Indigenous Dialectics at Garage Sales and in Traditional Tales

By Fast, Phyllis A. | Anthropological Quarterly, Fall 2009 | Go to article overview

Indigenous Dialectics at Garage Sales and in Traditional Tales


Fast, Phyllis A., Anthropological Quarterly


Abstract

Scholars of indigenous peoples have searched for inherent patterns of cultural behavior that have survived globalization. This study explores the underpinning dynamics of garage sales and doing garage sailing that may be reflected in traditional northern Athabascan narratives. Patterns of plot, humor, and acceptable character behavior mask competitive actions in the guise of sharing resources, nullifying status, and reinforcing notions of metaphysical powers. Likewise, garage sales, symbolic of poverty-level shopping, epitomize the unequal relationships between the rich and the poor, and have become yet another idiom for the multiple hegemonies endured or fantasized by indigenous peoples. [Keywords: Athabascan, folklore, garage sales, indigenous economy, Alaska, trickster, dialectics, marginalization]

This study combines some of the broad range of interests that David Maybury-Lewis expressed, encouraged, and cultivated in me as one of his many graduate students. I grappled for a long time to understand the difference between dialogic and dialectic. It was hearing a colleague use the terms emic and etic four or five times in a brief session that I finally understood my longstanding confusion. Like a dialogical argument, an emic perspective assumes that no matter what the political climate, the insider is coequal to the outsider, not merely coeval, while the etic perspective, no matter how sympathetic, always presumes superiority of opinion about the Other. In the following study, I suggest that the inherent optimism of an emic perspective is reflected in the dialogics present in traditional Athabascan narratives as well as at garage sales.

Garage sales, thrift shops, and pawnshops are at once a source of weekend entertainment as well as cheap goods that suit many indigenous peoples in Alaska. Gretchen Hermann (1997) has argued that garage sales serve as a place in which social relationships and other meanings are actively constructed through each exchange in the US garage sale. Using Hermann's thesis as a starting point, I posit that when northern Athabascans (and perhaps all Native North Americans) interact at garage sales, the meanings negotiated follow the same patterned dialectics between indigenous peoples and the state. I further argue that underlying the quest for secondhand merchandise, inherent political and economic elements of mainstream society vie with the patterns of contesting authority that ground traditional oral narratives. Patterns of plot, humor, and acceptable character behavior dance around notions of power by masking competitive actions in the guise of sharing resources, nullifying status, and reinforcing notions of metaphysical powers. Likewise, garage sales, symbolic of poverty- level shopping, epitomize the unequal relationships between the rich and the poor, and have become yet another idiom for the multiple hegemonies endured or fantasized by indigenous peoples.

Northern Athabascans, like most indigenous peoples, are for the most part living with and around poverty, along with many others. Thus, making use of garage sales and other sites for secondhand merchandise is practical as well as comfortable. By the very nature of garage sales, which open at least part of a seller's home to all comers, a leveling occurs between individuals and the general population of any given area. Those who avoid garage sales are likely to be those who can afford to protect themselves from theft or unpleasantness. A garage sale buyer can move easily from sale to sale without exposing ethnic group membership except when meeting relatives or using cued behaviors or words. While ethnic wrangling is not an overt element of any garage sale, those that are tuned in to the displays of dialogic contests become aware of the presence of new players. In this sense, garage sales, like carefully translated, written rather than acted, traditional narratives, serve as safe arenas for tentative ethnic dialogue-places one can practice the moves, playfulness, and hidden agenda without incurring admonition from the mainstream society. …

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