Jim Cheney (in the Shadow of Civilization)
In this paper I examine themes of irony and alienation endemic to the West and suggest that some of the tricksters so pervasive in indigenous thought speak to this condition of alienation. In relation to this theme I might mention one appropriation of indigenous thought specifically intended to further Western cultural projects that I am particularly concerned to avoid. Sean Kane, in Wisdom of the Mythtellers, addresses this temptation toward appropriation exactly when he says:
Vulnerable to the lure of ancient meaning . . . we can see too quickly in myth a release from our alienation. . . . [But] this redemptive promise is offered, not by an ancient humanity living within the earth’s allowances, but by a more recent agricultural humanity, continuous with our own, which has reinterpreted all other forms of mythic experience in the context of its own redemptive vision. . . . We forget that all the work that various peoples have done—all the work that peoples must do—to live with the Earth on the Earth’s terms is pre-empted by the dream of transcendence.
Echoing contrasting themes that I will develop, Kane continues: “What the mythtellers and the oral poets know is that truth cannot be captured in a solitary idea. . . . It tumbles about in the polyphonic stories told by the animals and birds and mountains and rivers and trees . . . in the play of exchanges among them” (255).
The West: Irony and Alienation
In his New Science (published in 1744), Giambattista Vico offers a theory of the development and decline of human institutions “governed by the law of entropy” (as Robert Pogue Harrison puts it in his remarkable study, Forests: The Shadow of Civilization, the title of which informed the title of my paper and upon which I draw freely in this section):
[O]nce the mind fully develops its powers of abstraction, critical reason becomes ironic. Reflecting on the pieties and customs of the past, irony discovers that they were based on errors and arbitrary beliefs. Thus a consciousness that has reached the stage of irony tends to repudiate the authority of tradition as lacking in either necessity or justification. An ever greater ironic distance from the past leads to skepticism about the institutions that had hitherto “preserved humanity”. . . . If such irony follows its course toward unrestrained cynicism, it can create the conditions for a new barbarism at the heart of the enlightened city of man. Vico calls it the “barbarism of reflection.” (Harrison 11)
Such peoples, Vico says, “have fallen into the custom of each man thinking only of his own private interests and have reached the extreme of delicacy, or better of pride. . . . Thus . . . they live . . . in a deep solitude of spirit” (Vico §1106). It is the development of this ironic sensibility and its attendant mood of alienation from both tradition and the earth that we now trace.
As Sean Kane has argued: “When civilization gains a greater hardness of purpose . . . the world of human effort is imagined to be pitted against a world of shadowy forces ‘out there’. . . . There is a paradox building up here. It involves an uncontrollable otherness that needs to be continually invoked as the necessary opposite to human order. In such a contest between the human will and . . . nature, the stage is set for the Greek tragedies” (239). This fateful contest plays itself out in Greek tragedy and subsequent Greek philosophy.
Early in its history something very like the indigenous conception of “prehuman flux” (Luckert: Chapter VII), in which all animals (including humans) spoke the same language and could don one another’s coats at will, is present in pre-Socratic materialist philosophy as what Harrison calls a “preformal kinship of all creation” (26). This kinship is given a tragic twist, however:
In the most extreme versions of pre-Socratic materialism, the mere fact of coming into being, or assuming form, entails a tragic estrangement from the source of being. The oldest fragment of Western philosophy, attributed to Anaximander, expresses the doctrine in a wondrous sentence: “Whence things have their origin, there they must also pass away according to the order of necessity; for they must pay penalty and be judged for their injustice, according to the ordinance of time.” (27)
Mythologically, the goddess Artemis “is the agent both of metamorphosis and the guardian of nature’s mysterious matrix of forms” (26), while Dionysos, “the mask of Artemis,” “is her emissary in the human world” (30). When Dionysos appears, “the city loses its mind. Piety, laws, and the civic order break down before his epiphany” (33), “all becomes indefinite in the Dionysian frenzy, for Dionysos, like Artemis, liquidates the boundaries of form” (34). Dionysos appears in Euripides’ The Bacchae “as the god who comes deliberately to unbind all that civic law binds together” (36). This opposition between civic order and “nature’s mysterious matrix” expresses itself in Greek thought as the tragic: “Tragedy . . . was a reminder that every founding law is also a fatal transgression—a transgression of some other law. Such is the essence of polytheism: a plurality of laws laying equal claim to legitimacy, often in strife with each other” (64).
Tragedy, in turn, gave way, Harrison argues,
to the triumphalistic claims of Socratic philosophy—its love of an abstract, nontragic wisdom that looked to contemplation—not Dionysian suffering—for its fulfillment. Turning against the vegetative and animal origins of life, Socrates idealized and formalized the essence of truth. . . . Whereas earthly forms had previously been seen to arise from the primordial, preformal matrix of nature, they now were seen to descend or derive from an ideal realm of disembodied form. This was the sort of idealism that turned Socrates into one of the greatest apologists of the city—its institutional abstraction from nature. (38)
The idealization of form, then, is a response to a tragically-conceived relationship between form and “nature’s mysterious matrix.” In contrast to this conception of existence as fundamentally tragic, Joseph Meeker has pointed out that the realism of comedy is closer to the “biological circumstances of life” (Meeker 38) than is the idealism of tragedy and the idealism of the Greek philosophy that followed. Exploring what he calls “the comedy of survival,” Meeker notes that
structures in nature . . . reveal organizational principles and processes which closely resemble the patterns found in comedy. Productive and stable ecosystems are those which minimize destructive aggression, encourage maximum diversity, and seek to establish equilibrium among their participants—which is essentially what happens in literary comedy. Biological evolution itself shows all the flexibility of comic drama and little of the monolithic passion peculiar to tragedy. . . . Like comedy, mature ecosystems are cosmopolitan. Whatever life forms may exist seem to have an equal right to existence, and no individual needs, prejudices, or passions give sufficient cause to threaten the welfare of the ecosystem structure as a whole. Necessity, of course, is real. All must eat and in turn be eaten, storms must come and go, and injustices must occur when so many rightful claimants contend. But that is just the point: Comedy and ecology are systems designed to accommodate necessity and to encourage acceptance of it, while tragedy is concerned with avoiding or transcending the necessity in order to accomplish the impossible. (41, 43-4)
Tragic idealism is maladaptive, whereas comic realism is tuned to biological existence. As we shall see in some indigenous peoples’ trickster narratives, comic realism, in one of its moods, is characteristic of many indigenous cultures.
Tragedy gave way to idealism and, in its wake, the Christian tradition, in which “the law of a single, universal God holds sway over the totality of creation. As a result this law has only its own shadow to fear. The Christian revolution in the West puts an end to tragedy as the highest form of wisdom, for Christianity (like Platonism) promises a happy ending” (Harrison 64). With the rise to dominance of monotheism, polyvocality (whether tragically or comically conceived) is silenced. There is only the One Law and its outcast shadow, with its critical, dialectical and, above all, ironic voice. Discordant voices live in the shadow of the One Law.
This “monotheism” can take a secular as well as a religious form. In the secular world the One Law of “monotheism” takes the form of an Enlightenment conception of the One Truth. Epistemology bends its efforts toward the search for certainty, the method which will bring to light the One Truth, in the shadow of which live prejudice, “myth,” “tradition,” superstition, the many voices of polyvocal worlds with their sense of multiple truths. The voice of irony achieves its apotheosis in the Enlightenment, the post-Christian era, “broadly defined,” by Harrison, “in terms of historical detachment from the past” (107). In “the shadow of Enlightenment ideology,” Harrison says, we find “the ghost of irony . . . irony as the trope which . . . holds sway over the post-Christian era as a whole. Irony is the trope of detachment” (108).
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. “Detachment from the past . . . culminates in one way or another with detachment from the earth. . . . Western civilization has decided to promote institutions of dislocation in every dimension of social and cultural existence. The international hegemony of these institutions—metropolis, economy, media, ideology—has led to an aggravated confusion about what it means to dwell on the earth” (198-9).
The mood of irony generates at one and the same time, as two sides of the same coin, moral idealism (as opposed to moral realism) and a corrosive “barbarism of reflection.” Moral idealism is linked by Harrison to the timeline of ironic detachment by way of the notion of the One Truth: “Worshippers of the light, believers in ideas, lovers of the open horizon—these strong and indomitable Western races subdued the forests long ago. Now Western Enlightenment spreads abroad, bringing its light to places that have yet to conquer the darkness. The light of that torch is fueled by morality—the European virtues of faith, heroism, and self-sacrifice” (134). But this is the “light” of a false dawn, merely one of the inflections of Vico’s “barbarism of reflection,” for it, too, feeds on irony and detachment: “[T]here is nothing else to feed on at this extremity of knowledge. Irony is the innermost truth of a civilization that knows how to lie to itself about itself” (141). “The barbarism of reflection entails deceit, the ‘soft words’ of irony. Veils of benevolent rhetoric conceal treacherous intentions” (137).
Much is at stake here. The One Law of Truth brings with it detachment from tradition and an ironic relationship to the present. In the condition of ironic detachment the dwelling place of Truth, of Enlightenment, is the future. Or, as an inflection of this, we dwell in the mood of nostalgia, the search for a lost Truth (156). Either way, the Enlightenment mood is fundamentally that of a search for origins or foundations, whether they be in an edenic past or utopian future, or in the timeless transcendence of God or Reason—both understood as the One Truth. The search for one’s “roots” (in this sense) is of a piece with the search for the “foundations” of knowledge. The present is radically out of joint with both past and future, and so the search is for redemption, redemption from the shadows into the light of the One Truth. The quest is ineluctably monotheistic.
Tricksters in the Mood of Irony
We might expect that Euro-American readings of trickster literature would reflect projections from the cultural contexts from which these readings emerge; and so they do. It is the purpose of the present section to indicate something of the Enlightenment flavor of much of the analysis of trickster literature. In a later section I will suggest a reading more in line with post-Enlightenment (or post-Modern) philosophy.
A close reading of the literature on tricksters shows, I think, that they are most often read through the lens of Enlightenment conceptions of Truth and historical evolution or devolution. Drawing extensively on the work of Franchot Ballinger, I focus here on one example—namely, that of the assimilation of tricksters to the picaro that figures in Western picaresque novels. This, as Ballinger notes, is part of a wider tendency to use the term ‘trickster’ in reference to “certain popular culture heroes and Euro-American literary characters as well: the Romantic outlaw, the con man, and particularly the fictional picaro” (1991-2: 21).
“To be sure,” Ballinger says,
there are general similarities between Trickster and the picaro that make them appear to be blood brothers: both are heroes of adventures recounted episodically; both are roguish travelers whose transgressions against moral and civil strictures place them in marginal relationship to their societies; both are said to be ambiguous figures; and both seem to serve satirical ends. However, there are such fundamental differences between the two, growing from their respective cultures’ ontologies, and, of course, social configurations, that the similarities pale and it is clear that we are looking at two quite different characters. (1991-2: 21)
The social marginality of both tricksters and picaros (in addition to their comic character, of course) is the link between the two for Western authors. This turns out to be a tenuous link, however, for “the characters’ marginality is of quite different sorts and the humor is thus directed to different ends” (1991-2: 21).
The prevailing mood of the picaresque novel is irony. Picaresque novels are satires of the failings of particular historical societies. The picaro is either a reflection of (embodies) faults of the society—from which he has been marginalized because society refuses to believe, or cannot see, that the picaro’s failings are but a reflection of more general social failings—or the picaro is “foil rather than . . . mirror” (1991-2: 22) of a corrupt society, and “represents a promise of a superior moral order and harmony” (1991-2: 23). “Given these qualities,” Ballinger says, “there is a disquieting mixture of cynicism and idealism in many stories of the European picaresque tradition” (1991-2: 26). Cynicism and idealism—traits central to the Age of Irony we examined in the last section. “[T]he marginal picaro creates ambiguity in a society that . . . cannot endure ambiguity” (1991-2: 28). The picaro, Ballinger says, “is the victim of the selective moral-ontological breeding attending the Western Judaeo-Christian search for moral certitude” (1991-2: 36). The picaro clearly roams in the shadow of the One Law. The mood of irony prevails in the search for Truth.
Tricksters stand in high contrast to the ironic figure of the picaro; the marginality of tricksters evokes a vastly different world. Tricksters are as far removed from the picaro as indigenous worlds are from the Western world of irony and Truth Harrison describes.
To begin with, tricksters are not satirical figures in the way the picaro is. Defining satire as “the use of humor and irony to expose folly and vice so as to effect change in human behavior” (1991-2: 23), Ballinger argues persuasively that (contrary to Radin and Ricketts) trickster behavior is not to be understood as satirical of either shamans or social norms and institutions. The humor, rather, is directed at the trickster (and the trickster in us). Ridicule is directed, for example, at the trickster who “would imitate without the right—whether by initiation or sacred character—shamans or any other being with mysterious powers” (1991-2: 23-4).
“Most importantly,” Ballinger says, “we can see in the Native American trickster an openness to life’s multiplicity and paradoxes largely missing in the modern Euro-American moral tradition” (1991-2: 21). Tricksters do not exist in the shadow of tribal searches for certitude in social norms and institutions, satirizing in an ironic mode its benighted attempts to achieve these goals. There is no closure in trickster stories: tricksters remain marginal, they do not exist in some shadow that will pass when Truth is achieved. As Ballinger puts it, tricksters “remain structurally and mythically marginal” (1991-2: 29). “What makes Trickster mythically powerful is that he embodies all, reveals all raw reality. He has the power of reality in his hands, prodigal though he is, for like the sacred center, all flows in to him and in his travels he touches all directions” (1991-2: 34).
The other side of this coin that “reveals all raw reality” is that tricksters define “the psychic-moral limits and nature of our humanity” (1991-2: 26). Far from the cynicism and idealism that characterizes picaresque tales, is the “cautionary and realistic” (1991-2: 26; see also Cordova) nature of the expectations for people carried by trickster tales.
There is, nonetheless, some point in likening the picaro to tricksters in that this serves to contrast a tragic conception of human existence with what Joseph Meeker has called the “comedy of survival.” What we see in Ballinger’s analysis is that the comedy of survival, so nicely typified in biological systems, plays itself out quite differently in various cultural settings. Cultures get the tricksters they deserve, so to speak. The ironic mood of Enlightenment alienation and its quest for foundations brought forth the picaro. Although the cultures in which they occur are vastly different, tricksters and picaros are recognizably related (though far from identical), as Meeker’s sketch of the picaro shows:
The picaro’s birth is generally obscure, often illegitimate, suggesting both his lack of social status and the absence of any sense of tradition or continuity with the past. The chaotic social environment in which he grows up has no niche prepared for him, and he soon discovers that he must create whatever success he can from the rawest of materials at hand. His experiences quickly awaken him to the realization that no one will help him, that there is no obvious plan or order in the world, and that his survival or failure will depend upon his own inventiveness. . . . The picaro notes the chaotic complexity of society . . . , but he reasons that he must meet it by becoming more complex himself, not by seeking simplicity. (88-9)
It would be interesting and enlightening to study in detail the various tricksters that find their way into the literature of very different cultures. The stress in such studies should, however, be on the differences between these tricksters (and hence the differences between the cultures), the ways in which the “comedy of survival” plays itself out in differing cultures.
Oral Traditions and the Postmodern
In a recent interview, Gerald Vizenor (White Earth Chippewa) says that “Native American storytellers were the first postmodernists” (McCaffery and Marshall: 53). Vizenor’s point is that indigenous peoples in oral traditions were responsive to the situated nature of knowledge. It was, in fact, literacy that pretended to lift knowledge out of its context, producing timeless, context-independent Truths (cf. Ong). Responding to this, contemporary reader response theory, which evolved within postmodern literary theory, argues that all texts, even those that pretend to the greatest objectivity, are heavily contextualized. Even the so-called raw data collected by an anthropologist from an informant is what it is in part as a function of the interview conditions within which the ‘raw data’ are collected. Reader response theory adds the reader into the mix as another dimension of the context which shapes meaning. Meaning doesn’t simply preexist in the text for the reader to extract. Meaning emerges as a function of the dynamic interaction of reader and text (See Sarris).
If Vizenor is right in thinking that oral traditions resemble postmodernist views to a far greater extent than they resemble modernist views (and I think he is), my suggestion is that precisely because postmodernism developed against the foil of modernism, whereas traditional, premodern cultures did not buy into anything like modernism —the search for Truth and the mood of alienation and irony within which this search was (is) conducted—the differences (as well as the similarities, of course) between contemporary postmodernism and “premodern postmodern” oral traditions should offer interesting insights into both.
In sections that follow I look at two examples of ‘postmodern’ (premodern postmodern) tricksters: Taugi, the Kalapalo psychological ‘postmodern’ trickster and Raven, the Haida ecological ‘postmodern’ trickster.
Taugi (Kalapalo): A Psychological ‘Postmodern’ Trickster
In this section I follow closely Ellen Basso’s ground-breaking work, In Favor of Deceit: A Study of Tricksters in an Amazonian Society. Her study is both valuable and (so far as I know) unique in that she places her understanding of Kalapalo tricksters squarely within her understanding of Kalapalo culture. Critical of both early and recent studies for focussing on themes and elements of character, on “what makes Trickster different from others”—an approach that leaves us “invariably restricted by a functional theory of the significance of a few attributes of a character’s demeanor or identity[,] . . . usually the more sensational attributes” (5)—Basso argues that we must instead attempt to establish connections between tricksters in a culture’s stories and that culture’s understanding of human experience and interpersonal behavior.
We have to focus attention on what are clearly special qualities of intelligence in the actions of these preeminently deceitful characters. . . . [T]he playful subterfuges of Kalapalo tricksters, their wildly speculative thought, concrete inventiveness, fascination with tinkering, and seemingly capricious and uninhibited experimentation are often belied by the careful planning and cunning foresight that accompany their experiments. The very attributes that make such tricksters inventive heroes and clownish fools in the first place are, after all, natural necessities of human intelligence, operating in practical, concrete, face-to-face relations that people negotiate all the time. . . . (8)
Reflection on tricksters’ behavior—in particular, tricksters’ tendency toward deceit and the creation of illusion—is at the same time reflection on epistemological dimensions of relations between humans. Illusionary consciousness and deceitful action “are treated by the Kalapalo as if they were naturally, even usefully, part of the human condition, not just exotic peculiarities of mythological characters who live in a confused and ridiculous past” (355-6).
The Social Context of Knowledge: Validation Versus Truth
Ellen Basso’s study shows that, at least with respect to social, interpersonal matters, the notion of Truth plays little if any role in Kalapalo culture. The concept that fills the social space that Truth fills in Western culture is that of validation. Whether in narrative dialogues or in conversations and greetings, there occurs an ongoing process of ratification or validation of what is being said. In storytelling situations a “responder-ratifier (‘whatsayer,’ tiitsofo)” is an essential contributor to the development of the story as it is being told by, for example, letting the speaker know that “the images he or she is constructing are understood, appreciated, and agreed with,” and by changing the direction of the story. “At the end of the story, a listener sums up what was said, letting the narrator know . . . that he or she agrees with the narrator’s conclusion” (234). Similarly in conversation, where, “[i]n particular, what are affirmed are the feelings that are the motivation or specific reasons for goals and plans, and sensory descriptions of events” (235). “Validation for the Kalapalo is a matter of willingness to share an imagined or dreamed configuration—a motive, plan, goal, sensory description, interpretation. To do otherwise, to disagree, or to refuse to validate, is not so much to deny the truth of the other person’s vision (that is, to focus in some way on the logic of the argument) as it is to hesitate or even refuse to share that vision. Thus it becomes an interpersonal matter” (237).
Validation is important for reasons of social cohesion. Differences of opinion can be quickly disruptive and, for the Kalapalo, “the ‘truth’ of the interpersonal relationship takes precedence over the propositional truth of the parties’ statements. Another point of view . . . threatens the basis of their society.” Through validation “a way of life that all have agreed is worth living is perpetuated” (239).
Epistemology: Illusionary Consciousness
The emphasis on validation rather than Truth suggests that Kalapalo epistemology differs significantly from epistemologies closely tied to modernist conceptions of Truth. Instructive in this regard is the Kalapalo’s attitude toward deception in the process of validation.
The Kalapalo term for “illusion,” “fabrication,” “deception,” “delusion,” “slander,” “lie,” “mistake” (auginda), in contrast to Western uses of these terms,
refers to action that imposes an alternative sense of reality upon some subject of speech. Our sense of “lying” revolves around our concern with propositional truth, and the violation of conversational “sincerity.” For the Kalapalo, however, whether something someone says is “true” or “false” is far less interesting to them than that the statement “changes” or “hides” or “masks” something known or imagined, a matter that the listener assumes to be shared knowledge. Also, “deception” involves speech that . . . is unvalidated. . . . To use the word auginda thus makes one focus less upon the propositional content of what is said . . . than upon the fact that a different point of view or experience of an activity is being shared and expressed in dialogical context. (242)
For the Kalapalo, “deceit has less to do with truth or falsehood than with enactment of an illusionary relationship. Such a relationship does not depend upon validation and acceptance of responsibility, and may actually exist independently of them. In other words, illusionary relationships involve legitimate assertions of personal difference and of independence from society” (3).
What is at first glance puzzling and paradoxical is that even though validation is of central cultural importance for the Kalapalo and while deceit, as we have just noted, stands outside validation in various ways, yet the Kalapalo are endlessly fascinated with deceit and, in fact, put a positive spin on the notion:
[The] Kalapalo understand the special quality of human life to be our ability to create illusions through verbal and visual fabrications. Through these fabrications, many of the forms and processes of experience are constituted and made intelligible. “Illusionary consciousness” (as I call both the processes and resulting understandings) is what makes people distinctive, accounting for their curiosity, their dreaming and inventiveness, their sly cunning, and most of all their love of intrigue and chicanery. While people also have a more detached, focused, anticipated, detailed, and concretely sensory “material consciousness,” which they share with other living forms, it is their ability to create . . . illusions that separates humans from the rest of the natural world. (2)
This situation is paradoxical only from the point of view of the Western conception of the One Law (or Truth) and its shadow. Basso suggests understandings of epistemology, self, and society for which this paradox dissolves. These understandings also help us see the sense in which tricksters can be central to indigenous peoples’ understandings of themselves while at the same time wandering on the margins of social order. This characterization is certainly true of Taugi, the most prominent trickster in Kalapalo narratives: “[Taugi’s] actions are unratified and invalid, or even incapable of receiving validation. . . . Taugi’s actions are therefore not developed through dialogue . . . but monologically in his mind—or, for Kalapalo, through the spell-laden musical mentation of the trickster’s itseketu [power]. (In other stories . . . people are musically enchanted by Taugi, instead of being convinced or even coerced through speech. At best, they only protest ineffectually to one another. At worst, they are destroyed outright.)” (274). Yet Taugi is important not only by way of contrast to important Kalapalo values but because of the centrality of deceit and illusionary consciousness to Kalapalo society. Reality and self are indeed multifaceted.
Basso connects the concept of illusionary consciousness with various practices of Kalapalo and other indigenous cultures seemingly designed to break the grip of unified, focussed consciousness (what Basso calls “material consciousness”). Rather than search for criteria of Truth, the Kalapalo and others look for modes of accessing other dimensions of reality:
For the Kalapalo, the manner of seeing influences the kind of understanding that takes place. For this reason, they often allude to instances of material and illusionary consciousness by using visual imagery. Thus, the fixed, direct gaze and a lively, healthy, alert state of material consciousness are contrasted with the sideward glance and the oblique view, dreaming, and the hallucinatory vision of the narcotized shaman and the perilously sick, all instances of illusionary consciousness. But, more narrowly, the activities involving illusion (and especially “deception”. . . ) are most directly associated with our ability to speak, and with the genealogical connections between various primordial tricksters and human beings, who have descended from them. These tricksters are, more than anything else, verbally deceptive beings. For the Kalapalo, language is inseparable from people’s illusionary sensibility, and especially from their ability to deceive one another. It is the ability to speak, in other words, that makes human relationships ambiguous. (2-3)
Basso explicitly connects tricksters’ inconsistent, paradoxical behavior and ability to experience inconsistency with “dissolving or scattering the self in order to achieve a new personal understanding, a new identity” (7) that she suspects might be involved in quests for visions and guardians. During a discussion of the Winnebago trickster cycle collected by Radin, Basso asks,
Could there have been expectations that during these crucial life events the world suddenly lost its normal structure, or that a destructured world came into being, and with it the self of the seeker became deconstructed? To what extent were the orgies of self-abandonment connected with war-bundle rituals attempts to reclaim these experiences of a destructured world? If we could answer these questions, we might understand more clearly the various ways personal Winnebago events achieved significance through the sacred trickster narratives. (8)
Here we begin to see the importance of trickster narratives for a culture’s understanding of itself. Basso concludes her study of Kalapalo tricksters with these words:
Most anthropologists have been accustomed to working with an idea of a fixed psychic structure, generalized over all situations and goals. That there are so many difficulties involved in generalizing about tricksters has long been fascinating and perplexing. However, if the idea of fixed psychic structure is questioned . . . then the contradictions in the patterns of a trickster’s action need not be viewed as anomalous or paradoxical. In fact, to the Kalapalo, those characters whose action is stable and falls into a general pattern, whose goals and modes of orientation to them seem not to vary, are regarded as excessively compulsive and inflexible, and, ultimately, as failures of imagination. Pragmatic creativity and flexibility, the ability to conceive of more than a single kind of relation with other people, and the ability to fashion or invent a variety of thoughts about one’s capacity as an agent, is, on the other hand, entirely human. . . . Finally, what may appear to some to be an ambiguous sense of flux and of indeterminacy in trickster stories can be understood more positively as a kind of stroboscopic sense of multiple possibilities. This vision fixes in a didactic, narrative frame the complex transiency of experience and the sense of many different experiential worlds existing side by side. (356-7)
Closely related to the idea of the plural self revealing the multiple dimensions of reality—tricksters being the heightened exemplars of the scattering of the self epistemologically necessary to access this plural universe—is Mary Douglas’s suggestion that tricksters have “a social function of dispelling the belief that any given social order is absolute and objective” (Doty and Hynes 21). As William J. Hynes puts it (quoting Douglas) “Perhaps the greatest empowerment that the trickster brings is the excitement and hope occasioned by ‘the suggestion that any particular ordering of experience may be arbitrary and subjective’” (212).
After discussing the role of the clown in the Navajo Night Chant as “a test, a challenge to order,” Barre Toelken says,
I think the position of Coyote . . . is roughly analogous to this kind of challenge.
. . . Yellowman sees Coyote as an important entity in his religious views precisely because he is not ordered. He, unlike all others, experiences everything; he is, in brief, the exponent of all possibilities. Putting this together with Yellowman’s comments . . . that Coyote makes it possible for things to happen (or for man to envision the possibility of certain things occurring), it seems to me that Coyote functions in the oral literature as a symbol of that chaotic Everything within which man’s rituals have created an order for survival. Man limits (sometimes severely) his own participation in everything, but remains responsive to the exercise of moral judgment on all things. Man, in ordering his life, thus uses certain devices to help conceive of order—in this case stories which dramatize the absence of it. The Coyote materials, then, may be seen as ways of conceptualizing, of forming models of those abstracts which are at the heart of Navaho religion. (230-31; see also Cheney )
The worlds of indigenous peoples are as far removed from the One Law (and its shadow) as can be. Neither do they fall into the subtle traps of postmodernism—which are triggered by its close proximity to the modernism it critiques.
Postmodernism (at least in its most influential forms) and indigenous cultures escape modernism’s fixation on the One Truth in related but ultimately very different ways. While for postmodernism “It’s words all the way down” and ‘truth’ (now in small letters and scare quotes) is “negotiated,” for indigenous peoples issues of truth don’t arise in the same metaphysical way they do in the West (whether postmodern or modern) because for indigenous peoples “It’s world all the way up.” Whereas for postmodernism ‘truth’ is a matter of social construction and negotiation, for indigenous peoples truth (or the multifaceted faces of reality) is revealed—the world from time to time reveals yet another of its many dimensions. Reality is many masked, and is revealed in the masked, ceremonial worlds of indigenous cultures. Masks—as deceit shows—may cover up dimensions of reality, but more importantly, they reveal. The masked nature of reality—and the importance of masks in indigenous cultures—is an index of reality’s multiplicity. While for indigenous peoples the world unfolds in multiple masks, for a postmodernist such as Richard Rorty this unfolding is reduced to multiple “conversations of mankind.”
In contrast to modernism, the indigenous view is that humans are epistemologically limited not so much by error or by the world’s inaccessibility to direct inspection as by the fact that reality is so multifaceted that we are limited only in our imaginative (rather than metaphysical) ability to tap the multifaceted reality that surrounds us.
“Why tell the [Coyote] stories?” Barre Toelken asks Yellowman (Navajo).
“If my children hear them, they will grow up to be good people; if they don’t hear them, they will turn out to be bad.” Why tell them to adults? “Through the stories everything is made possible.”
Why does Coyote do all those things, foolish on one occasion, good on another, terrible on another? “If he did not do all those things then those things would not be possible in the world.” Yellowman thus sees Coyote . . . as an enabler whose actions, good or bad, bring certain ideas and actions into the field of possibility. . . . (Toelken: 221-2)
Similarly, Ballinger says that as Trickster “violates the rules, as he gives free reign to his multifarious personality, and as he thus shapes the world, he also shapes human perception” (1991-2: 34). And, again:
If we non-Native Americans are going to write and talk of Trickster’s ambiguity, it might be well to remember—paradoxical though it seems—the term’s etymology: ambigere, from the Latin, to wander about. Trickster wanders beyond conventional order and among the many poles of the real world. . . . And where Trickster wanders there is a mosaic of values and truths to experience, just as the Navajo patient’s symbolic journey in a sing exposes him to the sources of complex universal spiritual powers.(1991-2: 32)
[A]s he travels defying the norms, Trickster swallows all, classifications and cracks, in his ravenous and extravagant appetite for life. What makes Trickster mythically powerful is that he embodies all, reveals all raw reality. He has the power of reality in his hands, prodigal though he is, for like the sacred center, all flows into him and in his travels he touches all directions. (Ballinger 1991-2: 34)
In another article, Ballinger (1989) again notes the similarities between trickster wandering narratives and other indigenous journey narratives such as those of the Navajo. The Navajo tales follow a typical scenario; as Sam Gill puts it:
The heroes, invariably in the process of a journey, enter forbidden territories or violate some regulation that is often unknown to them. As a consequence, they suffer in any number of ways, even to almost complete annihilation. When the heroes are unable to get out of their predicaments, mythological figures with special powers come to aid and relieve their suffering by performing ceremonials that restore them and also initiate the heroes into knowledge of the ceremonial ways. (25)
“Trickster’s wanderings are both an embodiment of this pattern of mythic journeys . . . and a comic inversion of the process” (Ballinger 1989: 17).
Tricksters wander farther than these mythic heroes, however. The hero stories, although they do open out on to new dimensions of reality, are linked to the introduction of new rituals into the community. Tricksters wander into domains that are not (except by comic inversion) brought back into the culture’s social structure. As Basso might put it, tricksters explore dimensions of behavior that are not, or even cannot be, validated within the culture’s social structure. Yet tricksters’ behavior does not for that reason function merely as a foil against which social norms are instituted, articulated, or justified. The relationship between trickster behavior, social norms, and daily Kalapalo life is considerably more complex than this. As we have seen, illusionary relationships, of which Taugi is master, “involve legitimate assertions of personal differences and of independence from society” (3) and, for the Kalapalo at least, Taugi’s trickster attributes are “natural necessities of human intelligence, operating in practical, concrete, face-to-face relations that people negotiate all the time” (8; see Rice for similar comments concerning Iktomi, spider, the Sioux trickster).
In a culture that prizes social validation, trickster stories figure prominently in deliberation concerning the relationship between the individual and society:
Kalapalo stories about deceit are about how enacted emotions give meaning to particular contexts, relationships, and goals, and thereby create several discrete points of view. . . . The stories are extended commentaries on particular processes of awareness, not strictly of “self,” but of the mutuality of selves, of a sense of personal difference that nonetheless moves toward negotiation and comprehension, often aiming toward reconciliation. Resolution is not always achieved, it is true. More often, discrete points of view remain forever distinct and apart from each other. The evidence of deception is of primary importance in developing this awareness of mutuality and personal distinctiveness. The conclusion is that the Kalapalo understand deception to be a fundamental mode of insight and understanding in human thought. (351)
While Taugi’s actions cannot be validated, “the destructive and unforeseen consequences of his deceptive actions . . . seem inevitable adjuncts to his particular kind of creative imagination” (111), an imagination that is valued by the Kalapalo. Further, and more complexly,
While his actions can’t be validated, there is an ambiguity to them that we see in the consequences he attributes to them. Thatching grass is no longer easy to work with [due to Taugi’s misanthropic behavior], but the very fact that it is now an unpleasant and difficult material to work with makes human beings stronger, since they are forced by necessity to work harder. It is in such hidden consequences that Taugi’s trickster character achieves its most optimistic form of expression. (275)
In sum: “There is a sense in these stories of reality developed through paradox and contradiction, an emphasis on transiency and multiple identities and powers, that suggests a skeptical view of a fixed and invariant sensory universe, one that differs markedly from our own concern to keep separate genuineness, naturalness, normality, honesty, and the morally good on the one hand, and deception, falsehood, paradox, and evil on the other” (2).
Tricksters and Culture: Comedy
Robert Pogue Harrison, as we have seen, offers a tragic reading of pluralism, of polytheism and polyvocality: “Tragedy . . . was a reminder that every founding law is also a fatal transgression—a transgression of some other law. Such is the essence of polytheism: a plurality of laws laying equal claim to legitimacy, often in strife with each other” (64). Understanding the historical movement from polytheism to monotheism as a movement from tragedy to comedy, Harrison also understands comedy as essentially ironic.
In the Judeo-Christian tradition . . . the law of a single, universal God holds sway over the totality of creation. As a result this law has only its own shadow to fear. The Christian revolution in the West puts an end to tragedy as the highest form of wisdom, for Christianity (like Platonism) promises a happy ending. You have only to choose it, by turning to the light of God. In its insistence that the happy or sorrowful outcome (damnation or salvation) depends upon free will and no longer upon a fatal order of necessity . . . , Christianity effectively destroys the ideological basis of tragedy. . . . A new “comedy” pervades the ideology of law in all its instantiations. (64)
Comedy, in Harrison’s portrayal of it, appears in the shadow of the One Law and is “essentially ironic, dialectical, and critical” (64). It is nonetheless comedy because the One Law (whether secular or sacred) promises a happy ending.
But just as there is a pluralism, a polyvocality, that is not tragic— namely, that of the worlds of indigenous peoples—so there is a comedy that is not ironic in Harrison’s sense—namely, that which does not live in the shadow of the One Law, in the mood of detachment and alienation. This is Meeker’s “comedy of survival,” a comedy at work in biological systems as well as in the worlds of indigenous peoples and embodied in their tricksters.
Indigenous clowns and tricksters engage in a kind of deconstructive burlesque in relationship to the prevailing social structure (Cheney 1995). But this burlesque, as Ballinger (1991-2) has argued, is not to be understood as critical satire. It is, among other things, a celebration of polyvocality, a denigration of the presumption to Truth that social structures can easily slide into if not subjected to the mocking burlesque of clowns and tricksters. As Yellowman said, “Through the [Coyote] stories everything is made possible,” “If [Coyote] did not do all those things, then those things would not be possible in the world” (Toelken 221). Tricksters reveal the masked, polyvocal nature of reality to us, the comedy of survival in a many-voiced world. Clowns and tricksters release perception from the grip of the conventional.
Comedy is not a philosophy of despair or pessimism, but one which permits people to respond with health and clear vision despite the miseries the world has to offer. Its mode is immediacy of attention, adaptation to rapidly changing circumstances, joy in small things . . . the love of life and kinship with all its parts, the sharpening of intelligence, complexity of thought and action, and strategic responsiveness to novel situations. It permits people to accept themselves and the world as they are, and it helps us to make the best of the messes around us and within us. (Meeker 11)
We live within multiple masked or ceremonial worlds, multiple songs of the world. This is true of cultures generally, but is perhaps more obvious in the case of indigenous peoples, given Western fixation on the One Law. Leslie Marmon Silko expresses the ceremonial nature of the world this way in her novel Ceremony:
“But you know, grandson, this world is fragile.”
The word he chose to express “fragile” was filled with the intricacies of a continuing process, and with a strength inherent in spider webs. . . . It took a long time to explain the fragility and intricacy because no word exists alone, and the reason for choosing each word had to be explained with a story about why it must be said this certain way. That was the responsibility that went with being human
. . . and this demanded great patience and love. (36-7)
Language, when well-wrought and mindful, gracious, is at once a distillation of experience and the creation of delicate and ceremonial worlds, human worlds within the larger and defining dimensions of more-than-human worlds. “Spirituality and artistic creativity are not special powers provided so that humans can transcend the natural world, but features of human biological development useful for connecting humanity more deeply with the world” (Meeker 155). Commenting on the autobiographical narrative of Iron Teeth, a Northern Cheyenne woman, Peter Nabokov says that “her testimony seemed to exemplify how a lifetime of taking spoken words as seriously as breaking horses or scraping hides might economize the memory toward some transcendent narrative clarity” (147).
Our uses of language are actions, practices within, and generative of, ceremonial worlds. Western culture emphasizes the information content of language and story and hence an understanding of language as mirror of the world. But language is primarily action, generative of the worlds within which we live, breathe, and have our being, our identity. We must take care what worlds we generate.
Diamond Jenness reports a Carrier Indian of the Bulkley River as saying: “The white man writes everything down in a book so that it might not be forgotten; but our ancestors married the animals, learned their ways, and passed on the knowledge from one generation to another” (540). What does “knowledge” mean here? It means that Carrier Indians pass down the means—the stories, the ceremonies, the rituals—of creating, or recreating, the worlds, the ceremonial worlds, within which the ancestors lived. These stories, ceremonies, and rituals, when written down, come to be understood as information. The white man wants to know what beliefs are encoded in the utterances of indigenous peoples, he wants to treat these utterances as mirrors of indigenous worlds. But the utterances function primarily to produce these worlds. The white man is concerned with ontology, correct descriptions of indigenous worlds. Indigenous people are concerned with right relationship to those beings that populate the ceremonial world; indigenous people are concerned with mindfulness.
The ceremonial nature of cultural reality tends toward the ideal, or idealized, however. Tricksters complement this ceremonial world and reveal its masked quality. Tricksters wander outside masked reality, illuminating it, making it real. As Ballinger puts this, “what is true in ceremony is not necessarily true in the exigencies of the human condition. . . . [M]odel[s] of cosmic order . . . must compete existentially with the concrete, daily experience of paradox, precariousness and the threat of disorder. . . . Ritual may be a model of belief; Trickster, on the other hand, is a comic dramatization of experience flying in the face of ritual” (1991-2: 30-1). Utopias or ceremonies without tricksters are deadly idealisms. For this reason, we may suppose, tricksters are built right into the heart of indigenous cultures. In the West, however, tricksters (such as they are) are split off—they live, like the picaro, in the shadow of the One Law.
The Kalapalo perception of tricksters is, it seems to me, typical of many indigenous tricksters. Taugi represents the full range of human possibilities—possibilities that humans must ponder, contend with, and sometimes make use of.
Taugi’s pedigree is complex and varied. Taugi creates human beings; they are in his lineage. Taugi’s grandfather is the creator Kwatingi, a person of “shiningly creative, imaginative intelligence” (Basso 23), an exemplar of the central Kalapalo values, “funita (‘loving,’ ‘cherishing,’ ‘compassionate’) and ifutisu (‘respecting’) an ideal of inner control, dignity, and generosity” (24). Taugi’s father, on the other hand, is Nitsuegi, the Black Jaguar, who “represents in the extreme the creature the Kalapalo consider most dangerous to human beings” (26). Taugi (and his twin brother), then
strikingly combine the human attributes passed on to their mother from . . . Kwatingi (creative imagination, technological inventiveness, compassion, love, respect) with the violent character of their self-centered, unsympathetic father. The result is creativity and invention that can be extended sympathetically to people, but which can as often be steeped in self-centered violence. The twins’ moral sensibilities are ambiguous, or more exactly, they refuse to take responsibility for what they do and seem to feel no guilt. While they act against powerful beings in favor of humanity, from their activities arise many bothersome things (mosquitoes, menstruation, material decay) and all that is dangerous, even dreadful, about human life (hatred between even the closest of kin, witchcraft, the permanence of death). (26)
Humans, then “are animal and mortal, mobile, creative, and compassionate. They exhibit an intense capacity for eroticism, which not only enables them to reproduce, but which is the source of some of their deepest conflicts. Human beings are verbal and therefore especially deceptive and capable of violent and destructive malevolence” (27).
Kwatingi’s presence in stories of him may be “like an island, calming, comforting, and healing, in a sea of turbulent episodes” (82), but he does not encompass all that the Kalapalo, as human beings, aspire to. Taugi, trickster, who “acts mainly through concealment and deception, through verbal and visual subterfuges” (183) is in their blood as well.
It is as a small child . . . that Taugi adopts the most complex and implacably self-contained personality. Here he shows an acute self-consciousness: he acquires names, puts himself forward by demanding to be seen and heard, engages in outrageous acts of revenge and invents occult ways to make people die, and, more positively, penetrates the deceits of others. Sometimes, too, he forgets his goals, thinks in a disorderly way, tries out alternative roles, and otherwise seems flighty and unpredictable. It is thus in his role of child that he appears the most uncompromisingly unique, destructive, and disorderly. The older he is, the less directly violent and antagonistic he is, but he is apparently also less capable of revealing other people’s deceits to themselves—less aggressively insightful, perhaps. (184)
The Kalapalo perceive (and realistically accept) an inherent split in human nature “between selfishness and whimsicality on the one hand and sympathy, sincerity, and trust on the other” (214).
Although “Taugi’s speech and action can’t actually be validated at all because he exists outside the sphere of human social life” and his action is often “one-sided, senseless destruction that doesn’t even benefit the destroyer” (275), yet, as we have seen, there are often hidden consequences that benefit humans—make them stronger for example—that would not be envisioned in any utopia we could invent that did not involve the tensions and messiness that drive human lives (and ecosystems). “The destructiveness and unforeseen consequences of [Taugi’s] deceptive actions . . . seem inevitable adjuncts to his particular kind of creative imagination” (111).
We have also seen that for the Kalapalo “illusionary relationships involve legitimate assertions of personal difference and of independence from society” (3), an awareness of “the mutuality of selves, of a sense of personal difference that nonetheless moves toward negotiation and comprehension” (351). Deception is “a fundamental mode of insight and understanding” for the Kalapalo (35).
[F]avoring and even welcoming deception—recognizing that it is inseparable from being human—is important to the successful maintenance of Kalapalo life. This is because deception helps Kalapalo circumvent institutional order and intimidating roles and relationships; it encourages skepticism of anything purporting to be fixed, rule-bounded, dogmatic, and coercive; and, thus, it allows resistance to the status quo. At the same time, the mythological favoring of deceit suggests a variety of ways to resist conformity, showing Kalapalo there are ways of laughing at themselves when they most need to appear to be adhering scrupulously to the moral order. (356)
A “positive tolerance of illusionary consciousness and deceptive action” (355) characterizes Kalapalo culture.
Illusion and deception are even important in lovemaking: “heightened eroticism seems related to a ‘trickster’ form of sexuality, characteristic of Kalapalo, in which things are never what they seem” (295-6).
In Basso’s final words, “what may appear to some to be an ambiguous sense of flux and of indeterminacy in trickster stories can be understood more positively as a kind of stroboscopic sense of multiple possibilities. This vision fixes in a didactic, narrative frame the complex transiency of experience and the sense of many different experiential worlds existing side by side” (357).
Raven (Haida): An Ecological ‘Postmodern’ Trickster
In this final section I explore the world of Raven, the Haida ecological ‘postmodern’ trickster, who inhabits a wider world than does Taugi, the psychological ‘postmodern’ trickster. Kalapalo tricksters journey for the most part in the intricate world of interpersonal relationships and explore the place of validation and deception in the constitution of self, culture, and the relationship between the two. Far removed from this psychological preoccupation is Raven. The stories in which Raven figures (those I am aware of) are concerned with the multiple realities of Haida ecological existence. Sean Kane strikes the right note, I think, when he insists that we think of tricksters as more than emblems of humans and human cultures:
Nature is like Shiva, giving with one of her many hands while taking away with another. Her unpredictability is so commonplace that it might be foolish to project on her the values and expectations of a structured moral framework. As the Voice in the whirlwind tells Job, such frameworks are an extension of human self-satisfaction. In dealing with nature or any of her people, the one thing you can be really sure of is that beings are intelligent and therefore easily insulted, and that acts have consequences. For life in a playground of intelligent roving energies, that is perhaps the best advice. . . . To the peoples of the Northwest, the capriciousness of nature was concentrated in the figure of the Raven. . . . It seems remarkably species chauvinistic of psychologists to reserve for the human psyche qualities that are found everywhere outside it. Human beings are not the only tricksters in the universe: birds are tricksters too; so are Killer Whales; so is every creature that hunts or is hunted and every plant that finds a clever way of propagating. If you are a human hunter or forager you live cheek-to-cheek with natural ingenuity. If you shut that power out, it may come in the form of Hermes and steal your cattle. If you are too solemn about it, it may come in the form of the Raven and sleep with your wife. That is what happens in one Haida story. (240-1)
In Haida Raven stories the resonance with postmodern ecological thought is remarkable.
Contemporary ecosystem ecology, in the work of some of its practitioners, has taken a decidedly postmodern turn in the form of what is known (misleadingly, perhaps) as hierarchy theory. The basic postmodern tenet of hierarchy theory is that there are no such things as ecosystems simpliciter, with one privileged set of concepts with which to describe them and, hence, one and only one true account of ecosystems.
The descriptions that emerge from the observation and study of biological systems are functions of what are called “observation sets,” defined as follows: “By an observation set we mean a particular way of viewing the natural world. It includes the phenomena of interest, the specific measurements taken, and the techniques used to analyze the data. The space-time scale is an important property of an observation set, determining the total number of measurements and the intervals between them” (O’Neill et al. 7). In order to develop an adequate conception of ecosystems and to make meaningful ecosystem comparisons, one must abandon attempts to develop one way of observing the natural world and, instead, address the complexity of natural systems by considering many observation sets.
Hierarchy theory rejects the naive reductionism which results from the assumption that there is only one way to subdivide an ecosystem into its component parts or subsystems. In hierarchy theory, notions which once figured in ecology as characterizations of ecosystems per se (for example, equilibrium, stability, and the “balance of nature”) are contextualized by fastening them to particular observation sets and spatio-temporal scales. This contextual characterization of ecosystems suggests that the epistemological requirements of particular ecological problems dictate to ontology; an acceptable answer to an ecological problem must not be pressed into the shape of a preconceived, preferred ontology. What is taken to be in the world, the basic components and subsystems of ecosystems, is determined by one’s way of seeing, one’s observation set, the questions one asks. The world is as multifaceted as one’s epistemic orientations—and these are virtually unlimited.
The name “hierarchy theory” stems from the fact that these various ecosystem descriptions nest together in interesting and dynamic ways. The components figuring into these various ecosystem descriptions are indeed interrelated, but there are definite boundaries between various levels of organization (each with its own ontology stemming from its unique observation set) as well as between components within levels. “If all parts of a complex system interact directly and symmetrically, then there is a low probability that the system will endure [precisely because] . . . a disturbance anywhere in the system tends to affect all other parts of the system” (O’Neill et al. 94). It is therefore quite reasonable to maintain a holistic concept of ecosystem function along with an account of the relative autonomy of the various individuals and communities that exist within ecosystems.
The worlds through which and into which Raven flies—the world of the Haida (the “surface people” or “ordinary surface birds”), the world beneath the waves, the forest, the sky (Bringhurst 229)—are very much like the multidimensional world of hierarchy theory. They are bounded worlds (cf. the notion of an observation set) and relatively autonomous from one another, yet they are interdependent. They seem to operate at different temporal rates and perform different functions in relation to one another.
And, most important for our concerns, they are grounded in very different epistemologies. That is, they are entered into from different epistemic “sets,” their quite different ontologies being functions of the differing epistemic points of entry. These worlds are nested together epistemologically more than ontologically; their ontologies are based on, grounded in, their epistemologies. Sky, sea, forest, and the Haida world are real places in the lives of the Haida, and, at the same time, they seem clearly to function as metaphors for the many epistemic dimensions of one world—an epistemologically multifaceted world. On a mission to the sea world some surface people reenter the surface world from the sea world in this way:
And as day broke, the servant prepared for departure, they say.
The canoe sat on the upper tier of the house floor.
There he tied the lady to her seat.
He tied himself to his seat as well.
Behind the screens set end to end in the rear of the house,
lightning struck, they say,
and the point of a feather came forward and struck them, they say,
knocking them cold.
They awoke floating on open water, they say.
(Skaay of the Qquuna Qiighawaay, in Bringhurst 241)
This is an epistemic transition.
A significant difference between the ecosystem ecology of hierarchy theory and the world as understood by the Haida is the pronounced intentionality of nature in the Haida understanding of it. It is the thought of the One in the Sea that becomes the world (Kane 68). Although the One in the Sea functions as a metaphor, the mind-like nature of the world is not a metaphor for the Haida. (And, increasingly, it is not a metaphor for Euro-American scientists and philosophers.) It is the mind-like nature of the world that makes the epistemic shifts between worlds possible—these worlds communicate with one another, they are epistemically nested dimensions of one world.
Ecological relationships are powerful presences in the Pacific Northwest, with the salmon migrations connecting in a very striking way the sea—home of the Killer Whale, the Sea Grizzly—with the headwaters of the rivers in the mountains—protected by Creek Woman, lover of the Sea Grizzly. Here we have a marvellous image of the interconnected fertility of salmon, sea, and land (Kane 46-51).
Mythologically, the undersea world of the One in the Sea is the source of the world—his thought becomes the world. He is the conceptual/ ecological patterning that structures the world. Sea is connected to land by salmon. Mythologically, Snag is the wealth of the sea, the housepole that rises from the sea, supporting each of the islands of Xhaaydla Gwaayaay (Kane 68-70).
The domains of the sea and the surface people—keeping in mind that sea, sky, etc. are metaphors for various epistemic worlds, multiple epistemic dimensions of one world—are connected by energy/information exchanges across the membrane of the surface of the sea, marking the sea as source, patterned ecological mystery, epistemically distinct from the practical day-to-day world of surface people. This point of energy/ information exchange across boundaries is the very pulse of Haida life, throbbing in its art, which is deeply infused with the idea of transformation at the membranes, the boundaries of the world (See Bringhurst and Steltzer).
The difference between the ecologically-patterned “worlds” of the gods and the world of surface people is figured in an account of a visit by surface people to the undersea world. The gods, who act on time scales similar to ecosystem reconfiguration and biological evolution, cannot procure shells with which to eat whale-flesh soup. At the practical, day-to-day scale of surface people activity, these shells are readily available. The “gods” covet them and need surface people’s help in obtaining them (Kane 169-72). Just so, rabbit population cycles require the day-to-day behavior of rabbits, who, of course, are not intentionally instantiating this cyclic boom-bust pattern.
The difference in time scales between the “world” of the “gods” and that of surface people is figured in Skaay’s “One They Gave Away,” in an episode involving the presence of two surface people in the undersea world. The man leaves the woman on the beach (the boundary between “worlds”) while investigating goings-on in the other patterned-world of the “gods”:
After hearing what was said, he turned around.
Thinking of the lady, he ran back to the canoe
and lifted the hull, finding only her bones.
then he took off his redcedar cape and moved it across her.
She stirred and sat up.
She was sweating.
(Skaay of the Qquuna Qiighawaay, in Bringhurst 239)
It is the ecologically-patterned thought of the One in the Sea that becomes the world. However, it is Raven who makes that thought real (Kane 68). Raven “carries power between worlds” (Kane 69). Again, an epistemic transformation occurs as Raven prepares for his role by entering the sky realm:
Now when the Raven had flown a while longer,
the sky in one direction brightened.
It enabled him to see, they say.
And then he flew right up against it.
He pushed his mind through and pulled his body after.
(Skaay of the Qquuna Qiighawaay, in Kane 56)
It is Raven, trickster, who carries power between worlds. Just as the patterned ecological world is connected to the living components that partly constitute that one whole—it is one world with many epistemically-nested dimensions—by the seemingly messy, ambiguous, uncertain, blind, trial-and-error, bungling mechanism of natural selection, so Raven is not a static and conceptually tidy link between surface people and the patterned ecological worlds of which they are a part but which—in an epistemic, not ontological, sense—goes beyond them, catches them up, as the rhythms of evolution go beyond the individuals who carry that evolution.
Raven is the messy but real (not ideal, idealized) link between the lives of surface people and the patterned ecological world. Raven wanders as carelessly as natural selection, and as carelessly as Navajo chantway heroes, who “enter forbidden territories or violate some regulation that is often unknown to them” (Gill 25) and who yet bring important, revitalizing new knowledge and understanding back to their people.
The real world is not just pattern (ecological or ceremonial), it is dynamic and necessarily uncertain, open-ended, though it is generative of, and generated by, pattern. Raven is this dynamic more and thus stands outside the patterns of ecology and culture while he is at the same time integral and necessary to them, necessary that they may live. Raven is the reality of the world, as the patterns are its ideality. In the worlds of indigenous peoples these two complement one another, balance one another. By contrast, in the world of the One Law the real lives in the shadow of the One Law, and so that world is marked by a constant pendulum swing between idealism, on the one hand, and cynicism and alienation, on the other. Since realism balances, or tempers, idealism in indigenous worlds, Raven is not the outcast voice of idealism, cynicism, and alienation, as is the Euro-American picaro, but presents, rather, a cautionary and realistic image to indigenous peoples (Cf. Ballinger 1991-2: 26).
While Raven is preparing in the sky world for his role as carrier of power between worlds, he ventures forth in the night and plucks out and eats one eye from each person in four of the five sky-world villages. He laughs to himself. But as he does this, “something that was half rock, living in the back corner, watched him” (Skaay, in Kane 57). Raven is firmly embedded in the living Rock of this world, not in the shadow of the One Law.
The connection between the patterned world of the gods and surface people is messy, and Raven figures in this as he travels between worlds, not conforming to the patterned ideality of either, but in his actions making the connections real. Surface people cannot wander too far from the ceremonial village into these other worlds—though they are in fact nested in them. Shamans, sometimes, for a time, chantway heroes, heyokas, clowns can do this. But this is (or can be) dangerous and must for the most part be left to Raven.
Raven’s antics are necessary for the world’s existence. That is, the world’s messiness, ambiguity, uncertainty, blind and hit-and-miss, bungling methods are not elements that could be eliminated, leaving us in an existing but ideal world, a utopia. The world Raven leaves us is necessary in order that the world exist as more than idea, pattern. Surface people can embrace Raven’s antics as necessary for the world’s reality at the same time that they take the stories of Raven as cautionary tales bearing on their own behavior. Messing with power as it surges between worlds is dangerous business.
Raven’s recklessness can be seen as a warning that we cross boundaries at our peril. It also portrays the cost and danger of the real. By contrast, however, it also points out the sterile and thin nature of the ideal, of mere static pattern. At the same time that we shy away from behaving like tricksters, we can embrace the complex reality that they bring to the world.
The One Law valorizes the ideal. The real must live in its shadow as best it can. The failure of the ideal to stand on its own—or live at all— breeds cynicism, alienation, and the quest for the One Truth that can never be found, since truth has been disconnected from the complexities of the real, which have been relegated to the shadow of the One Truth.
Indigenous cultures, with their tricksters, do not valorize the real, exactly, they simply acknowledge it as their home, and take stock of what is going on. They map the flow of power, explore the epistemologies appropriate to various dimensions of the real, and try to get some sense of where they are within the flow of powers vaster than themselves. They also know that these powers flow into them sometimes, that the world grants them, or forces upon them, epistemological access to other dimensions of the real.
Joseph Meeker says, as we have seen, that “necessity, of course, is real. All must eat and in turn be eaten, storms must come and go, and injustices must occur when so many rightful claimants contend. But that is just the point: Comedy and ecology are systems designed to accommodate necessity and to encourage acceptance of it, while tragedy is concerned with avoiding or transcending the necessity in order to accomplish the impossible” (43-4). Comedy and ecology are summed up in Raven, the ecological trickster.
I must, finally, remind my Euro-American readers (myself included) of my starting point. My reading of trickster figures in indigenous narratives has been through the lens of certain themes in contemporary postmodern theory. When read through this lens, there does seem to be a fit (though not a precise one) between various trickster narratives and postmodern themes.
My contact with trickster narratives has been by way of translations and secondary sources written by Euro-(North) Americans. My reading of these narratives cannot be taken as an accurate understanding of tricksters as they figure in the lives and thought of indigenous peoples. The intention of these readings has been, rather, to invite vital exploration and dialogue.
If my readings are plausible—that is, if they are plausible from the point of view of certain strands of Euro-American thought—then we may reasonably expect that further, closer examination of trickster figures— living, as they do, outside Euro-American traditions—will shed important light on postmodern themes in Euro-American thought, light which contemporary postmodernism may not be able to shed on itself. This closer examination, if done intelligently, honestly, and with proper etiquette, may lead to deeper understanding of indigenous tricksters from the point of view of indigenous peoples themselves. That is the point at which we might reasonably expect that real light may be shed on Euro-American world views.
Truth and Native American Epistemology
Lee Hester (Part II)
Halito. Chim achukma? Sa-hoschifo-ut Lee Hester. Chatah sia hoke! Which is to say “Hello. How are you? My name is Lee Hester. I am a citizen of the Choctaw Nation.” I begin my talks in this way to help emphasize the differences between Native American people and others living in North America. This greeting directly exemplifies differences in language and allegiance. To those that know the law, it points toward differences in legal status and the fact that there are laws that pertain only to American Indians. To everyone, it should point toward the deeper differences in culture and with some study, it perhaps hints at basic differences in world-view, or what might from a native perspective be termed ‘presence-in-the-world’. I do not and cannot claim any special authority on these issues, I am neither a medicine-man nor an elder. However, I am an enrolled member by blood, I prefer the term ‘citizen’, of an Indian Nation; I grew up in Oklahoma—which in the Choctaw language means “Red People”—among Indian people, including my own relatives; my main associations are with Native American people. That, combined with a small amount of western philosophical training, may enable me to provide some observations—hopefully presented in a way which makes them meaningful.
The topic “Truth and Native American Epistemology” is a grand one. One which I undoubtedly don’t have all the ‘answers’ to, and maybe don’t have any answers to. As I said, I’ll mainly present some observations, though my Euro-American philosophical training will drive me to some deductions based on the observations. Throughout this paper, I’ll use terms like ‘Native American’ or ‘Indian’ as if my conclusions are readily applicable to the peoples of all the sovereign Indian Nations. This isn’t necessarily true, though I do think there are many similarities from nation to nation. As Viola Cordova has said, any Native American has more in common with any other Native American than with any non-Indian. A short story will serve as a jumping of point for the rest of the talk. I have used this story elsewhere, so I hope I don’t bore those of you that have heard it before.
A few years ago I was the professor of a course called ‘Native American Identity’. I won’t say I was ‘teaching it’ for many reasons. One of them is that I tried, as much as possible, to use members of the Native American community—particularly elders—as the real teachers. I like to think it is because I recognize that they are the ones who can truly teach it, not just that I am lazy.
One of our speakers was John Proctor, the oldest living Creek medicine man. He is the uncle of Wanda Davis, a good friend of mine—so I was able to persuade him to spend a three hour session with the class one evening. Mr. Proctor is a key practitioner of the traditional Creek religion. He is the medicine man for a stomp ground. ‘Stomp ground’ is the name given to the ceremonial grounds where the Creek practice their religion.
Mostly the students asked the kinds of questions you might expect. Since they thought of Mr. Proctor as a representative of a traditional religion, they asked him cosmogonic or cosmological questions.
I was surprised when one of the students asked the ultimate question . . . Remember—this was a class on ‘Indian Identity’. The student asked, “What makes you Creek?”
Those of you familiar with the Native American traditions, or those that have attended one of my talks before, would expect the answer to be a rambling narrative that might seem not to be an answer at all. This is just what I expected. I settled back in my chair in preparation for Mr. Proctor’s answer.
Without hesitation he said, “If you come to the stomp ground for four years, take the medicines and dance the dances, then you are Creek.”
The answer was completely unexpected and thus even more forcefully illuminating. Mr. Proctor had listed a set of practices which made someone Creek, or more properly in context, a member of the traditional Creek religion.
If you asked a member of just about any Christian religion what made them Christians, you would get a completely different answer. My Missionary Baptist relatives would tell you that to be Christian you have to “Accept Jesus Christ as your personal Lord and Saviour.” Acceptance, faith—belief— is at the core of Christian religion and not surprisingly at the core of Euro-American philosophy. Just think about how you would characterize different philosophical schools, or different figures in the Euro-American philosophical tradition. This school believed this . . . the central tenets of that school were . . . this famed philosopher thought that . . . Beliefs, beliefs, beliefs.
Indeed, in the Euro-American philosophical tradition, it is unclear how one would go about doing epistemology at all without belief. The nature of justification, defeasibility, facticity, truth and a multitude of other issues are up for grabs in epistemology, but there is one thing that is usually not questioned. Whatever knowledge may be, it would seem that it at least has to be a belief.
In the Euro-American philosophical tradition, the centrality of belief is clear. Though we may analyse what we are doing at great length; think up different ways of characterizing it, we go about asserting different views of ‘the way things are’. These are generally expressed as propositions. To the extent that we buy into them, we ‘believe’ them. Sometimes, at least according to some epistemologists, we not only believe them but actually ‘know’ them.
John Proctor’s answer points to a different way and the more I review my experiences in the Native American community the more I think that his answer is illuminating. It has helped me understand an interesting experience that I had while ‘teaching’ in Canada. Here I put the word ‘teaching’ in scare quotes, because I was more nearly learning than teaching. While in Canada I taught several classes, including an intro philosophy class attended by Daniel BigGeorge, an Anishnabe who was a member of the Northern Wind drum group and a practitioner of some of the traditional religion. Daniel and I had several interesting encounters, but there was one that is particularly important to this talk.
Daniel came to me one day after class with a very serious demeanor. Generally he laughed and joked as is common among Native American people, but it was clear this time he had something important to say. He talked about the shaking tent ceremony and other ceremonies that a Euro-American might consider ‘superstitious’. He ended by asking me if I believed in these ceremonies. I considered the question very carefully. Just what was my view? I have been trained in the Euro-American philosophical tradition, I’ve taught symbolic logic and other technical classes that are at the core of western philosophy. Did I really ‘believe’ in the shaking tent?
I told Daniel that I couldn’t say that I either believed or disbelieved in them. I have seen and experienced things that I don’t comprehend in various traditional ceremonies. They are just part of my experience. I know my experiences, but I can’t say what I experienced. He explained that he too, did not ‘believe’ in them, though it was clear from what he said that he also did not ‘disbelieve’ in them. This was one of a couple of turning points in my relation to Daniel. Shortly after this exchange he invited me to come to a traditional ceremony welcoming the bears back after their winter hibernation. As a member of the Bear Clan, this was an important ceremony for Daniel. I was honored to be invited. It was a great experience, one which I shall always cherish.
Now, I think that our discussion, among other things, may have been a test. As a mixed-blood I am often tested. In fact, at least one western philosopher has suggested on the basis of how I look that I’m not a ‘real’ Indian. In the Indian community, the tests are a lot more subtle. If I had answered that I believed, then was I gullible, patronizing or trying to play ‘real’ Indian? The answer was bit more clear and just as negative if I answered that I disbelieved.
The way in which most ceremonies are approached also points to a form of what we might call non-belief. There is always an interesting mixture of reverence and irreverence in Indian ceremonies. Just about the time that things seem most serious, someone will usually crack a joke. Often it will be the very medicine-man or elder that is conducting the ceremony.
A group of four elders, presided over by Freda MacDonald, conducted a ceremony to consecrate a set of two eagle feathers. One was for Lorraine Brundige, the other for me. As a part of the ceremony, we passed around water for everyone to drink in turn. I was the first person to Freda’s left, so I was the first to drink. When the water again reached Freda there was still some left. She passed it to me. I looked uncertain. She said, “finish it.” I tossed it off at one gulp. Freda started laughing good-naturedly. “Two feathers, two times around the circle,” she explained. We all started joking about how I must be real thirsty, how people might think I was greedy for water and so on. It went on for some time. We finally finished the ceremony without a second circling of the water.
At the end of the ceremony, one of the elders I didn’t know from a nearby reserve began to talk to me in Anishnabe. I had no clue what she was talking about. My Anishnabe is limited to Meegwetch, which is “thank you,” and Ne’weeznin, which is the closest I can come to “Let’s eat.” However, the elder was clearly imparting something of great importance, so I sat and listened to her intently. After a few minutes Freda began laughing again. “Wrong kind of Indian,” she said, “he’s a Choctaw not an Ojibway.”
Though its clear that such joking is partly to alleviate tension, gloss over slip-ups and maintain harmony and good-will it also makes sense that this practice is much easier if you do not ‘believe’ in a western sense. Certainly we have all seen humor used for these purposes in Euro-American ceremonies, but I think those that have experienced both would say the jokes flow much more freely and with less provocation, if any, at a Native American ceremony.
At this point it is important to repeat that this does not mean Native Americans disbelieve in their traditions. Far from it. The traditions are approached with great reverence. Indeed, I think the difference in Native American and Euro-American approaches is so basic and subtle that the English language strains to express it. Unfortunately, since most philosophical dialogue in this country is in English it is likely that when pressed to the limit it would be better to say that Native American people firmly believe in their tradition than to imply any less reverence.
This is because English has equated belief with truth. Now, I’m doing some Euro-American looking philosophy. I hope you don’t mind. Euro-Philosophers express beliefs as propositions and assign them truth values. When we assert a belief we are asserting the truth of a certain picture of the world. There is, on one hand, our worldview . . . whether we are Native American or Euro-American . . . and on the other hand the world. What has been called metaphorically, ‘the map and the territory’. I think most of us agree that we all live in the same territory. I think it is also clear that the maps held by the Native Americans and Euro-Americans are quite different. However, the main point of this talk is belief. Belief is our attitude toward the relationship between the map and the territory. Western belief generally implies some kind of correspondence between the map and territory. The most extreme version of this is that we can have a completely clear and correct map, a one-to-one correspondence between the map and the territory. Or to put it in the vernacular, we can have the ‘Truth’. This was clearly the project of the Enlightenment. Even though modern thought has cast doubt on this, the west still clings to it.
I would characterize the attitude of Native Americans as one of agnosticism concerning the relationship between their map and the territory. Though this may seem strange from a western stance, it is actually very practical. Indeed, I would argue that it can even make a great deal of sense given modern western understandings of the limits of knowledge. Think of Heisenberg and Gödel. Using the map and territory metaphor, Heisenberg seems to be telling us that the clearer our map of any particular part of the territory, the less clear our map will be elsewhere. Gödel seems to be telling us that when our map becomes too broad, it will be incorrect. If we go too far in detail or breadth, our map becomes confused.
The Native American map is not meant to be a high fidelity picture of the territory, but is an action guiding set of ideas. Indeed, the action guiding element is central. Remember the John Proctor story. Particular actions are what makes one Creek. One of the main puzzlements Indian people have expressed historically is how Europeans could assert the truth of their ideas, but act in ways that didn’t correspond to the truths they asserted. Popular sovereignty, religious freedom, the sanctity of property, peace, brotherhood and all the rest seem to be ignored nearly as often as they are upheld. Of course one answer is that there are bad people and bad governments who do not maintain their own lofty ideas. Though this is true, I think it is worsened by western belief. If you are convinced that your map truly embodies the territory, despite the fact that it is necessarily incomplete or incorrect (and probably both . . . ) then you are going to make many false turns. Your actions will be contradictory. When you have mistaken the map for the territory, you’ll continue to claim that you have reached the right destination even when you are hopelessly lost.
Western philosophers are perhaps the best examples of this tendency and it is one that has cost them much in the way of practical influence in society. We have all entertained skeptical ideas, examined odd metaphysical systems and sometimes built careers defending their truth. But what if they are true? Many of the maps we have posited can’t be followed. Just how should a solipsist act? Laying aside the question of truth, if your map can’t be followed, what use is it?
The western rejoinder might be, “How can agnosticism concerning the connection between the map and territory be action guiding?” The answer is that it can’t, but it is an attitude which can be very helpful. Though Native Americans may not know what the connection is between their map and the territory, there are some things that they do know. Key among these is their experience. This includes their own actions and the observed consequences of those actions.
The importance of direct experience and agnosticism concerning belief can be seen in various linguistic elements of the Choctaw language and other Native American languages. In Choctaw there is a marker to indicate when you are passing on second-hand experiences . . . a hearsay marker. Such markers are common among Native American languages. In Choctaw, for example, the phrase ‘The cat is on the mat’, might be translated, Katosat shukbo binili. If we say Katosat shukbo binili-miha, then we have disclaimed direct observation, we are saying that someone told us. Without the hearsay marker, the assumption is that what we are saying is a part of our experience. But the hearsay marker ‘miha’ is just the beginning. The are a variety of markers that describe our attitude toward the source of the experience, its reliability, or whether that particular experience is shared. For example Katosat shukbo binili-hah means something like “Don’t we agree that the cat is on the mat?” Some of the markers can be given rather humorous translations. Katosat shukbo binili-cho has been translated by one linguist as, ‘The cat is on the mat, you idiot’, The cho marker implies that the cat is right in front of you . . . that you should open up your eyes.
These markers generally pick out a relationship between the person speaking and the statement, rather than between the statement and the world. In English, a statement asserts a particular picture of the world, in Choctaw you are more nearly relating an experience. It is difficult to assert a ‘truth’ in Choctaw. The closest you can come to an English affirmation of truth in Choctaw is to end your sentence with the word ‘hoke’ (it is pronounced ho kay). This word is so powerful that it is often followed by an exclamation point in writing or is stressed when speaking. Though it is an affirmation, you would never say Katosat shukbo binili hoke! regardless of how ‘certain’ you were that the cat was on the mat. ‘Hoke’ is mainly used in cases like Lashpa hoke! Since ‘lashpa’ means hot, idiomatically the phrase might be translated, ‘It sure is hot!’ ‘Hoke’ underscores your experience of the world, it doesn’t assert the ‘truth’ of some picture of that world. The closest the marker comes to such an assertion is probably its use in the phrase Chatah sia hoke! This is generally translated, ‘I am Choctaw’ though this would be the meaning even without the affirmation hoke. With the affirmation in place, you might translate it as ‘I am Choctaw and you can’t say otherwise’. It is not only an affirmation, but a defiant one. The question remains, is it asserting a truth about the world, an experience of that world or maybe an attitude toward one or both? Whatever the answer, the most powerful affirmation in the Choctaw language doesn’t assert truth in the way even a relatively ambiguous English sentence does.
Possibly the most telling example is the kind of response that a traditional Native person will give in answer to a question. I don’t know how many Indian related conferences I have been to, where some non-Indian academic will ask a medicine-person or elder a question. The response they seek is a statement of the way things are, a truth, a detailed map of the territory. The answer that they get is a rambling narrative, of the kind I expected from John Proctor in the story I related earlier. The narrative is generally a story from their own life, maybe with a few traditional side stories. At the end, the academic is usually puzzled. Their reaction is often negative. In the worst cases, the academic may assert that the elder was just making up a story because they didn’t understand their own traditions. I’ve seen this done again and again. One philosopher, whom I won’t name, has even told me how he often has to explain Indian traditions to the Indians themselves. From his perspective, his map is right and they’ve lost theirs.
Fortunately or unfortunately many traditional values, including respect, will prompt the Indian person to sit still for an impromptu lecture on their own traditions. Some take it with mild amusement at the absurdity. You can imagine the kind of markers they might use in characterizing where they heard this information. Though Choctaw does not have a marker that means, “I heard this from a non-Indian who thinks he knows more about us than we do,” it is possible that Kiowa does. They have a lot more markers of this kind than we do. Some elders, particularly those that are the most traditional, might just report it as straight news. Respect is a part of this, but the respect is partly born out of epistemic humility. When you do not claim to have a correct map of the world, then you do not claim to have the ‘Truth’. You are willing to accept that other people have maps that are as good (or as bad . . .) as your own. When your map primarily traces your own path through life, then you are always eager to share stories and broaden your map. A traditional elder might well listen attentively to an anthropological lecture concerning his own customs and traditions. After all, it will be an interesting experience that may provide many insights—if only into the thinking of anthropologists. The Indian person that listens to such lectures is genuinely interested. The western conclusion that such a person mustn’t know their traditions or they wouldn’t want to listen completely misses the point.
Knowledge is narrative of a life lived in the world. The individual stories are what you know. They may or may not provide a map of the world, but they do tell you about the consequences of your actions. You can learn much even if you believe little. You can even be taught. Here another short story might be useful.
After a long day’s work I was supposed to help unload a bunch of tables and chairs at the new Choctaw center in Oklahoma City. Mr. Amos Dorsey, an older full-blood Creek and I were going to work together. There was quite a bit of work to do and I wanted to get home, so I threw myself into the work—busily hustling back and forth. Mr. Dorsey began to work too, but a bit slower and only after watching me for a second or two. Indeed, as he worked and watched me, I could almost swear he was actually going even slower. Eventually, it was as if he was going in slow-motion. Of course, part of that was due to my haste. As we worked and I fumed a bit at his slowness, I finally realized that somehow he was actually getting more done than I was. Mr. Dorsey respected the task, understood the context and set about working efficiently. However, I think it was also an instance of teaching. I can’t help but think he slowed down as he saw my thoughtless, disrespectful haste and then speeded up as he saw that I had learned my lesson and was working efficiently.
Now, we could assert some ‘Truths’ here. We might say that “Haste makes waste.” Yet of course, the “Early bird got the worm.” Just about any ‘Truth’ we might assert—particularly action guiding truths—are going to have contradictory ‘Truths’ that can be abstracted out of other stories. Thus we have the contradictory actions. This search for ‘Truth’ is the European tradition. The Native tradition does not abstract truths out of the stories, the stories are often abstract enough in themselves without further removing them from reality. The narrative is as close to the truth as you can get. In the end, I think that the two epistemic systems may converge. As the Euro-American tradition refines its truths, resolving the contradictions by adding more and more exceptions and greater and greater complexity, these truths may eventually more nearly resemble stories. In the meantime, Indian people will be waiting at the fire already telling some good ones.
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There are, of course, other uses of the term ‘irony’, as for example: “[I]rony is a patterning of facts, a recomposing in which the fact is seen within the creative presence of a contrary. The usual quality of irony is the unexpected coexistence, to the point of identity, of certain contraries. Irony lies in yoking together in a single figure real opposites, in such a way that they belong together without losing their contrariness, in a dialectic expressing their interdependence and their power actually to transform being and the way we look at it. Thus ‘the way down is the way up’ is an ironic statement” (Pelton 1993: 132).
William G. Doty reminds us of “our obsessive singularity and specialization. We must be wary of the implicit monotheism instilled in us by the slant of our science and technology, lest we miss originative polytheisms” (50).
The search for roots can take other shapes than that of a search for redemption in the mode of a search for the Truth of one’s origin and identity. Lee Hester (Choctaw) speaks of the Choctaw desire to live close to the tribal emergence mound. In practice, in the context of tribal migration, this resulted in the recreation of the emergence mound in the place to which the tribe migrated. From the point of view of the One (literal) Truth this practice is contradictory—the new emergence mound couldn’t be the Choctaw place of origin, emergence. From the point of view of Choctaw practice, however, a different meaning of emergence and origins arises. Choctaw practice has the consequence that as a people the Choctaw are always at home on this earth, never detached from tradition and tribal history—these are always present in the tangible form of the emergence mound. Practice and the social meaning embedded in that practice are central.
Similarly, Patricia Clark Smith says of contemporary White “Coyote poetry” that “In a lot of those poems Coyote figures as a stand-in for the poet as he perceives himself: Rabelaisian hipster, saloon philosopher with a course in Eastern religious thought behind him, con man in a good cause, braggart warrior against polite society” (193). See also Cordova (Apache).
We have one such study in Zeese Papanikolas’ recent Trickster in the Land of Dreams. Papanikolas gives us P. T. Barnum and the Wizard of Oz as Industrial Age tricksters. Another is Lewis Hyde’s extraordinary Trickster Makes This World.
Again, Gerald Vizenor: “The postmodern opened in tribal imagination; oral cultures have never been without a postmodern condition that enlivens stories and ceremonies, or without trickster signatures and discourse on narrative chance” (x).
In the Appendix to this paper the reader can find a contemporary example of this “premodern postmodernism.” It might help clarify some of the important differences between most versions of postmodernism and what I have called Indian “premodern postmodernism.”
Basso finds the same to be true in the trickster Taugi’s case: “Relations between the Indians and others are complex and ambivalent because Taugi created possibilities for effectively peaceful and mutually beneficial relations, on the one hand, and for violence and hatred between entire categories of people on the other. In other words, it is up to individuals to create whatever conditions will actually effect one or the other kind of possibility; Taugi enabled such conditions to be effective” (82).
Ballinger in turn cites Pelton (1980), Luckert, and Tedlock, whom she discusses as follows: “Trickster is the fictional counterpart of the ceremonial sacred clowns [citing Makarius 1970]. Barbara Tedlock shows that in their contrary and rule-breaking antics Native American clowns open people to ‘immediate experience and so liberate humans from conventional notions of what is sacred and dangerous in the religious ceremonies of men.’ They reveal creative variations by transcending conventional categories of thinking and morality. . . . Similarly, the contrary behavior of the Heyoka . . . conceals the fatal courage they possess. Finally, because the first koshari of Acoma was afraid of nothing and accepted nothing as sacred, he was allowed to be everywhere (Tedlock 110). Like these clowns, ubiquitous, traveling Trickster breaks the rules through contrary behavior—his foolishness initially masking his power—and discloses for us the limits of perceived categories and the possibility of creative action even in a sometimes threatening world” (1991-2: 35). See also Beck et al. Ch. 13.
Tragedy, by contrast, portrays “the enormous human capacity for creating and enduring pain, for following a passion to its ultimate end, for employing the power of mind and spirit to rise above the contradictions of matter and circumstance even though one is destroyed by them” (Meeker 37-8).
As a simple example of this, consider that the words “I promise . . . ,” like a handshake, function as a ceremonial action and can proceed effectively only within a ceremonial world, a world we create with our actions, including our verbal actions and our stories.
Papanikolas gives a fascinating account of the relationship between Coyote and both Wolf and gambling in Shoshone mythology: “It isn’t up to Wolf, the hunter, the dour inventor of utopias inhuman in their perfection to make our life. It is Coyote, the scavenger, the carrion eater, who makes the world of human beings. He smashes Wolf’s sterile utopias to smithereens and remakes the world out of his mistakes. He lets the animals out of Wolf’s cave and they scatter: henceforth hunting will be difficult” (6). The implication here seems to be that Wolf is both Keeper of the Game and inventor of utopias, and that both require interference from Coyote. Gambling is read as a narcotic parody of life (40), relating it to Wolf’s utopias in some measure. The antithesis of Coyote, gambling “does not intensify reality, it swallows it” (38). See chapter 1 on Shoshone gambling and chapter 7 on Las Vegas-style gambling. My own experience with contemporary Shoshone gambling, though not inconsistent with Papanikolas’ account, isn’t clearly validated by that experience. Rice’s account of the Lakota “hand game” as “a rigorous exercise in the warrior skills needed to outwit enemies and the patience needed to protect the Lakota from themselves” (87) is equally plausible in the Shoshone case to my mind. Perhaps both are right.
My intention in introducing terms such as “ecological relationships” is not to privilege them. I am simply using concepts familiar to my audience as a point of entry into the worlds of the Xhaaydla Gwaayaay (or, in recent times, Haida Gwaii), the islands on the Boundary between Worlds. The resulting understanding must, of course, be tentative at best.
We, in the Twenty-first Century West, have come to realize some of these dangers. We have more and more stepped beyond our place as functional parts of the larger patterns of dynamic ecosystems and have (in a limited way) come to understand these larger patterns and have learned to manipulate them. We play around in these other patterned worlds and, like tricksters, confer great boons (perhaps) at the same time that, through our ignorance of the workings of these larger patterns, we make fools of ourselves and worse. The repatterning that occurs within these larger ecological and evolutionary worlds occurs within vastly larger time frames than the day-to-day activities of surface people. When we speed them up to fit the time frames of human activity we wreak havoc along with good (or apparent good).
See footnote 11, above. This Appendix is Part II of Lee Hester and Jim Cheney, “Truth and Native American Epistemology,” forthcoming in Social Epistemology: A Journal of Knowledge, Culture and Policy. Part I is an elaboration of my account of Native American epistemology in “Truth, Knowledge, and the Wild World,” The Philosophers’ Notebook (2000) and forthcoming in Christopher Preston, editor, Environment and Belief: The Placing of Knowledge, State University of New York Press.
Lee Hester is a citizen by blood of the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma and is active in the Indian community of central Oklahoma. He has served for many years on the board of directors of the OK Choctaw Tribal Alliance and is currently chairman. He has also served on the governing boards of the Wordcraft Circle of Native Writers and Storytellers as well as the Oklahoma Association for Healthcare Ethics. Lee is co-founder and co-editor, along with Dennis McPherson, of Ayaangwaamizin: The International Journal of Indigenous Philosophy. He has taught Indian law and policy and Native American philosophy at universities in the United States and Canada. He is currently Director of American Indian Studies at The University of Science and Arts of Oklahoma, P.O. Box 82345, Chickasha, Oklahoma 73018-0001.