For this one don’t get hung up on the details, think about the message. It’s a – The Power of Story – article. We hear this all the time in Indian country (for the record: every square inch of turtle Island/N. America is Indian country) and typically it seems we refer to a round the campfire, legend type story, designed to reflect a perspective on morality or codes of conduct and so on. This article is similar it - just doesn’t have as many furry animals running around in it.
Personal assertion number one: Nobody KNOWS anything (for certain)…it’s proven time and time again, people merely have their version of the same the story. This idea contains all sorts of implications (ie. meanings, understandings about it); who’s telling the story, why are they telling it today, where did they get the story, will the story be understood differently by a different person or group of people? In my mind all these things are relevant depending on the story.
Dangerous Story-Telling Scenario 1 – in university I observe a young, white, PhD, lecturing on N. American Native History to approximately 40 or so other white people and 7 or 8 Indians. The 35 year old-ish man was American, had earned his credentials in America gathering material on native groups of the Mexo-American Southwest and on the day in question was speaking on residential schools. Many in the (mostly white, mostly twenty-ish) classroom I learned were working toward an undergraduate’s degree in Native Studies, which for many will establish them as experts on the subject (yikes! - and even more annoyingly, probably land them a job with some organization because they will be considered more qualified than say, an actual native person, but…I digress). I watched as they studiously scribbled down the instructor’s words day after day, frequently asking if he would mind repeating some snippet they were eager to record in their notebooks. Then the instructor offered the information that while there was abuse in some residential schools, it needed to be known that the authorities meant well and it was a scheme originally conceived to help the Indians. This caused uproar as you might expect among we native students and we debated the statement and many other aspects of this particular issue for a length of time that eventually was deemed too long and we were forced to move along. Now the reader may or may not know that the Canadian government contracted the Church because they would take of Canada’s well known “Indian problem.” They had experience at this in other parts of the world but what was most appealing to the policy makers of the day? It was far cheaper than doing it themselves. It was a bottom line decision (*in fact, the Europeans who colonized Africa were so impressed by the effectiveness of Canada’s reservation system that it was implemented in South Africa and called Apartheid…look it up!) No sensible person takes at face value the rhetoric surrounding policies that forcibly removed children from their families under threat of punishment, systematically stripped them their language and culture and exposed them to rampant abuse of every kind. No one actually believes (or did believe) this was a way of “helping” Indians. But I did witness a whole bunch of white kids writing this stuff down in their notebooks. They will move on and get their degrees in areas such as native studies, thereby becoming experts (to some) on Native people and their issues and are now armed with “the facts.” This is a mainstream post secondary institution and I witnessed firsthand the perpetuation of a lie (misinformation might be a more politically correct term). But it’s a very, very powerful and weighted subject either in a person’s personal experience at a residential school or those who exhibit complete animosity and disdain at even hearing about the issue. I’m not worried that this issue/story will disappear any time soon and it needs much more exploration and light brought to it (which it will). I will move on.
Another time, I spoke with a highly educated and traditionally aware Indian woman and we talked about the etymology, or history of certain words in our respective languages. I’ve always dug our (hers and my) philosophical and theoretical exchanges and on a particular night we were speaking of justice, balance, good and evil and their manifestation, war and all the rest. Eventually she used words to the effect: - I guess, in the old days, if someone had turned away so completely from the tribal values of the day – they need to be punished, sometimes executed. –
To this I responded, “I see, so you believe that’s how it was for your people?”
She looked at me and asked: “Are you telling me Cree people NEVER did any of those things, weren't abusers?”
I said: “Obviously, after a certain period in history, but prior to that…I doubt it.”
She asked: “You’re people didn’t abuse each other before contact?”
"Not to that degree, not like that. I’m certain there was aberrant behavior which was dealt with (strictly, I might add) but the specific kind of abuse you’re speaking of? – I don’t think so. We learned that…or it was a result of being overwhelmed emotionally, collectively…one doesn’t expect that a healthy person is going to do things like that, is capable of it. I don’t think Cree people are or were perfect by any means but I believe we were pretty healthy before the arrival. Now I can’t speak for your people just as I take it you are not speaking for all native groups, or Nations, when you say abuse of that type was present, or common. How could you possibly know that?"
"How can you think your people didn’t do those kinds of things?"
The clearest answer I could come up with: THERE WERE NO WORDS TO DESCRIBE IT. At this her expression told me she understood where I was going.
Follow me on this, reader: Something takes place, then it is described, named etc. but what does it mean if there are no words to describe something? My theory is that if there are no words to describe or name something, someone or an event, it doesn’t exist. My theory is that there was a time in my people’s history where types of conduct were unknown to our experience and imagination. That is, behavior so inconceivable, so counter or opposite to the precepts of our nature it just didn’t register (or had yet to) in the consciousness. How can there be words to describe or name something you cannot conceive, imagine or dream of? In our languages the world over we don’t define things that don’t exist. I hope the reader understands what I am explaining. Clearly, there have been rampant and ongoing types of abuse, on and by my people. But at one point in our history, there literally were no words to describe this occurrence. Think about what that could mean. To use another example, at one point, there were no words for jet airplane or the internet. These things had not yet been conceived. To me it’s entirely possible, plausible and likely certain things took place only after an inconceivable, unprecedented and overwhelming confluence of circumstances. It’s the only way they could happen.
The discussion also brought up an issue around protocol. Initially my friend’s assertive tone and her words struck me and I was moved to identify myself and make myself clear. I told my friend that with all due respect, she may very well have known these things about her people but as of that conversation and as a Cree person I was in possession of none of that knowledge. I felt bound to make explicit that I had received no information on the things (facts) she was attributing to other (including my) people from any reliable source and it was not useful for me to simply nod or agree and carry on my way. I calmly asked her. How do you know what you say? Where did you get that information? What was the source? Thankfully my friend understood what I was saying, HOW and WHY I was saying it. In that exchange we deepened our understanding of each other as members of our respective nations and each other as individuals.
Another friend, another conversation, and I am told how this person’s nation had very strict laws/protocols surrounding the fishing of rivers in their traditional area. She indicated to me that she knew of a story wherein two men were executed because they fished more than the allowable limit.
“They were executed?” I asked, genuinely shocked. “When was this?
“A long time ago…I’m not sure but it’s what happened.”
“In the spot we were at today,” she answered, referring to a section among the 2nd largest fresh water salmon run on the planet. And she went on to explain about needing to protect the yearly stocks and how the men had put the entire community in danger through over fishing and there were no exceptions and so on. I ask the reader to imagine how many fish the two men could possibly have taken where it would have put the entire community at risk, and this is back in the day? What were the rest of the fishers doing? Why would they do this? Where did they put all this fish? Capital punishment? How were they killed? *(sigh)…it’s not for me to contradict this person or this story but I admit I am dubious as there were no answers provided beyond sensational facts. But there you have it. I cannot speak with any authority to the authenticity of this story and I don’t share this anecdote to refute what the person shared but rather to indicate how my mind works. My guess is that this story remains active to deliver a message: DON'T OVERFISH! I have a very strong opinion of the humane and civilized laws and customs of my people (note we are of the Plains, a world away for all intents and purposes - a completely different landscape and therefore a completely different psychological and spiritual disposition, for what it’s worth) I personally reject most of these sensationalized, blood thirsty scenarios that many (often times, especially, my own) people love to rally around and that maintain the stoic, fierce type, shit kicker characterizations that have become so deeply entrenched in the collective imagination. Nobody, it seems, is free of this.
I share these different experiences to indicate that we learn from and about each other all the time. Misinformation is perpetuated on such a grand scale as I indicated in my experience in the classroom that, at times, it makes you wonder what use it is in even trying. Only at times though. Most days I have a pretty good bead on the things I experience and the people and places I encounter. To my satisfaction I can verify and support what I believe to be true about my people (or what I think I know *laughs). I can easily regulate my intellectual process and my daily spiritual practice maintains my emotional balance. The rest of my medicine wheel is a work in progress (laughs again). But in all seriousness, this is only one of the ways I assert my Nationhood - my idea of it. To call myself (Nehiyaw) Cree is to take on some responsibility regarding my words, my actions even my prayers (do you realize I am responsible for my thoughts as I prepare food? especially when it is for others). These things are real to me. I met a Cree guy at a reading that was gleefully spouting off to a whole bunch of white people about how back in the day you’d get your nose cut off for this and get an ear cut off for that and blah, blah, blah - torture methods of enemies and on and on and on. The audience loved it but does it honor or indicate the complexity and humanity of our people? Is it true? I tend to think it indulges our basest selves rather than exemplify the qualities of a human being we are endowed with.
This post began on the idea of the power of stories and hopefully it sheds light on how certain perspectives which have little or no basis in truth can become facts. Respectful skepticism, diligence and integrity (or lack of each) is what we each will bring to the exchange.
I realize no one is signing up for Champ’s Take On The World – (As It Really Could Be 101), it would be too outlandish to even consider, so what the hell, I may well just start a blog…hey wait a minute!...
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