- Approaching a Sacred Song:Toward a Respectful Presentation of the Discourse We Study
Educators who focus on American Indian or First Nations languages often have the privilege of bringing tape recordings of songs and stories to their students in the classroom. Learning the protocols for such sharing of the treasured gifts of ancestors is made easier by the good examples of our teachers in and out of the classroom, who share such gifts as part of their own teaching. I use this essay to make explicit some teaching practices that go without saying, as they are modeled by Upper Skagit Elder, university professor, and storyteller Vi ṯaqwšǝblu Hilbert. This essay is a reflection, written back to my own teacher, about what I have learned and continue to learn in her presence. It is written in response to the wish of one of my own students that such good examples could be more widely shared and consciously articulated in the literature on educational practice.
Many of us who teach in the area of First Nations or American Indian languages and traditions have been given permission to share taped recordings of privately owned songs and stories, photographs, and videos with our students in the classroom. In informal discussion, some educators speaking at the 2000 Canadian Indigenous and Native Studies Association conference expressed their trepidation regarding the classroom presentation of such materials from their own areas of expertise, even when explicit permissions had been given to them by the creators or performers of the materials.1 The classroom presents a new context in which implicit agreements to respect the materials and act with honor toward the original presenters [End Page 52] necessarily require a different enactment of protocols than a face-to-face encounter with the original presenters.
The classroom situation does not afford the checks on presentation that are provided in personal interaction with a singer. In a face-to-face interaction, audience members can often take explicit direction from the singer with regard to how they might stand, sit, or otherwise respectfully attend to, and participate in, the event. If necessary, permissions and explanations can be given by the singer or another knowledgeable person present. Audience members in face-to-face interaction with a singer can also assume that the singer can exercise some degree of autonomy in choosing to give voice to a particular song, or not, when in their midst. Within the classroom, where the song is audited from a tape recording, the expectations of a song's owners or performers might not be as clear. Cultural conventions ordinarily associated with classroom learning may not be in accord with those of song presentation. Note-taking, for example, might ordinarily be seen as a reasonable display of attentiveness for a student in a classroom setting, whereas taking notes while listening to a singer could imply a lack of engagement.
Some of the inherent difficulties of classroom presentation have been mitigated where locally developed curricula and textbooks have been put into place in consultation with teachers and communities (e.g., the work of Julie Cruikshank with Yukon elders to develop Dän Dhá Ts'edenintth'é / Reading Voices: Oral and Written Interpretations of the Yukon's Past and the body of work developed by educator David Cort and noted storytellers with his elementary school students on the Tulalip Reservation). Educational organizations have also taken steps to provide guidelines for presenting traditional teachings in a manner that is culturally appropriate. For example, the University of Alaska at Fairbanks and the Alaska Native Knowledge Network have developed a set of standards for presentation, which provide the approved philosophy for teaching from cultural materials and suggestions for preparation. Unfortunately, the Alaska Native Knowledge Network guidelines do not provide specifics for the working out of practice in the classroom, the very learning environment that they attempt to address. Some ethnographic [End Page 53] studies examine communication failures in the classroom (e.g., Philips), but ethnographic research that explicitly examines successful practice in the teaching of cultural materials in the classroom is more difficult to locate. One notable exception to this generalization can be found in the work of Linda Goulet...