Category: Intellectual History and Methods
Native American Oral Traditions: Collaboration and Interpretation
Edited by Larry Evers and Barre Toelken. 2001. Logan: Utah State University Press. xvi + 242 pages.
Reviewed by Jennifer Jo Thompson, University of Arizona, Tucson
[Review length: 648 words • Review posted in 2003]
Editors Larry Evers and Barre Toelken originally published Native American Oral Traditions: Collaboration and Interpretation, without the foreword, in March 1998 as a special edition of the journal Oral Tradition (13:1). Each of the essays included is co-authored by a Native/non-Native pair that reflects on the process of collaboration and provides commentary on a Native American text. The editors’ objectives include: highlighting the forms that current Native/non-Native collaborations take, addressing the need for cultural sensitivity from the onset of collaborative work, and exploring the cultural tensions present in the collaborative process.
The book begins with a foreword by John Miles Foley and an introduction by the editors, Evers and Toelken. Essays are included by Felipe S. Molina and Evers, Nora Marks Dauenhauer and Richard L. Dauenhauer, Marya Moses and Toby C. S. Langen, Ofelia Zepeda and Jane Hill, Darryl Babe Wilson and Susan Brandstein Park, George B. Wasson and Toelken, and Elsie P. Mather and Phyllis Morrow.
Central to each of the essays is the authors’ reflexivity, through which they turn their attention to the methodology of collaboration. In his foreword, Foley writes that Evers and Toelken are "erasing some firmly drawn lines of identity and responsibility-between performance and interpretation, between insider and outsider, and between Native and scholar" (viii). However, in their effort to advance Tedlock’s "dialogical model," Evers and Toelken have made these "lines of identity and responsibility" more explicit, asking contributors to demarcate "what contributions have come from which participants...by separating and alternating voices...with the presentation constructed under the editorial hand of both" (11). And it works. By recognizing, rather than denying, the differential identities of collaborators, the editors and authors challenge traditional assumptions of role and responsibility in Native/non-Native collaborations. Close and careful attention to methodology and division of labor between Native/non-Native colleagues illustrates the variety of forms these collaborations take; more importantly, it allows for a re-negotiation of power between Native communities and non-Native scholars.
From this perspective, collaboration is an ethical mandate. As several authors independently assert, the benefits and challenges of collaboration are often one and the same-primarily revolving around issues of cultural sensitivity, identity, and appropriateness. Both parties acknowledge the challenges of negotiating the vastly different spheres of academia and native communities. Native collaborators face the predicament of simultaneously occupying "insider" and "outsider status in both their native communities and academia, while their non-Native colleagues grapple with their inability to turn a blind (or even naïve) eye to unintentional cultural insensitivity. Together, the authors struggle to meet academic expectations of rigorous interpretation, explication, and speculation, while respecting the sensibilities of Native communities to keep their texts living, dynamic, and free of singular interpretation. The authors’ reflexivity and self-awareness requires them to confront these tensions directly-even if they are ultimately left unresolved.
While the book’s subtitle suggests that these authors will pay balanced attention to collaboration and interpretation, attention to the collaborative process overshadows the work of interpretation. Nevertheless, attention to interpretation is not wholly absent. In each of the essays, authors explicate their ethnopoetic glosses and provide interpretive commentary of Native American texts. But ultimately, the interpretations serve as a springboard for a discussion of the collaborative process. This is understandable considering that several authors echo what Phyllis Morrow calls, "a basic distress associated with specifying meaning"-reinforcing the sentiment that culturally appropriate interpretation is one of the fundamental challenges of collaborative work (241). In several cases, questions of "What needs to be interpreted?" and "What ought to be left unsaid?" remain fundamental sticking points in the collaborative process.
The primary benefit of this book is that it offers a variety of models for Native/non-Native collaborative research and writing. And, although the act of explicitly distinguishing each authors’ voice makes for a choppy read at times, Native American Oral Traditions: Collaboration and Interpretation takes a step forward in the effort to reap the benefits and overcome the challenges of Native/non-Native collaboration.