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Author Topic: On writing about other cultures
Kathleen Dalton Woodbury
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Appropriate Cultural Appropriation is an article that might be of interest to those who want to write about cultures to which they are not native.
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JSchuler
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Meh, I'm just going to release my works electronically. Therefore, no culture to which I am not native will be able to read it without having appropriated my culture first (electricity, transistors, machine language, that sort of stuff). So, we'll be even.

Appropriation nonsense aside, there are good points there for trying to accurately portray cultures, but I think they may have been better said in her earlier essay: Transracial Writing for the Sincere.

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MattLeo
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Well, the appropriation thing is something it's wise to be aware of, but I think it's often overblown, and I'm a pretty liberal -- as well as a cultural minority on both sides of my family.

There's several reasons I think it's overblown, the biggest of which is representation. Minority representation is the damned-if-you-don't Charybdis to cultural appropriation's Scylla. When I see a post-apocalyptic story set in Los Angeles 2100s and there are nothing but Anglo names, I wonder where all the Latinos went. That's just sloppy world-building. It's not logical for the scenario posed. The same goes for far-future scenarios; it's weird if that they all have names that sound like they're descendants of New England Yankee farmers. But then you put in some Latino characters and there's a risk they'll be cardboard cultural stereotypes. It's a risk you have to manage with common sense.

The fundamental problem is to make interesting, complex, believable characters, and if your story world is identifiably connected to the real world then ethnicity will likely be part of that mix. It's only offensive if you get stupid and patronizing, for example if you use a Native American character to say something about what it means to be Native American. Unless you were an Indian yourself would be incredibly arrogant and the result will probably be embarrassingly ill-informed.

I think you can venture to say what it means for *a specific* character to be Native American as long as you don't appoint yourself spokesman and psychoanalyst-in-chief for *all* aboriginal peoples of America. Maybe you'll get something wrong, but the world is full of oddballs who don't quite fit the mold. If you follow the Golden Rule and are conscientious about research I don't think you'll have any reason to be embarrassed.

I believe writers may attempt anything they have the courage to tackle. That doesn't mean everyone will like it, and sometimes that will come with mortifying labels like "cultural appropriation". That's life; if verbal brickbats aren't your thing that writing probably isn't either. But I also think that if you did your best to do right be the reader then you have nothing to be ashamed of.

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extrinsic
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Anti-anti cultural appropriation and malappropriation and anti-anti-anti movements against them, and what next? Retro-anti-neo-anti-anti-post-proxyism token crony patron throwbacks? Just prideful jealousies and stubborn claw backs of some measure of never-earned-anyway cultural maintenance of some presupposed status quo superiority-inferiority-complex notion.

Social responsibility, on the other hand, merits a more cooperative society than the current contentious and pointless social and political power squabbles of, at least, expression culture -- the writing, publishing, and reading culture gamut. Cooperation respects cultural property as possessions of a group, not any individual. Indict individuals if villains and nemeses must be, not groups. An appropriation of a cultural artifact, material, custom, or tradition likewise respects the culture group, perhaps celebrates the folk item and its culture, or, if not, is probably best advised to show the item as desecrated and at least a reaction of same, out of respectful, responsible social cooperation. Sublime social commentary about same notwithstanding.

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Disgruntled Peony
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I read this article on break at work and it led to a lot of exploratory thought, both about the misappropriation of non-mainstream cultures and of other aspects of human nature.

For the better part of a decade I've felt an impetus to write something to help people better understand and empathize with people of alternative sexualities or genders. I think the biggest reason I haven't done this before is that I've been worried about misrepresentation. I was heavily sheltered in my youth, and am at least mostly heterosexual. I have, however, recently confirmed that I am gender fluid, which is not surprising so much as it is something I did not consciously acknowledge when I was younger.

I'm now seriously debating on writing a non-fiction piece, at least vaguely akin to a memoir, exploring what that gender means for me as a person. I don't know that I'll ever try to get it published anywhere, but I think it would be worth writing simply to get to know myself better.

Not trying to hijack the conversation. Just wanted you to know that I very much appreciate the link and that it got me thinking about things in new and interesting lights.

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JSchuler
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quote:
Anti-anti cultural appropriation and malappropriation and anti-anti-anti movements against them, and what next?
Anti-anti-anti-anti movements. Then hopefully sanity.

The concept of cultural appropriate implies (actually, in the article, explicitly states) that you need permission to write about it. But only some cultures, with exceptions determined arbitrarily by the offense industry. You talk about "current contentious and pointless social and political power squabbles," well, there's your source. You can talk about good, immersive, accurate, attractive writing without mentioning permission or theft at all. Can the cultural appropriation rhetoric, and the pointless squabble goes away.

Now, I am very interested to hear how George Lucas was wrong to use a group as a villain in the Indiana Jones series (Nazis). Do you think the officers hiding out in South America considered Mr. Lucas an Invader, a Tourist, or a Guest?

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Disgruntled Peony
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The purpose of this article is to encourage research into what one is writing about instead of operating on stereotypes. I think some people may have missed this point due to the article's framework conflicting with personal beliefs and opinions. This was not meant to be a political debate thread. I hereby respectfully ask everyone to chill.
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Grumpy old guy
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I am descended from the Vikings on both sides of the family, but I can't be more specific than that--I could be Danish, Norwegian, or Swedish. My first job was making 'authentic' Australian Aboriginal artifacts (spears, nulla-nulla's, boomerangs, etc) under instruction from a tribal elder and then selling them to Swedish tourists in the early 1970's.

The above is a true story.

Whose culture did I appropriate/misappropriate, or was I just a naive young guy in a flim-flam operation?

For fantasy/sci-fi, the creation of cultures is as important as any other aspect of milieu world-building, but why hijack an existing culture, or parts thereof? Originality is the hallmark of a good writer.

Phil.

[ June 10, 2015, 08:51 AM: Message edited by: Grumpy old guy ]

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JSchuler
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quote:
For fantasy/sci-fi, the creation of cultures is as important as any other aspect of milieu world-building, but why hijack an existing culture, or parts thereof?
If your sci-fi story is not post-apocalyptic, the cultures that exist today would not have all vanished within the span of a 100 years or so.

It also brings to mind the saw that good writers borrow, great writers steal. It's highly unlikely that any culture you come up with independently over the course of writing even a twenty-book series is going to approach the depth of a culture developed by millions over the span of millennia.

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Denevius
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quote:
I hereby respectfully ask everyone to chill.
Don't worry about it, Disgruntled. You're a bit newish to the scene, but most of what's being said here has been rehashed from various other threads. I've started two replies but didn't add them because I feel like I've stated everything I wanted on the subject previously.

Though insight from newer members is interesting. That's when a thought potentially worth responding to will come forth.

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extrinsic
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A paper I presented at a writing conference asked and answered a writer consideration of using a culturally sensitive motif for negative emotional charge, for nemeses and villains, for "antagonists" generally, for any cultural property item: identity matrix selection, artifact, material, custom, or tradition.

A question of where the terms "cultural appropriation" and "malappropriation" originated was raised by a spectator, wasn't addressed in the paper, though was found during research. Not a specific individual, time, or place -- a poly-genesis -- rather a term used across mid twentieth century film studies to label cultural misrepresentations and misapprehensions of films: Hollywood. The terms originally were intended to be neutrally emotionally charged, unbiased labels for a perceived phenomena, that intended not to double up on negative perceptions, though later imaginative uses reinvented the terms as negatively emotionally charged.

The long answer for me, though, of how to use cultural property motifs for negative emotional charge purposes is to specify individuals, indict individuals of a dynamic, complex, and rounded character development nature, not entire groups, and respect and celebrate cultural artifacts, even if one is desecrated by my use for the use of an agonist. Then the motif appropriation matter could, should, does become a repetition, substitution, and amplification scheme, for one strategy; that is, later if not sooner, develop suitable outrage of an appropriate agonist for a cultural trespass, or other, similar dramatic strategies. Balance, in other words.

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MattLeo
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I was making more or less the same point as the article, but I think the article is rambling and poorly written. It goes off the rails almost immediately by framing things in terms of "race". Race was cutting edge science 150 years ago, but now that we can actually look at people's DNA all the various three or five race theories are as biologically obsolete as the four humor theory.

Anyhow to paraphrase Emil Faber, the founder of the fictional Faber College in ANIMAL HOUSE, cultural sensitivity is good. Just to show how culturally sensitive I am, I'll confess to being offended by George R. R. Martin's depiction of the Dothraki in Song of Ice and Fire, and they're a fictional ethnic group.

This gets back to my point about writing compelling characters: my problem with the Dothraki is that I don't find them believable. I find it suspicious how exactly they match your preconceptions for a what a barbarian nomadic tribe in that world would be like. Is something that's exactly the way you expected it to be really "exotic"? Real ethnicities are full of surprises; even when they look like they're doing what you expect it's not really what you expected.

Let me illustrate. My father was born in 1912 in a farmhouse in rural China. In many ways he was a walking stereotype: worked like a horse six days a week and on the seventh day he worked half the day then put on his best Damon Runyon finery to go to the track -- or maybe to a Mah Jong game in the back of some dusty Chinatown "antique shop". Every year as Chinese New Year approached he was particularly sensitive to any bickering or bad behavior in the house. And if you know anything about Chinese culture you're probably thinking, "Aha! The Kitchen God." In Chinese mythology Zàoshén compiles an annual report at the end of the year detailing the household's behavior, and naturally you'd want the report to end showing improvement. Zàoshén explains everything.

Except my father didn't believe in any of that stuff.

The "exotic" theory says belief in Zàoshén explains the Chinese habit of taking stock of your bad family habits at the end of the year and resolving to do better, but I believe it's actually the other way around.

Real people aren't cultural robots who are programmed by their society's myths; they're complicated individuals who collectively create those myths. Maybe in certain kinds of writing you'd actually want a character who is merely a product of his group's culture and nothing more. Fine, but you probably should be aware of what you're doing. I think Tolkien's orcs, for example, are meant to represent class rather than ethnicity.

[ June 10, 2015, 11:01 AM: Message edited by: MattLeo ]

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extrinsic
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The essay to me poses as argumentation, the purpose of which is persuasion; attempts analysis, the purpose of which is to lead up to an argumentation; and begs the question (Petitio Principii).

The first, argumentation, asserts a claim, asserts reasons why the claim matters, supports the claim, anticipates objections, rebutts objections, and conclusively draws a conclusion for best-practice persuasion effect. The essay preaches to a choir, though, asserts no pertinent claim up front, implies, maybe, that thoughtless cultural appropriation is a moral vice. However, that is a conclusion, an unsuitable claim assertion.

Analysis: the essay provides generic examples of objectionable and responsible cultural appropriation, a few specific examples of responsible appropriation. However, the essay strays into specific examples of individuals and their reactions to appropriation offenses, not one of which supports the implied or nonexistent claim asserted. For the examples analyzed, and not much analysis either, which best practice should examine the examples for relevance to the claim and the persuasion purpose of the writing, and to bear scrutiny, statistics are warranted; i.e., 60 percent of English readers and writers are of Western European Industrialized Rich Democratic Patriarchal Christian extraction (WEIRD PC -- an amusing and ironic and loaded little term for a perceived majority power elite that potentially could object to cultural sensitivity concerns). Therefore, 40 percent of potential readers and writers are not WEIRD PC and perhaps concerned about thoughtless appropriation. Plenty of audience territory to cover, to persuade.

Note: "object" and objection to cultural sensitivity are matters for an argumentation's objection anticipation and rebuttal sections. Another warranted statistic is a breakdown of reading culture and reasons for disparity of consumers, like, perhaps, English literature loads toward WEIRD PC; therefore, non-WEIRD PC readers are underserved and writers thereof are wary.

The perhaps most persuasive argumentation point such research and analysis could uncover is that writing and reading foster conscious, critical, socially responsible thought for the common good, for example.

Begs the question: circular logic that assumes a conclusion. No overt claim asserted toward which the essay could strive for a conclusion. No conclusion expressed either, other than implications irresponsible appropriation is dictated as morally corrupt. Of course, the point of the essay is to express a mixed how-to method and social commentary. First though, what about why be socially responsible? What about appeals and persuasions to encourage writers to strive for responsible appropriation?

Missing essential features that a social commentary and commentator and how-to essay and essayist are best advised to consider.

Otherwise, go on, preach to the choir, of which, admittedly, I am one of the several factions of concern, though disappointed the cultural appropriation public debate has yet to note, as above -- conscious, critical, socially responsible thought (and behavior) for the common good -- persuasive reasons why any one faction or viewpoint collective or individual, or all, is best advised to consider social responsibility as a feature of freedom, of liberty, of privilege and right, more so, though, and overlooked, freedom and liberty's social obligations owed.

[ June 10, 2015, 11:22 AM: Message edited by: extrinsic ]

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Disgruntled Peony
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quote:
Originally posted by Denevius:
Don't worry about it, Disgruntled. You're a bit newish to the scene, but most of what's being said here has been rehashed from various other threads. I've started two replies but didn't add them because I feel like I've stated everything I wanted on the subject previously.

Though insight from newer members is interesting. That's when a thought potentially worth responding to will come forth.

Okay, let's see...

Take, for example, vodun. There are a number of different spellings, from vodoun to voodoo, but vodun is the one most often used to refer to the "original" religion, which was based in West Africa and has changed and evolved in each of the places it has been transported to.

A number of stereotypes about vodun/vodoun/voodoo have emerged in fiction and film over the years. Many of these are based on misinformation, misinterpretation, or the telephone effect. If a writer wants to portray a character who believes in or has a background in voodoo, it would be far better to conduct full-fledged research rather than operating on the misconceptions of popular opinion. The sheer number of variations in any religion are staggering when one takes the time to look into things properly.

I suppose the reason this topic seems so charged is because beliefs, cultural or otherwise, are tied to emotion. Whether they are based on logic or oral tradition, they are often deeply personal.

No one likes to see themselves misrepresented. I freely admit that the reason I dislike watching 'The Big Bang Theory' is because I feel like it misrepresents geek/nerd culture. It's a silly thing to be bothered by, but it bothers me nonetheless.


Misconceptions are bound to happen in this world. As writers, it is our responsibility to think about what we're writing. No one can please everyone, and some people are bound to take offense no matter how a subject is treated. Even so, educating oneself is better than operating in ignorance.

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mfreivald
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Hello, all. It's been some interesting reading both in the articles and here. I have a few points I don't think have been addressed. Forgive me if I missed them. I'll give each point its own post to hopefully keep it manageable.

1. One of the things that every writer should be aware of is that we are all deeply biased (no matter how hard we try not to be), and that bias includes our perceptions of our own cultures. Anyone who pretends to be singularly qualified to represent and judge how to handle their own culture is fantastically overestimating their competence and managing a grossly oversimplified understanding of their own culture. For heaven's sake, immediate family members cannot agree on the particulars of what their "culture" is.

A human being is orders of magnitude more complex than a flute (Hamlet), and two human beings are exponentially more complex than the one. Add the numbers that make up a "culture," and you have near infinite complexity that no one can claim ownership to.

Even the member of a culture can grossly misrepresent that culture, and it happens all the time. An outsider who has done due diligence might actually achieve a superior approach to presenting the culture than an insider.

In case it's not clear--I favor greater and greater diligence the deeper one goes to write a character of a given culture. No, you won't be able to be an authority, but you risk being inauthentic and cartoonish if you don't.

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mfreivald
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2. Another issue is that an individual can be very much a stereotype. If every individual of a cultural type matches that stereotype with too much uniformity, it will be unrealistic, and it will not read genuine. But one person among many can be as extreme as you want him or her to be.

In a recent workshop I was involved in, the instructor--with a very feminist bent--assigned us to read a story that was more than fifty years old. The teenage girl came across as whiny and weak, to which many of the female participants objected. They criticized it as a stereotype and labeled (stereotyped?) the author as an ignorant product of his time.

But just like there are some whiny and weak men, there are whiny and weak women--especially considering she was in her teens and under immense duress. And her "stereotypical" behavior enhanced the emotional dread that the author was going for. If you have many characters follow a stereotype uniformly, you have a problem. But one character is not a problem.

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mfreivald
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3. Excessive avoidance of offense is not realistic, and it will not ring true in the writing. Again I turn toward the strong woman. Strong women are completely dominating the spec-fic I'm reading right now. I love strong women--Sarah Connor is one of my all-time favorites. I even like some of the extremes that pop up, like among Correia's monster hunters. But they are so prevalent now with so little variation, it does not come off as genuine most of the time, and that's a big loss in the genre.

A related problem is the use of polar opposites. When the weak sniveling woman occasionally shows up, it doesn't balance the equation, it accentuates the bias. Where are all the varied strengths on the continuum in between? (The problem with polar opposites shows up with all kinds of things--especially moral or political attitudes. If you want to be real, there has to be some dissent among the good and the bad, not just between them.)

I think the problem is more extreme in short stories than novels, but I read more shorts these days, so that could be skewed on my part.

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WB
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I'm getting paranoid on this one. On another board, people, finding my project involves American Indians, have posted links on offense (for which I am grateful), saying: don't make any mistakes in representing a Native American religion; it's offensive. Don't think you can get by with making up a new one, either. Don't call Tribe X's spiritual leader a shaman; it's offensive to Tribe X, which has its own name for that. It's unclear if I can get by with the term for a fictional tribe, even if it's the best fit, but it sounds like that's a "no."

My black characters will be offensive to some political stripes, I think, because they aren't thinking about race and oppression much. But if they thought about it a lot, I think that _would_ be stereotyping.

I'd expect that if I had the whole story full of white dudes, I'd be guilty of ignoring the person-of-color experience, as some here have noted. If I don't, am I poaching someone's culture?

Maybe I'm overreacting and people are saying they'd be offended by stupid caricatures.

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MattLeo
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quote:
Originally posted by WB:
I'm getting paranoid on this one. ...
Maybe I'm overreacting and people are saying they'd be offended by stupid caricatures.

Well, let me suggest you take such advice the way you take any writing advice: listen to it, think about it, and follow it to the degree you think it makes sense. Then expect people to get mad at you. Surely you don't expect to write anything good that doesn't make some people mad!

There are certainly some people for whom you'd be damned if you do (cultural appropriation!) and damned if you don't (lack of representation!); unfortunately the only way to please those people is not to write at all. So by all means write what you want, but do put in an honest day's work on research if you're talking about real people alive today. But even when you do your best you still may make genuine mistakes that hurt the feelings of reasonable people. And that possibility exists no matter how hard you work -- indeed if you try *too* hard to avoid offense you'll come across as patronizing!

Fortunately there's a universal solution to making such an honest mistake. It's called a sincere and heartfelt apology. If someone can make what seems to you a reasonable case that you've done something wrong, then fess up and take your lumps like a writer.

So in a nutshell: listen to advice that sounds reasonable; do your best; and when you do screw up take responsibility. That's not complicated at all; just hard.

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Meredith
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quote:
Originally posted by MattLeo:
Surely you don't expect to write anything good that doesn't make some people mad!

Too true. And you don't even have to be writing about real cultures to do it.

In a second-world fantasy filled with strong characters--both male and female--I have one whiny b*tch. She's that way because it's important to the plot. But that pushed somebody's buttons, because I got this review.

Do your best, especially if you're writing about real cultures. But recognize that somebody's likely to be offended and just let it go.

By the way, I didn't ask for that reply, but I appreciate it. [Smile]

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extrinsic
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Though similarly expressed by cultural beliefs other than Christian, the "camel and the needle eye" are apropos of responsible cultural appropriation's challenges -- and satisfactions:

"I tell you the truth, it is hard for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven. Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God. When the disciples heard this, they were greatly astonished and asked, 'Who then can be saved?' Jesus looked at them and said, 'With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.'" Matthew 19:23-26

Simple satisfaction of cultural sensitivity's camel-threaded-through-a-needle's-eye challenges is to be specific as to individuals, not groups.

Another proverb, one rarely fully understood illustrates: "Pale face speak with forked tongue." The saying is used to address foreign invaders of the True People's land, who came from underneath the Earth bearing advanced technology and used it to oppress the True People.

Pale faces from underneath the Earth -- Native beliefs of the Algic culture group people attributed the pale complexions of Caucasians to death spirits -- ancestors who died, journeyed to the abode of the dead underneath the flat Earth's platter, and returned to wreak havoc upon the living for faithlessness and dishonor of elders. Their pale complexions as if drained of blood looked like dead ancestor spirits reincarnate.

Speaks with forked tongue -- a sky spirit of the True People, a storm, thunder, and lightning dragon being, has a forked body, forked limbs, forked horns, and a forked tongue. The tail-walker dragon has a brilliant gem set in its forehead that flashes blinding light and the dragon is otherwise invisible; lightning traces its shape. The dragon's lightning strikes invisibly a deadly bite. This is how the True People perceive Pale Face firearm technology: brilliant flash, rumbling thunder, and the fatal bite of an invisible touch from the lightning.

In other words, the invaders were gifted by the great spirits with "god-like" and terrifying powers. The saying to the True People means more or less that the invader's will is imposed upon them by the force majeur of gunpoint's lightning lances.

Hollywood has yet to get that saying's true meaning right, preferring instead Western European Industrialized Rich Democratic Patriarchal Christian beliefs of forked tongue and pale face to mean a sinister serpent's deceits and a "fair" complexion, respectively. Likewise, customary use of the sky spirit dragon and complexion and beliefs' motifs in literature, and as well not a few Native Peoples' misunderstandings.

The Ojibwe term for the dragon is Michi-Ginnebig, Michi: great, (Michigan: Great Lake, for example); Ginnebig, horned serpent.

The Algic culture group spanned a large portion of the Northern-Western hemisphere's continent at the time of Native and European-migrant first contact. The dragon sky spirit motif is unique to the Algic group, though of many disparate beliefs, individualized to nations, tribes, and individuals.

Use of such a motif by an unaware writer, for example, as speech from the mouth of a Native person could probably be at once and the same narrative moment an erroneous context, a misunderstanding of meaning, and a misapprehension by an unaware viewpoint agonist that causes dramatic contention, if not confliction, confrontation, or conflagration. In other words, a potentially artful scene and as likely an artless scene and possibly a cultural malapropriation.

To thread a camel through that needle's eye, assign responsibility and consequence to the erroneous and misapprehensive non-Native agonist. This is fiction: assign responsibility and consequence for social vice to individualized characters, not a group, nor the work itself, even if biased and ignorantly erroneous, ever mindful that social vice and virtue are as near global and universal to the human condition as most anything. No matter how a cultural motif may superficially be unique to a group, the moral condition's situation is the substance of a matter.

[ June 14, 2015, 08:45 PM: Message edited by: extrinsic ]

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Reziac
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One should remember that for some American Indian cultures, lying to outsiders was a spectator sport -- the taller the tale you got a paleface to believe, the better you looked to your peers.
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