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Illiteracy is Not a Synonym for Ignorance (2021-10-25)

One side of the Phaistos disk, found on Crete 1908, image from www.ancient.eu, 9 august 2020. One side of the Phaistos disk, found on Crete 1908, image from www.ancient.eu, 9 august 2020.
One side of the Phaistos disk, found on Crete 1908, image from www.ancient.eu, 9 august 2020.

The thoughtpiece title here directly contradicts the Oxford American Writer's Thesaurus in its second edition. Apparently established usage is quite insistent that these two words and parallel pairs of different related forms like illiterate-ignorant are indeed synonyms. Indeed, that is certainly how I have seen and read these words used, and it seems quite uncontroversial. There are historic reasons that they have come to have overlapping connotations, even though they are not literally equivalent. Some might even insist that since "ignorant" means by its roots "not knowing" and "illiterate" is simply more specific, "not knowing how to read" there is nothing to see here. Nothing else to write or say. Not too long ago, I would have been inclined to agree, even in my most disagreeable moments on top of knocking heads with one of the very few people whom alas I find it difficult to get along with. Yet some recent reading gave me a very different perspective on the simplistic conflation of the meanings and connotations of these words.

By happy accident, I have had the opportunity to read one of Lin Yutang's first books in english, My Country and My People, originally published in 1936. Interested readers can read a scan of this edition at the internet archive. There is no lack of material to think with in this book, between his observations of China at one of many important times in its history, and many passages that can leave the reader wondering if maybe, just maybe, he is ever so persistently pulling their leg. It isn't one of these passages that I have in mind here though, but one of the few highly autobiographical sections in which he briefly discusses Chinese theatre and the subjects and contents of the plays, ancient Chinese history. Since he was the son of a Chinese presbyterian minister, he grew up strictly forbidden to go to the theatre, therefore he did not grow up watching those plays. His comments on what this meant for him and his knowledge of Chinese history are thought provoking indeed.

Through its immense popularity the theatre has achieved a place in the national Chinese life very nearly corresponding to its logical place in an ideal republic. Apart from teaching the people an intense love of music, it has taught the Chinese people, over ninety per cent of whom are illiterate, a knowledge of history truly amazing, crystallizing, as it were, the folklore and entire historical and literary tradition in plays of characters' that have captured the heart and imagination of the common men and women.... Before my teens I knew Joshua's trumpets blew down the walls of Jericho, but I did not know until I was about thirty that when Mengchiangnii cried over the bones of her husband who had died building the Great Wall in conscript labour, the torrent of her tears washed away a section of the Great Wall. This is a type of ignorance that cannot be found among the illiterate Chinese. (251-252)

It is hardly news that people can and do learn all manner of information from media other than that in books or other printed material. In fact, the ongoing pandemic has spawned a new rush to make videos and podcasts to support online learning, and not a little of that learning is directed at students too young to know how to read yet or at students learning new languages, and therefore functionally illiterate in them. But there is considerably more packed into this brief selection.

In order to build his knowledge of Chinese history, Lin had to read books, and those dealing with Chinese history were outside his purview until he reached an age to make independent decisions about what he read. He could easily have chosen never to learn Chinese history. As it was, he did not have the same knowledge and comfort with Chinese history that his elders did, creating a wider than usual generation gap. This provokes me to wonder about the common missionary animus against Indigenous theatrical and ritual forms that encode and transmit Indigenous history, culture, and ways of living. After all, for many missionaries, their desire and ambition was to destroy Indigenous ways and replace them with theirs, because they worked and work in the belief that theirs is the only right way. This suggests a whole different way to consider episodes of theatre closures and bans in different countries, including england itself. Closures and censoring of theatres and the plays they showed had both religious and political components. Plays could challenge the messages and ideas that authorities and missionaries wanted to spread and reinforce. They had no doubt that going to theatre could be far more than just a pleasant night out.

In turn then, treating illiteracy and ignorance as synonyms unavoidably carries some political baggage. It is no coincidence that the common stereotype of an illiterate person is poor, often rural, and lacking in formal education above the most elementary level. At one time that could mean not knowing how to read and write your name, let alone not knowing what to do with the complex dinner place settings making up part of elite conspicuous consumption practices. What counts as ignorance is not constant, as we should expect, and there is of course nothing that makes it necessary for it to have any political or social connotations at all. But for good or ill, those connotations are there.


Today's Contested Document: Already Went Home

Several years ago, I learned from an Anishinaabeg Elder that we are beings whose minds and bodies are not separate, and that who we are are spiritual beings having a human experience. When the experience is over, we return to the Spirit World, our home. Sometimes, we go home early. It seems to me that recently, so many of our amazing Indigenous authors and artists have been going home early, even before any pandemic and much of the growing social division that has developed over the past decade. And sometimes people leave so suddenly that it is a major shock. Barely a month ago, Lee Maracle delivered the 2020 Margaret Laurence lecture under the auspices of the Writers' Trust of Canada. Less than a week ago, she returned to the Spirit World. I am just one of many lovers of Lee Maracle's work, and had the incredible good fortune to actually hear her tell stories and speak in person. I'm simply a stranger, after all, and I'm gobsmacked. That is bound to be hardly a reaction in comparison to that of her family, who just lost their beloved sister, mother, grandmother, auntie. So this article is my small contribution of good thoughts and prayers for them, and to honour the forever brilliant and ever amazing Lee Maracle, whose powerful words continue to reverberate everyday in Turtle Island.

UPDATE 2021-12-31 - Have a listen to this utterly wonderful tribute by Rosanna Deerchild on the unreserved podcast. If this link hiccups, the episode will likely be available on the cbc's internet archive back up.

Maracle came into the world 2 july 1950, born into the Stó:lō Nation. If that date didn't contribute to her sharp analysis of the settler state of canada and its stories, to be sure her Stó:lō and Métis heritage certainly did. She pursued an extraordinary career in activism, writing, speaking, homebuilding, and family leading. Her determination and hard work has had an incredible positive effect in the world, including on many, many Indigenous writers and artists. From her award winning books, including Conversations With Canadians, Memory Serves, Sun Dogs, and of course the ones everyone hears about, usually out of context, I Am Woman: A Native Perspective on Sociology and Feminism and Bobbi Lee: Struggles of a Native Canadian Woman, to the En'owkin International School of Writing. She had no use for leaving any of us comfortable in complacency. Her speeches in response to the truth and reconciliation commission on residential schools shook people through their ears. I heard and eventually read about her constructive discussion with Anne Cameron, asking Cameron to step aside and no longer allow publishers to use her to block Indigenous women from opportunities to tell and publish their stories. Lee Maracle didn't tiptoe around the uncomfortable for herself anymore than she did for the rest of us. She was a warrior.

Photograph of Lee Maracle in 2009 while participating in the 2009 I'POYI Aboriginal Writers' Gathering at the university of calgary, by rmajzels via wikimedia commons under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license. Photograph of Lee Maracle in 2009 while participating in the 2009 I'POYI Aboriginal Writers' Gathering at the university of calgary, by rmajzels via wikimedia commons under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.
Photograph of Lee Maracle in 2009 while participating in the 2009 I'POYI Aboriginal Writers' Gathering at the university of calgary, by rmajzels via wikimedia commons under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.

In truth, Maracle is no more exerptable than any other great storyteller. No excerpt is enough alone, but that is good. Let me tease you with some wonderful teasers that should encourage you to hurry out and read the full narrative or listen to the full talk yourself. Such as the following from My Conversations With Canadians:

Now some of our own people are repeating the phrase: "Feminism comes from the outside." I want to say, "So do Levi's," but I bite my tongue and opt for reason. I get why men are doing it. Having only one chief is handy. Not having to deal with women leaders is handy. Actually, it is patriarchy that comes from outside, and feminism is its most effective response. Far from being foreign, feminism is homegrown as a result of the relationship between a Seneca woman and Elizabeth Cady Stanton.

Or how about this, from Memory Serves:

Memory begins with song. Our songs are prayers and these songs precede decisions. These songs remind us of where our loyalties lie. To sing our songs requires that we open up our bodies, and open up our hearts, our minds and or spirit. After song, stories about the beings and the teachings are the means by which we spark the memory of oratorical decisions made in the past affect the conditions we are looking at in the present.

Or this, from her short story The Void:

On the ship I checked out the ones that got away. Only six Blacks and three Asians, the rest of us were all skins. They used to call us Indians. No white guys. We had agreed on that. We never wanted this to happen again. We were clear. We figure there was something in their blood, something in their genetic makeup drove them to effect this meltdown, so no one taught them how to flash.

But for me, this is one of the sections that led me to try to walk home while reading the book at the same time, so that I tried a weird route that involved me less with traffic until I got to my bus stop.

Removal was the object of residential school, and it was not for purposes of assimilation, and it was a crime. It was done to destroy the language, culture, and sensibility of Indigenous people. This is genocide. No academic or English language or mathematics or science courses were taught in the first one hundred years of those schools. Those would be the sort of courses that would justify calling it an assimilation program. Instead only the destruction of Indigenous language and knowledge was offered. Children worked and recited scripture when they were not being beaten, starved, or raped. When are rape and hunger part of an assimilation program? Only when it applies to us. Elsewhere in the world, it is genocide.

But one of the most wonderful stories of all is one that I heard from Lee Maracle, and that she generously shared in a way that those who could remember could retell it. One of the ways it goes, as I learned it from her, and as it helped me survive a very difficult time, is this:

The first person I ever heard this story from is Lee Maracle. It's a starting out sort of story, and it goes like this. You see, there's a clam shell laying there, just on the beach. And if you get close to it, you can hear all sorts of voices in that shell, all these voices all at once, asking questions, complaining a little, you name it. You can imagine some of the questions they're asking – there are lots of voices. Like the Keystone cops I guess! Anyway, these voices, you can hear them asking questions.

"Are we there yet?"

"When can we get out?"

"Should we go out?"

"Do you think Raven will come and get us?"

"Nah, she's got better things to do, anyways, who needs to wait around for a girl?"

This question caused some silence.

"I just mean that one, just Raven! Come on!"

"Wait!" somebody else said. "What's a girl?"

Finally, Raven comes along, and she has a bundle, a good-sized one too. She's been looking around for a good long time, and she's starting to feel impatient. She's got a long list of things to do, getting the world ready. Finally though, she sees that clam shell. She goes right on up, and peers underneath, you know how ravens can do.

"Hey, what are you all doing in there? Isn't it crowded?"

"No, no, it's fine. Anyways, we're just hanging out here, waiting to be people."

"Oh, riiight. Hey, you're just who I came to see! Now it just happens..."

"Never mind that, we're fed up with waiting. We're going to head out and be people, I'm ready to be a man, what about the rest of you?"

Well, there's lots more talking, and in the end, the spirits who are going to be men, they head out in a big hurry. Why, they head out so fast, they just about flip that clam shell wide open. Raven watches them go by, and shakes her head.

"Anyways, I came out this way because I have something for you. Trust me, you'll want them later." Then Raven hands the spirits that bundle.

"Really, what's in here?" Those spirits ask, the ones getting ready to be women.


When I am lucky, I am able to get a big laugh at that question, "Are we there yet?" This is important, because Lee Maracle had a huge, beautiful laugh and a sense of humour as marvellous and pointed as her serious speech. Well, what am I saying. She still does, it's just that she is busy wielding it in the Spirit World. So I do my best to tell the story well when an appropriate opportunity comes for me to tell it, to honour her gift, and her incredible voice and her unforgettable laugh. It took a good while before I learned about how to properly honour people on Stó:lō land, by accident, though I know now that what we do is raise our hands.

I do that now, I raise my hands to you Lee Maracle. Thank you for your generosity, and your example. I still wish you hadn't had to go home so soon!

Copyright © C. Osborne 2022
Last Modified: Thursday, January 6, 2022 20:48:21