Sunday, May 17, 2009

Carolyn Dunn on COYOTE SPEAKS

As readers of American Indians in Children's Literature know, I have strong feelings about retellings of Native story, especially when the source for the retelling is the stories archived by the Bureau of Ethnography in the late 1800s and early 1900s. My analysis of Penny Pollock's Turkey Girl and of Kristina Rodanas' Dragonfly's Tale demonstrates that Frank Hamilton Cushing misinterpreted what he observed when he was living amongst the Zuni people.

In my research, I search for books, chapters, and articles about those archived stories, and, about disclosure of sacred stories. Pueblo people are very guarded about what we share. On this site, I've written about intellectual property, and pointed to the Hopi Tribe and their statement on intellectual property.

As I prepare my paper for next week's meeting of the Native American and Indigenous Studies Association in Minneapolis, I'm revisiting the topic of disclosure. Last year, my paper was about Arrow to the Sun, Turkey Girl and Dragonfly's Tale. I'm reading (again) from Elsie Clews Parson's monograph on the Tewa Indians, The Social Organization of the Tewa of New Mexico, published in 1929. (Tewa is the language we speak at my pueblo, Nambe. It is spoken by several of the northern pueblos.) Parson's was amongst us in the 1920s. In the preface of her monograph, she wrote:

Imitating the secretiveness observed in all the Rio Grande pueblos, I settled in Alcalde, the Mexican town two or three miles north of San Juan, and here, thanks to my helpful and understanding hosts of San Gabriel ranch, I secured informants from San Juan, Santa Clara, and San Ildefonso. My informants worked singly or in couples, niece and uncle, sister and brother, mother and daughter, one interpreting for the other.

I ask you to consider what she says. The pueblos were secretive. Why was that? To circumvent this secretiveness, she set up her research site away from the pueblos, so that her informants would not be seen, so that she could work in secret.

She says that the informant from San Juan was the most helpful, and that his stories are the ones in her Tewa Tales, first published in 1926. Here's what she said about her informant from San Ildefonso:

Information from San Ildefonso was least satisfactory. The women were particularly timid and not well informed; the man was a threefold liar, lying from secretiveness, from his sense of burlesque, and from sheer laziness. Curiously enough, this man, whose social position is of the best, but whose veracity is of the worst according to both white and Indian standards, has probably been hitherto one of our sources of authority on the Tewa.

How does she know he was lying? How does she know what parts of what he said to her were lies? She does not say that she rejected his information, so, is it in her book? She obviously thinks that some of her informants were telling her the truth, but how does she know that?! In short, that paragraph makes me suspicious of her entire monograph.

Her Tewa Tales was recently republished, with a foreword by Barbara Babcock. Babcock includes the first paragraph I excepted above, but not the second one. There is, I think it is fair to say, an assumption that the informant from San Juan was not lying to Parsons. Again, though, I wonder, on what basis did Parsons have confidence in what he told her?

Like I said earlier, we Pueblo people are careful about what we disclose. Disclosure is taken up in Cynthia L. Chavez's dissertation titled Negotiated Representations: Pueblo Artists and Culture. She is Pueblo, raised at San Felipe. Here's a paragraph from the abstract:

Most Pueblo people have committed themselves to the non-disclosure of what they deem culturally sensitive or sacred, because of cultural prohibitions learned since childhood. In this dissertation, I investigate Pueblo artist' reasons for refraining from depicting certain images and/or themes in their artwork. I have interviewed various Pueblo artists of New Mexico (excluding artists from Zuni Pueblo) who choose not to depict culturally sensitive imagery in their artwork due to their cultural heritage. This research is an attempt to obtain insights into Pueblo cultural beliefs about non-disclosure/representation and how this impacts Pueblo people as participants in contemporary Western society and their own Pueblo societies.

Maybe the San Juan informant was not in the "most" category that Chavez writes about, but I wouldn't count on it. Knowing this about us (Pueblo Indians) makes me wonder about stories collected from other tribal nations. This morning, searching for writing on stories from those archives, I came across an essay by Carolyn Dunn. Posted on January 27, 2009 at her blog, Dunn's essay is definitely worth reading. She references an article she wrote in Reading Native American Women: Critical and Creative Representations and, the introduction to Through the Eye of the Deer. I'm going to get and read both items.

In her essay, she talks about Beverly Slapin's review of a book Dunn and Ari Burke published last year. The book is Coyote Speaks. On November 16, 2008, I posted Beverly Slapin's review of Ari Berk and Carolyn Dunn's book, Coyote Speaks. In her essay, Dunn effectively counters some of Slapin's review. Dunn makes several excellent points.

When I posted the review, I indicated that I had not read the book, that I was waiting for my copy. It has not arrived, or, I've misplaced it. I'll reorder today.

That said, I don't think Dunn will persuade me that it is ok to use those archives. Part of my resistance is based on what I know happens to Native stories when they are published in picture book format for young readers. Pollock and Rodanas added their interpretations to the stories Cushing published, thereby adding another layer of misinterpretation to the stories.

And, instead of being treated with the same respect as stories from other world religions, our stories are shelved over in the folklore section of the library. Dunn's Coyote Speaks is shelved in the 398.2089 section of the library, which is where all Native "folktales" are put. I think it should be in the 200s with other books about religion.

Thinking, and waiting for my copy of Coyote Speaks...