Across the Boundaries of Belief: Contemporary Issues in the Anthropology of Religion

By Morton Klass; Maxine Weisgrau | Go to book overview

Conclusion

The aim of this article has been to demonstrate the importance of paying attention to indigenous versions of history in reaching a much more thorough understanding of the past and present experience of Native North Americans. For many of them, history is not just some events that happened in the past but a vital force that continues to shape the present. Despite the impact of the written Western culture, oral traditions continue to be passed down from generation to generation, particularly in such societies as the Tlingit, where rank, status, and prestige still depend on one's pedigree and knowledge of it.

At the same time, accounts about and interpretations of the past are constantly being reshaped in response to more recent and current events and experiences. This has always occurred, because few oral traditions remain forever unchanging. However, since the arrival of Europeans and especially since the establishment of American political domination, history has become hotly contested between the colonizers and the colonized. Until recently, the former, particularly those determined to "civilize the natives," tried to denigrate that history and contrast the heathen "old customs" with the new culture of the "competent Christian citizens" (a favorite Presbyterian term). Native Americans, however, while accepting (or being forced to accept) many of the changes introduced by the dominant society, have tried to maintain their own version of the past, which emphasizes the virtues of the ancestors and downplays their vices. Thus the relationship between missionary and native versions of Tlingit history can be seen as a moral dialogue (cf. Burkhart 1989) in which the two sides use some of the same language (i.e., Christianity) and describe some of the same events but often disagree on their meaning.

The new rhetoric of Christianity is even used by the Indians to criticize the whites. For example, many of the persons cited in this article said that the EuroAmericans themselves have not lived up to the teachings of Christ, and that it is the Tlingit who are the true Christians and have "always followed the Ten Commandments." Thus the tables have been turned on the colonizers, whose own ideology becomes a weapon in the hands of the colonized (cf. Comaroff 1985).

The material presented here also challenges the notion of the existence of a monolithic "Tlingit culture" equally shared by members of that society. As I have shown recently ( Kan 1989a), there is considerable disagreement among the Tlingit on the role of the potlatch in modern-day society and on the meaning of its specific symbols. Similarly, shamanism is looked upon somewhat differently by individual Tlingit, depending on their religious affiliation, age, education, and other factors. The goal of the ethnographer is to represent these divergent views rather than gloss over them.

Up until now, none of the ethnographers working in southeastern Alaska have paid much attention to these issues. Determined to gain data with which to reconstruct the nineteenth-century ("traditional") Tlingit culture, scholars trained in the Boasian tradition collected numerous narratives, but the latter tended not to deal with Tlingit-white relations. Thus, for example, Swanton ( 1909: 1)--who acknowledged in the introduction to a major collection of Tlingit myths and sto

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