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Inconstant Companions: Archaeology and North American Indian Oral Traditions

Inconstant Companions: Archaeology and North American Indian Oral Traditions

by Ronald J. Mason


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Inconstant Companions: Archaeology and North American Indian Oral Traditions

One of the most significant theoretical issues in contemporary American archaeology—the role of oral tradition in scientific research.
Ronald J. Mason explores the tension between aboriginal oral traditions and the practice of archaeology in North America. That exploration is necessarily interdisciplinary and set in a global context. Indeed, the issues at stake are universal in the current era of intellectual "decolonization" and multiculturalism.
Unless committed to writing, even the most esteemed utterances are inevitably forgotten with the passing of generations, however much the succeeding ones try to reproduce what they think they had heard. Writing shares with archaeo-logical remains a greater, if unequal, durability. Through copious examples across academic and ethnographic spectra and over millennia, Mason examines the disparate functions of traditional "ways of knowing" in contrast to the paradigm of science and critical historiography.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780817355333
Publisher: University of Alabama Press
Publication date: 11/16/2008
Series: Religion and American Culture Series
Edition description: 1
Pages: 312
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.90(d)

About the Author

Ronald J. Mason is Emeritus Professor of Anthropology and the Henry M. Wriston Emeritus Professor of Social Science at Lawrence University in Appleton, Wisconsin, and author of Great Lakes Archaeology.

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Inconstant Companions

Archaeology and North American Indian Oral Traditions

By Ronald J. Mason

The University of Alabama Press

Copyright © 2007 The University of Alabama Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8173-8141-7



A Southern Ute Indian once observed to the ethnographer Marvin Opler, "Everything moves on and is lost. ... For nothing can stop. Nothing is left of those days but my story and your words. Nothing remains behind" (Opler 1940:119). From another age and another continent is the Latin adage "Verba volant, scripta manent" (what is said vanishes; what is written remains [Coward in Alexandre Dumas's La Reine Margot, 1997:496n101]). In short, the spoken word flees before time while the written transgresses it. Unless even the most esteemed utterances are captured in writing, they are inevitably annihilated with the passing of generations, however much the later try to snare the echoes of the earlier and reproduce what they think they heard. Writing, at least, shares with archaeological remains a greater, even if unequal, portion of durability. The latter survive even the extinction of languages, written or not. But they do so at the price of less immediately grasped intelligibility.

Until the end of the fourth millennium B.C., when writing began in Mesopotamia, and later still in Egypt, China, and a few other parts of the world, "histories" were verbal. Because of limited compass of social needs and capabilities and the fact of finite human memory, those accounts of the past linked proximate to current generations in ascending sequences at the cost of mythologizing more remote ancestors as they slipped from personal recollections. In the greater part of the world, not excluding the majority of people in those lands where literacy eventually came to claim a stake, this limitation prevailed for additional thousands of years. But another, implicit, history, probably rarely rationalized as such, was passed across the generations in the form of the mores and folkways as well as the inherited language of each society. And this was enough for the social and psychological needs of people before the rise of complex societies with fissioning social roles, proliferating statuses, and the emergence of religious, political, and other educated elites or clerisies. In most such societies, as ascertained by archaeological and ethnohistorical evidence, lives were shorter than their later realized potential and cultural change was commonly sluggish. For most of humanity's career, each generation's experiences were pretty much what its forebears had been, even if for each individual those experiences loomed large under the concentrated attention engendered by limited horizons and short tenure. In the grand scheme of things, not much happened to foster a chronology beyond "when mother was a girl," "when our grandfather killed the crazy man," "before the old chief's house burned down," or "in the dream time." And in a great many, and perhaps most, such societies, time was circular. What went before comes again.

Only in historical recency in Mediterranean environs, culminating in Western Europe and among its paradigm-sharing acolytes as they arose in other parts of the world, was this fundamentally parochial, essentially pragmatic, repetitively inclined, and contracting temporality usurped. This was made possible by the rise of a specialized, ultimately professional, coterie that gradually developed the idea of an objective purview of the human past while struggling to acquire the enabling means. That reach often exceeded grasp does not detract from the unique breach with all previous conceptions of history this usurpation represented. The new means affording that reach, and breach, were precipitated out of the Renaissance and its rejuvenated interest in Classical Greece and Rome, the Age of Discovery, the Reformation, and the Enlightenment. These were followed by developments in philology and historical linguistics; the birth and dawning recognition of the implications of stratigraphic and historical geology, paleontology, and evolutionary biology; and innovations in the posing of historical (sensu stricto), anthropological, and folkloric questions. Seeing connections among these phenomena encouraged the search for maximum agreement among independent types of evidence or, equally critically, failures of anticipated convergences that might signal error. The greater the redundancy of the former, or the fewer of the latter, the higher the confidence researchers could place on their conclusions. Together, and in conjunction with mathematics, psychology, physics, chemistry, and their sister disciplines, this coalition of intellectual enterprises has attained preeminence in the study of the world, its inhabitants, and their history. In both historical and contemporary global perspectives, as Ernest Gellner (1988) has argued at length, through a kind of cultural ecological natural selection, Western science and historiography have achieved a hitherto and elsewhere unparalleled independence from religious and other extraneous considerations in the pursuit of objective knowledge. Although that independence and resulting reliability is considered by some critics as more a matter of degree than of kind, the magnitude of that degree challenges the pragmatic relevance of the criticism (see Carneiro 2000:74–82; Kuznar 1997:17–65, 148–152, 159–172, 213–219; Rescher 1997).

But for a concatenation of reasons, that hard-won freedom from extraneous constraints on scientific and historical inquiry has lately come under critical and even hostile challenge once more. Although those reasons include legitimate intellectual concerns, such as the influence of class and gender bias on theory and praxis, others are of a more mundane character embedded in a general reaction against perceptions of unfair allocations of wealth, authority, and power in contemporary society. Of most immediate relevance here is "anti-colonial" or "anti-neo-colonial" resentment of archaeology's, anthropology's, and Western historiography's perceived privileged epistemological status vis-à-vis that of other claimants to historical knowledge. This resentment, building on an inchoate but growing public sense of guilt over past treatment of native peoples, has attracted enough political support to affect legislation having pragmatic consequences. With significant numbers of archaeologists and other anthropologists counted among its supporters, the most dramatic example of that success to date in the United States has been the passage and implementation of the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, usually referred to by the acronym NAGPRA. Whatever its virtues — an inexhaustible topic of controversy in itself — this governmental action has also brought about unintended results of a more questionable and even dangerous character. Not least among them has been the obfuscation of critical distinctions between what is and what is not knowable about the indigenous American past and the roles of archaeology and oral traditions in addressing that issue.

This book examines these and related matters, among them the arguments of many of my professional colleagues, as well as Native Americans, who are concerned with recapturing for oral histories and, most critically, oral traditions a reinvigorated voice, if not the pivotal role anciently enjoyed in the depiction of histories in nonliterate societies. Notwithstanding undoubted merits, some of their proposals invite restoration of the justifiably superseded (e.g., Biolsi and Zimmerman 1997; Kehoe 1998:212–214; Thomas 2000; Wylie 2002:242–244). As I hope to show, such a restoration would be counterproductive as well as contrary to the very freedom of inquiry its proponents espouse. Thus science and systematic historiography, never totally at home in popular culture whose largesse otherwise helps sustain them, today find themselves cajoled, not always gently, to acknowledge as legitimate types of knowledge claims the repudiation of which has been indispensable to their present attainments.

Nevertheless, categorical denial that historical information is to be found in the traditions of oral or formerly oral societies is no more defensible than unqualified claims to the contrary. Either pronouncement assumes a priori what cannot be known in advance of investigation. Before such an undertaking, however, one must be prepared for the likelihood that mixed, ambiguous, or uncertain results will be more common than definitive ones. There are several reasons that recommend such an expectation. Most obviously, archaeologists and historians cannot expect the annals of oral or folk societies to parallel their own ideas of historical assumptions, standards of evidence, logical structure, type of contents, or mode of exposition. Indeed, what counts as proof or justification for believing recountings of the past varies among societies. Furthermore, accounts of former times in nonliterate societies and in archaic stages of literate ones typically include stories of incredible events and fantastic characters, so much so as to dishearten many a researcher from trying to disentangle possible fact from borderline plausibilities accompanied by patent fiction. Of course, the employment of adjectives like incredible and fantastic or comparable superlatives reflects the plausibility judgments of persons of a modern, literate, scientific bent, not those of the tradition tellers. But it is incumbent on the former to acknowledge that others reared in different cultures may have quite divergent understandings of when those adjectives are appropriate. While people everywhere make distinctions between the extraordinary and the commonplace, the criteria they employ are not necessarily universal. Similarly, terms like history, plausibility, or science, or their closest analogs, are not likely to be semantically equivalent across all cultural frontiers.

Although discussed at great length in the following chapters, these fundamental anthropological facts are preliminarily raised here because they are obscured, glossed over, and even ignored in some archaeological publications reviewed in this volume. A traditional story of world beginnings or tribal migrations recited as a meant-to-be-believed truthful "history" by a respected community elder is not to be demeaned because it would fail to pass muster as academic "history." The two are different enterprises whether or not they exhibit areas of convergence. It thus should be understood that the uses of the aforementioned adjectives and nouns in what follows conform to standard English-language usage except where context or explicit exception signals otherwise.

In advance of more extended treatment later, an initial explication of the dichotomy oral history/oral tradition will be useful for what follows. The first of these terms is applicable to verbal testimonies having a maximum time depth limited by the recollections of the oldest living member of a society; they are attestations of personally witnessed things and events. Oral traditions, however, are heirlooms of accumulated memories; purporting to maintain the remembrances of ancestors no longer around to speak for themselves, they thereby are intrinsically more inviting of cautious reception by prehistoric archaeologists. Like written or documentary history, oral histories and oral traditions are usually distinguished by their curators from fiction. Unfortunately, as already mentioned, it is not always clear to outsiders of any of these genres just how and where to draw the line between fact and fiction.

Even though it is the case that movements to "reform" archaeology by "broadening" its purview through the incorporation of "traditional" knowledge or "other ways of knowing" about the past are represented in different nations around the world, my main focus is on North America above the Rio Grande, the region I know best. But because most of the seminal studies of oral traditions and genealogies, the nature of orality, the impact of writing on historical thinking, social and verbatim memory, the structure of myths, the classification of folktales, and much else germane to understanding the North American material have been made in Europe, Africa, and other parts of the Old World, a good deal of information from those other regions is necessarily included in the presentation that follows. Much of this will doubtless be as unfamiliar to the student of native North American societies as it was to me when I first developed an interest in the relationship of archaeology and oral traditions. I hope it will prove as fascinating to the reader as I have found it to be.

Salient in at least this latter region is the demand levied on archaeologists via NAGPRA and other federal, state, or provincial mandates, and by tribal officials on reservation lands, to consider aboriginal oral traditions as encapsulating historical content — in the modern Western sense of that term — even if purportedly disguised in metaphorical, figurative, or allegorical language (see Chapter 2). That many of these officials and agencies represent political power and command the purse strings of cultural resource management (CRM) archaeology, by far the majority type of archaeological field projects, amplifies the decibel level of their involvement somewhat above that of cerebral discourse. This fact tends to rivet attention.

My principal concerns in this study are those assertions of oral tradition historicity, how they are to be evaluated, and what role they should play in archaeological reconstructions of the Native American past. By way of introducing those concerns, I want to emphasize that I do not challenge the legitimacy of the former in their own cultural contexts. Nor am I averse to the right of Indians or archaeologists or anyone else to appeal to indigenous myths, legends, or other traditions for possible insights into historical or pre-historical questions — provided, that is, that justification for such appeals is couched in terms compatible with the intelligibility requirements of Western historiography. Furthermore, I have no wish to deny Indian claims that their own historical perspectives are equally valid with, or even superior to, those deriving from the Euroamerican scholarly tradition, insofar as such claims are understood as bound to the indigenous milieu of which they are a part. However, I do most emphatically quarrel with conceding such equality, let alone superiority, in the context of archaeological and historiographic theory and practice. Indeed, I argue for their decided inferiority in that milieu. Lest this contrast be misunderstood as simply a facile reassertion of the doctrine of cultural relativism, I do mean to assert the epistemological superiority of the Western or Euroamerican achievement in reconstructing human (and indeed, universal) history over all its predecessors and contemporary would-be rivals. The former is and does what the latter are not and cannot do: it is critically reflexive and evidence-bound, and it is capable of comprehending the others in their own terms while concurrently deconstructing them in a search for whatever of their component elements may be testable by independent methods. For this very reason, I take claims to the contrary as requiring close inspection and, where based on rational grounds and not the nihilistic dogma of "our history is as true as anybody else's," the courtesy of challenge. Of course, Western science and historiography, particularly as represented in modern archaeology, are neither error-free nor capable of addressing every question students of the human past would like to pose. Limited and flawed as they are, they nonetheless provide the surest access to that past yet devised if something more is wanted than "preservation" of cherished traditional versions of it. Apropos of this observation, Roger Anyon and his coauthors (1997:80) are quite right and unwittingly supportive of this view when they complain of archaeology that it "has little meaning to Indians as a way to enhance oral tradition itself within a traditional cultural context." How could it? The two pursue separate purposes.

Some Examples of Archaeology and Oral Traditions at Cross-Purposes

In 1999 the U.S. Department of the Interior's National Park Service released a public relations publication entitled The Federal Archeology Program 1996–97, Secretary of the Interior's Report to Congress. Under the "overall guidance" of Francis P. McManamon, chief archaeologist and manager of the federal program, the report was meant both to serve a popular audience and to constitute "a credible document" (Andrews and Flanagan 1999:67). It must be understood in those terms — that is, simultaneously simple and worthy of public acceptance. Among its contents is a brief commentary by Sharon Hatch on pictographs in the Falls Creek Archaeological Area in Colorado administered by the Forest Service. This informs readers that site managers and archaeologists "didn't know anything about the traditional significance of the images," which generally are difficult to date and which occur in an area that had been occupied over nearly a thousand years, but that modern Indians do. How they do is left unsaid, as are reasons for believing them. Nevertheless, according to the writer, advisors from 26 different tribes and the New Mexico Indian Tourism Association, representing nearly as many separate languages drawn from among a good half dozen linguistic phyla or macro-families, were able to provide "information on clans, migrations, and events expressed in the symbols." Whose opinions took precedence in so variegated an assemblage of "advisors" — one could hardly expect unanimity — is not reported. Nevertheless, the advisors also said that "traditional oral history should inform all interpretation," although (some of?) "the images contain sensitive information." Readers are assured this advice will be followed. The conclusion is drawn that "tribal elders and traditional advisors ... are our best, and only, teachers" (Hatch 1999; emphasis added).


Excerpted from Inconstant Companions by Ronald J. Mason. Copyright © 2007 The University of Alabama Press. Excerpted by permission of The University of Alabama Press.
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Table of Contents


1. Introduction,
2. On History,
3. On Memory,
4. Norsemen, Trojans, and Ancient Israelites,
5. On the Nature of Oral Tradition,
6. Mixing Apples and Oranges, or Looking for Kernels of Truth,
7. Mammoth Remembrances,
8. On the Historicity of Symbols and Symbolic Praxis,
9. On the Central Siouans Before J. Owen Dorsey,
10. Conclusions,
References Cited,

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