Found in Translation

Author’s note: I originally wrote this reflection in Spring 2017, having participated in a campus indigenous learning circle for eight months. Another year of learning and reflection has passed, and looking back I see how much further I’ve travelled.

Western academics are schooled to approach what we don’t know by applying what we do know. I do that here, floundering around on the fringes of a radically different episteme, trying to find my way in by using the tools I’ve developed in earlier cultural flounderings. I see now that this approach can’t work because this isn’t about appreciating Japanese haiku, it’s about coming to terms with colonization. In my case, it requires a fundamental rethinking of attitudes, prejudices and practices engrained over 50-odd years of being a fourth generation white settler on Stz’uminus territory who existed blindly in this landscape until recently. If I can make this shift, if I can decolonize myself, I can be a better ally, advocate and instructor, and above all a better, more responsible, more respectful guest on this land.

Former National Chief Shawn Atleo (2014) tells the story of his grandmother who said, when Stephen Harper delivered an official apology to residential school survivors, “Grandson, they’re just beginning to see us.” That’s where I am now on my journey, trying to quiet my westernized brain so I can start to see them. For this, I’m profoundly grateful to be in a circle, and grateful to the elders who attend them, especially Auntie Stella: when I think of our circles now, my mind goes to her, those few moments when she says a prayer, speaks her language, makes a joke, emits a small snore in response to our earnest babbling. I feel so grateful to be in a place and time where we can be present together like this – so that healing can begin, and so that I can be a small part of it.

Found in translation

I was interested in Japanese haiku. I read a lot and tried to write some. The one rule everyone knows about haiku is that strict 5 – 7 – 5 syllable form (which is sparse in Japanese, but says a lot in English); and as I had some mandarin I knew that the written language, with its ideograms, carries some content. It was apparent that to really understand haiku, I would need to know how the language worked, so I studied Japanese for a while. But I would never get good enough to catch more than distant glimpses of haiku in “the original.” And even with some language, there were still all those other rules that were culturally very specific: a haiku should be in the ‘now’, there should be a season word, and a ‘cutting’ word, and then there’s all those references to birds and frogs….

Since languages, and the cultures they inhabit, are so different, what happens when you read and write haiku in English? What rules do you follow? Is it still even really a haiku or is the whole idea lost in translation? These questions are silenced when you meet the right haiku:

It’s not like anything
they compare it to—
the summer moon. (Basho)

Squaring the circle

While correspondences may be inexact and cultural experiences untranslatable, we can still achieve good outcomes. But I think we need to be mindful of the forms and purposes as we move between different ways of knowing, particularly as many of us drag the baggage of a colonizing, hegemonic pedagogical tradition around with us.
The learning circle felt, well, circular. It was never really clear to me if/when I was learning in an indigenous way, or if/when I was learning indigenous content or (and this was the unsettling part) if we had strayed too far from the things we were trying to understand because we were too busy translating them into something we could understand. I worry a lot about cultural appropriation so all this not-knowing drove me crazy.

I knew I wasn’t alone, because when Tine circulated the “Beginning steps for settler instructors, Figure 1,” there was a brief class stampede to the right-hand side of the grid. Now here was something we could relate to! Then Dawn shot it down by pointing out that Figure 1 was itself Eurocentric. We stampeded in the other direction, as far away from Figure 1 as we could get. Tricked! Humiliated! We’re just not used to not knowing everything.

I really wanted to mention Foucault, because he had the idea that grids and cells are the basis of modernity, but thought maybe it would be too settler.

The science of story

We read and talked about story telling, a Circle that included a TED Talk along with the reading by Friesen (2002) on traditional aboriginal pedagogy. Was this another booby trap? Story telling has become one of those trendy new teaching tools, and I don’t know whether it started with TED Talks or in business schools. But in English, story telling implies a fiction, a yarn, or even a lie. In TED Talks, stories have become ways of using the personal to deliver some astounding “universal” truth. They, too, have a well-studied formula and overtly brag about their “power.”

Because we think we already know what stories are, we stampeded again. We didn’t pay enough attention to discussing the indigenous oral tradition. Friesen was very clear on about the forms and purposes of story telling, noting, for example, that oral cultures are considered stable and quite conservative; that stories “have the same effects as unwritten law” and “preserve and interpret truth for a specific time and place.” They are told across generations with minor shifts, are territorially bounded, and above all have a clear purpose. There are different kinds. People learn to tell stories by being told stories, and the “right” to tell stories is somewhat policed.

(As I write this, I’m composing a mental grid, Characteristics of TED Talks v Indigenous Stories)

I think that if we ask students to tell stories, we should know when we’re using “teaching tactics” versus actually trying to channel a deeply important element of indigenous culture into our classes. What are the parameters? Is there is a felicity to an original story, is it a fiction or an observation, can it be called “untrue”, can its untruths and deviations be corrected? What’s it for? The example of telling science stories about physiological functions seems to correspond somewhat with indigenous storytelling for purposes of instruction, but how close is that correspondence really?

And what if the story was written down? Or recorded? It was suggested that storytelling was being done in small groups, that there wasn’t always time to hear everyone’s story, and that recording them could be a good idea. Thinking about McLuhan, changing the medium like this would certainly change the message. In the oral tradition, presence is important: you are there, within the sound of the voice and sharing not just the words, but all the non-verbal stuff around the speaker and the audience, across all five senses. The experience is limited in time and in space, and it makes demands on you. Recording a story freezes it, allows it be removed from its context, implies absence rather than presence – “we don’t have time to listen to your story right now”. Wow. Imagine that.

So maybe the medium is the message

That would not, could not, happen in Circle. And that’s what I learned by being in Circle. A recording could not capture it. What happens in Circle stays in Circle. Tine’s meeting “summaries” are now wearing quotation marks. Words fail us! Because we are there, man. We are so there. There’s even food. All senses engaged. Learning like this is different.
I think I left some of my settler baggage there in that Circle. I think I took away something untranslatable and imprecise, but something, finally, that doesn’t seem to have DANGER! Cultural Appropriation! flashing around it. Definitely doesn’t fit into a grid.

Salmon swimming upstream
I wonder if that girl ever
welded her horseshoes?

Atleo, Shawn. (2014, 31 March). First Nations must turn the page on residential schools. Globe and Mail.
Friesen, J. W. Lyons Friesen, V. (2002), Aboriginal Education in Canada: A plea for integration, Calgary, AB: Detselig Enterprises. (Traditional Aboriginal Pedagogy – Chapter 4)

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