Thursday, June 23, 2016

Talking Indian

Talking with my husband yesterday  I was surprised by his strong opinions about the subject of this post.  I know he likes alphabets but I was surprised by how much he likes them.  I appreciated this piece and found that it gave me a lot to think about, especially as a person with learning disabilities, where my relationship to written communication has always been a challenge and where learning and using the alphabet were/are not easy things.  The article gave me some new insights into this relationship.

The article in question is, "Writing the Talking Stick: Alphabetic Literacy as Colonial Technology and Postcolonial Appropriation," by Laura E Donaldson and it was published almost 20 years ago.  Donaldson sets out to examine the impact of English alphabetic education on Indians.  She starts with several quotes, including one by Four Guns, an Oglala Lakota who in 1891 commented on how much white people love their writing and how they need it to help them remember things, but that Indians didn't need paper to remember.

Donaldson sets out to explores how English alphabetic literacy came to be part of indigenous lives and its role as a colonizing force.  She also wants to question the idea that the Indian was a passive learner who remained colonized as a result of this learning and to offer some examples of how this learning can be part of decolonization.  Donaldson thinks that this inquiry is required as the story of English writing has become very naturalized (good) and its role in colonization has not been questioned. "Writing worked alongside these more overt weapons of conquest to re-configure aboriginal cultures and bodies in ways functional for Euramerican imeperialism."  The overt weapons she lists includes things like ships, warhorses and armor.

Donaldson notes that the deep connection between religion and education by newcomers to Turtle Island, imbued a strong sense of superiority to the Eurpoean style of learning and the subjects being taught.  This was in addition to the superiority of the teachers over the people (savages) they were teaching whose traditional learning processes were also characterized as backwards.

She is interested in focusing on  how the means of teaching writing and the systems that support it impacted those learners.  I felt her here.  I remember being harassed by teachers, made to stay in at breaks and even having my fingers taped together in an attempt to make me hold my pen correctly (regardless of the fact that I could write legibly using the way I did).  It is easy to imagine how much more paintful that inculcation would be in a residential school system when you had come from a community where learning was something pleasant and relational.  She notes that through the process of teaching, new categories of subjects and objects were produced, such as writer, and readers. 

However, the creation of these categories, made as they were in context of the schools and the treatment of the students who attended, produced these categories as a direct threat to indigenous ways of communication (ora)l.  Here she gives an example from the Mi'kmaw culture where communication is made following the "Mukk petteskuaw"  which means, "...don't walk in front of people who are talking," as the spirits of these people are communicating. Written language creates a disconnect between parties of communication and the practices of the boarding schools further inculcated alphabetic acquisition as a solitary activity.

Donaldson contrasts this experience with the indigenous model of learning by watching and then doing, where the focus is on understanding the process as a whole before learning how to do the related tasks.  Literacy as it was taught to indigenous learners, was not relational, as it is the absorption of knowledge from distant, perhaps "expert" books or teachers.  Donaldson notes several studies that show that the use of syllabics does not have the same effect on indigenous peoples as their primary usage has been in personal communication and thus they have support the relationship between the writer and the reader.  Thus she suggests, "...that the most destructive element of English alphabetic literacy was its mode of production within aboriginal cultures rather that its intrinsic properties as a system of discourse." 

Donaldson then raised the possibility of subverting this legacy by creating an indigenous model of English alphabetic literacy.  She uses the idea of the Mi'kmaw Talking Stick as a possible theoretical model of resistance, replacing the history of colonialism with an indigenous conception which, "...invokes the deep connections of Mi'kmaw oral and social traditions."  In this tradition, everyone present is given time to speak with being presented solutions.  Each person can speak as long as they need to and the very act of speaking supports the relationship with the community.  This practice is in contrast with the European writing of the self, separate from the other, and often above the other (as expert).  There one voice dominates the conversation and controls the transfer of information. 

Donaldson provides a couple of examples of how this could work, one piece where the authors residential school experiences are discussed and then the pen is "passed on", allowing other students from the school to add to the dialogue and clarify ambiguity.  In this case, the numerous voices  legitimize each in turn and contribute to the sense of community.  She also quotes from a poem from Rita Joe showing how this kind of language can, "..erase the shame felt in "talking Indian," so that indigenous people can situate themselves not merely as a victim of colonialism, but as survivors who can turn these colonial tools to a job of reclamation.

This is something I have struggled with many times here, recognizing the importance of oral communication in my culture, but being educated/skilled in writing and knowing that through my location and personality, I am sometimes best behind a key board, so I find these ideas of bringing the Indian back into language an exciting idea.  This is something I like about the blog, there is always the opportunity for others to talk back.  However, this article does make me want to think some more about how I can continue to bring other voices to this space.  I try to do that through sharing my thoughts on the things I am reading and listening too, but how else can that be operationalized?  How do you talk Indian?

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