- Sitting and Listening:Continuing Conversations About Indigenous Biography
A response to Jordan Wilson, “Gathered Together: Listening to Musqueam Lived Experiences.” Biography 39.3 (Summer 2016): 469–94
To open up a dialogue with Jordan Wilson and his work—as he is a sovereign Musqueam person and speaks from that position—I would like to return this introduction: my name is Crystal McKinnon, and I am an Amangu woman from the Yamatji nation on the west coast of Australia. When I read Wilson’s piece, I was struck with how familiar many of his insights are to my own knowledge of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander nations and communities here in Australia. Though we all have our differing cultural practices and beliefs and ways of being, reading his article the commonalities are apparent. In this short piece I hope to converse with Wilson’s work, and offer my thoughts and perspective on some of the points he has made about the processes involved in Indigenous biography-making, in the spirit of reciprocity, support, and continuing exchanges.
Many Indigenous people consciously occupy a space of accountability to their families and wider communities. Wilson positions himself from this space, as a person who is bound by Indigenous protocols and ethics, and as someone who strives “to remain cognizant about my accountability to my extended family and broader community relations” (471). Comprehending this relatedness and accountability is important to understanding and utilizing Indigenous research methodologies, and Indigenous knowledges themselves. As Māori scholar Linda Tuhiwai Smith has described, Indigenous research methodologies “tend to approach cultural protocols, values and behaviours as an integral part of methodology” (116). I would add that they are integral [End Page 495] to understanding the spaces that Indigenous researchers inhabit —the spaces from which we undertake our research with great care, and with pride and responsibilities.
These responsibilities are learned from being a part of an Indigenous community, and an important way that they are communicated is through storytelling— one of the common features that Indigenous societies globally share, with oral traditions used to share knowledge, customs, and beliefs. There are two aspects to storytelling that Wilson discusses in his piece that I want to talk about here: first, how storytelling is a primary way we learn from our Elders, and second, that conversation should be understood as a methodology.
Telling stories has been established as a part of Indigenous pedagogy (see Martin), and thus it is seemingly well known that storytelling is a primary way of learning within Indigenous communities. Wilson underscores “storytelling as a critical educational practice, particularly the ways in which are embedded in people’s life stories” (479). Wilson’s work in this article delves into this concept, and lets the reader into the nuances of how this actually unfolds in practice within Indigenous communities. A moment within the piece that struck me was his articulation of “the significance of repeated tellings and listenings” (480). This bought up my own memories of being told and retold stories from my Elders, the feelings of childish impatience of sitting still, listening, and not knowing exactly why, only to understand (at least in part—we are always learning and seeing more from these stories) at a later age what this process was about—the teaching and sharing of memories, of history, of culture—and that in the process of being a part of the experience of listening, I become both part of the story, and the story becomes part of me.
Other Indigenous Australian people have told us about this process as being one that is critical to Aboriginal culture and learning. For instance, Miriam-Rose Ungunmerr-Baumann, who is an Aboriginal elder from Nauiyu, stated, “through the years we have listened to the stories. In the Aboriginal way, we learn to listen from our earliest days. We could not live good and useful lives unless we listened. This was the normal way for us to learn—not by asking questions. We learnt by watching and listening, waiting and then acting. Our people have passed on this way of listening for over 40,000 years” (35). Conversation is one of the ways that these stories are...