restricted access Today She Sits among Them: Spiritual Leadership, Continuity, and Renewal in the Cowlitz Indian Tribe
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Today She Sits among Them:
Spiritual Leadership, Continuity, and Renewal in the Cowlitz Indian Tribe

Each sphere of life has, as it were, produced its own tribe of storytellers. Each of these tribes preserves some of its characteristics centuries later.

Walter Benjamin, "The Storyteller"

It is not so much a question of different sorts of community members, but of the multiple interactive worlds of individuals

Dorothy Noyes, "Group"

Native communicative systems and the concrete ways by which Native Americans create and maintain their own specific conditions for group identity and belonging deserve attention. Individual creativity within a group can hold memory for both the individual and the group, though the nature of remembering and the terms of memory itself are under negotiation and emergent. Performance-focused studies in folklore and ethnolinguistics have done much over the past four decades to explain these conditions for belonging by lending "more fully theorized and contextualized accounts and transcriptions of Native American narrative and narrators."1 In her account of Yukon women [End Page 77] who "assert [tribal cultural distinctions] to make [historical interpretive] reconciliations," Julie Cruikshank notes that tribal "concepts and categories" of group and belonging can serve to keep a people together and give them a sense of a collective, shared identity despite individual differences. For the Cowlitz Tribe, in particular, the concept of land and the themes of corporate anger, group persistence against all odds, and familial survival are, in Cruikshank's words, "central to contemporary public discussion of culture and expression of belonging." In the Cowlitz community, the meaning and function of these critical ideas might change from member to member, but they remain a common link among the majority of people I interviewed, from both general membership and tribal leadership.

This essay will explore this sense of shared identity through particular common themes by focusing on Cowlitz Spiritual Leader Roy Wilson and the significance of the social context of Cowlitz General Council for eliciting and illuminating the priorities that emerge in Wilson's personal history narrative. Wilson's recurrent themes of cultural preservation through memory and persistence against the odds (i.e., against the federal government's denial of recognition) repeatedly materialize during General Council meetings and demonstrate continuity between Wilson's personal history narrative (told privately in 1997)2 and his performance of oral history and recorded myth (publicly communicated in 2004).3 I will look to the ethnographic literature and criticism that has discussed personal history narrative, "emblematic" language use, and mythology4 to arrive at an analysis of the way that one Cowlitz leader's personal priorities serve to reinforce his Cowlitz identity and, by extension of his performance, to reinforce Cowlitz collective identity as well. I will also include an autoethnographic passage to illustrate an example of audience reception by showing how one Cowlitz listener is affected during a skilled performance. Finally, I will consider the implications of a written myth, "The Myth of Little Horse" (originally "The Horse Race"), and how when translated into a Cowlitz book of legends and then told in context it functions for the wider group as a "categor[y] of belonging."5 As Wilson struggles when telling this myth to connect future and past, text and context, he smoothes over potential historical discursive ruptures that threaten group cohesiveness, such as the implications of language loss for cultural survival.6

Wilson's personal history narrative transmutes during a General Council meeting to a more generalized performance of oral history and myth. As I will demonstrate, such a narrative can also engage the listener as an active participant by means of her own experiential engagement with its telling. As the listener tracks the narrative life events relayed to her, she also simultaneously makes sense of their arrangement. In doing so, she comes to realize the narrated intent.7 As Donald Braid [End Page 78] shows, narratives are "not static" and can be "taken apart" and "thought about," and in the case of the listener, "thought with and thought through in an attempt to understand." Following Paul Ricoeur, Braid will assert that every narrative "combines two dimensions in various proportions, one chronological and the other non-chronological." It is...