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voices of one’s life Martine J. Reid and Daisy Sewid-Smith In recent years autobiography as a genre has come under a good deal of scrutiny. Is an autobiography a fiction of the self? A story of a story? ‘‘A novel that dares not speak its name’’ (attributed to Roland Barthes without any furthercitation in Heilbrun 1988:28)? North American First Nations autobiographical material especially has been the subject of much discussion in anthropological literature. Even treated as ‘‘a culturally specific narrative genre’’ (Cruikshank 1990:x), autobiographies still raise many issues, as we shall see in this essay, which explores new perspectives on the writing down (textualization) of a nonliterate First Nations individual’s verbal art. This essay is a preamble to the forthcoming publication Paddling to Where I Stand: Agnes Alfred, Qwiqwasut’inuxw Noblewoman, edited by Martine Reid and translated by Daisy Sewid-Smith (in press).1 Autobiography There are several ways to record a person’s life. The subject may tell it and write it, in what she or he chooses to call a self-written first-person narrative, or an autobiography. A biographer may write the person’s life from direct or indirect sources in what is called a biography. Preliterate North American First Nations individuals have narrated their lives (or episodes of their lives) to intermediaries, such as ethnographers, ethnologists, historians, and doctors, and these life history narratives form another category of writings, known as ‘‘as-told-to autobiographies.’’ Georg Misch (1951) and Karl Weintraub (1978) have described their histories of Western autobiography ‘‘as the history of the rise of the idea of the individual in the West’’ (Brumble 1988:4). Although the history of Western autobiography spans some 4,500 years, starting with the ancient Greeks, this genre as we know it in its most popular form is relatively recent and began to be common only after the 18th century.2 Since then it has become so well entrenched, so structured by Tseng 2004.8.9 07:12 7132 Mauze / COMING TO SHORE / sheet 223 of 548 convention, that Western readers now consider it to be a ‘‘natural’’ genre not requiring explanation. The familiar model comes from written autobiography , a first-person narrative that purports to describe the narrator’s life or episodes in that life customarily with some chronological reflections about individual growth and development. In Le pacte autobiographique Phillippe Lejeune defines autobiography as a ‘‘retrospective account that an actual person makes in prose of his own existence, stressing his individual life and particularly the history of his/her personality’’ (1975:14). The subject of this essay, Au, was not explicit about the history of her personality in her narratives. Nevertheless, her telling of her life and social roles offers an unparalleled insight into her personality and the way she saw herself. Life histories provide a method of assessing the individual in society: the relationship between a sense of self and a community. The use of First Nations life histories as ethnographic documents can be traced back to Franz Boas, the putative founder of North American modern scientific anthropology , whose intensive relationship with the Kʷakʷakəwakʷ and emphasis upon the collection of Native texts and personal interpretations of those led him to regard descriptions cast in the imagery of the people themselves as the ‘‘true’’ and ‘‘authentic’’ rendering of culture (Blackman 1981:65; Goldman 1975:xi). Scholars who followed Boas intellectually similarly valued the usefulness of the life-history document. One example among many is Paul Radin’s 1926 publication Crashing Thunder: The Autobiography of an American Indian, (1983), perhaps one of the most popular narrated Indian autobiographies presented by an anthropologist.3 The methods and theories of the personal narrative have been applied and debated in anthropology for some time. North American literature, especially, is vast on the subject for which this is only a brief review. Some anthropologists recorded life stories either to ‘‘salvage’’ elements of ‘‘disappearing races’’ (reviewed by Krupat 1985; Brumble 1988) or to add a ‘‘human ’’ dimension to anthropological science by presenting the individual ‘‘informant’s’’ perspectives on his or her ‘‘worldview’’ or ‘‘culture’’ (Langness 1965:8). By the middle of the century the debates in anthropology centered primarily on the verification of the life story or on the validity of an individual ’s perspective vis-à-vis the ethnographer’s ‘‘objective’’ observations from a range of other sources (Kluckhohn 1945; Langness 1965). Arnold Kru184 reid and sewid-smith Tseng...


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