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The Word for World is Story: Myth, Appropriation and Identity

Mark Dickinson

Dickinson asks why non-native, dominant Canadian society is interested in Indigenous myth to the extent of appropriating the stories and legends of place. Do Non-Indigenous people sense a lack of meaning in mainstream culture and seize on meaning-laden Indigenous cultures anchored in rich traditions of place and cosmology?

“My thesis is this: the ongoing cultural appropriation controversy is fuelled by a deficiency in the mythology of non-native peoples…It stems in large part from a system of beliefs cut off from the regenerative, restorative and cyclical powers of the natural world….settler culture has failed to produce a storytelling tradition that is ecologically fulfilling and meaningful…” (145).

Across cultures, traditional stories are not distraction but instruction, vital oral histories that offer metaphorical tracks offering direction and guidance. He gives the name “creation” to the process of discerning instructions on how to live (171). In effect, debates over cultural appropriation remind us to engage with the world itself again rather than our representations, to attend to non-human and natural relationships. Appropriation occurs when someone else speaks for others or “recruits the images, stories, experiences…of others for their own. Appropriation also occurs when someone else becomes the expert on your experience and is deemed as more knowledgeable about who you are than yourself” (Todd, 1990: 24). Indigenous critics have demanded a halt to writers depicting cultures other than their own (Coombe, 1997: 76), while writers argued back that “… no people or community or nation, and especially no political authority, can have exclusive rights to interpret its own history” (Bringhurst, 1999b: R3). Race thus became the “standard for many aboriginal critics in measuring aboriginal authenticity” (148) Identity rather than talent was foregrounded:

“Definitions based on race assume that the matter of racial identity imparts to the native writer a tribal understanding of the universe, access to a distinct culture, and a literary perspective that is unattainable by non-natives…What, for example, do we do with writers who are not Native by birth but whose experience and knowledge may make them more perceptive writers and commentators than many writers who are native by birth? When we talk about native writers, we talk as though we have a process for determining who is a native writer and who is not, when in fact we don’t…” (King, 1990: x-xi).

Dickinson discusses the controversy of Robert Bringhurst’s brilliant English retranslation of Haida mythtellers into the textual form of poetry. His multivolume work offers cultural insight and argued that the accomplishments in Haida oral literature (149). [By contrast to Bringhurst’s focus on the poetic quality and meaning, linguist John Enrico objected that by working with Haida Council and Elders who spoke then endangered language, his competing retranslations of the same material was more syntactically and lexically accurate]. Was Bringhurst’s new translation cultural appropriation?

“Releasing these stories into the public sphere beyond Haida Gwaay complicated traditional copyright which was based on the personal relationship between teller and story. It is the continual care of the story by the teller that justifies his or her right to speak it…. According to Bringhurst, this copyright protection was limitless in time and limited in space, extending only to the edge of the storyteller’s personal domain” (Bringhurst, 1999b: R3 cited p.149).

Dickinson notes that these positions advance competing “ethical matrices” of different cultural and legal traditions concerning how one works with the stories of others. “While Bringhurst locates this ethics in the relationship between story and teller, Weder argues that there are ethical responsibilities on the part of the writer to the community from which the stories originate” (150). By contrast, mainstream authors argued that they had no intention of asking permission of the “different people, pets, animals, reptiles, angels, and imaginary figures” whose voices they appropriated when writing fiction. However, this fails to recognize that “other storytellers in other storytelling traditions would not be so quick as to represent other beings on human terms only, especially when those other beings were considered well capable of expressing themselves in their own right through dreams, encounters, visions, and so on.” (149). “Applying both systems at once gives you cultural gridlock. So what do we do when the two intersect? That question is unanswered, as far as I’m aware” admitted Bringhurst (Bringhurst & Rigaud, 2001: 12 cited p.149).

Rather than adjudicating who can and can’t tell a story based on racial identity, Dickinson turns to generalized reciprocity not only between individuals but to the entire system of living entities:

“Stories are as alive as the breath that carries them from person to person (Bruchac, 1996: 73 cited p. 151)…The essence of the Indian attitude toward peoples, lands, and other life forms is one of kinship relations in which no element of life can go unattached from human society” (Deloria, 1999: 131; see also King, 1990)….These protocols include directions for the manner in which lives are taken, seeds are sown, remains are disposed of, propitiations are offered, rituals are maintained, and beings are celebrated in story, song and prayer, among other things (151-2).

Reciprocity and specific individual relations to other beings and parts of the environment that structure one’s identity are relations learned through visions and solitary quests. These relationships are celebrated in stories that contain both history and mythology but are not fiction. Reference to place intersects the natural world and the world of stories, which are bioregional and encourage contact with other forms of life and with place in these traditions. This context is an inextricable part, “a covenant of ecological relativity” (154). Such stories are thought to contain instructions from the world itself on how live. They promote a “kind of “dual citizenship,” reminding humans they have membership in two worlds — the human world with one set of responsibilities, and the natural world with another (Bringhurst & Steltzer, 1991)” (156). They represent the impressive achievement of the discovery of “an enduring vehicle through which the digested wisdom of insight and experience can be transmitted across generations” (157).

Storytelling follows a ritualized process and is rule-governed, including when stories are to be told – for not only humans but other beings, spirits and ancestors are listening and affected. With culture inseparable from land, Dickinson ties ancient stories to old growth wilderness. We “swim in stories”: Settler culture also has its mythology and beliefs but usually they do not take the natural world as their primary reference. The environment is a resource and a stage. However,

“When humans cease to feel they are surrounded by the world, and come instead to feel that they have the world surrounded, the perspective on which mythic thought depends has been inverted. Social mythologies, framed on the assumption that humans are surrounded only by other humans, not by a real world, are the usual result (Bringhurst, 2002b: 793)” (161).

Dickinson turns to Settler theorist George Grant, asking why Settler literature lacks an engagement with the world that gives the individual meaning. Was it technology? The move to pastoralism? In its historical battles to suppress local and earth-based beliefs, Grant argues that Christianity suppressed the numinous aspects of nature and place in favour of fixed and place-less dogma (164). The result is that Christianity in particular lacks ethical and moral structures to guide and balance how technology is wielded with nature. Without ecological bearings, co-authorship between the people and the environment was effectively severed (165). “A child raised to believe that a mountain is the abode of a protective spirit will be a profoundly different human being from a youth brought up to believe that a mountain is an inert mass of rock ready to be mined” (Davis, 2001: 52) (166).

The opposite of detachment is reciprocity. Together with the beliefs and stories that supported and rationalized it, ecological detachment led to a hunger for mythology and stories of place and nature characterized by reciprocity, the narrative ethic that is the basis of the ecological vitality of Indigenous storytelling. There is a risk that “increased interest in Native Culture has been a kind of panacea for the cultural loss of non-American people. Instead of taking a cross-cultural view built on the respect of differences, Western people are abandoning their own cultural traditions and appropriating those of native people, in effect “going native” (Hulan, 1998:215). But instead of “going native,” Dickinson suggests becoming “native to place.” We should develop a new relationship to the land and its life. Storytelling and literature has a crucial role to play in this reconciliation by giving form and meaning to the moment and to our world. We should not look to Indigenous cultures for stories to replace our own. Rather, they can teach the reciprocal ethics necessary to develop our own ecologically viable stories, relations and traditions by being in the world (Baucage 1995: 215).

Further references

Mark Dickinson’s book on five Canadian poets, Bringhurst among them, Canadian Primal: Poets, Places, and The Music of Meaning has been published very recently to a positive reception. Dickinson also co-authored Listening for the Heartbeat of Being: The Arts of Robert Bringhurst with Brent Wood.