Sunday, February 10, 2013

The Ancient Way of the Feminist

While trying to read Twilight of the Elites is no fun, I'm enjoying Scott Richard Lyons's X-Marks: Native Signatures of Assent (University of Minnesota Press, 2010).  Lyons, who is Ojebwe/Dakota, is assistant professor of English at Syracuse University.  Though his thinking is informed by postmodernism among other approaches, he writes accessibly, and he actually uses postmodernism.  Ever since I began reading such writers -- including some prominent ones -- in the eighties, I've noticed that many of them announce their postmodern deconstructive allegiances in their theoretical introductions, but when they get down to business they fall right back into older, simpler modes. Lyons actually works on the assumption that identities are unstable, for example, and that concepts like sovereignty "have to be claimed in order to contest or revise them (136).  People who are afraid that rejecting foundations or absolutes means you can't contest or revise standards might want to read Lyons and see how it's done.

But even better, I enjoy Lyons because he generally agrees with me.  This is a pleasure I first encountered when I was researching the New Testament and early Christianity thirty years ago: after wading through hundreds of pages by scholars whose conclusions (as far as I could tell) didn't follow from their evidence or arguments, I'd come upon a scholar who criticized those conclusions for the same faults I saw, and who at least gestured toward possibilities I'd seen, but which were ruled invalid out of hand by most scholars.  Of course this didn't necessarily mean that I, or they, were right.  What it meant was that a person could be a trained professional and reach the same conclusions I did.  It could even indicate that some of the standard conclusions, which most scholars seemed to consider certain, were at least debatable.  The reason they weren't debated had more to do with the faith commitments of the scholars involved -- until recently most professional Bible scholars were believers, and often clergy -- than with the strengths or weaknesses of the arguments.  I'm willing to be the only person who holds a certain position if necessary, but I'm enough of a social animal to take comfort from knowing that there are other people who hold it too.

Analogously, then, I take heart from Lyons's differences with some of his fellow Indians, including academics.  He disagrees with Craig Womack, for example, in much the same terms I do, though I don't assume that Lyons would agree with all of my criticisms.  So my disagreements with Womack can't be explained away as the result of my not being Indian, since Lyons, who is Indian, has similar disagreements.  Again: I might still be wrong; so might Lyons.  But we can't be dismissed with ad hominems; our arguments must be dealt with on their merits.

Lyons also has some useful anecdotes:
I am reminded now of several arguments I had as an instructor at Leech Lake Tribal College with culture cops who wanted to shut down our science programs because they taught evolution. "Nothing in our oral traditions says that we came down from trees." Science was considered suspect because its origins lay outside an Ojibwe epistemology; because the latter was deemed suspect and pure, it had to be protected from contamination. My side eventually won the day, though not (as one might expect) through our claim that we needed to teach science to produce more local doctors and nurses. It was only after we successfully argued that our clan origin story could be read as a kind of proto-evolutionary theory that the culture cops backed off [96].
I'd been wondering what Indian traditionalists (or Indian Christians, for that matter) think about Darwin. "Culture cops" are cultural purists: "enthusiastic reclaimers of culture, often young, male, and educated, frequently with urban roots, who straddle a fine line between support and condemnation in the name of cultural revival" (76).  Note "educated": as Lyons says later, they "try to resist Western modernity and the 'white world' by employing discourses that are themselves rather Western, modern, and 'white' in character' (96).

Lyons distinguishes between culture cops and elders, who he says tend to be much less rigid.  He also compares culture cops to "fundamentalists," which is ironic because what is fundamentalist in this story is reinterpreting the clan origin story to reconcile it with evolutionary theory. Fundamentalists don't take sacred texts literally, as is often said: they consider them inerrant, free from error. To keep error out, you need a lot of very non-literal interpretation.

In a discussion of Native American nationalism, Lyons discusses the First Nations Canadian scholar Taiaiake Alfred, whose three books on reviving Native culture have been very influential.  Here's part of what Lyons (who largely approves of Alfred's work) has to say. 
First those negative legacies [of colonialism] must be transcended: "People must be made whole and strong and real again before they can embark on a larger struggle" ... This is not really an individual pursuit so much as a community project of "warriors" empowering each other.  Alfred wants to witness "one-to-one mentoring, face-to-face interaction, and small-group dialogue to effect the regeneration of our minds, bodies, and spirits.  This is the ancient way of the warrior" ... Of course, this was also the ancient way of second-wave feminists, who called it "consciousness raising," but there are traditional Indian equivalents to what he describes: talking circles, sweat lodges, vision quests, and other such occasions for dialogue and introspection ... [137]
"Warriors."  Sigh.  Warriors aren't an ideal for any culture: they're parasites who run a protection racket.  Pay me, give me your daughters and the best food, and I'll protect you from the guys like me in the next town. (Just between you and me, I feel much more kinship with them than I do with you civilians.)  I wonder what place Alfred has in his regenerated Native societies, not just for women, but for non-warrior men.  No, we can't all be warriors, any more than we can all be Superbowl champs: the guy at the top of the pyramid is held up by everybody under him. Will women be allowed into the talking circles, the sweat lodges, the vision quests, or will they be expected to chew the hides, cook the meals, and nurse the wounded?  I don't think many of today's Native women will go along with that, any more than their distant foremothers would have.

Lyons also points out the "chicken-or-egg dilemma" in Alfred's prescription: "we could just as well argue that strong sovereign nations would produce cultural revitalization" 138), an argument with which I'm in sympathy.  So, as you can see, I'm enjoying myself greatly as I read X-Marks.  But it's not just an echo chamber in which I get my own pet ideas bouncing back endowed with academic authority: Lyons also traces out difficulties in political concepts like "culture," "nation," and "race," among others, going places I haven't gone.  I'm learning as well as having my prejudices stroked.  If I weren't, I wouldn't enjoy the book as much.