Assignment 2.6 – Epistemology and the Authenticity of History

This blog post will address the following (question five): “’To raise the question of ‘authenticity’ is to challenge not only the narrative but also the ‘truth’ behind Salish ways of knowing’ (Carlson 59). Explain why this is so according to Carlson, and explain why it is important to recognize this point” (Paterson n.p.)


It is not surprising that authenticity, especially the authenticity of history, is defined differently by different peoples. The way which we formulate ‘fact’ or ‘knowledge,’ our epistemology, is based on precepts that lay at the cores of our societies and cultures. The point that Carlson is making is that questioning the authenticity of another society’s history is equal to debasing all that society knows. The question of historical authenticity holds within it a quiet attack on epistemology, a society’s theory of truth. Without recognizing the implications of such a question, one risks furthering conflict and tension, and a conflict over epistemology is hardly tractable. The stem of that conflict, for Carlson and others, is the point of departure between literary and oral accounts of history.

However, when roots of each society’s theory of knowledge are exposed, the question of historical authenticity may end in mutual agreement. It will be argued herein that, epistemologically, Western and Indigenous traditions are not as different as they seem, and that the (assumed) literacy/orality chasm is merely a superficiality that one can fall easily into.

Literacy is dominant in European and Western societies. It is the main way that knowledge is created. recorded and legitimized within those societies. In order to create knowledge in academia, for example, one must publish a written work in a recognized journal or with a recognized publisher. Through this method, the words that they write are acknowledged as ‘knowledge’ by the society broadly. If one is able to publish in a more acclaimed journal or with a better known publisher, the knowledge they create will be taken more seriously. (Although this traditional approach is being accompanied increasingly by newer approaches through digital media and alternative academic sources, those sources are largely literary, and the traditional approach is still dominant).

One of the goals of this course, however, is to explore the epistemologies of those outside the Western tradition – namely, Canada’s First Peoples. Frequently, in those cultures, ‘knowledge’ and ‘fact’ come to be through orality as opposed to literacy. Histories are recalled through the oral tellings of them by certain people who have the authority to do so in circumstances where it is customary, and strict cultural guidelines ensure that each history remains intact over time (Carlson 57).

At first glance, no compelling reason appears for these two traditions to be in conflict at all; they are different, but they do not step on each other’s toes. Both have methods for creating knowledge, and both have working methods for maintaining that knowledge over time. In other words, both have legitimate and systematic ways of formulating and telling histories. The conflict between literacy and orality sparks, as Carlson notes, when one “[raises] the question of ‘authenticity'” of the other’s epistemology (59). This (unnecessarily) results in  a fundamental duality between a ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ way of creating knowledge.

Carlson discusses this conflict in a way that harmfully exacerbates it: “Among literate Westerners, historical accuracy is measured in relation to verifiable evidence,” whereas “within the Salish world, … historical accuracy is largely assessed in relation to people’s memories of previous renditions or versions of a narrative and in relation to the teller’s status and reputation as an authority” (57). The seemingly intractable divide between Western and Salish epistemology has been laid out – the literate West requires an agreeable (systematic) interpretation of scientific evidence, and the oral Salish require reputable individuals whose rendition of history must be publicly accepted.

If one wishes to frame these two epistemologies as radically different, as Carlson and indeed many others do, they do so to the detriment of all of us (everyone). Instead, there is little difference between these two epistemological traditions beyond the medium through which they most frequently record knowledge – one on paper, and the other through spoken word. In other important respects, these theories of knowledge are similar. Both exclude the creation of knowledge only to those with the granted authority to do so; both require that histories do not counter those prior without very good reason; both rest on citation or “oral footnotes” in reference to other truth-telling authorities (Carlson 57); and both hold heavy punishments for “conveyors of poor history” (ibid.; see also Carlson 59). It is unlikely that this list is exhaustive. Indeed, the “common concern over the accuracy of historical narratives” that both societies hold has driven them to embrace thorough epistemologies that are similar in almost all foundational respects (Carlson 57). In the words of Ted Chamberlin, both are performing comparable ‘ceremonies’ where knowledge is created and ‘truth’ is decided upon, and these common “ceremonies of belief offer a way beyond conflicts between cultures” (218).

We need not drive a stake between the epistemologies held by the groups with which we are concerned in this course (Indigenous and Western). To do so severely hinders the progress that both wish to make in their relationships with each other. Focusing on the superficialities of how each records ‘knowledge,’ whether through literacy or orality, blinds us from seeing the mass of commonality below the politically charged surface. Although we should be cautious about questioning the authenticity of another culture’s knowledge, we should not assume that such a question is an inherent attack. Much more can be gained by comparatively examining the fundamentals of both cultures’ theories of knowledge, and working up from there. In this case, “to raise the question of ‘authenticity'” is ultimately to agree upon, not challenge, our “ways of knowing” (Carlson 59).


Works Cited

Carlson, Keith Thor. “Orality about Literacy: The ‘Black and White’ of Salish History.” Orality and Literacy: Reflections Across Disciplines. Ed. Keith Thor Carlson, Kristina Fagan, and Natalia Khanenko-Frieson. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2011. 43-69. Print.

Chamberlin, J. Edward. If This is Your Land, Where are Your Stories?: Finding Common Ground. Toronto: Vintage Canada, 2004. Print.

Lupton, Deborah. ‘Feeling Better Connected’: Academics’ Use of Social Media. Canberra: News and Media Research Centre, University of Canberra, 2014. Web. 29 June 2016.

Paterson, Erika. “Lesson 2.3.” ENGL 470A Canadian Studies: Canadian Literary Genres May 2016. University of British Columbia. Web. 29 June 2016.

Steup, Mattias. “Epistemology.” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Stanford University. 14 Dec. 2005. Web. 29 June 2016.


Filed under Unit II

7 Responses to Assignment 2.6 – Epistemology and the Authenticity of History

  1. laryssa legan

    Good Morning, I think today we have to have groups for our conference at the end of the year! Care to create a group with me?

  2. Minkyo Kim

    Hello, I am impressed by the amount of details you have put into the story. I have especially liked how you have linked history and authenticity. It is a fact that only winners make history in our society. In fact, history is written by winners. Viewed more deeply, we come to realize that winners and losers form part of history in more profound ways than we think. Without a loser, there can never be a winner. I agree with you unreservedly when you say, “When roots of each society’s theory of knowledge are exposed, the question of historical authenticity may end in mutual agreement. It will be argued herein that, epistemologically, Western and Indigenous traditions are not as different as they seem, and that the (assumed) literacy/orality chasm is merely a superficiality that one can fall easily into.” Whether we view the Aboriginals and their stories as inauthentic, the truth is that the western society and that of the Aboriginals are somehow intertwined. What do you think would have happened to western history if they were viewed in the lens of the Salish society?

    • NickBabey

      Michael Asch, in “Canadian Sovereignty and Universal History,” addresses the question you’re asking fairly directly. In his terms, European arrival in Canada was the place’s “Chapter One.” Seen through Indigenous eyes, the Europeans’ First Chapter was their Fifteenth Chapter. Asch writes that Western history, and Indigenous-Western relationships, would be fundamentally altered if it was accepted and conceptually adopted that the European entrance into this place was Canada’s Fifteenth Chapter – not the beginning, but a part of a larger narrative.

  3. laryssa legan

    Wow, this was a very intriguing blog. I thought I was reading a published piece. I wonder though, do you think the two stories really “don’t step on each others toes”? I feel like they do to some degree. I really thought it was interesting that you discussed the differences and similarities between oral and written literacy’s I think that is crucial to this question.

    • NickBabey

      I would maintain that literacy and orality do not have to meet conflictually, and neither do literary and oral cultures. The point I make above is that both are simply different methods of achieving the same epistemological end. I also take direct issue above with the common treatment of the two as inherently opposed (a la Carlson). In what way and to what degree do you believe that literacy and orality must come into conflict?

  4. claudia gillard

    Hello, It’s me ~ Claudia (I liked your Adele joke 🙂
    I also like how you broke down the dichotomy between orality and literacy. I too see many commonalities, and not much difference between community-sanctioned oral history, and journal-editors- sanctioned literal history. In First Nations culture, the community are as expert as the literal community editors are, both are charged with finding errors, and both decree who is to be given public exposure. And as for accuracy, the fact of something having been written down making it necessarily true, has long since been debunked, while I think the performance part of orality, as well as the idea that the spirits of those mentioned in the history being roused, may be far more effective ways of keeping the history tellers accountable. What do you think: Does the fact that orality is performed to the whole community at one time, and the belief that spirits are awakened if mentioned in stories, give orality the potential for greater accuracy over literacy? Isn’t is far easier to write anything one feels like (i.e. something inaccurate) when the consequences may be delayed until the next year’s journal is published? And, as an aside, I wonder a lot about the gate-keeping function of “Standardized Anglo-American” English and MLA and APA, etc. Don’t they serve to eliminate so many potentially interesting and knowledgeable voices from our (non-Indigenous, multi-cultural, ESL) literary community? Whereas in oral cultures, it seems as though the whole community is given a critical voice, again perhaps ensuring better accuracy? I’m interested in what you think of the comparable checks for accuracy in oral and literal history traditions. Thanks for an interesting blog!

    • NickBabey

      I do not think that the cultural mores and spiritual beliefs surrounding oral storytelling in Salish communities would make it necessarily more accurate than Western academia’s written histories. It is simply false that one can write “anything” in the Western literary tradition and have it appraised as fact. Such a submission would not make it to a published stage. Literacy must follow rigorous standards in order to meet epistemological requirements, just as orality must in the Salish tradition.

      Standards of writing and exclusivity in academia are absolutely causes for concern. Many “potentially interesting and knowledgeable voices” certainly are margnalized from mainstream publishers and journals. I have studied the issue of academic exclusivity in International Relations in depth and have written about it at length, arguing that without hearing from the broadest possible range of voices, the field itself is incapable of understanding that which it sets out to understand (it is not truly “international”).

      However, there is a chance that the same kind of exclusivity exists in Salish oral tradition. According to our readings, stories must be performed by individuals who have the authority to perform them, and even then those individuals must make reference to other authorities. Additionally, the “whole community” is given a critical voice in both settings. At this moment, for example, we are debating the merits of a literary theory about literacy, adding our critical voices to the mix.

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