A few weeks back (December 4, to be exact), I happened to see CBC coverage of Chief Wallace Fox from Onion Lake, SK (An important Plains Cree reserve) and his attempt to enter parliament in Ottawa. Fox kept repeating that what he wanted was an ‘audience’ with the government. The Canadian government reps generally reacted that he and his fellow leaders were misbehaving, being rude, or not following the rules.
It was interesting to watch the news coverage and simultaneously see two perspectives on this activity. In the age of soundbites and quick-hit insta-rage on social networks, it’s very difficult for someone that has a non-standard point of view to get their perspective understood. Noam Chomsky actually pointed that out quite a long time ago; if you agree with the mainstream conceptions, then you can sum up your argument in 30 seconds for television. If you think something different, it can take a long time to contextualize it so other people understand what you’re saying. Hence, the soundbite/social-media approach to these issues will always favor established ways of thinking over minority ones.
People that come from a minority culture are in sort of a double-bind, with respect to this soundbite pattern. Not only do they possess a minority perspective, but they also are tasked with having to explain stuff that’s largely unconscious.
Culture – especially when it comes to communication – is a largely unconscious activity. It is folklore, in the technical sense. It is something you acquire via interpersonal transmission, and resides largely in your unconscious. You don’t know it’s there.
When you encounter another culture, you end up having to do a quick folklore job on yourself. Why do I not care that my shoes come in the hose? Why does that person always leave one portion of their food untouched? Why do they have these long pauses when they’re talking? Sometimes, we’re successful at doing this – sometimes we’re not. It also depends heavily on the person and their interest.
Many people believe that their own unconscious culture is a rigid system that equates to a moral code. Since this moral code is based on unconscious systems that were acquired in childhood, it is very hard for a person who refuses to examine their belief system to refrain from making harsh judgements. People that do it differently will inevitably be harshly judged, then. Shoes in the house is swine-like. A woman covering her head is a sex slave. People who argue or negotiate with sales clerks are rude and selfish. Take your pick.
This means that Chief Fox would actually have to not only pry open a large space in the discourse to give him the proper chance to contextualize his perspective (like Chomsky), but he’d also have to somehow be able to dredge up the unconscious system that underlies his communication practices. This is a pretty high demand, and most people fail to do it.
In the particular confrontation between Fox and Parliament, the underlying system that Fox appears to be working with is the Cree value of ‘Presence.’ I’ll spend the rest of this short post describing what that is and how it impacts these negotiation strategies.
Back in the 70s, an anthropologist named Regna Darnell did a bunch of fieldwork with Plains Cree communities in Alberta. Resulting from this work, she published a series of papers on Cree communication practices. These should be required reading for anyone interested in understanding Cree ways of talking (including Cree people themselves). There’s a number of difficulties with the papers, of course – as there always is – not the least of which being that she worked (exclusively?) through translators. But the core ideas she presented really do stand up well over time, and are highly relevant today.
The idea she lays out, in a nutshell, is that the Plains Cree culture proceeds via shared presence. By ‘presence,’ we mean both a shared space, a shared time in space, and a shared mental state (what Walter Lightning called ‘Mutual Thinking.’) The sum total of ‘being there,’ basically.
You could think of these things as separate variables – and they are separate in a logical sense. You can be in the same place someone else was, but at a different time. You can now (thanks to phones and Teh Interwebz) share a time with someone without being in the same place. You can share a mental attitude with someone who is long dead. This is why, in the more general literature, people treat them as separate issues. Cree people will generally try to combine them, when they describe their culture, however, and I think this is probably an accurate introspection on their part. Blackfoot people I have listened to also discuss this in terms of fusions, and so it is likely an issue that goes farther than the boundaries of Cree culture.
The establishing of ‘presence’ is the underlying issue behind ritual activities, which are important in Cree life. You do a ceremonial activity to establish the right frame of mind, but, at the same time, this activity can only take place in a certain place at a certain time. It’s a way of creating presence – much like opening presents at the family Christmas Tree does, or sitting down to dinner on Thanksgiving. Establishing presence via rituals is a human activity – perhaps one of the most central ones.
For the Cree, what is perhaps different is that presence is a primary issue. Presence is involved in evaluating whether some information is true or trustworthy (was the person speaking ‘there’ for this? Are their practices learned by sharing presence with others?). It is also involved in determining if someone has a right to speak about something (some scholars talk about that issue under the label ‘entitlement’). While these issues are all important in all cultures, presence is the basis for communication in Cree. Everything else proceeds out of it.
This fundamental status of Presence means that, when you communicate in Cree contexts, you need to establish presence first and foremost. This can easily be seen when looking at any Cree speech. Most of any speech is actually involved with constructing presence. “I am here. You are here. I know who you are. You know who I am because of this person here, who invited me. You know them, you know me. Let me now tell you about the people I have shared presences with. A number of them are already known to you, via kin relations or shared history.” etc. etc. This kind of beginning to a speech can actually take up the vast majority of the talk, in fact. It needs to happen because without it, communication cannot proceed. Until the Cree hearers know how all these things linked together, until they have established the space, time, and ‘mutual thinking’ necessary for communication, nothing else can be said.
From a ‘business-oriented’ European point of view, where constructing presence is not a primary goal, this means that nothing happens for the majority of initial meetings. I don’t know how many times I’ve set up a meeting with an aboriginal elder and had ‘nothing’ happen. They appear, I come. We sit, we drink tea, we talk about nothing in particular, or something else. Then they say it’s time to go, and they leave.
For a results-oriented system like the academic system (and its government backers), this can feel disastrous. The clock is ticking. Research needs to be completed! The budget requires line items. And here this elder is sitting, drinking tea and asking about how your wife is doing. Fieldwork stretches on for years – where it would take months or even hours in many other languages/cultures. The first order of business is always establishing presence, and that takes time.
My own way of dealing with this has been to simply give up on the government, academic goals. I don’t actually go to any meeting with an aboriginal person expecting anything in particular to happen. Meaning, I just give up on a lot of fieldwork goals. I buy coffee, we talk about whatever people want to talk about. I ask about language stuff when I can. Sometimes, this yields much better, more meaningful results. Asking an elder to think about something may not help me now, but it often results in a crucial insight in a year.
Applying this to the ‘Idle No More’ Issues
It should be clear where these issues intersect with the television-oriented coverage I started this blog post with. What the chiefs are asking for, when they want to be let in to parliament and for meetings, is actually establishing ‘presence.’ This, from their point of view, is the first step towards mending bad communicative practices.
Ironically, if their requests were granted, the government leaders would likely end up wondering what “all the fuss was about” since “nothing was accomplished.” Just a bunch of people sitting around, not talking about very much. From the government’s point of view, this would be a waste of time – and is likely related to why they refuse to meet the request.
The media, as well, would react to the outcomes of these meetings as a ‘waste of time’ and the Internet Rage Machine would, too. Meaning that these leaders would have had a PR problem.
However, from the point of view of these Cree leaders, a great deal would have been accomplished – they would have begun to construct a shared space/time/mental state with these government representatives. From their point of view, that is step 1 in any communicative practice and they are trying (unconsciously or consciously) to fix this gulf in the best way they know how.
Crucially, this means that they are actually acting in good-faith, even if the media and government perspectives see it as an obstinate waste of time.
I don’t expect government, mainstream Canadians, and the media to change their perspectives – maybe they shouldn’t, even. But I think they should be expected to learn to accommodate other points of view and other methods of communicating. It certainly would move towards healing a breach that is getting progressively worse.
Darnell, Regna. 1991. Thirty-Nine Postulates of Cree Conversation, Power and Interaction: A Culture-Specific Model. Proceedings of the 22nd Algonquian Conference: 89-102.
Darnell, Regna. 1989. The Social Context of Cree Narrative. In Richard Bauman and Joel Sherzer, eds., Explorations in the Ethnography of Speaking. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press: 315- 336. Reissue of 1974 volume.