Studies in American Indian Literatures 16.1 (2004) 62-65
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From the time of Columbus, cultural outsiders have sought to record and explain the lifeways of Native peoples. Some have done so to "inform" voyeuristic audiences of the "savage" and brutal ways of a heathen race, while others have done so to preserve a written record of a people destined to inevitably vanish from the earth. Of the outsiders and cultural tourists presently reporting on American Indian cultures, none has become more reviled or looked upon with greater suspicion than the anthropologist, whose presence has spawned an entire genre of Indian jokes, like the one about the anthropologist who spends a whole day recording stories told by an old Indian man named Coyote. When the anthropologist returns to his lab, he discovers his tapes are blank except for the occasional snicker of laughter. But the misrepresentation, romanticization, and, at times, theft of indigenous material from cultural communities is no laughing matter; this is why Native American Oral Traditions: Collaboration and Interpretation is worthy of our attention. Editors Larry Evers and Barre Toelken reflect on previous practices and attempt reconsider collaborative folkloric work done in and on Indian communities. For this effort the book was awarded the Wordcraft Circle Award for contributing to its vision "to [End Page 62] ensure that the voices of Native writers and storytellers—past, present, and future—are heard throughout the world."
John Miles Foley, in the introduction, outlines possible collaborative roles between Native people and non-Native scholars, such as cultural interpreter, co-translator, and interviewer, but concedes that the roles of the collaborators need to evolve, a point we see clearly when we reflect on Toelken's previous work with the Yellowman family that appears in The Dynamics of Folklore (1979). The Yellowman family served as collaborators with Toelken in his previous work on Navajo lifeways, weaving and storytelling in particular, yet overall, Toelken represents Yellowman and his family more as objects rather than speaking subjects.
In the article "Coyote and the Strawberries: Cultural Drama and Intercultural Collaboration" George B. Wasson (Coquelle tribal elder and traditionalist) and his voice are allowed to dominate, while Toelken, who brings his work with Yellowman in as a comparative point concerning Coyote stories, provides limited analytical commentary, a marked shift from his prior efforts. In fact, Wasson's role as storyteller and cultural interpreter are so thorough, complete, and engaging, readers may question the need for Toelken's involvement at all.
The presence of the Native authors included in the collection, Nora Dauenhauer (Tlingit), Elsie Mather (Yup'ik), Felipe Molina (Yoeme), Mayra Moses (Tulalip), George Wasson (Coquelle), Darryl Wilson (Iss and Aw'te), and Ofelia Zepeda (Tohono O'odham), represents a vast change from previous folkloric studies in which Native voices were mediated or completely silenced. The areas of expertise, the range of knowledge, and individual investment of these researchers vary, yet all provide a level of insight into their subject matter that is unmatched by their collaborators.
The history of Indian and academic relationships is one that has always been defined by power, divided unequally between insider and outsider, marked by distrust and conflict. Indeed, Evers and Toelken indicate that the collection sought to investigate the binaries of "'scholar' and 'Native,' 'investigator,' and 'informant' . . . [and to] take up issues associated with the positions of insider and outsider" (1). Furthermore, Evers and Toelken describe the previous relationship between Native [End Page 63] and academic communities as "awkward" and "imbalanced in favor of the academics" (3). Statements such as these seem naïve in light of the way that certain texts, anthropological and otherwise, have given rise to Indians of the imagination. The language they use is not severe enough to describe the effects academics have had on indigenous communities. Evers and Toelken do cite previous cases of "collaboration," in particular the case of anthropologist Ralph Linton, who used work done by Pawnee field worker and...