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Other Kinds of Native Ethnography

The term ‘‘native ethnography’’ covers a lot of ground. At one end of the spectrum are the works of George Hunt, Jesus Salinas, Crashing Thunder, Abel Hernandez Jimenez, and Ignacio Bizarro Ujpan, written entirely in a the nonliterary, indigenous language of the native ethnographer.

At the other end are the works of indigenous people who have become professional anthropologists and who write about their own culture in one of the major literary languages of the world, like English, Japanese, French, Spanish, etc. Included here are the works of scholars like Jomo Kenyatta (1938) and Victor Uchendu (1965), who wrote ethnographies of the Gikuyu (in Kenya) and Igbo (in Nigeria), respectively. Both were bilingual speakers of English and their tribal language; both were trained as anthropologists; and both wrote in English. Kenyatta studied with Bronislaw Malinowski at the London School of Economics in the 1930s. Uchendu’s ethnography of the Igbo was written as his M.A. thesis in anthropology when he was a student at Northwestern University (1965).

Another genre comprises autobiographies by speakers of nonliterary languages who were not trained as ethnographers but who wrote in a major literary language. Between 1964 and 1968, Refugio Savala, a Yaqui poet, wrote his richly detailed autobiography in English (Savala 1980). In his narrative, Savala tries to describe Yaqui culture in general by showing his family’s participation in it (Sands 1980).

Other examples of this genre for North American Indians include The Middle Five: Indian Schoolboys of the Omaha Tribe by Francis La Flesche (1963 [1900]) about life at a boarding school; Wah’Kon-Tah: The Osage and the White Man’s Road, by John Joseph Mathews (1968 [1932]) about life under a particular Indian agent on the Osage Reservation in the late 1800s; and The Way to Rainy Mountain by N. Scott Momaday (1969), in which Momaday, who holds a Ph.D. in English from Stanford, tells of his attempt to seek his identity as a Kiowa from his grandmother and from other elders with whom he consulted.

Yet another genre of native ethnography comprises the ‘‘as told to’’ autobiographies. One famous example is Black Elk Speaks. John Neihardt, an epic poet from Nebraska, met Black Elk, an Oglala Sioux, in 1930. A year later, Neihardt and his daughters went to Black Elk’s home on the Pine Ridge Reservation. Black Elk spoke in Sioux and his words were translated by his son Ben, who had studied at Carlisle University.

Neihardt says that it was his own function ‘‘to translate the old man’s story, not only in the factual sense—for it was not the facts that mattered most—but rather to recreate in English the mood and manner of the old man’s narrative’’ (Neihardt 1972 [1932]:xii).

Other examples of this genre for North American Indians include the as-told-to autobiography of Don Talayesva, a Hopi (Simmons 1942); of John Lame Deer, a Miniconjou Sioux (Lame Deer and Erdoes 1972); of Two Leggings, a Crow (Nabokov 1967); and of Left Handed, a Navajo (Dyk 1938; Dyk and Dyk 1980). Here is Ruth Dyk, telling us how the story of Left Handed was actually recorded. ‘‘Since Left Handed did not know English he told his story in Navajo, and it was translated bit by bit by Philip Davis, a Navajo. Left Handed would speak a minute or two, Philip would translate, and my husband would write down the translation” (Dyk and Dyk 1980:xvii).

Roger Keesing recorded the life story of ’Elota, a Big Man of the Kwaio in the Solomon Islands (Keesing 1978). The 15 recording sessions took place over a 4-month period of time. Keesing translated the tapes and provides a sketch of Kwaio culture and history. Andrew Strathern recorded and translated the life history of Ongka, a Big Man of the Kawelka in Papua New Guinea (Strathern 1979). At first, Strathern prompted Ongka, but he soon left the Big Man alone with the tape recorder. ‘‘I would return to the room from time to time to change the cassette over,’’ reports Strathern, ‘‘and would find him fully engrossed, gesturing and smiling into the microphone” (p. x).

During two field trips to Botswana in 1971 and 1975, Marjorie Shostak collected 30 hours of taped interviews with Nisa, a !Kung woman. Nisa was about 50 in 1971—an advanced age for a !Kung woman at that time. She spoke only in !Kung, and Shostak’s English translation ran to hundreds of typewritten pages (Shostak 1981:42-43). Shostak edited the tapes—in some cases, brings parts of stories together to create continuous chronological narrative—to produce Nisa’s moving autobiography.

Mountain Wolf Woman was the sister of Crashing Thunder. Her autobiography was recorded in Ann Arbor, Michigan, in 1958, at the home of Nancy Lurie. Over a period of 5 weeks, during which Mountain Wolf Woman lived with the Luries, she told her story in Winnebago, and Lurie recorded it on tape. Then, using the Winnebago tapes as a guide, and a second tape recorder, Mountain Wolf Woman told her story again, in English (Lurie 1961).

Lurie and Mountain Wolf Woman translated the Winnebago tape together, and Mountain Wolf Woman’s grand-niece, Frances Thundercloud Wentz, helped Lurie produce the final, detailed translation. Lurie is critically aware of her influence on the final product: ‘‘The final preparation of an acceptable English narrative from a literary and scholarly point of view required decisions for which I must take full responsibility.’’ These decisions, said Lurie, include ‘‘choice of tenses, equivalents of idiomatic expressions, insertion of words necessary for clarification, and the like’’ (Lurie 1961:95).

Lurie also recorded comments that Mountain Wolf Woman made during the 5-week stay and inserted some of these comments into the final published narrative. She had them set in italics to show where she had added text from materials other than the original tapes.

All of these different kinds of native ethnographies offer glimpses—some more descriptive, some more interpretive—into the lived experience of people in other cultures. But all of them depend first on the collection of mountains of texts.

And now, on to text analysis.

 
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