Reading as a way of understanding stories, new information, or difficult concepts is never a 100% guarantee. We’ve all experienced this in class — for example, when we lean over to a friend after the perusal of a textbook or a new sheaf of notes and go, “Huh?”
“It’s like this,” says our friend, and suddenly, through their oral retelling of the written words in front of us we understand. But it’s not just the oral retelling — it’s the hand gestures our friends use to describe a scientific process or the significance of water in a certain passage from a book, it’s the expression on their face as they mangle the new terms or try out a simpler style of phrasing from what the textbook does its best to make complex, it’s the look in their eyes as we watch them performing, and the connection we form between a speaker and a listener.
Or, a storyteller and an audience.
Comprehension is undoubtedly aided by oral retelling, and I think this was the point Professor Paterson was making in her introduction to lesson 2:2. It’s hard for us — white settlers, or even Indigenous people disconnected from their history, to understand Native American stories.This is because we, more often than not, read Native American stories, in print or online — but to experience and understand the full purpose of the story, it must be told, or performed, as the story was at its conception. This aids not only in our comprehension, but allows us to see the stories as both stories and bigger than stories — as histories, as truths, as myths, as things which reveal the secrets of the present while detailing the past. Of things which are magical but also real, a contradiction which Chamberlin pays so much attention to in chapter two of If this is your land, where are your stories? (pages 32 and 34 in particular).
The second difficulty that Professor Paterson pointed out was the forced enrollment of Indigenous children at residential schools and the disastrous effect this break from their culture, language, and history had on their comprehension of their stories. This point, I feel, does not need to be explained further — only an unfeeling person could wonder how a break from family and tradition at a young age, being subjected to an alien culture, physical and/or sexual abuse, and being taught that one’s culture is wrong could have any effect on a generation’s ability to know, understand, and even want to learn their stories.
The third difficulty which I picked up in reading Wendy Wickwire’s introduction to Harry Robinson’s Living by Stories: A Journey of Landscape and Memory is that Western scholarship has mismanaged Native American stories since its first attempt of collecting them. Even the concept of collecting stories and binding them into a book — essentially binding the words, and creating that disconnect between reader and words that I mentioned above — is an example of the bungling nature of the West’s approach to Native American story. This binding of words is not unique to Native American story — I had a professor who taught Old English Literature, and he described that great epic Beowulf as “a fish swimming through time.” The paper copy we had in our hands was just one x-ray, one two-dimensional slide of that fish that was Beowulf, captured at that moment in time by pen and ink but in no way representing the hundreds of tellings before and after that moment of penmanship. Trying to capture a story once, and hold it as the definitive, does not work for Old English literature as much as Native American story. Wickwire experienced this herself when she researched creation myths, and found four myths which were all published in the early 20th century as Creation with a capital C myths, yet which had no “common storyline” (26). And why should they? Lack of cohesiveness is sometimes taken as evidence of the falsity or fantastical nature of Native American stories, but as Wickwire argues in her introduction, lack of cohesiveness should not and does not prove unreliability; rather, it proves that stories grow and evolve with the times and with their people. An example of this is Harry Robinson’s story of Coyote’s son going to the moon, to which he added the presence of white men after he learned of the Apollo 11 moon landing (Wickwire, 29). This addition didn’t, in Robinson’s mind, make the story untrue, and in its inclusion of ancient story with modern events we again find myth and reality living in harmony.
Wickwire attributes the confusion of Native American story — and its truth, or relevance, or falsity — to the practice of dividing Indigenous cultures into “hot” or “cold,” based on the theory of Claude Lévi-Strauss — “‘cold’ zones were associated with Indigenous peoples with a mythic consciousness that tended to resist change; ‘hot’ zones, on the other hand, were associated with Western peoples with a historical consciousness that thrived on constant, irreversible change” (Wickwire, 11). This discourse essentially broke up native cultures into two groups — one group who lived only on prehistorical myth, and the second who moved with the times. In what seems obvious now, this breakdown did not leave room for cultures that lived outside of the breakdown, cultures that, like Robinson’s story, incorporated myth and reality, the past and the present — this was the point with which scholars took issue, and sought to counteract.
AND YET. Wickwire points out that the acknowledgement of the futility of dividing cultures into “hot” or “cold” merely ushered in an era of over-correction: that of attempting to create what Michael Harkin called “an overarching, static, ideal type of culture, detached from its pragmatic and socially positioned moorings among real people” (qtd. in Wickwire, 22). Instead of separating cultures scholars aimed to unite them into one conglomeration of myth-loving peoples; Wickwire found evidence of this in Franz Boas’s work, when he removed the word gun from a traditional Native American tale in what Wickwire called an effort to edit “a historical account to make it fit his vision of a prehistorical myth” (23).
All three of these issues — unsuitable mediums, cultural genocide, and Western mismanagement — contribute to the difficulty of understanding Indigenous stories. However, though printed, I do believe that Wendy Wickwire’s collection of Harry Robinson’s stories was a good step. I think that the difference in her case was the use of a tape recorder, and her decision to print the stories in an almost verse/poetic form — catching the idiosyncrasies, as well as the lyricism, of Robinson’s stories.
Chamberlin, Edward J. If this is your land, where are your stories? : Finding common ground. Toronto: Vintage Canada, 2004. Print.
“Claude Lévi-Strauss.” Philosophers.co.uk. 2012. Web. Accessed June 16, 2016.
NASA Administrator. “July 20, 1969: One Giant Leap For Mankind.” NASA. July 14, 2014. Web. Accessed June 12, 2016.
Wickwire, Wendy. Harry Robinson: Living by Stories — A Journey of Landscape and Memory. Vancouver: Talonbooks, 2005. Print.
X-Ray Vision: Fish Inside Out. Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History. 2012. Web. Accessed June 16, 2016.
I think you have captured both the essence of the readings for this week while highlighting some of the glaring issues that have created this large divide between ‘First Nations’ histories and traditions and those of ‘Western’ peoples. As you pointed out, the very essence of First Nations history is directly tied to the orality of it. There is much context that is lost when stories that were meant to be delivered orally are captured, and ultimately frozen in time, on paper. Just as a written work, as it appears in its original form, was designed to be consumed that way; oral histories, and their varying presentations, are meant to be consumed in that manner. I really enjoyed reading the subtext in your article, which is the expressed superiority of Western ideologies, and the belief that oral accounts were at the best inaccurate, but viewed by the colonizers as nothing more than children’s tales. Even today, with some overt attempts to reclaim and honour First Nations traditional historical practices, there is still a widespread scepticism towards them. My question for you is do you think that ground has been gained in the process of accepting and validating traditional First Nations oral traditions? If so, or not, what can be done to improve the flawed perception of the invalidity of them?
Hi, thanks for the comment! I think that there are some better steps being taken to validate oral traditions — the fact that we (and the scholarship on them) have realized the disparaging way in which they’ve been dealt is a good step. But I think it does take an overhaul of what we think we, intuitively, know and trust — that anything written down is more important or more trustworthy than oral accounts. I think this is cultural thing, though; I mean, everything in Canada that is important is written (while also said orally, as Chamberlin points out, but the emphasis is on the written). Business deals, law suits, medical surgery forms, adoption, marriage, etc. etc.
So I’m not sure how well the validity of oral traditions can be included into our cultural beliefs. As long as we keep trying!
You’ve pointed out some valid issues with broad categorization. I agree that such “mismanagement” can be harmful when it becomes too broad, but how far must one go before it becomes useful? You yourself categorize the “West” into an entire people. Certainly, “Westerners” in reality are far more culturally and historically diverse than that one, single category. If we need to avoid the issue of sweeping generalization when discussing Indigenous peoples, should we not do the same with all peoples?
A simple “yes” answer seems to be the one, but I think the complications run deeper. How can we possibly study “a people” without grouping them together into certain categories and labelling them based on broad commonalities? Thought the “hot” and “cold” categorization of Native American stories is problematic, it may be less mismanagement than miscategorization.
I see your point, but on the other hand “Western” ideals are pretty conglomerated, at least in the scholarly sense of the “West.” Sure, it’s an umbrella term, and created in the general interest to point out the difference of Western ideals over any others — but it still has a purpose in our discussion. I think there’s a difference between labeling European/American/Canadian countries as Western and categorizing all Indigenous nations as “Indian” or what have you. In our (Western) case, its to show where we agree, in the Indigenous case its to push them into one box. Perhaps the distinction seems arbitrary, and it probably is, but I think that history and our (Western) way of dealing with other cultures has been to create arbitrary distinctions (the Orient, for one) which don’t rely on much sense. Why is Western a useful term, while Indian cultures/the Indigenous/hot/cold cultures is problematic? Mostly because our relationship has been problematic since first contact (and second contact, and third, à la Lutz).