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Tricksters (In the Shadow of Civilization)

Jim Cheney

(Unpublished lecture delivered at Aboriginal Peoples’ Conference, Lakehead University. Thunder Bay, October, 1996.)

“We live within multiple masked or ceremonial worlds, multiple songs of the world.”

— Jim Cheney

Cheney’s main interest in this essay is alienation in Western civilization and culture. He sees trickster figures in Indigenous thought and legends as allegorical figures speaking to this condition of alienation. He also points to the appropriation of Indigenous thought as a way to further Western cultural projects, which he hopes to avoid.

Turning to the early modern Italian philosopher Giambattista Vico, Cheney considers a theory of the development and decline of human institutions. In the work of literary scholar Robert Pogue Harrison, Vico’s theory also points to the “barbarism of reflection” that pervades most academic and intellectual production in the Western world.

Cheney sees this “barbarism of reflection” and exacerbation of irony as the root of alienation from both tradition and the earth. Harking back to the sources of Western philosophical tradition, Cheney, along with Harrison, sees in pre-Socratic philosophy “something very like the indigenous conception of ‘prehuman flux’ (Luckert, 1975), in which all animals (including humans) spoke the same language and could don one another’s coat at will”. This view of pre-Socratic philosophy as inseparable from myth also extends to the development of tragedy in ancient Greece.

According to Cheney and Harrison, it was with Socrates that Western philosophy turned “against the vegetative and animal origins of life” to an epistemological stance where “the essence of truth” was “idealized and formalized” in an “ideal realm of disembodied form”. In contrast with the narratives of tragedy that emerged from this idealism, Indigenous epistemology was rather born from a “comic realism,” which features in trickster narratives.

Tracing the influence of Socratic and Platonic philosophy on monotheism and Christianity, Cheney contrasts the “One Truth” to the “polyvocality” of Indigenous traditions and thought. The epistemology also extended into the secular, as the Enlightenment in many ways continued to rely on the “One Truth” in similar ways as Christianity.

The One Truth is projected away from the past, from tradition, and onto the future, just as the One God is projected away from the many voices of this earth. We live on a timeline which detaches us from the present and the earth, in an uneasy tension between the untruth of the past and the Truth of the future, in the mood of irony, detachment.

This detachment from the past culminates in detachment from the earth. It circles back to the “barbarism of reflection” in Vico and its interpretation by Harrison, which “feeds on irony and detachment” and perpetuates the epistemology of One Truth in Western traditions. Cheney conflates “God or Reason” to show how monotheism is less about religion than about the epistemology that obliterates the polyphony of voices in Indigenous traditions.

It is with this distinction between monotheistic epistemologies and Indigenous epistemologies that Cheney prepares the ground for his readings of tricksters in Indigenous stories. Rejecting the parallels between Indigenous tricksters and the Western picaros, as “the prevailing mood of the picaresque novel is irony,” and such novels are often read as satires, whereas in Indigenous stories, tricksters are not satirical figures. The Indigenous trickster, instead, has “an openness to life’s multiplicity and paradoxes” which is missing in the Western picaros.

Citing Gerald Vizenor (White Earth Chippewa), who identified “Native American storytellers [as] the first postmodernists,” Cheney parallels Indigenous epistemology with postmodern theories of multiplicity and the collapse of One Truth. Through attentive readings of trickster stories, this openness to multiplicity and paradoxes comes through in Cheney’s interpretations of the trickster figure Taugi in Kalapalo stories, Coyote stories from various Indigenous peoples, and the Raven in Haida poetry by Skaay.

Works by Jim Cheney

Lee Hester and Jim Cheney co-published “Truth and Native American Epistemology” in Social Epistemology (2001), and “Ceremonial Worlds and Environmental Sanity” in Strategies: Journal of Theory, Culture & Politics (2010). Cheney has also published several other articles in Environmental Ethics, such as “Environmental Ethics as Environmental Etiquette: Toward an Ethics-Based Epistemology” (1999) with Anthony Weston, “Postmodern Environmental Ethics: Ethics of Bioregional Narrative” (1989), and “The Neo-Stoicism of Radical Environmentalism” (1989). A more complete list of his publications is available on Google Scholar.