Friday, September 6, 2013

Readings of Tsawalk


In addition to exploring our own genealogies and ancestral methods of knowledge production, we also took this reading of Atleo's Tsawalk: A Nuu-chah-nulth Worldview as an opportunity to think about important issues and events in our world. What is the relevance of a theory of Tsawalk for other contexts today? The bloggers below take on US intervention in Syria, the Defense of Marriage Act, and the hegemonic power of Western science. 

"Humble Interventions: Alternatives to Military Action in Syria" by Logan Narikawa

For the purposes of this post, it is a fortunate misfortune that the United States president and (military) commander-in-chief is currently advocating for military intervention in the country of Syria.  Fortunate for the fact that a group of my colleagues and I in the Indigenous Theory Course at the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa should have simultaneously been presented with a potential salve for the inflammatory imperial intent of the United States, and unfortunate, of course, that we should have to encounter another instance of long-standing pattern of “exceptional” American behavior.  As the United States gestures toward that geographical locale often represented as one rife with Arab inflected extremism, the “middle east,” the contemporary political landscape in Syria poses a ripe opportunity for a different sort of American intervention — a knowledge-based one.   And while the hope for such a dramatic change in political strategy nearly amounts to an impossible optimism, the appeal for otherworldly assistance is itself of a kind with Nuu-chah-nulth knowledge.

Having been assigned E. Richard Atleo’s Tsawalk: A Nuu-chah-nulth Worldview this past week certainly seemed like a gift.  Although Atleo, or Umeek as he is referred to by those who, like him, are Nuu-chah-nulth, signals the existence of Nuu-chah-nulth understandings that are not freely shared with others, his is a generous and welcoming text that encourages the integration of its worldview (i.e. epistemological assumptions) in the methodologies of “Western” practices of the natural and social sciences.

Regarding this worldview, Umeek’s reverberating refrain is “heshook ish tsawalk,” which communicates the Nuu-chah-nulth idea that the entirety of nature — inclusive of all realms physical and spiritual — is united in one reality.  Just as the veteran jazz musician makes certain to revisit a tonal theme in a given piece of music, Umeek repeatedly refers back to this phrase “heshook ish tsawalk” as if to have it embed itself within the reader’s mind.  For Umeek, and apparently for Nuu-chah-nulth, the idea that all aspects of the universe are inextricably related informs all decisions and lends a communal focus to all actions.

Where some presentations of indigenous knowledge, especially those that position themselves opposite “Western” knowledge can run afoul attempting to overstate the differences between the two, Umeek suggests instead that the Western worldview diverges from the Nuu-chah-nulth in its emphasis of certain aspects of human knowledge, namely the empirical.  While Umeek does not directly address the attendant difficulties of raising a monolithic “West” to be razed, the common (epistemological) tendencies referred to as Western are easily recognizable.

Umeek most strongly grabs a hold of the Western tendency to assume the separation of different aspects of and objects in reality as one that could stand to benefit from an infusion of the Nuu-chah-nulth sensibilities.  For Umeek, the Western world is susceptible to overlooking certain relationships in the world because of its insistence on one-to-one, observable, cause and effect interactions in the physical world.  It is Umeek’s assertion that such a perspective lacks an appreciation of the spiritual realm’s impact on the physical, and consequently does not allow for the practice of oosumich — a kind of preparatory activity that is a “means of initiating a positive interaction with the [preminent] spiritual realm” to mediate what goes on in the physical realm. (Atleo, 17)

Although a sizable portion of Tsawalk is dedicated to explaining such important concepts in Nuu-chah-nulth knowledge as heshook ish tsawalk and oosumich, Umeek also analyzes a number of creation stories to open up the ways by which this knowledge is transmitted and understood.  The second of these stories, “Aint-tin-mit and Aulth-ma-quus” (translated in English as “Son of Mucus and Pitch Woman,”) focuses on Nuu-chah-nulth moral education.  The story of Aint-tin-mit and Aulth-ma-quus — in which a boy, Aint-tin-mit, born of the accumulated mucus of a mourning chiefess whose daughter has been stolen along with others by a disfigured woman Aulth-ma-quus, saves the stolen children from the cannibalistic Aulth-ma-quus — presents among other lessons the creative potential of genuine sorrow in the Nuu-chah-nulth worldview.  (ibid, 33)

As Umeek explains, Aint-tin-mit suggests the necessary condition of humility — as arises in the act of mourning — in the intervention of spiritual forces that overcome destructive acts.  Umeek references also a preceding story in which vanity confounds an individual’s attempts to retrieve light for his community, where in his analysis he breaks the third wall on two occasions to invite the reader to consider a world in which humility was seen as a fundamental requirement for all present day leaders.  (ibid, 12)

Indeed, the 44th American president now calling for military action to mitigate a “serious national security threat,” would do well to recognize the creative power of humility — and the tremendous possibilities that exist once one relinquishes the desire to exert dominance and superiority.  Should the president ignore the imperative of humility, and proceed with the all-too-familiar course of military action, the American moment for mournful sorrow looms ahead as a time when people will be forced to recognize the interconnectedness of the human world.

“Queering the Defense of Marriage” by Kahala Johnson
Last week, the legislature was presented with a draft bill that would legalize same-sex marriage in Hawaiʻi. Its passage could mark a substantial shift for an issue whose history of complex legal and social discussions exceed two decades in length. Nevertheless, the recent Federal ruling on the Defense of Marriage Act provides a potential avenue for its realization should lawmakers convene in a special session.

Despite its ostensibly liberal agenda, the very discourse of marriage employed by the draft bill already precludes many relationship and kinship ties recognized in Kanaka Maoli culture. Terms like aikane, niaupio, pio, ʻohana, etc., each describing relationships that do not easily fit into the aforementioned discussion, are subsequently overlooked; the colonial project is alive and well, with its own set of origin stories to refer to.

Considering the dearth in acceptance of indigenous approaches to the issue, how might Tsawalk theory position itself within this intersection between Kanaka Maoli and hetero/homonormative marriage discourse? 

The third chapter, “Thluch-ha: Getting Married,” provides the authors perspective on Nuu-Chah-nulth practices. Title aside, I was surprised by the lack of erotic themes in Atleo’s interpretation of Aint-tin-mit trials. My reading of the story elicited a decidedly sexual, even queer(ed), nature to each of the three tasks: being devoured by the giant codfish in mucus form (“But as the giant codfish’s mouth closed on him, he transformed himself into mucus...Aint-tin-mit allowed himself to be swallowed”), braving the raging fire (“When the fire became unbearably hot, Aint-tin-mit took some of his medicine powder and threw it into the fire....Time after time the fire was built up, and time after time Aint-tin-mit reduced the inferno with some of his medicine powder”), and finally, the splitting of the log in which the chief participated:

Both the Chief and Aint-tin-mit worked expertly, pounding the wedges into the great log. It began to split. They pounded and pounded, moving their wedges from time to time. Carefully and slowly, the cedar gave way, making loud protesting noises....With a crashing sound the enormous log closed on itself and onto Aint-tin-mit. At the same instant, Aint-tin-mit transformed himself into mucus and slid harmlessly out the end of the great cedar.

Instead, Atleo positions these trials in the context of challenges faced before and after marriage, ones that must be overcome because “marriage signifies a divine principle of relationships, which, in the earthly model, translates into one individual marrying another”. His further clarification of Heshook-ish tsawalk, when contextualized in the original discussion of same-sex marriage, tends to favor its normative values. In fact, it colludes in a similar way with Kanaka Maoli relationships.

Of course, as a non-Nuu-Chah-nulth, I would not make the statement that Tsawalk is unaccomodating. Atleo has produced many fine points in his theory that do resonate; it is up to his community to provide more information and/or to debate his theory with regards to controversial areas. Nevertheless, the comparative exercise allows us to question the ways indigenous theory can be universally applied, the precariousness of generalization, and thus the scope and nature of theory itself.

“Can Western Science Make Room?” by Ryan Knight
Umeek’s (E. Richard Atleo) book, Tsawalk: A Nuu-chah-nulth Worldview, pushes the reader to question and complicate the scientific world-view, which has come to dominate much of the world-order in recent history. Atleo does this by offering us a glimpse into the Nuu-chah-nulth worldview, based in oral stories, which provides insight into epistemological and ontological understandings of the Nuu-chah-nulth people.  By putting the Nuu-chah-nulth worldview in comparison with the Western world-view, Umeek seeks to “…contribute to, and increase, the level of mutual understanding” (Atleo, 1).  

As Atleo stresses in regarding the relationship between Western and Nuu-chah-nulth worldviews, “There is no question that human reason [western thought] has an enormous capacity to discover and advance knowledge.  In question is its presumed supremacy in, and exclusive rights to, knowledge acquisition” (Atleo, XV).  Essential to Atleo’s analysis is his determination to dismantle western, material, and scientific hegemony in the realm of knowledge and knowledge creation.  He isn’t saying to ignore it altogether, but to pull from both traditions to form more informed knowledge.
The analysis comes off rather optimistic when paying close attention to the fundamental foundations of western science.  As he recognizes, the very of nature of science lays claim to an monopoly on knowledge creation—one based upon an assumed objectivity from the stakes of its claims.  Only what we can materially prove is knowledge, and everything else is speculation, fantasy, etc—as science claims.

I raise this already well-covered point to ask whether a knowledge system that claims its monopoly on understanding, and assumes its own moral righteousness and ethical neutrality, can really compromise with other forms of knowledge that threaten its very foundation?  Can science, which is fundamentally based upon knowledge developed from material observation, share the stage with other knowledges that look to nonmaterial experiences for forms of insight?  If we look at its history, it seems not very likely.

This is where I thought Atleo’s analysis to be the weakest.  Can these different knowledge systems exist in cooperation toward more intricate forms of understanding, or is he letting science, particularly linked with political and economic power, off the hook?  The claims of objectivity and hegemony of knowledge creation, combined with political and economic power, has a horrific history of violence, exploitation, and death.  Although science is often obscured in colonial and imperial endeavors, the claims of all-knowing, backed by a moral neutrality, are often used to justify domination in a variety of forms.  In this sense, does science have an inherent drive toward domination, by the very claims of its objectivity?  Furthermore, does this reflect the justifications for colonial expansion, imperialism, and environmental destruction in both the past and the present?

No comments:

Post a Comment