Academic journal article Mosaic (Winnipeg)

The Resistance of American Indian Autobiographies to Ethnographic Colonization

Academic journal article Mosaic (Winnipeg)

The Resistance of American Indian Autobiographies to Ethnographic Colonization

Article excerpt

There may be no other genre of Native American literature that is more problematic than that which has been labeled "autobiography." The fact that these artificially reconstructed textual narratives originated as oral and performative storytelling events compounds the difficulties already invariably inherent in the mediating presence of translators, interpreters, ethnographers, and editors. As folklorist John Miles Foley explains about such oral performances, "Words are always situated; they cannot naturally occur but in context, and they cannot naturally recur without reference to prior occurrences and prior contexts" (275). In the case of ethnographically produced American Indian autobiographies, the crux of the problem is that the Native storytellers and their ethnographers/editors have been working within two very different semiotic systems: whereas the Native oral mode of storytelling finds meaning in terms of the intersubjective relationships among all involved (including teller, listeners, and characters in the stories), ethnographers and editors have perceived themselves as outside the stories, as objective observers and objectifying recorders. The result is often what Sidner Larson, American Indian (Grosventre) scholar and writer, describes as "the Euramerican tendency to sacrifice truth in favor of literary closure" (65).

One such early ethnographic project which serves well to exemplify the kinds of interpretative confusions that can result from this semiotic impasse is Son of Old Man Hat: A Navaho Autobiography, published in 1938 and based on fieldwork conducted on the Navajo reservation by anthropologist Walter Dyk during much of 1933-35. Widely acclaimed, this volume has been described as "a revelation of the real life of the tribe" (New Yorker 67), as "a transcript, completely unromanticized" (Walton 100), and as "a totally honest autobiography by a man to whom it is simply natural to be honest, without any exhibitionism or muscle-flexing urge to startle, an entirely unselfconscious telling" (LaFarge 6). Equally enthusiastic was a 1938 review by Clyde Kluckhohn, himself regarded at the time as one of the foremost authorities on Navajo culture, who asserted that Son of Old Man Hat "could very properly be subtitled 'The Navaho as He Really Is'.... [consisting of] magnificent material [that] Dr. Dyk has handled....with restraint and with rare skill" (3). Continuing the praise, a 1974 entry on Dyk in the American Anthropol-ogist lauded him for producing "the finest single account of the Navajo life and culture" (Eggan & Silverstein 86).

Yet as much as Son of Old Man Hat does indeed provide invaluable insights into Navajo culture, the story "being told" may be very different from the story that textually we have "been told." In order to approach the stories that lie behind such texts, we need to use interpretive strategies that are more akin to the original storytelling process. Thus in the following essay, I will first outline what a number of scholars and writers (Native and non-Native) have said about the intertwined and divergent processes of oral storytelling and literary textualization as a means of introducing what I will call a "conversive approach." Then by closely reading (listening to) several passages from Son of Old Man Hat, I will demonstrate the extent to which this work cannot be read as an autobiography and how instead it functions as the Navajo storyteller's commentary on the colonization of Navajo (and other Native) people's lives, cultures, traditions, and stories.

To date, the textualization of American Indian tellings into life narratives - i.e., the manner by which told stories are represented and interpreted as written documents - has impeded both ethnographer-editors and other readers in their entries into the original stories. Commenting on this problem, H. David Brumble III has observed: "Doubtless there are subtleties we miss as we make do with printed translations of what were oral performances" (32). …

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