I’ll warn you now reader. This post will be something of what – I believe – the kids these days call ‘a rant’. It’s relation and importance to the project is probably very small. But it’s something that is in my head right now and needs to be exorcised through writing. I promise at least that it should be fun.
I’ve been researching the birchbark canoes of Native American peoples and it goes without saying that these are beautiful vessels. As the name suggests they are built primarily from the bark of birch trees. This bark is stripped expertly from the tree whilst allowing it to continue to live and grow, but this is not the only material used in the canoe. Roots are pulled from the ground and turned into string to stitch the parts together, and cedar is used for the gunnels and to line the inside of the canoe for rigidity, and form. Fat from a bear is boiled with tree-sap to create a sticky glue to seal any holes and it is clear that the methods and technologies involved in making one of these boats is nothing short of masterful. Showing ingenuity, skill and an intimate knowledge of material that puts many modern craftspeople to shame, these boats are perfectly suited to their purpose. When Europeans first came to North America they recognised this, and canoes quickly became the preferred mode of transport for trappers and fur traders across Canada. The technology of the native people was superior to the heavy design of European river vessels.
Despite this, many of the histories of native peoples and these boats refer to “primitive” peoples and technologies. This is 100% unadulterated BS (bunk and silliness) because the white folk were happy to use this technology, whilst dismissing the genius that created it. how are the minds that made these canoes in any way primitive?
One preserver of native craft and culture is Earnest Thompson Seton (father of scouting in the us). His books are filled with valuable insights into what life was like for native peoples, and he records in detail parts of culture that may otherwise have been lost, or at least not as well known. Seton is a great admirer of Native American peoples, and was an advocate and champion of sorts. Yet he too would use terms like primitive, and Indian, which rightly will grate with modern readers.
I first discovered Seton through his vivid narrative biographies of different animal species. A kind of written out Attenborough documentary, Seton would explain natural history through the story of a particular specimen. I fell in love with these books and went on to read some of his things about Native American craft to discover this at once fascinating and reverent observation of culture, tinged with this language that reveals that for all his love of the native culture- even Seton was a product of his culture that saw native people as ‘savages’. This was of course compounded in the scouting movement that appropriated Native culture in sometimes vulgar ways.
I was reminded of this ugly fact when I went back to Seton and other media around birchbark canoes for this project. There’s a lovely documentary film from 1948 showing a birchbark canoe being made. The visuals are beautiful showing the process as it was traditionally done, but the crisply spoken voiceover is not so sweet. The term Indian is there heavily as one might expect, but the film is on the whole an attempt to respectfully show an authentic native craft made by native people. It is laudable. However there’s a moment in the film that is as funny as it indicative of prejudice, when it comes to sewing the gunnels and the birchbark the voiceover says that this is the job for the women, suggesting that the culture that created the birchbark canoe just happened to align with a 1940s white American perception of gender roles… but the thing is, this isn’t true at all. Other sources, both historical and contemporary to this film show both women and men involved in every part of the process. The sewing of the boat was not traditionally a gendered role. Women sewed the boat in that one film, but that was not representative of a norm.
Both Seton and this film deserve criticism for the prejudices they help to proliferate. Yet our knowledge of traditional native culture is stronger for them having existed. Seton especially, is often seen as a hero because without him America may never have learned to value and honour native culture in the small ways it does (sometimes) now. His work is vital for both the preservation of that culture and for pointing a way toward a better future. (By saying this I don’t mean to suggest that racism toward native Americans is a thing of the past, it is still horrifically present in the culture but I just mean to acknowledge what progression – insufficient as it is – has taken place)
Seton is not like Roman Polanski, I can easily boycott Polanski movies and nothing important is lost, I’ve done it since I was a teen and haven’t missed him. But Seton’s wrong wasn’t wilful, and if we ignore his writing then we lose some of the most accessible histories of native culture and craft that we have. I need to be able to acknowledge what is problematic in Seton – and not set that aside as such – but be conscious of it whilst continuing to take what is useful from his writing.
The truth is without folk like Seton inspiring generations of young white kids to fall in love with Native American culture, then modern sensibilities may never have progressed beyond the days when it was common to openly refer to native Americans as savages. I need to be able celebrate the good knowledge we get from him, celebrate the amount he moved the needle with regard to the representation and public perception of native americans and condemn the language and his inappropriate appropriation at the same time.
It’s often in the language we use, and in our assumed norms that we discover how much we are still affected by old ideas. This came into sharp focus for me today when I spotted an event being put on as part of some international women’s day activities that was titled “not all men are like that.” I baulked when I first read the line. I mean it’s a hideous catchphrase isn’t it. It’s often deployed by (yes ‘some’, obviously) men in response to women who are sharing their experiences of sexism and harassment. It is a way of dismissing women’s stories and refusing to engage with the fact there are problems that need to be addressed by implying that these experiences are down to just a few of the bad ones… or it’s used as a way of separating and distancing one’s self from something rather than helping to deal with it. Men who say this may not be in-themselves sexist, and may genuinely be ‘not like that’ but by refusing to properly listen and engage they are not helping anything – the very fact that men feel comfortable to distance themselves in this way without feeling like they are abandoning their sister, is indicative of a deeper form of sexism pervasive in the culture itself.
Respecting women and not being ‘like that’ should be a bare minimum requirement and not something to get a pat on the back for. To the guy who jumps in with “not all men”, remember that if a woman shares about her experiences as a woman, or gender is being discussed… that does not mean you are personally being attacked.
When I read more closely into the event I realised that I recognised the name of one of the organisers and know him to be a decent sort of guy whom I respect. I read more about the event and found out that it’s about discussing how men can be active in combatting sexism and sexual harassment. It’s essentially about how men can do more than just be “not all men” quoting guys. From the copy attached along with the event it’s not 100% clear if the title is meant to be ironic and if the organisers are quite aware of all they are evoking with that term… but it is clear that they are being earnest in their efforts to equip men to take their part in fighting sexism and harassment rather than standing on the sidelines. That is great, more please!
It’s a similar thing with Seton, both are clearly trying to progress things from where they are to somewhere further on, and to nitpick little bits of language is to chastise someone for not being at point F when they’ve just stepped from point A to point B. furthermore sometimes language needs to catch up with our hearts. Seton didn’t have the sight or language to not say ‘Indian’ but from his writing it’s clear he poured a lot of reverence and love into what he thought of when he used the term. Yet at the same time it is true that language affects our thought and so there is still a rub there that makes it hard to just let it go.
To link it back to this ‘not all men’ event, I suspect the people involved are not aware of the way phrase has been weaponised online to suppress women’s voices and all intentions are good, but the language still allows men to act as if they are outside of the problem.
That’s the ranty bit, and I still don’t feel quite sure what it all comes down to. It feels easier to assess Seton, as his place in history shows that he is part of a period of transitioning attitudes and his use of language reflects that. Therefore his work is as useful as a history of westerners attitudes as it is a document of native peoples. There’s some historical value there.
I find the event harder to square, because it is happening now. Without the distance of history it feels more offensive and triggering. I’d like to say I wasn’t mad, I was just disappointed… but I was mad. Yet, I love seeing men being proactive in trying to become better in there support of women, and attempting to wrestle with the real issues, why would I want to fight with that?!
That’s the treachery of language though, and I feel myself reaching for my conclusion here – hang onto your butts. We assume words to be plain and simple and clear and they’re just not. Sometimes it takes time for us to find new language to match changes in our hearts and our attitudes. Seton did not say ‘indian’ the way a modern day trump voter says it, yet a term without that racist baggage was not available to him, the language had not yet been sufficiently interrogated to catch up.
Milton said ‘books are not completely dead things‘, but they are dumb. Open to misinterpretation and able to pick up such vast perversion in meaning purely from the vantage point of the reader. This is important for me to consider as my practice further moves away from the use of text as a key-part of my work. I have a naive hope that there is more honesty in taking time to make objects, and in creating objects (boats) that need to be used with your body in order to function.
Without words the work will be at once more open to interpretation but somehow given a little immunity to misinterpretation because… well it’s not ‘saying’ something per se. It’s doing something, and either the action speaks or it doesn’t.
Even as I say it I realise how naive that is, how idiotic it is. I’m just as capable of making a object people misinterpret as I am writing a bad thing. People are just as capable of reading into a visual work as they are a written statement. when I used writing I think in part I wanted to control audience reaction; To control how the work unfolded and lead their mind through it as the work progressed. Without words to metre things out or with which to guide the audience then there is less control… so maybe it’s about giving up control? On the other hand maybe it’s about reaching for something more timeless. Language is always changing, as the two examples above demonstrate… the term ‘Indian’ and the phrase ‘not all men’ mean something different today than they might have years ago (not to excuse anything). Maybe I’m trying to move away from something that is going to lock my work to a particular moment.
I think it’s somewhere between all of them, I think I want to move my work toward being more open, promoting re-interpretation rather than mis-interpretation. Without the fixed point of the written word then the work is more flexible to allow for that.
I think of Seton, it was the things he did to celebrate and preserve Native American culture that speak loudest about his attitude. The same is true for ‘not all men,’ the words aren’t as problematic if they are backed up with action and with making more room for women voices; if the action demonstrates an understanding of ‘yes, all of us’.
Finally for my work, maybe I need to learn to rely on the old cliche; and maybe actions do speak louder than words.