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).
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.