Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Which tools do you choose?

I got some reading done over the long weekend.  I looked through the whole archives of "The Canadian Journal of Native Studies" and sorted out everything I want to read.  I now have a pile to inspire me.  I feel very lucky that I can have access to the thoughts of so many people. 

I started with, "SECRET, POWERFUL, AND THE STUFF OF LEGENDS: REVISITING THEORIES OF INVENTED TRADITION" by Byron King Plant from 2008.  From the title I was expecting something more interesting. The whole topic of tradition and its construction is interesting and we are certainly in the middle of living this as we re/claim indigenaity and adapt to meet modern needs and realities.  The author argues that the Hobsbawmian idea of invented tradition is not the only way to look at the construction of tradition and in particular, he argues that the Hobsbawmian view leaves no space for the natural innovation that occur in a cultures.  So the author argues, "through more microhistorical and culturally-relativistic analysis, traditions can be seen less as real or unreal, genuine or invented, but more as operationalized symbols constitutive of specific cultural and historical meanings."

That sounds good.  So really maybe educated, mostly white, mostly men, shouldn't judge other people's traditions on a binary (good/bad), but they need to have a more nuanced scale or judgment?  I suppose that is progress, but even with the call to the "microhistorical" you are still doing the analysis without those who live the traditions.  Furthermore, the reason why it is important to study these traditions is not covered at all, so we are left to wonder, is this study pure voyeuristic thrill to see what the "other" is doing? Is it a covert attempt to consume the "other"?  Or is it a means to show the prowess of the non-other (less primitive) traditions?  I care about this question because I am at a place of reclaiming and re/building traditions, forced, through the years of silence, to consciously construct things from bits of stories, peoples journals and remembrances. (See posts here and here)   As a wider indigenous culture we are coming together in a pan culture that allows us a larger voice and more opportunities to speak.  Without knowing what is driving the author, I found this essay hard to situate.  After some googling the author has a History MA and various publications on indigenous subjects, which still does not tell me his story.  The lack of that personal situating hampers the rhetoric.  I have written about this issue here, here, here and here.

The author notes the strong connection between invented tradition and falsity, and the need to break this link.  He does recognize that this process happens both to indigenous people and by indigenous people.  In the first case with the construction of the environmental warrior or untouched essentialized "indian" and in the second case with the construction of  self explored pan-indigenaity.  He notes that "for many Aboriginal groups historical traditions are inseparably bound up with contemporary questions of identity, belief, rights and proprietorship", note the last word, suddenly there is a reason for everyone to care.  The courts are allowing traditions as evidence, so that the "truth" of traditions comes to matter in very real ways.  Finally he addresses one of the overhanging questions, "Anthropological critiques of Aboriginal traditions as invented, especially to those whose traditions are under interrogation, can be seen as distasteful, if not offensive and colonial." 

From here we get into some more interesting and applicable points, "To prove the historical and legal verity of Aboriginal claims through contemporary standards of proof required by the courts, Aboriginal people have had to adopt new ways of remembering and telling history."  This is part of the puzzle that the author maybe trying to articulate, and as he gets to later in the paper, maybe we need to have indigenous people doing this work, but at the same time we need others working to support the continuation of the traditional ways of knowing.  We can choose to fight with the tools of the master, but we don't want to forget that these tools are his and accidentally become him either. 

He shares this paragraph on the second to last page, "Winch’s seminal 1970 essay “Understanding a Primitive Society” contends that “the forms in which rationality expresses itself in the culture of a human society cannot be elucidated simply in terms of the logical coherence of the rules according to which activities are carried out it that society” (Winch, 1970: 17-18). Indeed, scholars must allow tolerance for “informal logic” and “un-coherence” when interpreting other cultures. Such an approach frees cultures from being portrayed as hermetic and static systems, and allows for broader, more open-ended understandings of cultural practices. In the specific case of Aboriginal traditions, it allows, if not expects, some aspects of tradition to be simply unexplainable by Western epistemology."  To which I scribbled in the margin, "Wow, Eurocentric." 

Here I feel that the tools may have taken on a life of their own in the hands of someone who is probably trying to do something good.  While the final assessment that you shouldn't be a strict Hobsbawmian seems like one I wouldn't argue with, I am left feeling like I don't understand what this paper was really trying to do and whether it achieved it.  If this essay had been two decades earlier, I could forgive more, but with the flourishing of aboriginal writers and "invented traditions" for bridging the issue of authentic voice/academia this piece just ends up being a miss.  

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