Something We’ve Seen Before

Something We’ve Seen Before

We’ve seen this myth before, but what are the merits of telling it in this style?  Are there any merits? (There are, actually.)  Also, how does it differ from the one we read? Excluding the obscene language, of course.

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An Anthropology of Native America

As an anthropology major, I can safely and sadly say that the majority of ethnographies, both within and outside of the U.S., were and still are written by White European Americans and not by members of the groups being studied.  This has to stop being the norm.  I do not mean that European Americans cannot write ethnographies, but that these need to be largely tempered with ethnographies from other groups.  For example, Native Americans need to write their own ethnographies regarding their own cultures to supplement those written by European Americans.  But an African American perspective, or an African perspective, or even a Chinese perspective of the same culture would all be equally important.

We realize, as anthropologists, that a single view is simply not enough to understand the whole picture.  So why stop at just including Native Americans? (Not that this is a bad thing, but why stop here?)  Ethnographies from a myriad of sources on one culture will certainly show us something that we would have missed with  just one or two perspectives.  And, although the Native American perspective of a Native American group is an important viewpoint (as they have the best understanding of their own culture) it will naturally be a biased viewpoint to at least some degree (not that I’m saying an outside perspective will not be biased).  I feel like this multiculturalist approach to understanding needs to be the direction which future anthropology takes in the hopes of lessening the misunderstandings which are rampant in modern global society, which will hopefully lessen future conflicts (although eliminating conflict is impossible).

What are your thoughts on this?

(I actually would like some discussion, for those who read.)

Reflection

The most important and enjoyable thing that I learned from Mr. Francisco was his view on language revitalization. I asked him, after learning that he held a degree in higher education, what his views on language revitalization were as both a tribal member and a man with a higher education degree. This is especially interesting to me as a lot of my (at least written) work in my anthropology courses over the last few years has dealt with the idea of language revitalization, especially among the Cherokee groups. Although I didn’t get the type of answer I was expecting for the question I asked, it was still fairly insightful, especially when he mentioned the committees that some tribal groups make in which native speakers get together and discuss the creation or extension of native words to cover ideas that exist today that didn’t in the past. This in particular was not something I had read or even thought about as a form of language revitalization (the idea that a group could create interest in the language by utilizing new and old native words for ideas that are “brand new” in today’s society, such as cell phones and computers).

Along with the Linguistics of Obscenities course I have been taking this semester, the idea of such a committee for Cherokee became my main thought throughout that class (sorry Dr. Jones, my mind was preoccupied during the majority of that class!). After all the work I’ve done with Cherokee, and the obscenities course, I found out something interesting: supposedly, there are no “curse” words in the Cherokee language, at least none that would correspond with those seen frequently in the English language, among others. So what if a group of Cherokee native speakers came together to form a committee to create Cherokee words for modern English curse words? (This is a stretch as almost all obscenities are based on taboo ideas, so imagine that group meeting!) As an individual who uses probably too many obscenities in my private life, I think it would be a hook for teenagers and young adults to learn the language as they gain a new form of communication (although potentially negative) that is unique to being Cherokee.

From a non-obscene point of view, the idea of creating a committee for new words would still serve as an incentive for teenagers (in my point of view) to learn the language. One reason (although probably small) that the younger generations do not use Cherokee may be the idea that it is “archaic” and not as useful as the modern English language. Therefore, if this idea of the language being archaic is removed through the introduction of new words for new ideas then that is one less reason that children, teenagers and young adults can cite for not using the Cherokee language.

Never Alone

Native American culture has been illustrated in many different ways in American society: Old Western movies and T.V. shows; novels, short stories, newspapers, and other written materials; even normal, everyday speech in society at large. Even video games have included some (direct) references to Native American cultures (such as the tribes found in one of the Fallout: New Vegas DLCs). However, as far as I know, there have been very few, if any, games solely based on Native American culture. Until now.

Never Alone is a game created through cooperative efforts of the Cook Inlet Tribal Council, part of a tribe of Inupiat peoples living in Alaska, and game developer E-Line. E-Line sat down with many elders of the tribe in order to record the story utilized in the game, as well as to record the language as spoken through the elders. Although the original myth has been altered in some ways (such as the original myth having the main character as a young boy instead of a young girl) these changes were allowed by the Inupiat elders. The game was created as a response to the increasing difficulty experienced by the elders who tried to reach out to the younger generation of Inupiat members in order to preserve the language and culture. These difficulties were mostly due to the increasing pervasiveness of electronic distractions in the community.

Although I have yet to beat the game, I feel I can offer my own opinion of the story so far. The player starts off in an arctic environment and finds themselves in control of a young girl. Very quickly you find yourself running from a polar bear and encountering your best friend throughout the game for the first time (an arctic fox with spiritual powers). As you progress through the game you find that your home village has been destroyed, a boogeyman begins to chase you, and you go on a journey as you escape from the boogeyman. The game is a mixture of 2D (the side-on view that you get when viewing the characters and the world, typical of platformers) and 3D (the modeling of the characters and environment). Throughout the game you encounter different spirits that are important to the Inupiat culture, such as swan and whale spirits (you actually end up inside of the whale spirit at one point).

Some of the ideals that I think are being portrayed are the idea of perseverance and the importance of spirituality in the Inupiat culture. For instance, the young girl constantly has to push herself to continue on her journey (I’m actually not quite sure if she is looking for survivors of her village or if she is looking for another tribe, although I may have missed something while playing). As for the spirituality, you literally cannot advance in the game without the help of the different spirits, some of which elevate you from one area to the next and some of which carry you over water.

(For imagery and some articles on the release of the game):
http://neveralonegame.com
http://www.gamespot.com/articles/never-alone-opens-your-eyes-to-new-cultures-in-a-d/1100-6421378/
http://www.ign.com/articles/2014/08/11/never-alone-hands-down-an-old-story-to-a-new-generation

Culture Area Concept

The concept of a culture area, the idea that a specific geographic area will create similarities in everybody living in that area, has been used in anthropology to describe cultures for more than a century. The persistence of this concept is proof enough that the concept holds power in modern classification systems. However, the original belief of a culture area has had to change as we came to understand more about culture in general.

On the one hand, we do see many distinct cultures (i.e. different groups in name) living in very similar conditions (such as the Natchez and the Cherokee) that have developed similarities in social and cultural activities. For instance, the Natchez and the Cherokee (and many other cultures) have a nearly identical practice known as the Green Corn Ceremony, which celebrates the corn harvest as well as symbolically representing rebirth and a fresh start for the year. The environment plays heavily into the construction of cultural activities and beliefs, but these ideas also travel between groups both within and outside of these culture areas. This is because there are no hard, exact boundaries to these areas just as there are no hard boundaries to geographical areas. Areas flow into each other, constantly moving and changing, which leads to many different cultures with different cultural activities residing in a single culture area.

The culture area concept does not take into account the now known fact that cultures are constantly interacting with each other, which leads to both similarities and differences. The culture concept area also does not take into account the fluid boundaries of the geographic areas that lead to similar fluid boundaries in culture areas. This is why cultures that live on the fringe between two culture areas will contain cultural ideologies from both culture areas.

As a tool of anthropological study and education, the general belief of “cultures within similar environments will have similar cultural practices” can continue to be used. However, there need to be modifications to this theory: cultures are constantly interacting with each other, regardless of “boundaries”; relative proximity to other cultures within a similar environment will generally lead to cultural diffusion between the groups regardless of environment; and culture areas are fluid and ideas can pass from one geographically distinct area to another. Or, we can take the original belief of culture areas and use it only when studying the relationship between environment and cultural characteristics. This means that culture areas cannot be used to fully explain the creation of cultural activities.

What Have We Learned?

Over the course of my own work with the Cherokee culture, I have learned much about the historical background that has led to much of the current cultural practices and beliefs I have seen. This has made me curious about the histories and cultures of other Native American groups, although I may have gotten more than I bargained for with this course.

So far, the aspects I have enjoyed reading about the most have been the subsistence strategies (particularly of the Tlingit), the origin stories (because I have always loved mythology and you get some crazy origin stories that somehow make sense) and the warfare practices (if applicable).

I knew beforehand that the Tlingit had the potlatch ceremonies but other than knowing that there was an abundance of resources, I never knew anything specific about their subsistence strategies. Reading about the myriad of resources that they gather was incredibly interesting and raised a few questions of my own. For instance, there’s the modern belief that Native American groups only hunt and gather as much as they need to survive. While this may be true in areas where there are considerably few resources and overhunting/overgathering might lead to resource depletion and cause future problems, this is not the case for the Tlingit. From what we have read it seems like they harvested literally everything that they could (meat, fish, berries, roots, vegetables, bark, sap) in amazing amounts. This abundance of resources (along with the social organization to acquire these resources) is the reason behind the potlatches!

Along with the historical reading of the Tlingit, it was very helpful to talk about conservation in terms of the subsistences strategies. Like previously mentioned, I had gone along with the belief that Native American groups only killed an gathered as much as was needed to survive. Although the Tlingit hunt and gather everything possible within the varied environment surrounding them, they do consciously think of subsistence strategies that do not remove the resource entirely from the environment (for instance the strategy of leaving behind a certain number of gull eggs to ensure future populations).

Both the readings and class discussions have been extremely helpful in bringing about new ideas and ways of looking at situations. The readings generally introduce new material which allows me to form my own beliefs, and the class discussions afterwards then cause me to challenge my view and add to or completely change it. Class discussions in particular have been the most informative and view-changing and have caused me to sit back and question my own views on several occasions. I feel like this particular class has had better discussions and a much wider array of answers and views compared to other classes and I’m not sure if that’s because of the students taking the class or the course material itself.

P.S. For those interested, here are just a few of my favorite myths encountered so far.

Amerindian Environmental Ethics

Whether or not Native American (or Amerindian) groups consciously practiced conservation principles in regards to resource acquisition is unimportant when looking at the practical outcomes. Conscious or unconscious, resources were almost never depleted, so the outcome is the same. Personally I would like to think that Native American groups consciously understood varying ways of caring for the living resources around them and that they utilized conservation practices of some sort within their overall subsistence strategies. However, most of the evidence I have seen (other than biased hopes and one seemingly unbiased study of Tlingit gull-egg subsistence strategies) seems to point towards the idea that the lack of large population sizes (and therefore fairly small-scale practices) automatically leads to conservation. We can equate this to an assumed part of human nature (with an emphasis on assumed) coined “greed” that is fairly prominent in “civilized” societies. If this is actually a part of human nature, then the idea of smaller population sizes leading to conservation-like principles becomes more applicable. Yet we have seen that many groups have an idea of respecting the environment, especially in regards to animals, and the belief that you only take as much as is necessary to survive and that you utilize every piece of the animal you have killed as a sign of respect. Therefore, I believe that there is some middle ground where we can say Native American groups understand their impact on the environment and have devised ways in which to reduce the impact but that these practices are not always utilized on a consistent enough basis for the label “conservationists” to be applied to said groups.

Although the title of “Original Conservationist” might seem like a positive thing in light of American society’s views on the environment (excluding the Republican party) there is this throwback to the old beliefs of Native Americans as “savages” or “one with nature” which doesn’t sound quite as bad as “savages” but is still fairly derogatory. Another problem lies in whether or not the title is true, but that is something else entirely. As for this title, there needs to be careful explanation of what is meant by using the title “Original Conservationists” to Native American groups or the groups need to claim this title for themselves and promote it themselves in a modern society. I think that the best way to do this, as stated above, is through very careful explanation of any depictions of Native American groups as the original conservationists.