Elder Wisdom: A Case for Cultural Studies


Lee Francis

Let's begin then with a story. A fairy-tale if you like. ...And so, it is said, in the time before, all the People came together for a Great Powwow. There was one sacred drum and the People sang and danced for a long time. After awhile everyone knew the thousand thousand songs of the one great drum. They had heard the songs so often, they had memorized them.

After awhile, some of the People got tired of singing the same songs and they decided to do something different. They began to build a great tower to climb up so they could see and talk with Grandfather Sky. As the tower got taller and taller and the People climbed higher and higher, they weren't able to hear the great drum or the People still singing far below.

The People at the bottom of the tower, who agreed to hold the bottom and keep it steady for those who were climbing up to see and talk with Grandfather Sky, soon lost interest and one by one began to drift away. Finally, there was no one to hold the tower steady and it came crashing down.

All the People who were climbing the tower were dazed and disoriented from their long fall to the ground. The People who had not climbed the tower rushed to help their fallen relatives. They asked them, "Are you hurt?" but the relatives who had fallen couldn't understand the words. They listened to the great drum and the singers but they were able to understand only one or two of the songs.

And that is how it came to be that the People were no longer able to understand each other. The Great Powwow ended with the People leaving and the circle of unity fragmented. Some went east, some south, others west and the remainder went north. And though they parted to the four directions, they all still carried in their hearts the beat of the great drum which reminded them of their common link to Mother/Grandmother Earth.

After awhile, the People of the four directions began to make their own drums and soon a thousand thousand drums began to beat. As the thousand thousand drums continued to beat, the People remembered themselves and their duties. They remembered that it is important to continue holding onto the tower for our relatives who want to do something different. They remembered, as we do today, that it is important to sing our songs clearly so our relatives who are climbing the tower won't forget their harmonious place in the order of things.

While the voice of Native People has been glaringly absent from the discourse on cultural studies, as the foregoing story points out, it is important for the People to continue singing our songs clearly as we have always done. Scholars among the People have addressed the concepts which inhere to cultural studies and the institutionalizing of such programs within the academy for centuries. Yet, it would seem that non-Natives are woefully ignorant of the scholarly contributions of the People. For, while the experts are able to cite a dozen or more feminist, African American, and European "authorities" whose thoughts are important to the discussion, these same individuals seem unable to connect the work of Debo, or Deloria, or Qoyawayma, or Churchill with the subject of cultural studies. That the editors of this volume have taken particular care in extending an invitation to a scholar of the People to participate in the conversation is noteworthy because it is the essence of what is necessary to distinguish cultural studies from another version of the "ethnic studies" programs of the 70s and early 80s.

After re-reading older works on the subject of cultural studies, as well as the "latest" off the press, I shake my head and sigh. It's the same ole, same ole -- as our students say -- and we're back to square one. One wonders how long it will take for the child to learn how to tie its shoelaces. It's been over twenty years since scholars among the People have visited this issue. We said what we had to say then. We said it a century ago. And I wonder, like the character John Adams in the play/movie 1776 who asks "Is anybody there? Does anybody care? Does anybody see what I see?" It would seem that the answer is no, no, and no. So be it. Let's begin, once again, at square one. Perhaps this time someone will hear and understand.

Here There Be Indians

Native People of the sovereign nations have long practice at the art of institutionalized cultural studies. The most succinct response promoting cultural studies came from the Canassetego, an Onondaga elder of the sovereign Six Nations. He responded June 18, 1744 on behalf of the elders who were invited by the commissioners from Maryland and Virginia to send their boys to William and Mary College.

We know that you highly esteem the kind of learning taught in those Colleges; and that the Maintenance of our young Men, while with you, would be very expensive to you. We are convinced, that you mean to do us Good by your Proposal; and we thank you heartily. But you, who are wise must know that different Nations have different Conceptions of things and you will therefore not take it amiss, if our Ideas of this kind of Education happen not to be the same as yours. We have had some Experience of it. Several of our young People were formerly brought up at the Colleges of the Northern Provinces: they were instructed in all your Sciences; but, when they came back to us, they were bad Runners, ignorant of every means of living in the wood...neither fit for Hunters, Warriors, nor Counsellors, they were totally good for nothing.

We are, however, not the less oblig'd by your kind Offer, tho' we decline accepting it; and, to show our grateful Sense of it, if the Gentlemen of Virginia will send us a Dozen of their Sons, we will take Care of their Education, instruct them in all we know, and make Men of them.

Clearly, the elders of the People were cognizant of the fact that the hegemonic purpose of education was (and continues to be) to indoctrinate the People into the dominating culture's values, attitudes and beliefs. For the European, the knowledge incorporated into their educational curricula was based on reason. It was obvious to the elders of the People that the Europeans who "always profess to have great wisdom and understanding from above" had incorporated into their educational curricula such values, attitudes and beliefs which the elders of the People in 1777 regarded as intellectual fraud, against reason itself. That authentic knowledge would be transmitted by the dominator culture to the dominated was a questionable proposition even in the 1700s.

What the elders also knew based on empirical evidence painstakenly gathered over the prior century and a half was that the European's concept of authentic knowledge based on "reason" was decidedly different and "primitive" as compared to that of the People. For example, Europeans actually believed that one could "own" land, that women were inferior, that the elder of a nation was a King or Queen, that bathing regularly and often was savage. They believed that knowledge could be cut up into little pieces and parceled out to the deserving, depending on the current criteria. These and a thousand more strange beliefs and practices were studied and discussed by the People. Kondiaronk, a Huron who had traveled to France, urged French Baron de Lahontan to:

Take my advice and turn Huron; for I see plainly a vast difference between thy condition and mine. I am Master of my Condition and mine. I am Master of my own Body, I have the absolute disposal of myself...I fear no man, and I depend only upon the Great Spirit.

And what was true then had not changed some two hundred years later. In 1978, Patricia Locke (Mississippi Band Chippewa/Standing Rock Hunkpapa Sioux), former president of the National Indian Education Association, strongly restates the sentiments of the Haudenausaunee elders when she writes

It is important that the child learns dual cultures and multi-cultures from the fourth grade onward. He must learn well the behavior of people from other cultures if he is to help his people survive. He will learn the values and behavior expectations of other cultures as skills, not as values.... But great care should be taken so that the student does not walk a path that will cause him to fall over the brink into complete acculturation and assimilation.

Among the People, intellectual fraud is, and has always been, met with the ultimate of sanctions: disengagement. The process of disengagement among the People can take several forms ranging from humorous scorn to dismissal and silence. Intellectual fraud is the belief that it is actually possible to divide knowledge into disciplines. What is more astounding than the crisis in the humanities (see Brantlinger) brought about by "the disabling fragmentation of knowledge within the disciplinary structure of the university, and in some cases...the fragmentation and alienation in the larger society which that structure mirrors" is that such fragmentation has survived this long.

For all this time the People have strongly advocated for cultural studies. Unfortunately our non-Native colleagues in academe have only latterly begun to address the concepts put forth throughout the centuries by Native thinkers.

It is interesting to note that cultural studies as a way to solve the problem of the demise of the humanities and its sub-discipline, English, originated out of the Marxist paradigm which was an Anglo reactive response to the racist classist British society of the 1960s. Our difficulty in America was to take this Anglo-Marxist flavored concept, and like Cinderella's shoe, make it fit the ugly step-son's foot. It is amusing to see grown people trying so hard to make something be what it is not. The Lakota scholar and humorist, Vine Deloria Jr., in a 1983 publication discusses Marxism and its relationship to Native world view pointing out that

American Indians and other tribal peoples.... reject a universal concept of brotherhood in favor of respectful treatment of human beings with whom they have contact. It is not necessary, they argue, that crows should be eagles. Both Marxists and Christians should heed that insight since in attempting to transform the world into eagles they have merely produced vultures.

It would seem that the venerable intellectuals within academe took Deloria at his word and decided exclusion from the conversation was in order. For example, Brantlinger, after waxing at length on Crusoe, concludes with

...I shall try to show...the main [lesson] "cultural studies" has to offer: in order to understand ourselves, the discourses of "the Other" -- of all the others -- is that which we most urgently need to hear.

After reading the text, once again, and engaging in serious rigorous intellectual reflection on the text and the cultural context beyond the text, I concluded that the People are definitely not included in the discourses of "the Other." This is based on the incontrovertable fact that Brantlinger seems to be acquainted only with the writings of the European, (French, English, and the like), and some of African Americans. To remedy such an obvious intellectual lack in established research procedure, I will present appropriate texts to aid in the discourses of the Other.

Starting at square one in which the discourse on cultural studies at first centers on its purpose, I bring to the table the elder wisdom of Tecumtha, the Shawnee, with the thought that perhaps Brantlinger and his cohorts missed Tecumtha's (or to non-Native People, Tecumseh) exhortation around 1810 which might promote a clearer understanding of a core belief among the People around which everything centers:

...We all belong to one family; we are all children of the Great Spirit; we walk in the same path; slake our thirst at the same spring; and now affairs of the greatest concern lead us to smoke the pipe around the same council fire!...
If there is confusion as to the purpose of cultural studies, perhaps the elder wisdom of the People can add to the conversation on cultural studies and its place in the university. The reply of Corn Tassel (Cherokee) in July 1785 can be appropriately applied to the discourse on cultural studies.
Let us examine the facts.... by what law or authority [do] you set up [your] claim...I answer, none! Your laws extend not into our country, nor ever did. You talk of the law of nature and the law of nations, and they are both against you. Indeed, much has been advanced on the want of what you term civilization among the Indians; and many proposals have been made to us to adopt your laws, your religion, your manners and your customs. But, we confess that we do not yet see the propriety, or practicability of such a reformation, and should be better pleased with beholding the good effect of these doctrines in your own practices than with hearing you talk about them, or reading your papers to us upon such subjects. You say: Why do not the Indians till the ground and live as we do? May we not, with equal propriety ask, Why the white people do not hunt and live as we do?.... The great God of Nature has placed us in different situations. It is true that he has endowed you with many...advantages; but he has not created us to be your slaves. We are a separate people!....
Plenty Coups (Crow) offers an insight which is useful in the discussion concerning cultural studies. He reports in 1872,
Then the President (U. S. President Hayes) asked how we treated the soldiers, and I said that we had been friendly to them. When their horses feet were sore, so were ours. When they had to drink alkali, we shared their misfortune. When they suffered, we suffered, and I said we would continue to have friendly relations....
Sagoyewatha (Iroquois) stated in a speech delivered in 1828:
...You say that you are sent to instruct us how to worship the Great Spirit agreeably to his mind; and if we do not take hold of the religion which you white people teach, we chall be unhappy hearafter. You say that you are right and we are lost. How do we know this to be true? We understand that your religion is written in a book. If it was intended for us as well as for you, why has not the Great Spirit given it to us; and not only to us, but why did he not give to our forefathers the knowledge of that book, with the means of understanding it rightly? We only know what you tell us about it. How shall we know when to believe, being so often deceived by the white people? Brother! You say there is but one way to worship and serve the Great Spirit. If there is but one religion, why do you white people differ so much about it? Why do not all agree, as you can all read the book? Brother! We do not understand these things. We are told that your religion was given to your forefathers, and has been handed down from father to son. We also have a religion which was given to our forefathers, and has been handed down to us their children We worship that way. It teacheth us to be thankful for all the favors we receive, to love each other, and to be united....
What is cultural studies? How can it be institutionalized? How will it make everything better? What can be done to impose this concept on the institution? Annette Arkeketa West (Otoe-Creek) speaks to this deep confusion
rain licking the
parched pavement
the menace of
my daughter's

she flees the books
laid before her
the telling of words
a teacher takes for
granted at the jr. high

and she will fail
because in our home
we speak
the color
of the

From the time before time, we continue to "speak the color of the heart" and don't you know that the heart is the last place our non-Native relatives look to find understanding? It's either mental gymnastics or nothing. Is there no place for the heart, the good Red Road, we wonder? How is it possible not to hear the heart of our mother the Earth?

Reprinted from Callaloo, 17, 1994.

© 1994 Lee Francis

Return to the Lee Francis website