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Where some ideas are stranger than others...

TURTLE ISLAND at the Moonspeaker

The Moonspeaker:
Where Some Ideas Are Stranger Than Others...

Keeping Memory

Twenty odd years ago, Francis Fukuyama infamously proclaimed that history had ended, because supposedly the united states had become the sole and permanent superpower, and the imperialist, capitalist patriarchy was some sort of perfect state that would no longer change. This strikes me as a sort of paraphrase of Orwell's infamous sentence about a boot stamping on a human face forever.1 Setting aside how nonsensical Fukuyama's ostensible claim about history is, his implied definition of history is useful to think with. By implication, "history" is what we experience and record so long as society changes, and society is changing in a teleological manner, that is in a determined and specific direction. That direction leads to a final steady state that simply can't change. We can pick out problems with this right away of course, not least the teleological stuff and the stasis, although I concede it would be wonderful if we could just assume that whatever choices humans make over time, on aggregate we can always assume that the net result will be better than before. But let's leave all that aside and hold tight to the first part, which focuses on history as experiences and records. If "history" is made up of records, and for now we sidestep the question of which experiences to record, then we need to puzzle out why we should record anything. The standard glib answer in english is "so we don't forget," which at least tells us that these records are for social purposes, they aren't meant to be say, made on lead tablets, encased in concrete, and thrown in the ocean never to be seen again. How we record history reveals a lot about what we are inclined to record, and what we are inclined to do with what we recorded. The colonial drive to disrupt and destroy Indigenous history recording and transmission systems is more than a little revealing in its own right.

It is not as controversial as it used to be to acknowledge the reality that Indigenous peoples didn't need to wait around for europeans to show up in order to have a sense of history. It remains ridiculously controversial to insist that not only to Indigenous peoples, like all human communities, have a sense of history, and myriad ways of encoding and transmitting records of their histories. Many people who think they are white insist on conflating having a writing system with having historical records, heedless of the fact that as soon as we scratch the surface of the earliest historical records in asia we find evidence of transcription from oral accounts. Despite the fact that a whole range of european scholars have happily reconstructed mnemonic systems of various types, from formulaic poetry to the method of locii, and used that plus consensus between sources and archaeology to declare these early transcriptions good and based on sound originals for the records that go with their histories, they deny Indigenous peoples could have done the same. It doesn't seem to matter to them that they have not spent a similar effort to learn the analogous Indigenous methods and how they work, let alone which of them have survived the european invasion of the americas. It's not hard to start, in fact Indigenous historians have been showing how they do it for centuries, and it is quite possible to study transcribed Indigenous epics to learn about the mnemonic devices embedded in them.

Cree guides getting lunch ready on the shore of the churchill river, 1959. Photograph from the *institute for northern studies fonds, university of saskatchewan archives,* INS-546. Cree guides getting lunch ready on the shore of the churchill river, 1959. Photograph from the *institute for northern studies fonds, university of saskatchewan archives,* INS-546.
Cree guides getting lunch ready on the shore of the churchill river, 1959. Photograph from the institute for northern studies fonds, university of saskatchewan archives, INS-546.

For non-Indigenous readers, probably the most recognizable way of keeping and transmitting Indigenous history is the Haudenosaunee method using wampum strings and belts. The wampum is used to encode a mnemonic record of specific relationships that mark associated events. The Onondagas are the designated wampum keepers,2 and besides the task of keeping the wampum safe, clean, and in repair and making new copies of wampum that has done its duty and can't be handled regularly, there is also the task of reciting the associated narratives on a regular basis. The recitations aren't in a quiet corner just among a few onondaga keepers. Far from it. The recitals are part of ceremonial gatherings if not the ceremonial gathering itself, at which people from all nations of the Haudenosaunee Confederacy can hear and learn them. This is a practical and key step, because this creates redundancy. Many people learn the narratives, and even those who may not be able to recite them themselves are still able to help ensure that the recitals they hear are accurate. So robust is this system that as part of the long term attempt to destroy the Confederacy specifically the american and canadian governments have stolen wampum belts3 and used residential schools and other forms of disruption to prevent Haudenosaunee language retention and transmission between youth and elders. Interfering with a people's history also makes it harder for them to remain a people, because it breaks down their knowledge of what shared experiences, principles, and ways of living make them distinct.

There is a reasonable argument that the Haudenosaunee have wampum integrated into their historical record system because they originally moved around their lands more slowly than many other Indigenous nations. A given Haudenosaunee settlement would remain in place until the supplies of firewood, game, and local cultivated plants began to show signs of exhaustion.4 Then the community would pack up and move to a new site in order to allow the older site to recover, knowing that eventually they would return to the old site again. It was possible to collect and store wampum records, including older records that would eventually have to be copied and replaced with newer beads and sinew that were not so fragile with age and handling. But this would be hard to manage for Indigenous peoples who customarily moved much further in a single year even before horses were brought back to the americas. While anyone from the plains to the subarctic could have used wampum or analogous beads, the bulk and mass of the resulting records made this less likely. On the other hand, Indigenous nations on the northwest coast also moved over their lands more slowly, and at least based on what I have learned so far,5 they have not opted to use a wampum-type system. So the reasonable argument about Haudenosaunee wampum historiography cannot be rendered into a cause-and-effect relationship.

A broadly shared method of history-encoding among Indigenous peoples is in places, as famously described by Keith Basso from his years of collaboration with the Cibicue Apache.6 Fernando Santos-Granero has recorded the Yanesha people's analogous practices of encoding places with names that evoke stories in the amazon basin. He refers to this as a form of "topographic writing," and provides a wonderful précis account of the range of ways that most societies that do not use an asian or middle eastern type of writing system record preserve historical memory: "...through narrative and performative practices, such as myths, traditions, reminiscences, and body practices."7 When topography is encoded in this way, on one hand a map is not a sheet of paper but an ordered sequence of names that a person may recite, though this need not preclude them from drawing a map. Basso recounts many examples of Cibicue Apaches drawing on the names of specific places to recite relevant historical incidents and demonstrate their longterm relationships with their land. Julie Cruikshank, working much further north with speakers of related languages found similar complexes of densely storied places, and learned from Elders how these stories and places serve as guides to living.8 A new genre of Indigenous history writing is the traditional land use study, many of which can be viewed in the repositories of regulatory agencies that deal with permits for resource exploitation. Time and again, the authors explain how Elders insisted that they go out on the land to learn about the Indigenous community's history there as expressed through yes use, but also in stories.9 In all these cases, the system of names and stories is held and passed down within a community, whose members remember and keep their records accurate together.

Santos-Granero refers to "body practices," which is a somewhat cryptic term for what I suspect many of us have learned to refer to simply as ceremonies. In the case of the northwest coast Indigenous nations, many of those ceremonies include specific dances done by carefully trained persons who wear regalia and may sing specific songs or dance while others sing. The Delgamuukw' case in which Gitxsan and Wetsuwet'en Elders shared their histories in the form of songs challenged the presuppositions of the colonial courts.10 They also taught many of us outside of those nations about how their clans care for particular elements of their lands, and that these elements have associated names and stories that they are responsible for keeping and passing down through time. The histories they keep demonstrate the nature and time depth of their relationships with their lands, and indeed the interrelationships of the Gitxsan and Wetsuwet'en nations. At times the provincial supreme court judge was completely disconcerted by the Elders' insistence that their songs were and are evidence in every sense of the word. Reading the transcripts, if the situation had not been so grave, the judge's protests about singing in the courtroom could have been funny.

To be sure, these are not settler modes of recording and transmitting history. They are not predicated on the activities of an exclusive elite, it is expected that the whole community acts together to remember. This does not mean that there is not a subset of people who have more explicit and focussed tasks in the history work. People with an interest and aptitude for memory work are trained from a young age to remember and recite the narratives, whether it be by learning places or attending the tellings of wampum belts or year counts painted on bison hides, a practice making a comeback in the Dakota and Blackfoot nations. Both Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples seek to remember in order to know who they are and what makes them a community. Yet beyond that the purposes of their remembering seem to diverge in an alarming way. European-based forms of history are caught up in ever ramifying efforts to justify colonialism and other forms of warfare. While it would be wrong to claim that justification of warfare is never part of Indigenous historiography, it does not seem to be as widely spread among Indigenous nations, nor even as important where it is part of the histories passed down as in the cases of Mayan and Aztec materials. Instead the stronger Indigenous focii seem to be how the Indigenous community in question came to be in relationship with their lands, and how to continue surviving with those lands in a good way.

Questions of philosophy and theme aside, it is worth spending a bit more time with the notions of "topographic writing" and "mnemonic system." No doubt some readers balk at the idea that a longterm system of place naming should or could be construed as a type of writing. After all, it may seem simply a mnemonic system, a literal expression of the system of locii. Yet I would suggest in response that actually, writing is itself a mnemonic system, it is just that it leaves very little room for independent readings, decentralized reproduction, or resistance to decay. While a book or sheet of paper may outlast a single human lifetime, the robustness of the records a book or sheet of paper may hold depends on their physical survival against significant odds. Besides the vicissitudes of weather, creatures, and fungii, the maintenance and reproduction of solid state records depends on the records being recopied. If the recopying is vested primarily in a centralized elite whose task is to control the narrative, then it doesn't take much for there to be breaks in transmission as languages, scripts, and media all change. Hence the development of ever more specific and fixed ways and means of writing. Today the issue of survivability may seem solved, because instead of hundreds or even thousands of copies of a record, there may literally be millions. Then it could be assumed that some few copies could always survive together with enough other information to read them and perhaps transfer them to yet another language, script, and medium. Yet from an Indigenous perspective, critical elements are still missing that make these more solid state records too precarious for truly longterm memory. Not enough people are involved in remembering, error checking, sharing, re-experiencing, and reperforming the stories. If history is an expression of a community's existence and uniqueness, then it begs the question of how it can be remembered over time if the community is not actively involved in remembering it.

Copyright © C. Osborne 2019
Last Modified: Monday, August 26, 2013 23:42:55 MDT