At long last, I have actually finished reading a book. Yes, really. And not even one for school, which is all I seem to be reading lately, well given the fact that I’m in grad school, it’s kind of inevitable. But today, at Michelangelo’s Coffeehouse on State Street, the book was indeed finished, a feat several weeks in the making. In a turn towards nonfiction, I present to you my review of Indigenous Storywork: Education the Heart, Mind, Body, and Spirit by Jo-ann Archibald aka Q’um Q’um Xiiem.
Also, in an effort to bring more international culture into my life, I’m officially counting this as the first country in the ever-popular Read A Book from Every Country contest that probably exists but I just made up. This book represents Canada, and the Sto:lo Nation.
Indigenous Storywork is not a book of stories. It incorporates a few stories, such as two involving the character of Coyote, among others, but is more focus on Archibald’s process of developing a technique for storytelling,
from start to finish. On page 11, Archibald provides a helpful chart of her context for all Indigenous storywork. The four concentric circles represent the four levels involved in identity and in the germination of the story. The outermost circle is the nation, and continuing inward, we see the community, the family, and finally, the self. At compass rose points are each of the elements of the human that are in play when telling the story: intellectual, physical, emotional, and spiritual. Discovering the stories is an exciting process, where she realizes the power of the characters and how they can touch lives from young to old, and how they can be used effectively as teaching tools to keep First Nations traditions alive as well as impart valuable lessons. She encounters many roadblocks, though; she deals with the issue of language, translation, and preserving content; intellectual property rights (who do the stories belong to?); focusing on individual/tribal experiences rather than lumping her work into just “First Nations” scholarship; and the ever-present dilemma of keeping the stories faithful and sacred to the storytellers, possibly risking their extinction, and passing them on, which preserves the stories but puts them in the hands of those who may not use them properly, and for whom the meaning may get twisted. At the end of the book, Archibald compares her work thus far to a “story-basket,” citing the Sto:lo tradition of a basket weaver giving her very first basket to someone who needs it. As the “story-basket” is presented to the reader, it leaves her book open-ended, as if this is just the beginning.
For a book, it was pretty dull, but as a monograph, it was quite lively. Archibald writes, as others have noted, without jargon, and it is easy to identify with her feelings and emotions as she tracks down various elders and experiments with educational programs. As far as actually telling the stories, Archibald has basically described a more theatrical approach to storytelling, using things like sense-memory rather than rote reading. She also talks about the relationships between the elders, the words of the stories, herself as researcher and herself as storyteller, and makes it clear that each have a different role with one another and all are important in the storywork process; it is a venture that requires collaboration, which in turn requires trust.
On a macro level, Archibald is dealing with issues that are present in so many cultural contexts, especially the debate of keeping things sacred by holding them close, or sharing them and guaranteeing preservation but risking defilement, a pretty basic colonial/postcolonial issue. This is where I have not so much a disagreement with the author, but sort of a suggestion/solution. In one chapter (actually, in two) Archibald talks about the search for a story about plants, and getting shut down by the elders due to concerns of mentioning the names of sacred plants and their usage, and the harmful effect that the stories might have on children. For me, this is an example of self-censoring. Surely, the elders know what is and is not appropriate, and by volunteering the information, they themselves are choosing what to share, with the knowledge not that it can or may be shared, but that it will be shared. Archibald also mentions the cycle of tracking down elders and asking for permission, a practice that seemed necessary for the edification of the user but a nuisance for the elder who told the story. I mean, could you imagine calling an author, editor, and publisher, every time you wanted to cite something or use it in the classroom? Archibald does consider this, but is hesitant to accept it. My argument: reality check, look at the big picture. No one is going to be around forever, and even though it’s lovely to keep people involved as they’re still living, there must be some contingency plans laid for when the storytellers eventually leave this earth. Recording the story via text, audio, and video, signing an agreement, and seeing that it’s properly archived should be enough to eliminate at least one, if not all, of the middle-men, and expedite the process. Yes, a story is special, but that’s why there is an agreement in place, as a precautionary measure, to give the story the rights to assert itself, which is basically what Archibald wants. It would eliminate a quarter of the book, at least, but it seems like the only viable option.
The most notable sections of the book for me were when the author, instead of questioning herself, interacted with elders from various First Nations and engaged in dialogue with them. On page 50, Archibald gleaned a lesson in reciprocity from elder Vincent Stogan aka Tsimilano, one which she calls “hands backward, hands forward” teaching. This lovely passage encapsulates what she means.
My dear ones,
Form a circle and join hands in prayer. In joining hands, hold your left palm upward to reach bask to grasp the teachings of the ancestors. Put these teachings into your everyday life and pass them on. Hold your right palm downward to pass these teachings onto the younger generation. In this way, the teaching and knowledge of the ancestors continue, and the circle of human understanding and caring grows stronger. (Archibald 50)
Here, Archibald encourages symbiosis, in which the student is also the teacher. Every word heard from the ancestors will be passed on; at least someone in the circle will relate their experiences, even if just to one another, continuing the cycle of learning. Tsimilano’s performative act of embodiment makes the student a vessel for information, a conduit between past and future. This inspired Archibold to pay more attention, and to tell stories in short spurts of comfort rather than in their completion, which is discussed in later sections of the book. Overall, Archibold relays to the reader a sense of giving and receiving, and that storywork is as much about speaking as it is about listening.
In the spirit of collaboration and listening, don’t just take my word for it. Here’s what Jo-ann Archibald has to say:
Oh, and apropos, not only was this the first day in the recent past where my blog views have gone up rather than down, it’s also the first day for visitors from Norway (velkommen!), Serbia (добродошли!), and Bosnia & Herzegovina (dobrodosli!) as well as visitors from 30 countries. Keep on coming, write a comment or give me follow?
Archibald, Jo-ann (Q’um Q’um Xiiem). Indigenous Storywork: Educating the Heart, Mind, Body, and Spirit. Vancouver: UBCP, 2008.