twins, where one steals the paper, and then lies about it. My discussion focused primarily on the paper itself, but afterwards I began to think that Robinson was referring to more than that. First, consider the fact they are twins, that means they are related, they are both from the same parent, and they are connected. This in and of itself could lead to a huge discussion, but I will leave it here. Perhaps you want to address it? Next, consider the fact that one twin stole the paper. That speaks to the trustworthiness of that twin. Considering the thieving twin turns out to be the invading Newcomers, it explains how the governments of Canada (and the U.S.) justified stealing land away from the Native Peoples. Finally, there is the lie the thieving twin tells to cover up his theft. This seems to directly tie into the lies the government told the Natives as a method of first appeasing the Native Peoples, and then as a justification for the actions they took in dishonoring the agreements made.

      Those are just a few of my thoughts, I too look forward to your response on your blog to my questions

      Take care,

      Linda.

  5. The idea that these stories might not have been meant to share is important to acknowledge because it seems to give the ownership strictly with the Native population and by concluding that Robinson inverts the power relation firmly establishes that notion. The ability to record a history (or stories) becomes a defining aspect to the power relation that was forced upon the Native population and Robinson’s story explains this happening.
    But when reading this Introduction I was wondering about how Robinson’s story establishes a common ancestor whereas in European stories I’ve heard this isn’t the case. I was not raised with many European stories and so I am by no means an expert on what is included or excluded, but I’m curious to know what your thoughts are on the brotherhood (albeit a dysfunctional one) that is the foundation for his story and lacks in other stories. Do you think that the European’s lack of understanding of this connection is shown through Robinson’s story? Or any other story for that matter?

    • Hi Charlie,

      You make two good points in your comments.

      The first one relates to the power of owning the stories. I hadn’t thought about the ownership of sacred stories as being about power, but the person, or group who owns the story, has the power to decide whether or not they will share them. So yes, it does in fact boil down to power.

      Your second point about brotherhood, and the question you raise is interesting. Robinson’s story refers to a family connection, and speaks to a common connection between both Native Peoples and Europeans – there is a common ancestor. I think this is meant to show that we are all just people, and we are all connected, yet we are all separate, and each one of us has the freedom to make our own choices.

      It may seem at first glance that there is no similar story within European culture, but upon further reflection, I can see a connection between Robinson’s story and the story of Adam and Eve. In both cases there is a common ancestor, and in both cases there is a fall from the “Garden of Eden”.

      I would be curious to see what you think of this response, and if you have anything to add to it.

      Take care,

      Linda

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