The Anguish of Snails: Native American Folklore in the West

Article excerpt

The Anguish of Snails: Native American Folklore in the West. By Barre Toelken. (Logan: Utah State University Press, 2003. Pp. xii + 204, acknowledgments, prologue, photographs, notes, index. $39.96 cloth, $22.95 paper)

In 1989, the National Museum of the American Indian Act (NMAI) required Smithsonian museums to repatriate sensitive Indian objects. In the process, curators were to examine not just archaeological, geographical, biological and anthropological records in determining the cultural affiliation of objects, but also linguistic, folkloric and oral-traditional evidence provided to museums by tribal people. While laws such as NMAI and the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) of 1990 require that federally funded organizations examine their collections in light of Native American testimony, no law demands that scholars approach Native studies with the same level of collaborative engagement.

Barre Toelken, in developing his book's title metaphor, observes that because scholars have, in the name of objectivity, distanced themselves from Native cultures, they have focused on (for example) the chemical composition of the "snails" they are studying. In such distancing, scholars have missed "the anguish of snails"-relevant cultural experience with which to inform their research. Toelken argues that subjective involvement is not only valid but necessary for authentic research and for sensitivity to research as it impinges upon Native peoples. After nearly fifty years of successful collaborations with Native people in the West, Toelken's career alone attests to the value of subjective involvement in the analytical discussion of cultures; yet if one had any doubts regarding the merits of this approach, The Anguish of Snails: Native American Folklore in the West should seal the deal.

Toelken uses ordinary, everyday American Indian texts as tools to explore Native worldview and values and in turn demonstrates how Native cultural constructs lead to discoveries about the world. With an emphasis on innovative thinking and using a variety of divergent texts, The Anguish of Snails demonstrates wonderfully that one can learn a tremendous amount about American Indian culture without having to apprentice oneself to a New Age shaman. (Who knew?) Toelken avoids esoteric materials and suggests that to study tribal people one need "simply listen to their voices and watch their performances, their expressions-their freely shared folklore-in the routine of their normal lives" (6). By focusing on texts readily available to outsiders (for example, baskets, moccasins, powwows, carvings, stories, and jokes), Toelken illustrates the validity of a subjective approach and reveals the cultural value of these texts to Native people.

Toelken opens his story with a discussion of American Indian material art, demonstrating the significance of Native oral traditions through examination of a specific Tlingit totem pole known as the "Seward shame pole." One might easily characterize this object merely as an unusual object of Tlingit art, but only when accompanied by an oral account does the Seward shame pole's deeper meaning emerge in a rich artistic performance signifying communally held values (25-26). Throughout his survey of Native material arts, Toelken shows how cultural worldview, much more than individual taste, influences the artist's actions as well as the meaning and function of the art produced. Each action-from the selection of materials, through the location of the artist in a cardinal direction, through the performance of songs that tie the artist to previous generations-is vital to the creation of Native visual art, and to examine it with an eye for beauty alone is to miss the Native material response to a host of human and natural relationships.

Toelken's chapter on dance, and in particular his discussion of powwows, offers fresh insight into this often-overlooked cluster of performance events. …