Friday, April 18, 2014

Indigènitude and Revisiting History

We start out learning that 'history'  is what's written in the history text books.  It's generally a chronological account of what happened in the past.   It's got the names of key people - kings. presidents, rich people, and others who were famous for something in their era.  It's got lots of dates.  It has stories that explain what happened and these stories all manage emphasize and support important cultural values. 

Events that seem to contradict the cultural values - like slavery in the US - are either left
out or written about in a way that sugar coats them or, as with slavery's abolition, made to prove that the cultural values win in the end.

I think most people understand, at least vaguely, that history isn't exactly an accurate account.  We say things like, "History is written by the victors."  And we have terms like 'revisionist history.'  But I think the inculcation of the cultural myths really sticks in the subconscious - unless you are in one of the groups that history (what actually happened) didn't favor.

And I've read a fair amount of challenges to even the notion of history as we know it.  And so, as I read the passage below, I basically understand it and agree, but I imagine a lot of people rolling their eyes and make jokes about academic navel gazing and using terms like psychobabble.

"I have suggested that "history" belongs, significantly, to others.  Its discourses and temporal shapes are idiomatic and varied.  A concept of "historical practice" can help expand our range of attention, allowing us to take seriously the claims of oral transmission, genealogy, and ritual processes.  These embodied, practical ways of representing the past have not been considered fully, realistically, historical by modern ideologies that privilege literacy and chronology.  Historical practice can act as a translation tool for rethinking "tradition," a central process of indigenous survival and renewal.  For example, native claims for recognition, land, cultural rights, and sovereignty always assume a continuity rooted in kinship and place.  It is easy to understand this sense of belonging existentially backward looking - tradition as inheritance, as a "residual" element in the contemporary mix.  However, when conceived as historical practice, tradition is freed from a primary association with the past and grasped as a way of actively connecting different times:  a source of transformation (Phillips, 2004).  A vision of unified history thus yields to entangled historical practices.  Tradition and its many near synonyms (heritage, patrimoine, costumbre, coutume, kastom, adat)denote interactive, creative, and adaptive processes."
But I think this author, James Clifford, is writing about very complex subjects and is using the specialized language of his field.  He's using words a little differently than they are used in every day language.  But because he's writing about topics that tend to fall into what we call social science or humanities, people think they should be able to understand it.  When physicists or biologists get off into specialized language on complex issues, especially when they throw in mathematical formulas, people just accept they don't understand it.  But something like history, we think, should be transparent.

It's so easy to dismiss things we totally don't understand.  The advantage that those working in the natural sciences sometimes have, is that they use tangible experiments that demonstrate what they are talking about.  They can give you email or send a rocket out into space and bring back photos to prove their theory works. 

Why does this even matter?  I haven't read enough to be sure where he's taking this, but for me, it's important to untangle the threads of the histories woven by the dominant groups in society and reweave in the legitimate roles of the people who have been thrown off their land and whose legitimacy has been left out of the patterns of history.  (Boy, that was a forced metaphor!)  I'm particularly intrigued by what he's saying about indigenous peoples.

Things like:

Indigenous people have emerged from history's blind spot. .  .

Today the word "indigenous" describes a work in progress. .  . (p. 13)

Like negritude, indigènitude is a vision of liberation and cultural difference that challenges, or at least redirects, the modernizing agends of nation-states and transnational capitalism.  Indigènitude is performed at the United Nations and the International Labor Organization, at arts and cultural festivals, at political events, and in many informal travels and contacts.  Indigènitude is less a coherent ideology than a concatenation of sources and projects.  It operates at multiple scales:  local traditions (kinship, language renewal, subsistence hunting, protection of sacred sites); national agendas and symbols (Hawai'ian sovereignty, Mayan politics in Guatemala, Maori mobilizations in Aotearoa/New Zealand);  and transnational activism ("Red Power" from the global sixties, or today's social movements around cultural values, the environment and identity, movements often allied with NGO's).  (p. 16)
 Just something to chew on.  

Returns is Clifford's third book on this theme. 

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