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 10 - Conclusion, Responsibility

 
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 10
CONCLUSION
RESPONSIBILITY

"Another world is not only possible, she is on her way.
On a quiet day, I can hear her breathing"
(Arundhati Roy; January 28, 2003 Porto Alegre, Brazil)

To return to the beginning of this dissertation, my opening intention was as follows:

to follow [Paula] Gunn Allen's and [Linda Tuhiwai] Smith's lines of thought to explore what I see as a choice of approaches available to English Department academics (and academics in general, by extension) when studying and commenting...particularly on literature not from our own culture. I will examine what Gunn Allen (and others) might mean by a "white mind-set" and how and why she might compare it with the way she understands Indian life and thought. In doing this, I intend to open up her contrast between white academic ways of thinking and those that fall outside a western academic model and, finally, to examine what might be alternative methodologies (without stealing from improperly understood indigenous models once again) open to western academics.

The reason I want 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?" (3-4)

The pages after and up until this point pursue further questions and answers in the context of Gunn Allen and Smith's concerns.

To escape a simple repetition of the previous chapters, I would like to conclude as I ended my first chapter--with an examination of my own position in this discipline of literary criticism/cultural studies (endnote 1). Firstly, it is important for me to keep in mind that, as I pointed out in Chapter 9 (pp.267-268), I am part of the problem in ongoing attempts to decolonize the academy. S. Elizabeth Bird confirms a part of what I have been trying to say--about the dangers of projection--when she concludes her volume on supermarket tabloids, For Enquiring Minds with a critique of cultural studies. She suggests the possibility that cultural studies scholars, like their critical predecessors, are in danger of leaving behind "analysis of class-based experience and...a capacity to articulate feelings of 'loss, despair, disillusion, anger'" toward an institutionalization that projects the scholar's mask onto the object of study or idealizes the object of study in the guise of the scholar's desires (203-204). She quotes James Lull's "The Audience as Nuisance": "'What is presented in much cultural studies writing about audiences is actually the writer's position, his or her relation to media content, to the family, to the social environment'" (204).

In going further than this to say that literary criticism's claims to objectivity on other people's cultures are questionable, I have put myself in a strange boat. As I have acknowledged above, my main publications have been on Athabascan poet Mary TallMountain, with whom I share the displacement from one culture to another which formed a part of her subject matter. However, as I have said, I do not share her culture, and I have come to believe that for that reason and because analysis and definition of indigenous cultures should come from within and not from outside for reasons that are historic and depressingly ongoing, I must bar myself from writing anymore about my friend. This is so, I think, unless I am specifically asked to write about her by those within or near to her culture ("near" meaning those from other American Indian tribes) who care about her and if no one else more culturally qualified steps forward to take on the project. Since Mary TallMountain is dear to me, I will also undertake to ask her for permission and listen for her answer. When I was asked by Paula Gunn Allen to write an entry on Mary TallMountain for an upcoming volume on notable American women, as well as asking Gunn Allen and several Indian scholars suggested by her if they would be interested in writing the piece, I asked TallMountain whether I should write it. The answer that came to me was that I should do my best to find someone else. So that is what I did. I suppose I could be accused of appropriation of culture for asking permission of spirits. I have, however, since I was a child of 11, regularly talked to my dead grandparents and asked them for and received advice about things. I maintained greater sanity in the life that followed by talking to my first baby when she died and to my partner when he drowned. Before Mary TallMountain died, she told me she would be there for me even after death, and I continue to talk to her. It has been a tradition in my life.

A recent experience adds force to the possibility of asking for guidance from those who are no longer alive. I have been working with the Subcommittee on Sovereignty Education of the Hawai'i American Friends Service Committee, and in 2001, we decided to stage a play in honor of Timoteo Ha'alilio, a Kanaka Maoli patriot, one of three men who traveled around the world establishing treaties recognizing Hawai'i as a sovereign independent nation between the Kingdom of Hawai'i and other countries. Three treaties--with England, France, and the United States--were ratified between 1840 and 1843 establishing Hawai'i as the first non-white member of the family of nations. Plans for the play were well under way and the first draft beginning to be written when someone asked whether Ha'alilio himself had been consulted about whether he wanted a play written about him. A person in his family line made the enquiry and was met with a "no." He made it known that the play should not be in honor of him personally but rather in honor of the circumstances of the treaties' signings. Those involved offered an apology and continued with a different plan. Some of the people I work with in the sovereignty movement are only now getting (re-)used (because of the intervention of Christianity) to communicating with ancestors as a very important part of the protocol for any project.

What makes up the geography of my research and writing these days, then, has to include recognition that it is my responsibility to make sure I am not ploughing ahead solely under my own steam with a project whose driving intention and purpose are (albeit maybe not purposely) colonial. I might not intentionally be colonial (how many people would say they were?), but it has become obvious through the progress of this project that I am as capable as anyone of acting colonially without awareness. I definitely need invitation, permission, and guidance from the living. I also need it from those who have left the world of the living. Remembering that as a haole Euroamerican woman I am part of the problem of colonialism in academia, I have to remain alert and ask for feedback from those who may be impinged upon by my work at every step of the way. This is part of the serious responsibilities I incur as I am given privileges and honor by being invited to be part of the sovereignty movement. These responsibilities include knowing when to be silent. As I said in Chapter 1, I have come to realize that I do not have to belong, that far from it, I have to recognize when I do not belong and to respect the boundaries of those whose cultures leave me outside. If they are not inviting me to publish what I have learned about them, I have no business doing so, and if they do wish me to speak, I must do my best to fulfill the responsibilities that come with accepting the request, including asking for feedback and direction from those who have asked me--as I have tried to do in this dissertation.

It is rapidly becoming clear in the field of anthropology/archaeology that practitioners acting in good faith, i.e., not perpetuating colonialism, will give up control over whether, where, when, and how they carry out their specialities. During the Indigenous Anthropology class (10/29/01), Dr. Steve Boggs and his wife Joanne Boggs described their own early work (a study designed to focus on "problems" in the Kanaka Maoli community in Nanakuli but which took its form and content from studies in completely different communities on the continental U.S.) both as almost completely misguided and misleading and as the main study read to this day by anthropologists and sociologists looking for information on Native Hawaiians. Addressing the class with Dr. Les Sponsel, all three agreed that only community-requested, community-guided research is appropriate at this time. The same holds for the field of literary criticism, which, in its latest incarnation as cultural studies becomes interdisciplinary with anthropology, sociology, philosophy, and other studies of human beings.

If I give up these possibilities, what is left for me to do? This dissertation is a beginning of one alternative. There are endless permutations to our existing research, both historically and currently, that can be looked at and critiqued from the point of view of understanding what many impulses drive our curiosity about other cultures. If Paula Gunn Allen and others are right--that research can oftentimes tell us more about the researcher than about the object of study--then we can find much about ourselves embedded and revealed in the studies we have already completed. If we are not afraid to look honestly, surely there is much that is fascinating to be found there, and it is quite possible that it is not all reprehensible, that interesting and inspiring answers lie there too.

What are the hundreds of non-Irish Joycean scholars looking at and for, both individually and collectively, in their commentaries? What may we find about ourselves, individually and collectively, as we examine our own scholarship on indigenous writers? What does a map of my own paper writing look like? What does it indicate about me, my prejudices, interests, shortsightedness, strengths, the gaps in my understanding, what it is I am looking for by writing what I have written?

A study of our own studies might in itself be interesting, but when we begin to undertake a cultural study of cultural studies (and other literary critical movements), what will our conclusions be about the context, attitudes, presuppositions, undeclared (and perhaps unrecognized and/or denied) purposes, which Linda Tuhiwai Smith and multiple other indigenous critics recognize as colonial in our writings even if we do not? How might we begin to shift our focus away from the writings of others onto what our writing about others shows about us? How might we begin to unsilence our silenced knowings about our own endeavors--both historical and current? How will the mirror get turned?

If that sounds boring and/or threatening, it probably is at least threatening. Why we should think ourselves boring is an interesting question. We will have to go a lot deeper--without indulging in paralyzing guilt--into our own personal histories and current practices, beliefs, attitudes, intentions to uncover for ourselves what it is respondents from colonized cultures say they see about us. It is not without a shudder that I realize I am talking about this at a time when it is incumbent on the entire population of the United States and Britain in particular to do some very deep soul searching about many practices, beliefs, attitudes, intentions we take for granted in our everyday lives. Our living and thinking the way we habitually do is daily guaranteeing the deaths of too many.

Today (10/30/01) I finally received the last pages of my great-great grandfather's speech at the dedication of the Peace Memorial in Columbus, Ohio in 1904. My fears about his glorifying the Anglo-Saxon race were justified. Having stated and rejected in heart wrenching words despicable behavior by white settlers in the Americas from the time of our arrival to the time of his speech, he goes on to recommend the same behavior in the rest of the world, including glorying in "our acquisition of the Sandwich Islands (Hawai'i) without bloodshed" and in our involvement in the Spanish-American War because it uplifted morale and gave us the opportunity to open up markets in the Pacific and Asia. He had been Acting Minister of the Interior. He was a man informed on and familiar with the intimate workings of the U.S. government. It seems he was blind as a bat (criminally so) to the continuing effects of the commercial way of life on the people expected to die physically and spiritually to make way for progress and become markets for our goods.

I am his heir. Just as he died confident in his good works among the Indians and his and all of our "manifest destiny" (his words) to spread the light of Anglo-Saxon civilization, hand in hand with our sister nation Britain (how prophetic can a man be!), if I were to die tomorrow, I could, if I were not aware of myself as the problem, die confident in my good works in having written papers on Mary TallMountain, in having made myself familiar with the cultures of other peoples, in having submerged my own judgment about what I can write about other cultures to their decisions. But what do I know about myself unless I know who my ancestors are, what they did, what they were known for? Vili Hereniko describes a part of Rotuman culture in which families are known partially (and jokingly) by some farcical happening in their relationship to the colonists. The family is given a humorous name that memorializes that event (81).

What would my family's name be? On my mother's mother's side we have been arrogant for sure, especially the men among us, though I'm certain the women too. We have buried and lost the parts of us that were not pure white. No names, tribes, nations remain; only conjecture and a vague unease with ourselves. On my father's side, too, we have tried to bury the wrong color, the wrong attitude, what did not fit in. And we have tried to be the ones who knew what others did not, perhaps as protective coloring and as a way to rise from the mud. Both sides have proved themselves good at rising from mud, on the one side rising from the mire of arriving in the Americas in the 1600s as an indentured prisoner of war after losing to Cromwell at the Battle of Worcester; on the other rising from the slough of an unbelievably impoverished and criminalized class of peasants in the English countryside, who were hung as recently as the childhood of my father's grandfather. He was present at a public hanging of a woman who had stolen cloth to make her children clothes. Someone lifted him to their shoulders so he could see better.

As Lorenz and Watkins argue in "Silenced Knowings," there are more than ample resources available to help us unsilence. I invite us to use these and other models (such as David Stannard and Kelly Kraemer) to open up a field of self-study that will enable us to change from an unthinkingly outward facing discipline to one that is, for a while at least, involved in some navel gazing. It is not only in the interests of those we study but in our own interests to discover what makes us tick. Wendell Berry in The Unsettling of America points out how the foundations of the United States were laid on the unsettling of untold populations, both white and non-white, indigenous and non-indigenous, and how that unsettling continues (4ff). The present situation with a government that carries on the U.S. tradition of "unsettling" (a pale word in the circumstances) in the Middle East as well as South America and many other places, behooves us to take a serious look at our own situations as individuals. How are we unwittingly feeding this machine, whether by somnolence, ethnocentrism, or ignorance? What can we do to change the situation, at least in our own vicinity? There is something seriously wrong in our neck of the woods, and only we can change it. The first step has to be a painfully honest exploration of what our involvement is. That is urgently more pressing than any continued study of other peoples.


1 Defined in Edward Said's Preface to Literature and Society as an "interchange in criticism between literature and society," which derives from "an activity...drawing on such disciplines as linguistics, psychoanalysis, anthropology, and philosophy." (xi, vii).

     
   

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)