Matter, Magic, and Spirit: Representing Indian and African American Belief/Myth and Memory: Stories of Indigenous-European Contact/Native American Life-History Narratives: Colonial and Postcolonial Navajo Ethnography

By Halloran, Thomas | Western Folklore, Winter 2010 | Go to article overview

Matter, Magic, and Spirit: Representing Indian and African American Belief/Myth and Memory: Stories of Indigenous-European Contact/Native American Life-History Narratives: Colonial and Postcolonial Navajo Ethnography


Halloran, Thomas, Western Folklore


Matter, Magic, and Spirit: Representing Indian and African American Belief. By David Murray. (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2007. Pp. 216, introduction, notes, bibliography, index, acknowledgments. $59.95 cloth); Myth and Memory: Stories of Indigenous-European Contact. Edited by John Sutton Lutz. (Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press, 2007. Pp. ? + 238, acknowledgments, introduction, maps, notes, bibliography, contributors, index. $85.00 cloth, $35.95 paper); Native American Life-History Narratives: Colonial and Postcolonial Navajo Ethnography. By Susan Berry Brill de Ramirez. (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2007. Pp. xxx + 258, introduction, notes, bibliography, index. $34.95 cloth.)

Three new publications focus on constructed knowledge and the reappropriation of subaltern voices of subjugated peoples in the Americas. Riding the wave of postcolonial studies, these works share a common debt to Edward Said's Orientalism (1979) , whereby yesteryear's scholarship is criticized for a unilateral vision of the other, and where power is consolidated by controlling the information about the other via standardized academic research. The conclusion that these works make is predictable but well reasoned. Simply put, we must reread existing scholarship and question the mediods that produce unbalanced bothes of knowledge.

The most visually attractive and far-reaching of the three, John Sutton Lutz's anthology Myth and Memory: Stories of Indigenous-European Contact, stuthes a variety of first-contact moments, primarily on the American West Coast, but also touches on instances in Africa, New Zealand and Virginia. Editor Lutz characterizes firstcontact narratives as depicting a mythic moment, "an epoch and the joining of histories" providing an "origin story" and an "opening paragraph of a long rationale for displacing indigenous peoples" ( 1 ) . However, first encounters do come with prejudgments about "the other." A first encounter is not necessarily an idyllic, open-minded meeting: "What we find instead is that Europeans did not discover the unexpected. They went into new territories full of expectations, ideas, and stereotypes: what they found was - in large measure - what they expected to find" (2). While Europeans were encountering stereotypes about new people as much as the actual new people, histories of origin were being created regardless of the subdeties and nuances of each contact between cultures. The value of Myth and Meaninghes in the counterbalance of European stories of first contact put in juxtaposition with indigenous narratives that often tell a different story.

The collection is organized around four main themes of first contact: currency, performance, ambiguity, and power. Currency works as a metaphor for the legitimation of power, as money is given a value that people validate by believing in it. Edward Chamberlin's chapter on the Canadian two-dollar coin highlights the paradox that currency builds ideas of nation by (in this instance) providing one side of the coin for the Queen and the other for a picture of an Inuit drum dance. As a symbol of Canada, the coin validates both histories while denying neither. Yet these stories are separated and contrary. Performance encompasses problems of communication without language, where cultures must represent themselves through song, dance, flags, masks, and pantomime to demonstrate their identity. Michael Harkin's chapter shows how performances retell and reinvent first-encounter stories in order to understand and create the past. The linked theme of ambiguity concerns the interpretation of the culture that watches the other's performance, including unintentional signals sent due to a lack of cultural knowledge. The final theme of power addresses postcolonial displacement and discrediting of indigenous forms of knowledge through the "scientific" superiority of European culture.

Susan Berry Brill de Ramirez begins Native American Life-History Narratives: Colonial and Postcolonial Navajo Ethnography on a similar theoretical premise - that Native Americans have rarely been able to control information disseminated about their own people and culture. …

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