restricted access "Some Mysterious Means of Fortune": A Look at North Pacific Coast Oral History
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‘‘some mysterious means of fortune’’ A Look at North Pacific Coast Oral History Judith Berman Introduction Since Franz Boas’s time a considerable body of oral history narratives has been collected from the indigenous peoples of the North Pacific Coast. Some of the major published and unpublished sources are the Kwakwaka’wakw materials of Boas and George Hunt; Coast Tsimshian oral history recorded by William Beynon for both Marius Barbeau and Boas (Cove and MacDonald eds. 1987; bbn, bcu); Haida oral history scattered through Swanton’s publications (1905b, 1909a); and the extensive Tlingit materials collected by Swanton (1909b), Louis Shotridge (1919, 1920, 1922, 1928, 1929, uen), Ronald Olson (1967, rop), and Frederica de Laguna (1960, 1972). The sources contain narratives in native-language text and original English as well as reduced to English summary or paraphrase. Despite these riches, attention has focused to a far greater extent on myth, song, and poetry—what is more typically considered verbal art. Boas argued for recording myths and folktales on the grounds that such stories ‘‘probably contain all that is interesting to the narrators’’ (1935:v). If nothing else, the sheer quantity of North Pacific Coast oral histories tells us these narratives, too, contain a great deal that was interesting to their narrators. This essay considers the oral histories both as a form of history and as a form of traditional literature, drawing primarily on materials written down between 1900 and 1940. Although the examples are taken largely from two coastal groups—theTlingits and the Kwakwaka’wakw—it is anticipated that the major outlines of the discussion apply more widely along the coast. The degree of interest in history is an areal phenomenon, and as is further touched on below, it is surely linked to other social and economic characteristics of this cultural province (McFeat 1966:vii–ix; also Kroeber 1923). Tseng 2004.8.9 07:12 7132 Mauze / COMING TO SHORE / sheet 169 of 548 Oral History as History The term oral history raises the question of how these narratives are ‘‘history .’’ The question can be considered both from the viewpoint of Western cultures and from the viewpoint of the indigenous peoples who narrated the stories (see also Marsden 2001). Let us examine each of these in turn. Although there are always a number of questions regarding the interpretation of North Pacific Coast oral histories, the narratives often contain a great deal of what would, from the Western standpoint, be considered accurate historical information. The Natives of the region traditionally maintained a deep historical consciousness of almost astonishing detail. For instance, George Hunt and Ronald Olson collected Kwakwaka’wakw and Tlingit genealogies, respectively, containing over 15 generations (Boas 1921: 836–884; bpc: Hunt to Boas, January 10, 1899, July 14, 1916; rop).The deepest known genealogies are the Kwakwaka’wakw lines of chiefly succession that Hunt recorded in the laałəm or ‘‘cry songs,’’ which reach up to 25 generations into the past.1 If we estimate 25 years between generations, this is a time depth of over 600 years. Although these narratives merge into mythological time at their farthest end, when the very first ancestor of a descent group removes his or her animal mask to assume human form, their historicity, in a Western sense, should not be discounted. One measure of historical accuracy is agreement of detail from community to community. As Olson commented with respect to the Tlingit genealogies , ‘‘So detailed was all this genealogical information that J. B. [Cora Benson] was able to give me accurate information on many hundreds of persons, not only from her own clan and tribe [the Chilkat Gaanax.teidí] but also from tribes as distant as the Stikine. The genealogical charts I constructed reached through twelve generations and meshed perfectly with data I obtained from other informants’’ (1967:vi). An example illustrating this point is a famous marriage between S’eiltín, a high-ranking Gaanax.ádi clanswoman of the Taant’akwáan division at the extreme southern end of Tlingit country, and Taaxsha (or Taaxshaa), a young Kaagwaantaan chief from Icy Strait in the north.This marriage figures in oral history narratives collected in the early decades of the 20th century from the Taant’akwáan and at Sitka, and mention of the wedding is even made at Yakutat, almost 200 miles north of Icy Strait at the extreme oppo130 berman Tseng 2004.8.9 07:12 7132 Mauze / COMING TO SHORE / sheet 170 of 548...