Wednesday, January 04, 2006

Story Time

I seem to be drifting towards stating my views on the contentious subject of multiculturalism. If so, then before I do I'm going to take the chance to tell an absolutely wonderful story, a cautionary tale about not underestimating people. It comes from a book by Robert Georges called People Studying People that I read as a textbook when I was in grad school.

During the 1890s university academics, particularly in the US, started rethinking the question of how to study and research non-Western societies, especially the less developed ones. The previous attitude had been to dismiss as "primitive" any societies that did not have an extensive written history, and even some that did, such as Japan, China and India, tended to be patronized just for not being European.

Scholars came to realize that there was much of interest and value in such cultures, but realized it was going to be difficult to get at by the means they were used to. Societies without libraries and archives are impenetrable to a scholar if libraries and archives are all he knows. So over this period they developed the practice of what we now call fieldwork, studying a society by immersing yourself in it. Living among the people you're studying, learning their language, their songs and legends, helping to hunt or farm. Learning their way of life by sharing it for a while. This seems obvious to us now, but it was revolutionary then.

Among the first cultures to be studied this way were American Indian tribes, and for good reason. They were easy to get to by train and horseback, there was always somebody around who spoke English, and since scholars were still trying to feel their way, develop these techniques, it was a lot safer to study the Navaho than to plunge into the jungles of New Guinea.

Around 1905 a young man from a university back east arrived on a reservation to do his fieldwork. As I cannot remember his name (Amazon will sell you Georges's book if you're dying to know), I will just call him the Scholar. He had made arrangements to live with a local family, and had been there a week or two, just finding his way around, when he was approached by a young man with the wondrous and unforgettable name of Wolf Lies Down. He wanted to know what the Scholar was doing there. He wasn't hostile or anything, but wondered if the Scholar was maybe a trader looking to buy some of the tribe's horses, and maybe they could do some business.

The Scholar wanted to answer honestly, but wasn't quite sure how. How to explain such abstract notions as scholarship and research to this local lad? But he had heard that when explaining difficult concepts to children, one started with the most concrete examples and worked your way up to the abstract. What would work with children would surely work with this simple aborigine.

So he said, "Well, I want to talk to you, to your friends and family, and find out how you live. I want to see the houses you live in and the clothes you wear. I want to see the food your grow, and watch how your women cook it. I want to see the games your children play, and hear the songs they sing. I want to listen to the stories your old men tell, stories of how the world came to be and how it was when they were young. I want to...."

And he was working up some enthusiasm here, really getting on a roll when Wolf Lies Down, who had never in his life been off the reservation, interrupted him and said, "Ah! I see. You're an ethnologist," smiled politely, nodded, and walked away.

It is to my everlasting sorrow that the Scholar did not record his own reaction to this incident.

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