Monday, May 13, 2013
Nicholas Reid reflects in essay form on general matters and ideas related to literature, history, popular culture and the arts. You are free to agree or disagree with him.
THE WISDOM OF THE ANCIENTS
I walk into a tourist shoppe on Granville Island in downtown Vancouver and I see a volume entitled First Nations Wisdom.
I pick it up and turn its expensive, glossy pages carefully.
Each page features a wise saying.
Each page identifies the name of the person who said this wise saying and the culture this person came from.
To somebody of European descent the cultures are all exotic. African or Inuit or Tibetan or Balinese.
Each page features some artistic motif from the given person’s culture.
“Here”, the volume promises implicitly, “you are getting the wisdom of older cultures. You are discovering your inner shaman or tribesman. You are rejecting a Euro-centric view of the world.”
Except, of course, that the language throughout is English. And most of the wise sayings seem remarkably like platitudes. They would not go down at all if the authors were identified as, say, English or American. Indeed they would rapidly be seen for the old saws that they are.
The book is not casting much of a spell over me – and such limited spell as it does cast is broken when I turn one page and discover a “wise saying” (i.e. platitude) from one prolific Maori author of dubious competence. I know that such wisdom as he received came as it does to every other New Zealander – from his schooling, his family and the media. There is nothing exclusively tribal or ancestral or ancient about it.
I set the book down in a slightly grumpy mood.
I will not draw too many generalisations from this.
Losing one’s patience over a publication so obviously aimed at tourists really would be squashing a flea with an elephant. Tourist tat is inevitable, and attempts to co-opt indigenous cultures to tourist commerce are inevitable. If I walk a few doors along from this tourist shoppe I will find myself in a private gallery selling expensive art-works that use Native American and Pacific motifs. Tiki made of silver or of genuine jade. Totem poles. Fetishes. Same phenomenon as the glossy book, only catering for a wealthier market. And produced by people equally aware of, and savvy about, their audience.
I do ask, though, why the promise of ancient wisdom from pre-industrial societies has such a hold over some people.
I must make myself quite clear here.
Like you, I respect cultures other than my own. I believe the myths, legends and creation stories of African, American, Asian and Pacific cultures are every bit as majestic and inspiring as the myths, legends and creation stories of ancient Greece or the Celts. I am as interested in, and moved by, traditional indigenous art-works as I am by European ones. I endorse fully the idea that the world is richer for its great variety of languages and that each language encodes its own unique culture.
But I resist, and will continue to resist, the notion that there is some superior indigenous wisdom to which people of European descent are not privy and which will always have to be reverenced in hushed tones. To dress proverbs and maxims as tribal, ancestral and ancient does not make them any more wise. And the balance of folly and wisdom is fairly universal. If I did not believe this, I think I would be bordering on the racist.
Another thought occurs to me. I believe the most potent works of art now being produced are in fact fusions of traditional motifs with modern (Western) technology and techniques. While visiting the Museum of Anthropology at the University of British Columbia, in Vancouver, I was arrested by a large sculpture executed by my namesake, Bill Reid. The sculpture represents the mythical origins of the Haida people (one of the First Nations whose tribal lands are on the fringes of Vancouver). A huge crow – a bird of cunning and wisdom – straddles a sea-shell from which the Haida people emerge.
Reid was of mixed European and indigenous descent – Scots-German father and Native American mother. He did not begin to develop an active interest in Native American culture until he was well into adulthood. Only then did he begin producing his sculptures that present origin myths in three-dimensional form.
At first, tribal elders and some ethnologists saw Reid’s work as inauthentic and demeaning, because it did not present the creation myths in traditional ways. Now, his work is universally admired.
I took inexpert snaps of his larger-than-life sculpture from six aspects as I walked around it. I thought it did present some form of ancient tribal wisdom – but it did so using Western technology. The two are equals, you know.