Sunday, November 23, 2008

Claude Lévi-Strauss One Hundredth Birthday - Post 5[6]: Myth, History, Stevens' Legacy, and Palin's Turkeys

[All the Lévi-Strauss Birthday posts are here.]
OK, I've got a post title, but can I put it all together so it makes sense to readers? I've titled this blog "What Do I Know?" because I think the question is a critical one for us all to ponder, all the time. The Lévi-Strauss quotes at the beginning of this post look at how anthropologists gather indigenous myths and then how they give them meaning. After the quotes, I look at two current Alaskan (but also national) stories and try to give perspective on how we - mainstream journalists and bloggers as well as general citizens - create our own cultural myths and write our history. I'm the first to acknowledge that I'm not necessarily interpreting Lévi-Strauss accurately, but I think it is still legitimate to let his writing stimulate ideas that can then be used to see 'today' from a different perspective. How do we know?

Lévi-Strauss, in Myth and Meaning ponders in a chapter called "When Myth Becomes History" how we should interpret the meaning of the collected mythology of 'primitive' peoples. In this book he is particularly looking at North and South American myths. The ones in this chapter are particularly relevant to Alaskans since they are about Indians living on the edges of Alaska. I'll try to pick out a few quotes and then make a huge leap and relate this to current Alaska myth making.

Lévi-Strauss begins the chapter raising two problems for the mythologist:
  1. There are two different types of mythic material
    -one type of collection is "like shreds and patches...disconnected stories are put one after the other without any clear relationship"
    -the other type is "coherent mythological stories, all divided into chapters following each other in a quite logical order."
  2. What does the collection mean?
Dealing with the second question, he discusses who collects the myths using what framework.
This second problem is, though still theoretical, of a more practical nature. In former times, let's say in the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century, mythological material was collected mostly by anthropologists, that is people from the outside. Of course, in many cases, and especially in Canada, they had native collaborators. Let me, for instance, quote the case of Franz Boas, who had a Kwakiutl assistant, George Hunt (as a matter of fact, he was not exactly Kwakiutl because he was born of a Scottish father and Tlingit mother, but he was raised among the Kwakiutl, married among the Kwakiutl, and completely identified with the culture). And for the Tsmishian, Boas had Henry Tate, who was a literate Tsimshian, and Marius Barbeau had William Benyon, who was also a literate Tsimshian. So native co-operation was secured from the beginning, but nevertheless the fact is Hunt, Tate, or Benyon worked under the guidance of the anthropologists, that is they were turned into anthropologists themselves. Of course, they knew the best legends, the traditions belonging to their own clan, their own lineage, but nevertheless they were equally interested in collecting data from other families, other clans, and the like.

When we look at this enormous corpus of Indian mythology, such as, for instance Boas' and Tate's Tsimshian Mythology, or the Kwakiutl texts collected by Hunt, and edited, published, and translated too by Boas, we find more or less the same organization of the data, because it is one which was recommended by the anthropologists: for instance, in the beginning, cosmological and cosmogonic myths, and later on, much later on, what can be considered as legendary tradition and family histories.

It has so happened that this task, started by the anthropologists, the Indians are taking now up themselves, and for different purposes, for instance, to have their language and mythology taught in elementary schools for Indian children. That is very important, I understand, at the moment. Another purpose is to use legendary tradition to validate claims against the white people - territorial claims, political claims, and so on.

So it is extremely important to find out if there is a difference and, if there is, what kind of difference between traditions collected from the outside from those collected on the inside, though as if they were collected from the outside. Canada is fortunate, I should say, in that books about its own mythology and legendary traditions have been organized and published by the Indian specialists themselves. This began early: there is Legends of Vancouver by Pauline Johnson, issued before the First World War. Later on, we had books by Marius Barbeau, who was, of course, not Indian at all, but who tried to collect historical or semi-historical material and make himself the spokesman of his Indian informants; he produced, so to speak, his own version of that mythology.

More interesting, far more interesting, are books such as Men of Medeek published in Kitimat in 1962, which is supposedly the verbatim account collected from the mouth of Chief Walter Wright, a Tsimshian chief of the middle Skeena river, but collected by somebody else, a white field worker who was not even a professional. And even more important is the recent book by Chief Kenneth Harris, who is also a Tsimshian chief, published in 1974 by himself.

So we can, with this kind of material, make a kind of experiment by comparing the material collected by anthropologists, and the material collected and published directly by the Indians. I should not say 'collected,' as a matter of fact, because instead of being traditions from several families, several class, several lineages put together and juxtaposed to each other, what we have in these two books is really the history of one family or one clan, published by one of its descendants.

I'm skipping an interesting chunk that compares Chief Wright's and Chief Harris' histories.

It is practically the same story in both books: it explains that the city was destroyed, that the remnants of the people went on the move, and started difficult peregrinations along the Skeena.

This, of course, could be a historical event, but if we look closely at the way it is explained, we see that the type of event is the same, but not exactly the details. For instance, according to the version, there can be at the original a fight between two villages or two towns, a fight which originated in an adultery; but the story can be either that a husband killed the lover of his wife, or that brothers killed their sister's lover, or that a husband killed his wife because she had a lover. So, you see, we have an explanatory cell. Its basic structure is the same, but the content of the cell is not the same and can vary, so it is a kind of mini-myth if I may say so, because it is very short and very condensed, but it has still the property of a myth in that we can observe it under different transformations. When one element is transformed, the other elements should be rearranged accordingly. This is the first aspect of these clan stories that interests me.

...What we discover by reading these books is that the opposition - the simple opposition between mythology and history which we are accustomed to make - is not at all a clear-cut one, and that there is an intermediary level. Mythogology is static, we find the same mythical elements combined over and over again, but they are in a closed system, let us say, in contradistinction with history, which is, of course, an open system.

The open character of history is secured by the innumerable ways according to which mythical cells, or explanatory cells which were originally mythical, can be arranged and rearranged. It shows us that by using the same material, because it is a kind of common inheritance or common patrimony of all groups, of all clans, or of all lineages, one can nevertheless succeed in building up an original account for each of them. [From Claude Lévi-Strauss (1979) Myth and Meaning, New York: Schocken Books. pp. 35-41]

So, as I understand this, basically Lévi-Strauss is asking questions about how basic stories are told - how they are framed, interpreted, and turned into history. He starts right at the very beginning, how the person - whether outsider or insider - just in the very act of writing down the story, has to make choices of how to organize it. And later he relates the issue of why they write it - is there some purpose it is going to serve? To help secure an anthropology reputation? To keep the attention and funding of the anthropologist? To make land claims?

So when we read the accounts of modern day 'chiefs' like Chief Stevens and Chief Palin, even the most careful recorder will be distorting the stories. Less scrupulous recorders are consciously or unconsciously radically skewing the story to promote their interests. Of course, this conceit is nothing new to any of us. But it is also true that we often tend to forget that our stories aren't 'the truth' but rather they are 'our truth.'

Right now there are two stories being written in Alaska. The Palin story is more at the cell level as Alaskan blogs (and others - the first Alaska blog to show up when I googled the turkey story was on page 5) are taking on seemingly small, trivial incidents, such as the Thanksgiving Turkey Pardoning story (See Celtic Diva, Mudflats, and Immoral Minority for example.) And challenging the story-making power of the mainstream media. In this story, two of the Alaskan bloggers were on the scene of the turkey pardoning and have vigorously challenged the versions of the incident from the Governor's office and the television and newspapers.

(Double click to enlarge)

In the second instance, the Anchorage Daily News editorial section carried a full page of five writers speculating or advocating how history will (or should) remember Ted Stevens. It seems that this corresponds more to Lévi-Strauss's anthropologist taking the existing collections and trying to give them meaning. For all of his career - save for the last couple of years - the cells of the Stevens myth have been written by the mainstream media in Alaska, which have ranged from fawning - the Anchorage Times - to the ADN, which has been basically positive bordering on timid, with just a few recent (last several years) but seriously in depth questioning articles usually authored or co-authored by Rich Mauer. Today's spread is 60% hagiography, 20% laudatory, and only the last of the five pieces raises, fairly gingerly, serious issues.

I'm using the Lévi-Strauss material in part because I'm reading it this week. But I think it informs what we are doing today, by getting us to step back and look at ourselves as we document (and have documented) Alaska history. As a blogger I've tended to do more interpreting of existing stories than actually writing the stories - the Anderson, Kott, and Kohring trials being the major exception where I was documenting the stories.

In this blog I've tried to keep from jumping to conclusions about Palin. I've tried to present the facts (including the facts of how I knew what I knew) to let the readers make their own conclusions. Though sometimes I've revealed my own conclusions. Occasionally, I've wondered whether the constant in-your-face reporting wasn't getting carried away with its own importance while essentially dealing with basically trivial material while key policy issues go unexamined.

But in the context of Lévi-Strauss' thoughts on myth and history, it's clear the 'cells, ' on which history is built, need to be carefully examined. The careful examination of the Palin stories documents alternative interpretations of what the mainstream media report. While there are bloggers, in Alaska even, whose writing is merely thoughtless venting, there is a core of Alaskan bloggers who have vigorously fought to bring out what they have seen as the truths that weren't otherwise being told. I've watched them with admiration, even if I've winced now and then, as they tenaciously dug into the details of a story and put them out for the world to see. Thanks folks.

In Stevens' case, the cells were never challenged until the very end of his career, and so we have a mass of cells that add up to the interpretation of "Stevens the great man of Alaska History" or "Stevens the great man who whose final days are a footnote."

Only the Michael Carey piece today hints at why, if Stevens was so great and formidable, he wasn't able to keep himself in the Senate. There are lots of things Stevens could have done - straightening up the Republican Party in Alaska; legitimately securing his economic future (Senators make a fair amount of money and their retirement programs would be welcomed by most Americans); standing up for principles besides winning and 'bring home the bacon for Alaskans' - such as the rule of law. (Recent stories in the ADN talk about him bragging about breaking the law to lobby for Alaskan statehood for instance while working for the federal government.  If 'the ends justify the means' is your motto, anything is acceptable if the prize is good enough. And eventually, the law is seen as technicality not to worry about.

So, while it is clear that Ted Stevens' intelligence and tenacity on behalf of Alaska have put roads, schools, hospitals, airports, and museums across Alaska as well as securing Alaska Natives significant land and cash through ANCSA, today's stories will, I suspect, be followed up by more careful analysis as time goes by. There are lots of stories to be written. Why, for example, did the FBI and the Public Integrity Section under a rabidly partisan Republican administration, in a Justice Department that fired attorneys for not vigorously investigating Democrats on flimsy evidence, or for investigating Republicans at all, take on the senior Republican in the US Senate?

Unfortunately, bloggers weren't around to challenge the Stevens myths earlier in his career, challenges that might have made him more self reflective, less accepting of the misdeeds of the Republican money folks, less likely to take the good old boy perks for granted, generally more thoughtful about what and how he did things. Challenges that would have corrected the record that historians will use to eventually write the history of Alaska and Stevens' place in it.

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