Too Many Deaths: Decolonizing Western Academic Research on Indigenous Cultures
By Gabrielle Welford
A dissertation submitted to the Graduate Division of the University of Hawaii in partial fulfillment of the requirements for the degree of Doctor of Philosophy in English, May 2003
© 2003 Gabrielle Welford (welford@hawaii.edu)

Chapter 2 - Approaching Scholarship

 
Main
 

Title Page, Acknowledgements, Abstract, Table of Contents, Preface

 
Chapter 1 - Introduction
 
Inbetween I
 
Chapter 2 -Approaching Scholarship
 
Inbetween II
 
Chapter 3 - The Western Academy Described: Purpose and Means
 
Inbetween III
 
Chapter 4 - Objectivity
 
Inbetween IV
 
Chapter 5 - Externalization of Viewpoint Unwillingness to be Affected
 
Inbetween V
 
Chapter 6 - Fact and Fiction Written vs. Oral Linear Argument
 
Inbetween VI
 
Chapter 7 - Modes of Thought Effects
 
Inbetween VII
 
Chapter 8 - Examples
 
Inbetween VIII
 
Chapter 9 - What Are Our Options?
 
Inbetween IX
 
Chapter 10 - Conclusion Responsibility
 
Bibliography

 

  CHAPTER 2
APPROACHING SCHOLARSHIP

In Chapter 2, I take a look at examples of distortion in the process of western academic research as it approaches indigenous subjects. Referring to commentary from a number of indigenous scholars, I examine reasons given for discomfort with the way western academics sees themselves and their mission, and with the ways they too often misrepresent those they study in indigenous cultures. I also assess indigenous commentators' claims as to the consequences of our vision and enterprises, as well as their concern that they be able to define their own cultures from within. Finally, I consider calls for a moratorium on western research into indigenous cultures and explain why I think this is necessary.

In The Sacred Hoop: Recovering the Feminine in American Indian Traditions, Native American (endnote 1) (Laguna Pueblo) scholar and writer Paula Gunn Allen mentions two methodologies--a traditional western academic one and a research method and justification that derives from within her own Pueblo culture--as frames for scholarship. While Gunn Allen's The Sacred Hoop is a tightly argued, well-documented volume using western language, citations, notes, etc., her inventory (to use Gramsci's term) is not the same as that of a mainstream white western academic; her expertise and the stories she tells are not based in being an objective outsider of the culture she writes about. Paying attention to her "consciousness of what [she] really is" means subsuming methodologies of western academia beneath a Pueblo approach to the world. She tells stories; she validates a women-centered Keres spiritual view on the world. This might seem like establishment of a simple dichotomy between western and Indian thought, but, as Kentucky-born, Hawaii-based haole scholar Houston Wood points out in "Cultural Studies for Oceania," visions of "a Way" are not helpful in representing the multiple, context-sensitive, constantly changing experiences and ideas that typify any lived circumstance (12). Such multiple and changing lived experience also informs the vision Arab American anthropologist Lila Abu-Lughod expresses in advising an "ethnography of the particular" ("Writing Against Culture" 149). In practice, what Gunn Allen speaks of as "my method of choice" has all the multiplicity of life--experienced from New Mexico to the Bay Area and Europe and from Pueblo methodologies to western academic ones--not reducible to any simple formulation.

[W]hile I employ variously the methodologies of anthropology, literary studies, folklore, psychology, sociology, historiography, philosophy, culture studies, and women's studies in these essays, my method of choice is my own understanding of American Indian life and thought. For although I am a somewhat nontraditional Indian, I grew up in the homes of Indians and have spent my adult life in the company of traditionals, urbanites, and all the shades of Indian in between.

Because I am thus personally involved in my discipline, because I study and write out of a Laguna Indian woman's perspective, these essays present a picture of American Indian life and literature unfiltered through the minds of western patriarchal colonizers. The essays in this volume are framed by neither the anthropological nor the missionary mind, and they do not particularly reflect the white mind-set. (6)

Gunn Allen speaks of a "white mind-set," which she associates with colonization and patriarchy and which she has also personally experienced, and contrasts it with her "own understanding of American Indian life and thought"--the basis for her Indian scholarship. Maori scholar Linda Tuhiwai Smith makes a similar distinction: "This book identifies research as a significant site of struggle between the interests and ways of knowing of the West and the interests and ways of resisting of the Other" and adds, "it is surely difficult to discuss research methodology and indigenous peoples (endnote 2) together, in the same breath, without having an analysis of imperialism, without understanding the complex ways in which the pursuit of knowledge is deeply embedded in the multiple layers of imperial and colonial practices" (Decolonizing Methodologies 2). Abu-Lughod also remarks that "the relationship between the West and the non-West, at least since the birth of anthropology [I would add sociology, philosophy, and cultural studies in its present form], has been constituted by Western domination" (139).

In this dissertation, I regard Gunn Allen, Smith, and Abu-Lughod's observations on what western scholarship has wrought and continues to perpetuate among indigenous peoples as an opportunity for us--mainly white, mainstream, western academics--to listen and to make serious changes in what we regard as honest and useful scholarship. In the chapters that follow, I will examine what Gunn Allen and others might mean by a "white mind-set" and by "western methodologies" and how and why, as a scholar, she might give precedence to ways based in Indian life and thought. In doing this, I intend to open up her contrast between "white" academic ways of thinking (Chapters 3 to 7) and those that fall outside western academic models and, finally, to examine what might be alternative methodologies open to western academics. (endnote 3)

The reasons for wanting to explore alternative scholarly approaches can be phrased in a question: "What are the consequences of unquestioningly relying on the frame of a western academic world vision in our studies--especially our studies of other cultures?" As an example of such consequences, in her book and in a later article, Gunn Allen addresses some problems encountered by both western and non-western scholars pursuing a traditional western academic approach to scholarship among American Indians. In her essay, where she expands her critique of the classroom use of sacred material to include "American culture...reflected in American institutions such as universities," she says,

In the white world, information is to be saved and analyzed at all costs. It is not seen as residing in the minds and molecules of human beings but as--dare I say it?--transcendent. Civilization and its attendant virtues of freedom and primacy depend on the accessibility of millions of megabytes of data; no matter that the data has lost its meaning by virtue of loss of its human context. Yet traditional materials, sacred or social, have meaning within the traditional, day to day context of the people who live within it.

But the white world has a different set of values, one which requires learning all and telling all in the interests of knowledge, objectivity and freedom. This ethos and its obverse--a nearly neurotic distress in the presence of secrets and mystery underlie much of modern culture. ("Teaching" 382)

Lila Abu-Lughod echoes this response when she speaks of "this 'will to knowledge' about the Other" (148).

Gunn Allen's use of "the white world" seems to ignore those, like Mary Louise Pratt, Houston Wood, Kelly Kraemer, David Stannard, and others who try not to function in this way. But despite the countering work of some, problems surrounding western academic ethnocentrism continue. Yankton Sioux scholar and author Vine Deloria confirms, "In the white man's world knowledge is a matter of memorizing theories, dates, lists of kings and presidents, the table of chemical elements and many other things not encountered in the course of a day's work. Knowledge seems to be divorced from experience" (vii-viii). Data loses meaning by virtue of loss of human context, and meaning is central to human experience, as Abu-Lughod also argues in her appeal for particularity in ethnography (150). The contexts--the relationships and therefore the meanings--the academy provides are ones where Pueblo concepts no longer have Pueblo meanings. Western academic explanations applied by western-oriented scholars are inviable when applied to traditional Pueblo culture.

Gunn Allen explains that fierce American Indian reticence about traditions was not always so fierce. It arose in reaction to an inability on the part of scholars to "see" what we were being shown, from our insistence on reading the literature of other cultures than our own "in terms that are familiar to [us], however irrelevant those terms may be to the literature under consideration" (Hoop 54). In our academic training, we learn to study and write about other cultures as though they were products, objects that can be separated out from their lived use within the culture. For the most part, we write about them using our own theories, points of view, and ethnocentric regard. It is not generally our concern whether what we write is useful to those we study. In my experience, many of us write for other western-based academics without thinking of the effects this will have on those we write about. Abu-Lughod has interesting stories to tell of the effects the personal ethnographies she produced have had when reintroduced to the families she took them from. They have caused at least fights, horror, and laughter because what she saw as appropriate stories to tell were by no means necessarily appropriate within the communities she drew them from ("Writing Against Culture" 158-160).

Anthropologist Elsie Clews Parsons, says Gunn Allen, had arrived in Laguna Pueblo around 1924 to collect material for a study on religion and social culture. She was readily given information, but when she published it, people realized with horror that she had, "[i]n accordance with her academic training...objectified, explained, detailed and analyzed their lives as though they were simply curios, artifacts, fetishes, and discussed the supernaturals as though they were objects of interest and patronization" (383). The people of Laguna were furious, and

Coincidently (or not so coincidently) the terrible drought deepened--the same drought Silko depicts in Ceremony--and in its wake many other ills visited the Pueblo. Personal horrors and society-wide horrors ensued; the discovery of uranium on Laguna land, not far from where the giantess' head and her headless body had been flung by the War Twins, the development of nuclear weapons near Jemez, the Second World War, jackpile mine, water and land poisoned by nuclear waste, the village of Paguate all but surrounded by tailing-mesas almost as perfectly formed as the natural mesas all around. It's hardly any wonder that they shut it down. All entry by non-traditionals to dances and stories was cut off. They witnessed the appalling consequences of telling what was private for reasons that far exceed simple cultural purism. (383-384)

It may well be too hard for many in the west to agree that these are "consequences" of Parsons' objectification of Laguna culture. However, those within the pueblo are as solid in their view that sharing the stories with Parsons and her treatment of them caused the disasters that followed. It might also be said that 1924 is a long time ago and things have changed since then. However, according to indigenous scholars like Gunn Allen, Silva, Hereniko, Enari, and Smith, the way they have changed has been more a matter of anthropologists, sociologists, and other cultural scholars moving toward less obviously extreme objectification but still functioning within the same parameters of academic procedure. And while it is true that more indigenous literature, for example, is being taught, in many places there has not been an accompanying commitment to hiring the indigenous teachers qualified to teach it.

Pueblo and other indigenous people claim that western scholars cause material harm with their methods. In my case, if someone I care about claims to have been harmed by something I have done, even if I can't yet understand, I will try not to hurt them again. Purposely hurting people is an anomaly, not a given, in western culture at large, but caring about the people whose works and lives we study has not been a part of western scholarship, especially since the dominant model is a scientific and colonial one. I offer the kind of caring most of us understand from relationships within family and among friends as a positive place to begin thinking about alternatives. People we have studied say we do harm, and I wish to say we have no business arguing whether the harm can really have been caused by what we do just because we cannot see the cause and effect relationships from our cultural point of view. As Lila Abu-Lughod notices, "even if we withhold judgment on how closely the social sciences [and related disciplines] can be associated with the apparatuses of management, we have to recognize how all professionalized discourses by nature assert hierarchy" (151). The hierarchy embedded in scholarship, of which I will talk more in Chapter 5, does not encourage caring relationships between scholar and objects of study, and in fields where the objects of study are human beings, this is a serious and continuing problem. However artificial it might seem, caring needs to be inserted into the relationship.

An exploration of what may be required for us to see the harm we are doing when we treat other people's cultures as objects of interest (even passionate interest) unrelated to our personal lives and when we thus separate ourselves from them in a superior position is at the core of this dissertation. I wish to suggest that we have choices that may alleviate our standing as propagators of separatist research that Linda Tuhiwai Smith calls "one of the dirtiest words in the indigenous world's vocabulary" (1).

Paula Gunn Allen and Lila Abu-Lughod are not the only scholars who use personal understanding of their subject rather than or as well as western academic training because of inevitable distortions created when indigenous cultures (their literature, social customs, spiritualities, etc.) are looked at and critiqued via western academic models. Gunn Allen is not alone in sometimes choosing to remain silent rather than focus her western academic training on subject matters close to her heart, as she acknowledges that sometimes she cannot do the job of a western academic without becoming ill:

[C]hildhood learning dies hard. In the classroom or before the keyboard, I find myself physically ill when I attempt to override those early lessons. My body, breed as it is, rebels against the very idea that such violations might proceed from me. For years I have had a somewhat different attitude toward materials from other tribes, like those in the Midwest. But reading Young Bear's comments, I realize that even that territory--which for reasons of ignorance coupled with the availability of information from midwestern native communities I had seen as open to use--is not. ("Teaching" 385)

Cherokee scholar Mary Churchill, for instance, bases her dissertation "'Walking the White Path': Towards a Cherokee-centric Hermeneutic for Interpreting Cherokee Literature" on "subjective approaches as a theoretical base for developing an indigenous hermeneutic." She does so because anthropologist Charles Hudson (endnote 4)--whose white Christian-based definitions of Cherokee spirituality she questions--and others distort Cherokee realities in their descriptions and definitions (ix). She claims through the words of Cherokee scholar Rennard Strickland, "Each generation [of scholars] has created and re-created the Cherokee in the image of that age" and in her first chapter, explores the effects of western scholarship on the image of the Cherokee held by white and Indian alike (2). Her subjective approaches ideally would consist of interaction between members of both the communities studied and the scholars involved, but, as she acknowledges, such a dialogue did not exist at the time of her study. Therefore she adopts "a 'partial' perspective and a dialogical framework in which to develop the Cherokee-centric hermeneutic" that may be used within the culture to replace distorting definitions from without (x).

According to Nigerian playwright, poet and critic Wole Soyinka, indigenous peoples' experiences of the world, while they are different from each other, are in many aspects even more different from western people's experiences and more similar to each other ("Drama and the African World View" 37). As Gunn Allen says, "The sacred, ritual ways of the American Indian peoples are similar in many respects to other sacred cultures on the planet....The wide diversity of tribal systems on the North American continent notwithstanding...tribal world views are more similar to one another than any of them are to the patriarchal world-view" (Hoop 5-6). Haunani-Kay Trask agrees when she says, "Clearly we [Native women] are vastly different from each other, not only geographically, but culturally, linguistically, and historically as well.//And yet, I believe, we share many more similarities than differences" (Daughter 131-132). Creek/Cherokee scholar Ward Churchill goes a step further to insist that focusing on differences between indigenous cultures is a colonizing move. Quoting Mexican anthropologist/activist Guillermo Bonfil Batalla, he sets out the precepts of indigenism (as a resistance movement) thus:

[I]n America there exists only one unitary Indian civilization. All the Indian peoples participate in this civilization. The diversity of cultures and languages is not an obstacle to affirmation of the unity of this civilization.... But the level of unity--the civilization--is more profound than the level of specificity....The differences between diverse peoples (or ethnic groups) have been accentuated by the colonizers as part of the strategy of domination. There have been attempts by some to fragment the Indian peoples...by establishing frontiers, deepening differences and provoking rivalries. This strategy follows a principle objective: domination, to which end it is attempted ideologically to demonstrate that in America, Western civilization is confronted by a magnitude of atomized peoples, differing from one another.... ("Indigenist" 4-5).

Tongan satirist and anthropologist Epeli Hau'ofa makes a similar point in "Our Sea of Islands." He shows that colonizers have figured the Pacific as a vast sea with tiny, scattered (and therefore dependent) isolated islands, whereas Pacific Islanders historically experience Oceania as one large unified region of the world connected by water (6-7).

As an instance of these differences, in a discussion of French neo-fiction, Wole Soyinka argues that French Surrealism (endnote 5) is a project bankrupt from the start in that it imagines a gap between human beings and the cosmos and then proceeds to try and fill it, that it produces a cosmic anxiety and then proceeds to try to assuage it. Soyinka denies that the gap (embedded in western consciousness during the Christianizing of Europe through the story of human exile from the Garden of Eden, and later reinforced via the philosophy of Descartes) exists. He sees it as a peculiarly western dis-ease and one symptom of a more general problem. He points to a "recognisable European cast of mind, a compartmentalising [sic] habit of thought which periodically selects aspects of human emotion, phenomenal observations, metaphysical intuitions and even scientific deductions and turns them into separatist myths--(or "truths") sustained by a proliferating superstructure of presentation idioms, analogies and analytical modes" (37). Soyinka is critical of western attempts to encompass African literature within a western theoretical framework and also works to develop, as Churchill does, a hermeneutic centered in his own culture.

At the forum on "Overcoming Colonial Violence: Cultural Representation & the Hawaiian Body" several Kanaka Maoli panel members spoke forcefully against accepting definition from commentators who are not Kanaka Maoli. They gave examples to show how important it is for Kanaka Maoli and other colonized peoples to experience, define and develop understanding of themselves from within. So much of the view on Native Hawai'i (as of other so-called "primitive" cultures) has been insulting caricature for the purposes of attracting tourism and/or stealing land and culture that participants insisted that both the vision of what Native Hawaiian culture/art consists of and how it will develop must come from inside the culture. Linda Tuhiwai Smith similarly points out:

From the vantage point of the colonized, a position from which I write, and choose to privilege, the term 'research' is inextricably linked to European imperialism and colonialism....It galls us that Western researchers and intellectuals can assume to know all that it is possible to know of us, on the basis of their brief encounters with some of us. It appals us that the West can desire, extract and claim ownership of our ways of knowing, our imagery, the things we create and produce, and then simultaneously reject the people who created and developed those ideas and seek to deny them further opportunities to be creators of their own culture and own nations. (1)

The foregoing examples of protest to continuing western academic representation of indigenous cultures are reason enough, I believe, for western scholars to pause and take a closer look at what we are doing.

The vision of one person in particular has been instrumental in changing the course of my writing. Epi Enari is a scholar, writer, and teacher from Western Samoa. She was reluctant to give me feedback at first because of punitive reactions she had received in the past. The straightforwardness, courage, and generosity of her responses--her risk-taking friendship for me--as well as her clear view of the problem, brings me to foreground her views in this chapter and elsewhere. In her commentary on my first attempt at this dissertation (which was to be a study of three indigenous writers whom I see as bridges between their own cultures and ours), she wrote:

a. Why write about others?

As far as I'm concerned, western scholars have reaped so much off the backs of indigenous peoples, as if their (western) forebears had/have not done enough damage to their former colonial "subjects" physically, politically, mindsetly, languagely, and otherwise.

For example, the whole postcolonial enterprise is just one more arena that western scholars have created to make themselves sound compassionate, when in actual fact, it is solely for their gain: in self importance, in academic upward mobility, and hence money and reputation. Just one more set of spaces for them to perpetuate their self-inscribed importance and to use others as objects (of study) to puff themselves up. I often wonder: why not shoot us now? But then, the commodity (endnote 6) can't be annihilated, can it?

Western scholars gaze, then they speak, and in their speaking, they often criticize the gaze of other academics as if their own is somehow sanctioned by the object/subject, when actually it is self-sanctioned.

If academics are so smart, why don't they go and help invent a cure for the common cold, and other diseases? Something real and useful for humankind? What good does all this academic hogwash do for the people being studied? Now there's cultural studies and who knows what else they will create?

In a class at UH, the professor (who shall remain nameless) spoke about her work on a people not her own, and a student whom you know but shall remain nameless asked point blank "Why don't you study your own people?" That, is the million dollar question. And that, my dear Gab, is my ultimate position.

Why don't western scholars study themselves so they can know what damage their forebears have done, and so they can come up with some solutions to the damage done? Seems the logical thing to do if they care about the human condition. Moreover, Socrates said the unexamined life is not worth living. David Stannard examined the damage of the American genocide in "The American Holocaust." There could be more Stannards. I'm serious. (3)

In the quote at the beginning of this dissertation, Haunani-Kay Trask voices a similar demand, speaking at the time about anthropology and archaeology but concerned about appropriation and distortion from all directions. Enari and Trask's comments are echoed by Sherman Alexie:

[N]on-Indians should quit writing about us until we've established our voice--a completely voluntary moratorium. If non-Indians stop writing about us they'll have to publish us instead....The real issue is that Indians' relationship to this country is still that of the colonized, so that when non-Indians write about us, it's colonial literature. And unless it's seen that way, there's a problem....[A]nyone can write these [inaccurate] books about Indians....Indians have so little political power, so little social and cultural power, that this happens to us all the time. (Interview. Atlantic online 3-4)

Paula Gunn Allen talks about "a nearly neurotic distress in the presence of secrets and mystery" (page 33 above) to explain why non-Indian academics and students insist on continuing a colonial project, why they need to know everything ("Teaching" 382). She describes Pueblo values very differently--"One does not tell or inquire about matters that do not directly concern one" (379). Western academic "learning all and telling all in the interests of knowledge, objectivity, and freedom" results in the misappropriation and exposure Gunn Allen and others describe (382).

I tell a story here that indicates the pain I think many of us (western and especially white academics) feel when we think ourselves shut out of cultures to which we have had free access since the inception of modern-day colonialism. At the 1994 Pacific Writers Forum, Cook Island editor Marjorie Crocombe and others began to discuss returning Pacific literature to the native languages of the writers as much as possible. As soon as they started talking, I was aware of a sharp pang because I realized that if this were to happen, unless I learned the relevant languages, I would be shut out of reading the literature of the participants and from this fascinating conversation between Pacific writers. At the same time, I was writing a paper for a class in Pacific Literature in which I examined the responses of faculty in the English Department to the Forum. Several of the faculty members I interviewed expressed distress at feeling shut out of the discussion because there was only a short time for questions and comments at the very end of each day. The focus was very clearly on the writers themselves and their process, experiences, know-how, and friendships. Faculty problems with the Forum included the physical layout of the room which focused attention on the writers in the middle with the audience seated in tiers above them. I believe Gunn Allen is talking about this kind of distress at being shut out of colonized peoples' cultures. An unwillingness to acknowledge our lack of understanding and to accept a place of "not knowing" has done and does more damage to indigenous people in the cultures we study than we usually realize.

Linda Smith echoes Epi Enari's comments and elaborates on the relationship between scholarship and trade when she writes,

The real critical question in this discussion relates to the commercial nature of knowledge "transfer", regardless of what knowledge is collected or how that knowledge has been collected or is represented. In this sense, the people and their culture, the material and the spiritual, the exotic and the fantastic, became not just the stuff of dreams and imagination, or stereotypes and eroticism but of the first truly global commercial enterprise: trading the Other....Trading the Other is a vast industry based on the positional superiority and advantages gained under imperialism. It is concerned more with ideas, language, knowledge, images, beliefs and fantasies than any other industry. (89)

My proposition is that we extricate ourselves as quickly and painlessly as possible from this scenario in whatever honorable ways are open to us.

To summarize:

My first project in this dissertation is to demonstrate that the time has come for western academics, as Enari, Trask, Alexie, and others ask, to place a moratorium, unless specifically requested, on our observation of and commentary on indigenous cultures so that those peoples can be free to define themselves (or not, as they choose) in all ways--academically as well as politically, socially, spiritually, and so on. This means that there is no "right" or "politically correct" way for us to write about indigenous cultures unless we are asked and directed in our doing so by people in those cultures. However awkward this may be, we are being told that it is our turn to listen rather than to define through our lenses people from cultures already endangered, something we have been doing for centuries and continue to do, however much we protest otherwise.

In answer to the possible question, "which people from a culture is it okay to listen to?" I can only say we will have to take the risk of engaging on the ground level in very practical ways in order to be able to make informed decisions both as to whether we feel able to undertake a project and whether the person asking us is acting appropriately. We can always go to others for further feedback. It is part of the value of what I am calling engagement and friendship that the more we engage, the more we will come to know--not so much on a theoretical but on an experiential level. We will make mistakes, look foolish most probably, upset people perhaps, have to backtrack and apologize, give gifts and receive them, but the likelihood is that we will grow in what I want to call whole human lived understanding of a culture.

In answer to a friend's question as to what will differentiate this study from an exercise in liberal white guilt, I am undertaking to follow through on my own prescriptions. The way I understand liberal white academic guilt (about the history of white colonialism, ongoing racism, classism, sexism, etc.) is that those who suffer from it and declare it usually do not act on their perceptions to stop doing what is making them feel guilty, as though perhaps the awareness that makes them feel guilty is enough--like Bill Clinton's apology to the Hawaiians, rather a strategic admission of guilt than one with real consequences. What tends to happen is that, following on acknowledgment of being part of the problem, liberal white academics look for a less obvious, less heinous way of continuing to do the same thing, i.e., placing the lenses of their own sensibilities, their own culture over the art, literature, spirituality, science, history and so on of other cultures. This can be done under a variety of names, and continues, as Enari says, in postcolonial and cultural studies, where the power of definition often rests with an intellectual elite who have advantages of money, prestige, a monopoly on knowledge production, and who are often outside the culture in question.

To address this problem, I am foreswearing using my knowledge and training to "lead the natives out of their suffering," as my friend put it, or even to add to the huge and still growing collection of white academic writing on non-white culture, for whatever motive. I first intended, because of the very friendships that have changed my mind, to study cultures and literatures of other peoples than to my own. However, it became clear as this dissertation proceeded that I had to listen to those friends who were willing to lay their friendships with me on the line to make sure I heard them saying painful things. There were times when they had to point out that I might be perpetuating what I was arguing against in my original project and with aspects of this project as it developed. Listening meant starting over again several times after fairly agonizing consideration that I might be repeating what I was trying to avoid.

The project of this dissertation is an appeal to an audience in the western academy. I ask not only that we pay attention but that we acquiesce to the demand being made with increasing intensity among indigenous peoples--for a moratorium on commenting on, analyzing, observing, comparing the cultural products of peoples not our own. I ask that we entertain the possibility that such projects are disguised continuations of colonization. Attempts to change the practices of commentary on indigenous cultures while continuing to produce the scholarship--as we have seen when western scholars acknowledge their positionality and inability to fully grasp the cultures they are studying but then go on immediately to write at length about them--fall short of full recognition of the problem and of what is being asked of us. As long as observations that we are colonizing and demands that we stop are being made, we need to call at least a temporary halt. I suggest we listen to what is being said--and much is being said--by the people we study themselves so that the project swings from our speaking for the subaltern to making room as they speak for themselves. Gayatri Spivak puts it this way in "How to read a 'culturally different' book,"

If the subaltern...is listened to as agent and not simply as victim, we might not be obliged to rehearse decolonisation interminably from above, as agendas for new schools of post-colonial criticism. But the subaltern is not heard. And one of the most interesting philosophical questions about decolonising remains: who decolonise, and how? (138)

I ask you to take this so seriously that our gaze shifts from trying to understand cultures not our own to trying to understand our own, including the reasons why we might not want to study ourselves.


1 I will use the word "Indian" throughout the rest of the dissertation rather than "Native American" in deference to those who agree with Sherman Alexie that the latter term is a product of "liberal white guilt" rather than an expression of respect (Himmelsbach 1). I will refer to tribal affiliation whenever possible.

2 In using the word "indigenous," Smith acknowledges that there are problems, but, like Ward Churchill, she sees the term as more useful than problematic: "It is a term that internationalizes the experiences, the issues and the struggles of some of the world's colonized peoples. The final 's' in 'indigenous peoples' has been argued for quite vigorously by indigenous activists because of the right of peoples to self-determination. It is also used as a way of recognizing that there are real differences between indigenous peoples. The term has enabled the collective voices of colonized people to be expressed strategically in the international arena" (7) I follow suit in using the term in this work to refer to peoples who define themselves through connection to the land on which they live, or, if they have been removed from that land, to the land of their origin, and who are engaged in a struggle against colonialism.

3 This conflation of "white" and "western" is obviously factually an error, unless we are to exclude Black Americans, Native Americans, other non-white Americans, as well as indigenous Australians, New Zealanders, and so on, from our descriptions of "the west," which is an option, since especially many indigenous peoples of the Americas and other continents do not consider their cultures western. There is currently exploration and lively discussion of what kinds of attitudes, privileges, positions, assumptions, whiteness and western culture comprise, replacing our former certainty that we know what we are talking about when we use these terms. With this questioning comes a new danger that the concept "race" itself, coming under the microscope, may be relegated to the category "illusory," erasing awareness of oppression at the same time. (See Berger, Hill, Nakayama and Martin, Roediger, Kincheloe, Jacobson, hooks, and others for these discussions.) While we can no longer rest in the surety of whiteness and western culture as unexamined states of origin and bulwarks of unquestioned power, the power of representation remains, as Abu-Lughod notes, in the west, and the distinction Gunn Allen makes is a fertile and provocative one that I will pursue (143). As Daniel Bernardi says, "[E]ven if race is merely a fiction...it is a powerful fiction in that it systematically affects how we see the world, how we present ourselves to the world, who we associate with, and how we are conversely treated by people and by institutions" (2).

4 Charles Hudson is a specialist in Native American culture of the Southeastern United States, and his Southeastern Indians, in the absence of any other overview to date, continues to serve as a definitive synthesis for scholars of Cherokee religious traditions.

5 Although I agree with Soyinka that the surrealists attempted to cross a constructed gap of anxiety between humanity and nature, it was not the surrealists who originated the gap. They recognized, as Maurice Nadeau says, that "Man makes a beautiful cage to imprison the forces of nature; he succeeds in doing so, but does not realize that he is locking himself inside" (The History of Surrealism 47). They tried to cross a gap Soyinka sees does not exist because, as Soyinka says, in their world it did/does exist, and they had seen it destroy millions in a cynical and bureaucratically run war. Delving deeply into dreams and drug and sleep deprivation-induced visions to produce images and words they believed came from a "primitive," direct connection to the world, they tried to undo what they too saw as a false gap between language and materiality in order to change the world. Of course, they did so from within the culture that produced the gap and therefore using the language that fed it. But they began to shift paradigms. Ironically but not surprisingly, it was partly from their studies and imaginings of indigenous cultures that the surrealists gathered this belief in the identity--no gap--between language/human beings and the world. They had seen the savagery produced by western rationality during World War I and they chose instead everything considered the opposite of "civilization."

6 See also Smith (89)

     
   

From:
Too Many Deaths: Decolonizing Western Academic Research on Indigenous Cultures
By Gabrielle Welford
A dissertation submitted to the Graduate Division of the University of Hawaii in partial fulfillment of the requirements for the degree of Doctor of Philosophy in English, May 2003
© 2003 Gabrielle Welford (welford@hawaii.edu)