Inconstant Companions: Archaeology and North American Indian Oral Traditions

Inconstant Companions: Archaeology and North American Indian Oral Traditions

Inconstant Companions: Archaeology and North American Indian Oral Traditions

Inconstant Companions: Archaeology and North American Indian Oral Traditions

Synopsis

One of the most significant theoretical issues in contemporary American archaeology-the role of oral tradition in scientific research. Ronald J. Mason explores the tension between aboriginal oral traditions and the practice of archaeology in North America. That exploration is necessarily interdisciplinary and set in a global context. Indeed, the issues at stake are universal in the current era of intellectual "decolonization" and multiculturalism. Unless committed to writing, even the most esteemed utterances are inevitably forgotten with the passing of generations, however much the succeeding ones try to reproduce what they think they had heard. Writing shares with archaeo-logical remains a greater, if unequal, durability. Through copious examples across academic and ethnographic spectra and over millennia, Mason examines the disparate functions of traditional "ways of knowing" in contrast to the paradigm of science and critical historiography.

Excerpt

This book addresses a fundamental historiographical problem in archaeology, history, and anthropology generally but most especially when those disciplines are practiced in cross-cultural contexts. Although my focus is on North America, this problem is global. When an archaeologist excavates traces of a society with which some modern native people claim affinity and for which they assert possession of traditional historical knowledge, the scientific results may diverge sharply from the traditional knowledge claims. In such cases, who is to be believed? Why one and not the other? Must it be a zero-sum game? That problem, while long-standing, has grown to critical proportions and heightened decibel levels since the political decolonization of much of the non-Western world following the Second World War. This is the issue popularly encapsulated in the question and, simultaneously, challenge: “Who controls (or owns) the past?”

On the face of it, that question is absurd. The past is beyond control. It is exempt from ownership. It is extinct. The challenge, however, is another matter. Notwithstanding some societies' denials of the pastness of the past, examples of which will be met in the following pages, what is really being asked in this question/challenge is, “When disagreements arise, whose version of the past is to be preferred?” This in turn involves the compound question, “For whom, by whom, and for what purpose?”

This has been a difficult book to write. And some will likely conclude the same about reading it. It will also be judged controversial. Doubtless many who simply scan its pages to see whether they might want to read it will decide not to, finding it opinionated in a direction not their own, frequently requiring close attention, and sometimes discomforting. It is most assuredly out of step with the current vogue to find equal value in “different ways of knowing”—that is, to regard adherence to canons of evidence and rules of logic developed in the West as intolerable “hegemonic trespass” on non-Western epistemic traditions. An unfortunate but inevitable conse-

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