Reflecting on Canadian Literary Culture

A Blog by Janine Fleming for ENGL 470A

The Power and Consequences of Editing (2.6)

Carlson writes:

“Harry Robinson’s account of literacy being stolen from Coyote by his white twin conform to all the standard criteria associated with a genre of Salish narratives commonly referred to by outsiders as legend or mythology with one exception – they appear to contain post-contact content” (Carlson 56).

Why is it, according to Carlson or/and Wickwire, that Aboriginal stories that are influenced or informed by post-contact European events and issues are “discarded to the dustbin of scholarly interest”? (56).

In a previous blog post, I addressed Wickwire’s “reasons why our abilities to make meaning from first stories and encounters is so seriously limited” (Patterson). In answering this week’s question, I hope to dig a little deeper into some of the issues I brought up in this previous post.

Photo Credit: Ridpath, Debbie. “Cat and Dog Editors”. Web.

Carlson and Wickwire both address how editing has affected ‘our’ (Read: the outsiders’) perspective of Indigenous stories. Both would agree that this process occurred in order to edit stories so that they would fit with a Western perspective. Carlson helpfully expands on these ideas. Carlson states that a Western perspective attempts to categorize stories according to their relative historical accuracy (which is “measured in relation to verifiable evidence”) (57). This results in dividing stories into two categories: reality or imagination.

Western Criteria: Authentic (reality) vs. Inauthentic (imagination)

Since most Indigenous stories encompass both reality and imagination at the same time, Western scholars consider these stories historically inaccurate. Therefore, when anthropologists determined that Indigenous stories were “‘legends’, ‘folk-tales’, and ‘myths’ set in prehistoric times,” they were essentially labelling all Indigenous stories as historically inaccurate (Wickwire 22, emphasis added).

So when a story, such as “Coyote Makes a Deal with the King of England,” suggests that Indigenous stories are not just from “prehistoric times” nor are they without ties to reality, Western historians are forced to decide whether to (a) revisit their formula for historical accuracy or (b) sweep the stories aside into “the dustbin of scholarly interest” (Carlson 56). From our readings this week, it is clear that Western scholars have chosen option (b): to ignore “…stories that do not meet [their] criteria for historical purity” in order to maintain “ideologically driven” views of history (56, 58).

Photo Credit: Heine, Ben. “Pencil Vs. Camera 48”. Web.

In direct contradiction to these categories, Indigenous stories allow imagination and reality to co-exist. Indeed, neither is assumed to negate the other. In this way, Indigenous stories simply do not fit with the preconceived categories prescribed by Western Criterion. Instead, Indigenous stories are categorized according to an alternative perspective based on time (Carlson 56). According to Carlson, “[l]ike Western scholars, Salish people distinguish between at least two genres of historical narratives, but authenticity is not a criterion used in making that distinction” (56). Salish stories are divided into (a) stories about the distant past, such as first stories or stories of origin, and (b) stories about recent happenings, such as contact stories, stories about living people or about recent generations (56).

Indigenous Criteria**: Distant Past vs. Recent Happenings

Under this model, the validity of a story is not measured according to its historically verifiable evidence (as suggested by Western Criteria), but rather according to how well a story is “conveyed and remembered” (57). Interestingly, in this way, accuracy and historical purity are still viewed as important, but are measured with a different yard stick (Carlson 57). It is here that we find one of the “intersections” that Asch talks about (Patterson). Although measuring accuracy with a different scale, both approaches view accuracy as extremely valuable—indeed essential—to the validity of the story. So valuable, in fact, that both approaches carry with them strict penalties for relaying information that is inaccurate or untrue.

In Western academics: If a scholar’s “historical interpretation” is not consistent with “historical evidence”, they risk their reputation and career; are often placed under academic probation; and/or are banned from publishing (57).

In Salish culture: If a story-teller’s narrative contradicts the “previous renditions or versions” as remembered by the listeners, the story-teller risks their “status and reputation” as well as the well-being of their community* (57, 59).

As we can see, both ideologies of historical accuracy suggest that it is dangerous to construct reality (59). From this discussion, it would seem that the shared value for accuracy provides a starting place for finding “common ground” (Chamberlin).

Photo Credit: “Agreement”. Web.

In the business world, finding “common ground” is an essential practice if a working partnership is to be achieved. In business, the party looking to engage “the other” in a business transaction studies the target culture and adapts their practices in order to meet the needs, expectations, and values of that culture (see video***). However, in the case of opposing ideologies, the transaction is infinitely more complex.

Unfortunately, just as language can cause miscommunication, so too can a difference in ideological approaches. So while these groups seem to share a common respect for accuracy and credibility, their different forms of measurement is problematic. The best example of this being that Indigenous history and culture, in the form of stories, has been misunderstood, misinterpreted, and—consequently—disregarded by most Western scholars. Therefore, it is not simply a matter of one side adopting the practices of another culture for one simple transaction (as in the case of a business transaction), but of both cultures accepting both ideologies as equally valid—equally true.

My question to you is:

Is this even possible? (Both philosophically AND in practice, or only philosophically?) What would this compromise look like? More importantly, what are the implications of this compromise for both cultures?


*According to Carlson, in Salish culture, stories from the distant past are preserved by the belief that the spirits of characters in the story come to life while the story is told and will retaliate if the story is told inaccurately (59).

**In this blog, I am referencing Carlson’s work and equating his observations about the Salish people with other Indigenous groups. This seems to be consistent with his thesis, although I cannot affirm the accuracy of this assumption.

***I apologize for the generalizations made in this video. However, the video itself provides a helpful example of how business relationships work across cultures.

Works Cited

BVO. “Daniel Goleman on the Collectivist Cultures of the East.” The Business Voice: World Leaders at Your Desk. 22 Oct. 2015. Web. 29 June 2016.

Carlson, Keith Thor. “Orality and Literacy: The ‘Black and White’ of Salish History.” Orality & Literacy: Reflections Across Disciplines, 2011. 43-72. Print.

Chamberlin, Edward. If This is Your Land, Where are Your Stories? Finding Common Ground. Toronto: AA. Knopf. 2003. Print.

Robinson, Harry. Living by Stories: a Journey of Landscape and Memory. Ed. Wendy Wickwire. Vancouver: Talon Books, 2005. Print.


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