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Ethnomemory: Ethnographic and Culture-Centered Approaches to the Study of Memory

From: Scandinavian Studies
Volume 85, Number 3, Fall 2013
pp. 306-331 | 10.1353/scd.2013.0040

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The “truth” of historical legends is not identical with the “truth” of legal documents and history books, and official documents themselves are not necessarily “objective” reports.

Sámi singing is called joiking. It is a practice for recalling other people. Some are recalled with hate, and some with love, and some are recalled with sorrow.

If the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century witnessed a concerted scholarly effort to divorce the then-emerging ethnographic social sciences—folklore studies, ethnology, anthropology—from the realm of the humanities, the latter decades of the century saw growing efforts by scholars in these same fields to recover lost ground and to restore the humanistic natures of their disciplines. The “men of science” of the formative years of Nordic and American folklore studies gave us epic laws (Olrik 1965) for how folktales were constructed, typologies of memory failures involved in the changing lyrics of ballads (Burns 1970), and continual discussion about the possible or unlikely factual reliability of legends as sources for historical reconstruction (something that I will partly repeat myself in the following pages). Folklorists saw themselves as uncovering the mental scaffolding of oral tradition, and when the formal analysis of Vladimir Propp (1968) became known to scholars in Western Europe and America, it seemed to complete the disciplinary journey toward a scientific understanding of the production and transmission of even complex and nuanced cultural creations like the folktale. Yet, even amid the elation of this march toward morphology (cf. Dundes 1980) as a prime metaphor for the field of folklore studies, there were stirrings in the opposite direction, a desire to look at products of oral tradition as works of creativity, and to look at performers of folklore as creative artists rather than as passive bearers of tradition. These folkloristic stirrings were abetted by parallel acts among anthropologists, and eventually a loose confederation of new terms emerged: ethnohistory, ethnopoetics, and indigenous methodology. This paper deals with the ideas behind these terms and what they can tell us about the expressive culture of medieval Scandinavia.

In the quotation that opens this paper, Brynjulf Alver (1924–2009) argued cogently that the fascination—indeed, obsession—among folklorists and historians about whether historical legends could be “true” or not misses entirely the core reasons why people retell legends, and the values or truths that they seek to impart through them. Alver argues in a sense for abandoning “historicity” as a measure of quality or value in folklore studies, replacing it with an attention to the moral, ideological, and aesthetic elements of the legend that are more organic to its nature and ongoing popularity. In other words, he sought to redirect folkloristic discourse toward a more humanistic stance toward memory, one not focused on the retention or loss of verifiable facts, but on the cultural and emotional significance of the related narrative to performers and their audiences. In the second quotation above, the great Sámi writer Johan Turi (1854–1956) attempts to explain to a non-Sámi audience the meaning and workings of a genre of song he knew as luohti, joik. He describes the genre as a means of muitingoansta—a way of remembering, recalling—that is, of encapsulating into the sounds and performance of a song the remembered essence of another being, be it a person, place, animal, or historical event. Johan Turi also recounts historical legends in his book, but he describes joik in particular as the prime means by which Sámi remember their world and the beings that share it. I hope to explore in this paper what it would mean for medievalist folklorists to truly follow Alver’s call toward a more humanistic approach to narrative, and what it might mean for the field of folklore in general to embrace the idea of genres like joik or poetry or non-narrative song as important sites for the cultural performance of memory.

The Emergence of Ethnohistory

Prior to the rise of the journal Ethnohistory in 1954, folklorists and historians alike tended to approach accounts directly or indirectly derived from oral tradition as particularly problematic, likely erroneous sources. Scholars believed in a singular...

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