- Telling “Us” in the “Days Destined to You”1
A response to Warren Cariou, “Life-Telling: Indigenous Oral Autobiography and the Performance of Relation.” Biography 39.3 (Summer 2016): 314—27
This “tau-utuutu” (responsive) protocol feels familiar to me.2 My turn to speak, to respond, to share in a conversation with Warren Cariou’s stimulating essay on “Life-Telling,” Indigenous autobiography, and Dovie Thomason. It reminds me of how life-telling, orality, and history, interweave and work in my tribal universe. At home, we take turns speaking. We inherit our words, we respond, carve, and weave new narratives—make them ours. Where I come from, lives are frequently “told,” sung, cried, carved, and performed, through tribal conversations, a chorus of textured tones, sometimes in a grand debate within which our personal and collective pasts, presents, and futures converge and diverge.3 I am glad, then, to be invited, to add my voice to this present discussion. It feels natural . . . normal . . . Native.
Kia ora (greetings), Warren. I sat up when you wrote of finding “better ways” to understand the “uniquely oral aspects of Indigenous oral traditions” (Cariou 314). This is a passion I share alongside your view that the oral nature of life-telling is “crucial in the struggle to resist the colonization of Indigenous knowledge” (314). And, of “life-telling” I have so many thoughts and questions. It seems to me that life-telling, even in the striking example you give of Dovie Thomason’s performance, transcends a personal narrative that reveals the “us” of Indigenous biography. We, in my tribal experience, inherit our biographies. We weave our part of the pattern in the “days destined” to us, and then pass them to new “tellers.”4 My people call this “kōreo tuku iho” (stories passed on; see Mahuika). In each autobiography, these are personal words, sometimes even individual twists and negotiations, perspectives told in what are really “collective” conversations across generations, genealogies, time, and [End Page 328] space. To me this is the Indigenous autobiography I know as oral, lived, connected, and nuanced. Perhaps it’s the historian in me speaking, dragging to the fore the popularized view that our accounts are part of a never-ending conversation with the past.5 But inside, right to my very bones (iwi), this connection between personal and collective Indigenous autobiography is imprinted in the DNA, transmitted as historical trauma, and also as resilience and determination. I have no Indigenous autobiography without it. It is mine to inherit, to reject, to assert or neglect, as I will in the days destined to me.
I think we tend to feel this as Indigenous peoples, and I think these were the very “connections” and “communities” you and others felt and responded to in Dovie’s narrative performance. The very art and gravity of this interweaving, this telling, between private, personal, public, and collective lives can sometimes sneak up on you. In this, I was struck by your comment that “our connection to the story and to the teller was relational,” and particularly, your observation that “we listeners had become, almost without knowing it, a community” (323). I like the organic nature of this act, and especially the co-constructedness of how this occurs in Native oral storytelling. It is different every time, because biographies are produced with audiences in mind, with contemporary politics often in the foreground, and generations of cultural grand narrative lingering in the narrator’s historical consciousness. In this way, Indigenous autobiographical life-telling serves the needs of contemporary narrators, audiences, and collectives. They are fluid, malleable, and living stories.
Oral historians write about this. Some call it “composure,” wherein oral testimony is composed in the individual negotiation of collective memories. Composure is also what narrators seek—yet many are unable to achieve—to settle unresolved tension, historical trauma, and contradictory identities (see Thomson). So too are Indigenous autobiographies “compositions,” shaped in the unresolved tensions where colonization, self-determination, reconciliation, and finding ourselves as collectives and individuals collide in the realities of the nuanced and “connected” lives we lead.
Indeed, there is, as you pointed out, always a “living link between the stories and future...