Re: Amerindian resistance mode (was: amerindian an offensive
Wed, 11 Sep 1996 15:54:52 -0500

Messrs. Bilbo and Silberstein have both brought up some points that seem
to be going past each other; I humbly offer an anthropological perspective.

In the past 10-15 years in anthropology, the 'problem of translation' has
gotten quite a bit of attention (far more than I can do justice to
here). Translation in this context refers to more than just language --
to culturally specific world views and the ways people from different
cultures interpret the 'same' thing. Grossly, it is the question 'is
there Truth or only truths?'

I'm sure most people can figure out the implications of this relativist
position. Unfortunately, there is also the question of who is doing the
translating? Translation most often occurs from the foreign to the
familiar, less often the reverse or between two foreign situations. It
is important to note, however, that there is no need to 'translate'
between two familiar things.

It is in the act of translation that the power relationships Mr. Bilbo
refers to are brought out. Indeed, one may argue, and perhaps this is
Mr. Bilbo's point, that the very act of translation has inherent power
imbalances. As far as the particular case under discussion (the animal),
the Native perspective is subordinated to the dominant Euro-American
perspective; this is often the case when subordinate perspectives are
presented to the dominant social group. And it may be irrelevant who is
doing the translating: part of what makes the dominant group dominant is
its ability to ignore, without penalty, the subordinate perspective. So
it wouldn't matter if it were a Native or a Euro-American presenting the
Native perspective (assuming the latter even could grasp it); if the
discussion is not presented in terms comprehensible to the dominant
community, they can afford to ignore it altogether. Conversely, the
dominated community cannot afford to ignore the perspective of the
dominant community -- because the dominated community gets ignored if
it does.

But going back to the problem, rather than politics, of translation, this
situation presumes that translation between cultural perspectives is
possible in the first place. Personally, I think that there are better
and worse translations, but there is no perfect translation. Cultures
are not structured identically. The very act of translation results in a
loss of information. It is, in principle, impossible to understand the
Native perspective in Euro-American terms; there might be significant
comprehension, but total comprehension is impossible. So if you want
total comprehension, you have to internalize Native culture.

But can Euro-Americans do that? Part of childhood is enculturation; we
internalize a world-view that shapes not only what we see but how we see
it. I doubt that it is possible to completely discard all of the
cultural baggage we carry as adults so that we may percieve the world as
other cultures do. But I am a Euro-American, which means I have felt no
social pressure to discard the cultural perspective in which I was
raised. Natives (and African-Americans and Hispanics and so on) do feel
that pressure. (I doubt the difference of gender is as significant as
that of culture, at least in this case). I suffer no penalty if I refuse
to try to internalize a non-Euro-American world-view. On the other hand,
if Native Americans did internalize Euro-American culture, would they
really be Native Americans? (Is culture separable from biology?)

That is sort of a moot point, because translation involves two entities;
and it is more than whether a Native American has internalized
Euro-American culture: it also matters how much Euro-Americans will
accept her even having done so. The point here is that difference is
beyond the individual.

So even if Natives could, and wanted to, internalize the dominant
perspective, would that eliminate their subordination? Probably not,
because racism is culture-blind.

This being the case -- if Natives can't hope for total assimilation *even
if they wanted it* (which is not at all the case) -- why should they even
bother with partial concessions to the Euro-American perspective? In
practical terms, because they'd be worse off than they are now. But
outside of purely practical (read political) terms, why should they
bother explaining their world in our terms? Why should the animal be
explained to Euro-Americans in Euro-American terms?

Of course the Euro-Americans cold ignore it otherwise. But this is a
situation where the Natives have the advantage: Euro-Americans came to
the Natives, not vice versa. And if the Natives refused to discuss it in
terms other than their own, then Euro-Americans would be forced to accept
a different perspective in order to satisfy their curiosity -- and
curiosity can be a powerful motivator. It may only be a toenail in the
door, but you have to start somewhere.

Part of being the dominant society means that you can demand everything
on a silver platter, and get it. But that would be total domination, and
where interpretation is concerned, no-one totally dominates. The Natives
control access to their perspectives, to a considerable extent; and if we
seek access to those perspectives, then we need to make some of the same
sacrifices that the Natives have been making to get us to listen to their
political interests. And perhaps that would be a beginning for us to
stop selling our ears, and just open them freely.

Kind of wordy but I hope it makes sense.

And I know that 'the Native perspective' is multiple rather than
monolithic; it was just easier to use the singular in this case.

Rebecca Lynn Johnson
Ph.D. cand., Dept. of Anthropology, U Iowa