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  • The Risk of Misunderstanding in Greg Sarris’s Keeping Slug Woman Alive
  • Franci Washburn (bio)

Greg Sarris's book Keeping Slug Woman Alive: A Holistic Approach to American Indian Texts is a groundbreaking text in that it is, in part, an attempt to incorporate aspects of oral tradition within the written word and to make the tradition and lessons of storytelling understandable for a Euroamerican audience. However, because Sarris does not clearly explain what he is trying to say, there is a risk, perhaps a certainty, that many readers will misunderstand or misinterpret the meaning of the stories that he tells and the points that he attempts to make. Instead of explaining what he means, Sarris follows Mabel MacKay's example of enigmatically answering a story with another story or ignoring the question until a later related event recalls the original story, and even then he allows the second event to stand as an explanation for the first story or event.1 It would seem that his point is to invite readers to participate in his narration and storytelling by allowing them to interpret the material through the readers' own reality filter of experience, knowledge, and emotion. This approach might be appropriate and work well for an audience steeped in oral tradition, particularly the oral tradition of the Pomo people, of whom Sarris is a member, but for the more usual Euroamerican reader, Sarris's approach does not explicate but only serves to confuse and complicate. Still, most other writers who have attempted to translate oral tradition into literary form have not done much better in accurately recording, translating, and explaining stories from oral tradition. Is such accuracy important? Why?

Stories—spoken or written—are important for two reasons: they [End Page 184] are the means of transferring information, and/or they are valuable for the aesthetics contained within them that are intended to evoke an emotional response. Both information and aesthetic meaning carry the very essence of any group of people: what is necessary for survival, what they value, what they consider as simply beautiful, or, perhaps, what is necessary for the survival of the soul. Cultural groups, of course, vary widely from those that are strikingly similar to those that have almost no common ground, but all groups share this increasingly smaller world, and some basic level of understanding is necessary for all groups to share the space with some degree of peace and cooperation. The risk of misunderstanding can be catastrophic.

Misunderstood words have been the cause of problems ranging from minor rifts between friends on up the scale to devastating wars. And usually the groups that have been decimated, if not completely eliminated, by such misunderstandings have been the indigenous populations of the world. The indigenous groups that have survived have done so by achieving, either by choice or force, at least a minimal understanding of the dominant culture through that culture's spoken and written words. However, the efforts of dominant cultures to understand colonized peoples have been desultory.

For the most part, their survival has not been in question; they have studied indigenous people primarily for entertainment or curiosity value. Indigenous peoples cannot force dominant cultures into understanding, but writers, both indigenous and nonindigenous, must make every effort to foster cultural understanding in order for indigenous groups not only to survive in the world but also to prosper. Because oral tradition, story, is the basic means of communicating information in traditional societies, it is important that stories be recorded, transmitted, and explained as accurately as possible. While Sarris's text is interesting and thought provoking, he does not explicate clearly but seems to invite readers to interpret the information for themselves. The invitation without guidelines invites misunderstandings. Further, many readers are not motivated to seek any understanding beyond the superficial, particularly when the text is not read by choice but is only part of a required course in Native [End Page 185] American literature. While it is difficult to translate the spoken story into the written text and to explain material so that it is understandable by a general audience, it is possible. Orality and literacy are not mutually exclusive.

Eric Havelock writes:



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pp. 184-196
Launched on MUSE
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