Academic journal article Western Folklore

A Forest of Time: American Indian Ways of History

Academic journal article Western Folklore

A Forest of Time: American Indian Ways of History

Article excerpt

A Forest of Time: American Indian Ways of History. By Peter Nabokov. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002. Pp. x + 246, preface, introduction, notes, index. $20.00 paper)

Peter Nabokov's A Forest of Time: American Indian Ways of History is an expansion of his article in the Cambridge History of the Native Peoples of the Amencas (1996:1-60), inquiring more extensively into the diverse ways in which American Indian peoples have approached their pasts. In the present work, following the pattern of his American Indian Testimony (1992), which inserted Native voices and viewpoints into the chronicle of Indian-white relations, Nabokov privileges American Indian historicity in an effort to expand Western historical consciousness, with an eye toward ultimately integrating Native and non-Native historical methodologies and narratives.

His task is enormous. American Indian peoples, employing discursive forms ranging from ritual to oral tradition to writing, have constructed their pasts in very different ways. More than five hundred years of contact have influenced both Natives and non-Natives, engendering conflict, cooperation, uneasy co-existence, or cross-cultural adaptations. Like all peoples, American Indian peoples are deeply concerned with understanding their place in the past, present and future. Nabokov brings order to his task by following historian H. Stuart Hughes' emphasis on a particular society's strategic and inventive use of symbols to articulate common values and understandings over time (1975).

Nabokov begins with a brief overview of largely non-Native approaches to American Indian historicity, from earlier generations of scholars who tended to deny the historical validity of oral testimonies and traditions to the dawning recognition of latter-day scholars of the historical consciousness of American Indian peoples. Acknowledging that indigenous oral traditions involve culturally specific genres and functions, Nabokov nonetheless cites William Bascom's familiar European typology (1965) of myths, legends, and folktales as a means of easing the reader into the world of Native historical conceptions. Chapter two examines the historical value of oral traditions and legends, of that which is "within reach of memory" (58), and discusses ways that largely non-Native scholars have employed Native accounts. Some have been concerned with interweaving Native stories into Western chronologies, testing how far traditions can be extrapolated into the past. Others have sought to demonstrate the persistence of indigenous identity through time, while still others have used native accounts to reassess and recast historical events. Continuing along Bascom's model, chapter three analyzes the interplay of myth and history, emphasizing the adaptability of mythic narratives to particular historical contingencies-although, as Nabokov soberly remarks, many of the languages that served as the narrative vehicle for these myths are all but extinct, a loss of aesthetic sensibility and nuance that may never be recovered. In chapter four, Nabokov considers the world of memorates, jokes, and folktales to reveal the editorializing character of American Indian histories, the stream of commentary on persons and events. Trickster tales, for instance, furnish a running commentary on the often-baffling behavior of the white man while shamanic "duel" stories underline the superiority of native cultures.

Chapters five through seven leave Bascom behind to deal with the historical aspects of geography, material culture, and ritual. For many American Indian peoples, the past and present are grounded in the land, be it the particular natural features of the landscape associated with a people's origins or migrations or the deliberate alterations, rock art and the like, associated with distinct historical experiences. …

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