Assignment 2.4 – Difficulties of Historical Interpretation in Lutz’s “First Contact as Spiritual Performance”

This blog post will address the following (question three): We began this unit by discussing assumptions and differences that we carry into our class. In “First Contact as Spiritual Performance,” Lutz makes an assumption about his readers (Lutz, “First Contact” 32). He asks us to begin with the assumption that comprehending the performances of the Indigenous participants is “one of the most obvious difficulties.” He explains that this is so because “one must of necessity enter a world that is distant in time and alien in culture, attempting to perceive indigenous performance through their eyes as well as those of the Europeans.” Here, Lutz is assuming either that his readers belong to the European tradition, or he is assuming that it is more difficult for a European to understand Indigenous performances – than the other way around. What do you make of this reading? Am I being fair when I point to this assumption? If so, is Lutz being fair when he makes this assumption?” (Paterson n.p.)


Given only the quote above, it does appear that Lutz is addressing a European audience and assuming that there will be an inherent difficulty when non-Indiegnous people attempt to interpret Indigenous performances of a time long past. Though overgeneralized and (perhaps hazardously) sweeping, this statement makes a valid point. Given the silencing of Indigenous stories and histories, it is unlikely that anything beyond a small minority of his non-Indigenous audience will be able to comfortably comprehend Indigenous performances in contact events. A lack of contextual experience and knowledge of Indigenous heritage and culture presents a legitimate barrier to the non-Indigenous observer.

There would be issues if the above quote was all that Lutz had said on the matter. For example, would the opposite be true? Would his Indigenous audience encounter “obvious difficulties” when attempting to perceive European performances (Lutz, “First Contact” 32)? Does his European audience suffer no difficulty when interpreting European performances, and Indigenous people Indigenous performances? If the given statement is all that Lutz says, Paterson would be quite right in pointing out his assumptions and remaining skeptical.

However, Lutz says much more, balancing the statement that has been addressed. He follows: “The key and usually unremarked problem is that we have insufficient distance from our own and our ancestors’ world view” (Lutz, “First Contact” 32). Not only is Lutz pointing out that there are inherent difficulties in European interpretation of Indigenous performance, but that there are more deeply buried difficulties in European interpretation of European performance. Although Lutz assumes that his audience is primarily non-Indigenous, the mind does not need to stretch to apply the same argument to Indigenous readers. Every person meets a barrier when attempting to comprehend the performances given by either their ancestors or the ‘others’ in the distant (and idealized) past.

This astute observation is what prompts Lutz to present the challenge “to step outside and see one’s own culture as alien and to discern the mythic in the performances of one’s own histories” (“First Contact” 32). Because anyone will meet difficulty  in the comprehension of performance whether he/she realizes it or not, we should view the past with a realistic temporal detachment. Eighteenth century thought is far different from our own, and this likely holds for European and Indigenous cultures alike. The culture of European settlers, though maybe foundationally similar, is otherwise quite removed from European or Western culture today. This is what renders it alien and what begs one to remove themselves and observe the mythology present.

What Lutz is really attempting to do, then, is to call for the recognition of cultural difference over time regardless of current identity. When we assume that Europeans then and Europeans now have the same culture, we will misinterpret their performances and remain blind to the mythology that Lutz goes to lengths to demonstrate. In the same way, it would be hubristic to assume that Indigenous culture has remained static since the 18th century. Rational actions of any people are “[codes] for particular cultural beliefs” bounded by temporal, spatial, and social context, and it is our duty to understand that context as best we can regardless of our ancestry (Lutz, “First Contact” 33). Indeed, we must place both histories under “the same ethnohistorical lens, asking the same questions of different stories” (“First Contact” 32).

When we now observe Lutz’s full statement, we can see that Indigenous stories remain “distant in time and alien in culture” to both European and Indigenous observers (Lutz, “First Contact” 32). With Lutz’s full intentions brought to light, Paterson’s skepticism has less basis due to the incorrect assumptions it makes about what Lutz is trying to show us. We must “[identify] the mythology and the history embedded in stories that emerge from both indigenous and European contact stories, treating both as equally credible and incredible” (Lutz, “Myth Understandings” 5; emphasis added).

What Lutz is doing, telling us that we need to step out of our own cultural heritages and examine them as alien to us, follows a critique against an academic tradition in history known as modernization theory. The essence of modernization theory is that through it, history is studied as a progressive (Western) trajectory of evolving political systems and structures. The largest issue with this is that the context of the social world is ignored. Clearly, it is not fair for a contemporary historian to point at Grecian phalanx warfare and say that they did not understand fighting because they had no concept of guerrilla tactics. A more comprehensive look at history involving social realities of the day allows us to understand that norms, customs, traditions, and beliefs are what lead people to act in ways that seem alien to us today.

When Lutz tells us that we need to step out of our own cultures, he is asking us to recognize that, in fact, we live in a different reality than our distant ancestors did, and that there are always hazards in the translation of their history (Lutz, “Myth Understandings” 10). To properly comprehend their actions and the consequences of them, we must account for the stories that they heard, the beliefs that they held, and the traditions that they engaged in. When we look at history, we indeed do “enter a world that is distant in time and alien in culture” no matter who we are or which side of history we are examining (Lutz, “First Contact” 32).


Works Cited

Lorenz, Chris. “‘Won’t You Tell Me, Where Have All the Good Times Gone’? On the Advantages and Disadvantages of Modernization Theory for History.” Rethinking History: The Journal of Theory and Practice 10.2 (2006): 171-200. Web. 17 June 2016.

Lutz, John Sutton. “First Contact as a Spiritual Performance: Encounters on the North American West Coast.” Myth and Memory: Rethinking Stories of Indigenous-European Contact. Ed. John Sutton Lutz. Vancouver: UBC Press, 2007. 1-14. Print.

Lutz, John Sutton. “Myth Understandings: First Contact, Over and Over Again.” Myth and Memory: Rethinking Stories of Indigenous-European Contact. Ed. John Sutton Lutz. Vancouver: UBC Press, 2007. 1-14. Print.

Mark, Joshua J. “The Greek Phalanx.” Ancient History Encyclopedia. Ancient History Encyclopedia, 18 Jan. 2012. Web. 17 June 2016.

Paterson, Erika. “Lesson 2:2.” ENGL 470A Canadian Studies: Canadian Literary Genres May 2016. University of British Columbia. Web. 15 June 2016.

Thiesmeyer, Lynn Janet. Discourse and Silencing: Representation and the Language of Displacement. Philadelphia: John Benjamins B.V., 2003. Web. 17 June 2016.

TRU, Open Learning. “Dr. John Lutz Question 4 – Early contact between Aboriginals and explorers.” Online video clip. YouTube. YouTube, 17 Nov. 2015. Web. 17 June 2016.


Filed under Unit II

6 Responses to Assignment 2.4 – Difficulties of Historical Interpretation in Lutz’s “First Contact as Spiritual Performance”

  1. CamBullen

    Hi Nick,

    I answered the same question and in some ways reached similar conclusions, although I didn’t articulate them nearly as well as you have here. Early in your post you mentioned the “silencing of Indigenous stories and histories”, which is certainly a key factor in this discussion, but I wonder if you have also considered what I see as the other side of the coin: the pervasiveness of European stories and culture through popular media? Granted , of course, that modern European culture is not equivalent to European culture during the 18th century.

    In your blog you wrote about the ‘barrier’ that everyone meets when “attempting to comprehend the performances given by either their ancestors or the ‘others’ in the distant (and idealized) past.” Without falling into the trap of eurocentrism, I wonder if the popularization of European culture in media and society more generally has altered the size of the barrier between different cultures, making the barrier more asymmetrical than might be imagine?

    Once again I really enjoyed your post!


    • NickBabey

      Hey Cam!

      I just left a comment on your post as well. I really appreciated your framing Lutz’s intentions in terms of familiarity. Both of our takes on this seems to be very complimentary.

      The popularization of European culture might only have such a strong effect because we are in North America. I would be hesitant to assume its pervasiveness elsewhere (say, in Asia, perhaps), but here I think it’s a safe assumption to make. I would definitely expect that the intellectual barrier I was talking about would be higher (or thicker?) for those of European descent or immersed in European culture. Such an asymmetry, as you’ve put it, would likely make it more difficult for a European person to understand an Indigenous performance.

      On the flip side of that logic, if that same asymmetry was in operation, it would make it more difficult for an Indigenous person to understand Indigenous performances as well. In other words, the comprehension of Indigenous performance would be further from everyone. Because European culture and heritage is hegemonic where we are, it effects all people, Indigenous included. Perhaps this is the assumption at the base of Lutz’s claim that all of his readers will have an easier time comprehending settler performances. However, this is just an exercise of logic. It is possible that the barrier idea does not work like that, and that it can be bypassed entirely depending on where one stands and who one is. The asymmetry is a really interesting idea though, and it might work the way we think it works – something for us to look out for in future readings and experiences.

  2. natasha heine

    Hi Nick,

    You make some very good points and observations about Lutz’s article. You say in your last paragraph that in order to comprehend the actions of our ancestors in our distant past we must “account for the stories that they heard, the beliefs that they held, and the traditions that they engaged in”. Do you think that with enough study of any culture’s past, say someone who is a scholar of medieval studies, or Europe in the 18th century, is it possible to really understand “performance”? Could someone studying a culture that is not their own have just as much understanding about the culture as someone who actually belongs to it? I hope this question doesn’t come across as ignorant. I really enjoyed reading this post, great work!

    – Natasha

    • NickBabey

      Hey Natasha.

      I think that regardless of any education attained in the study of a particular culture or time person, a certain level of detachment has to remain. By that I mean that one can get very close to understanding performance, but I do not believe that it is possible to entirely ‘get it.’

      By the same thread, I do not think that someone studying a culture other than their own can understand it as well as a native to that given culture. Some sort of familiarity with that culture will likely be carried with it through history, allowing the cultural native to comprehend certain signs, behaviours, and stories better than someone alien to that culture.

      Perhaps this means that only certain people should study certain cultures, but that runs us into a whole new realm of problems. There is value in translators – people in our own cultures that can tell us about the cultures of others in terms we will understands. Obviously, there will be a significant portion of important information lost in that translation, but without any effort to translate at all, cultural divisions and misunderstandings can only deepen and fester.

  3. LauraSavoie

    Hi Nick,

    I also thought that it was possible that a European audience would have trouble taking an Indigenous performance as seriously as an Indigenous audience might assume a European performance is. This idea came to me when I read (in one of Lutz’s pieces, can’t remember which) that the potlach and performances held there were more than just storytelling and pageantry, but actually determined which people had the rights to which lands and resources. In this way for the Indigenous people, storytelling and performing was an important practice that solidified the politics of their everyday lives. For Europeans however, important information like that regarding land rights or politics is all recorded on paper. For Europeans, paper and documents are the be-all-end-all of legally binding and important information. In this way then, maybe European audiences would underestimate the gravity of an Indigenous performance?

    • NickBabey


      But the logic you have presented works both ways. If storytelling and performance determined laws and politics in Indigenous cultures, the European use of paper for the same function would seem equally as alien as the Indigenous traditions to the European. If we are talking about contact events, it is highly likely that both audiences would underestimate the gravity of each others performances, be they on paper or through storytelling.

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