(Note: VMB is stepping in here to cover for Jessie Vogts who usually writes about Culture Travel. Jessie is busy moving to a new house, and will be back at A Traveler’s Library next month.)
Destination: American Indian lands
I began my Monday book review of Rising Son by saying, “Beware the conclusions you draw when visiting another culture.” That makes a good lead for this review as well, but for a different reason.
Roger Welsch lives in Nebraska, a descendant of Russian/German ancestors, a folklorist, and an Omaha Indian and a Pawnee Indian. How does a Russian/German become an American Indian? And particularly a member of two tribes? The memoir, Embracing Fry Bread , which describes a long life spent as what he calls a ‘Wannabe,’ attempts to explain the process.
He makes clear, repeatedly, that there is no “process.” In fact, his path is only his path and not one that other people will be able to follow even if they want to.
The book is useful to even the casual visitor to Indian communities in the United States. Even though each tribe has a separate culture–as different as the countries of Europe–they share certain characteristics. And a non-Indian may make some very wrong assumptions about Indians, based on his or her own culture.
One of the most valuable things Welsch points out–valuable for ANY traveler moving outside her own culture– is that we all start with an assumption that the way we do things is THE way to do things. Therefore we judge other people who do things differently as certainly being wrong. Until we understand the cultural biases we live with, it is almost impossible to appreciate the culture of other people.
The tendency to believe our way is the only way rarely turns out well. For instance, Welsch points out:
Plains pioneers, travelers on the Oregon and Mormon Trails, and homesteaders alike starved to death within sight of villages and camps where Natives ate well.
But it is not just early Americans (like the poor, ignorant Pilgrims in Plymouth who survived only with the help of the native people) who made this mistake.
Vikings faced with starvation at their settlements in Greenland refused to adopt the hunting methods (for example, the harpoon with a detachable point that is still used today) of the Greenland Inuit (contemptuously referred to by the Vikings as “Skraelings”), even though it was clearly superior, as hunting successes and failures showed, to the Viking spear. So the Skraelings prospered. And the Vikings buried their dead.
Toward the end of the book, when he spends, in my opinion, way too much time summing up what he has said, Welsch reiterates the plea for recognition and acceptance of cultural difference.
As I have noted, we often think of our own culture not as a culture among other cultures but as the “natural” or “normal” way of doing things. Moving across cultural lines into another society makes it clear that this is a false perception, that there are many, equally legitimate, sometimes more useful ways to see things.
This important thought is bolstered throughout by examples of the ways of the Omaha and Pawnee (particularly these, but also some other American Indians). We learn about their relationship with nature and animals and religion. We learn some fine points of etiquette when attending a ceremony, and foodways. I found particularly fascinating the difference in attitude about gift giving. They have the same attitude that the Navajo, with whom I am more familiar, have about worth. Things have value only in that they enable you to give them to someone. Therefore, a person who amasses wealth is suspect. This explains the traditional Indian’s lack of saving for the future–seen by the white society as short-sighted, wasteful and frivolous.
Since I am the co-author of a book about a Navajo artist, I struggled with the concern about non-Indians writing about Indian life. In the end, my co-author and I decided it was the right thing to do, because the artist had been dead for fifty years, and no one else apparently was going to record his life in an effort to understand that period of Navajo life and keep his memory alive.
There are complaints from Indians about non-Indians writing about Indian life. Nonsense. I have as much to say from the outside as a Native has to say from the inside; the point is that we should both be offering up our perspectives. Ignorance of either point of view offers no benefits to anyone.
There are a couple of problems with what he says here. From what I have observed in Navajo and Pueblo communities, traditional individuals are loathe to speculate about other people whom they know–let along about strangers, so I don’t see them willingly engaging in a balanced critique. And secondly, in another section of the book, Welsch expresses horror that a person without a long-time association with the Indians should take it upon themselves to write a book for children. It sounds as though he is giving himself permission that does not apply to others.
Welsch is nothing if not opinionated, and as he admits, probably will offend several people and find many who disagree with him. I don’t have a problem with him stating his beliefs strongly, but I do have a problem with the scathing sarcasm with which he treats some corners of the White society. Likewise, although he regularly castigates the majority society, he seems to pretty much gives the Indians a pass for anything in their own culture which might not be entirely helpful to their own society.
I don’t want these caveats to discourage you from reading this book, because it is filled with thought-provoking examples of the interplay between cultures. The more that travelers do to improve their skill at understanding others, the better their travel experience will be–and perhaps I could even say, the better the world will be.
You may recognize Welsch from CBS Sunday morning, where for many years he stood around in his overalls each week and read a “Postcard from Nebraska.”
PHOTO CREDITS: The final photo here is a public domain photo, obtained from Wikipedia. The other three are by Dmytro Palets of Kiev, Russia, found on Google Plus
The publisher, University of Nebraska Press provided this book for review, but my opinions are my own. This article includes links to Amazon to make it easier for you to shop there. I am an Amazon affiliate, so although it costs you no more, A Traveler’s Library earns a few cents for eacy dollar you spend. THANKS!