Sunday, October 08, 2006


The blogger at didn’t feel the panel I was on responded to the title,"WHO SHOULD TELL THE STORIES" and little wonder. It didn’t. The blogger said:

“Briefly, this panel had a lot to offer, but little on the subject I was anticipating -- who owns what stories; who can tell or write these stories; what are the implications of white writers telling stories from cultures not their own? Are the implications any different than they are for any writer tackling stories/ subjects/ cultures/ characters that are not their own?”

Okay. Let’s go back and address these questions since they are so nicely clear, unrhetorical and sincere. This is what I think and couldn’t really say on the panel:

Who owns what stories? “Ownership” seems to be the word that needs defining. Of course, in the world of publishing there is a copyright, a legal matter supposedly controlling work originating with one author and sold for profit. Repeatedly in early years, individuals came to the reservation, took notes on communal stories meant to tell the tribal members who they are and how they ought to act -- but then wrote them up, sold them to publishers as original works, and collected the income. None of that income was sent back to the tribal storytellers. Some of the white writers claimed to be scientists who would use the stories to analyze and record the society of the tribal people -- others were simply acquiring stories the same way they would acquire beadwork, attractive curiosities. None of the whites attempted to live according to the stories, giving precedence to stories of their own culture: the Bible, the movies, the newspapers. Thus they not only made money from the stories, but also drained them of significance.

It is a strange phenomenon that white people who have never known any Indians will leap to acquire Indian stories, even phony ones that have nothing to do with real tribal life: say, Longfellow or James Fenimore Cooper. Indians who themselves have declared war on the way Indians are treated will accept parts in movies based on these stories, be grateful for the income, and proud of their roles without debunking them. When Indians write books about the tough side of reservation life and later make movies of them, people hurry to read them and the Indians are happy to star in them, illustrating drunkenness and depravity with great gusto.

A typology of stories:

1. Oral tribal tales, traditional and often told by old people.
2. These tales written down, possibly changed to fit Euro morality, and considered scientific inquiry.
3. These tales, even more edited, offered to a curious public as “authentic” and “primitive” and therefore uncontaminated by Euro culture and therefore suitable for children because they are “natural” and “primitive” in the same romantic way.
4. These tales retold by Indians to incorporate Christian ideas -- for instance, identifying Scarface with Jesus -- and sold in print to prove to whites that Indians are “civilized.”
5. The original oral tribal tales, now presented in print without any editing but with many footnotes, all Euro-shocker elements present to show that they are authentic.
6. Nearly the ultimate: the stories told in their native language and presented with translations. Tellers identified by name, place and date. Maybe on tape. This takes us back to 1.
7. Modern Euro-style short stories and novels, written by people at least partly Indian, about their present lives.
8. The same except written by whites pretending to be Indians. "The Education of Little Tree."
9. Faux Indian stories written by whites for children: Paul Goble’s book are a good example. Often beautiful picture books.
10. Modern Euro-style short stories and novels written about old-time Indians by modern Indians.
11. Modern Euro-style short stories and novels written about old-time Indians by modern whites.

One might construct a little graph of typologies considering: speaker, oral/written, nature of content, intended audience, expected reward.

Okay, now let’s compare with a list of kinds of stories that I might write or do write about Bob Scriver.

1. Just the facts: a biography. There are dozens of bios of Bob Scriver on the Internet. Most of them are at least partly inaccurate, leaving things out or getting things wrong. Many are slightly garbled versions of publicity I wrote for Bob in the Sixties.
2. An interpreted biography written by someone who never knew Bob Scriver. There are few of these around.
3. An interpreted biography written by myself, who knew him well and whom he asked to write his life story. (Although he had little idea what I might write and was dead when I finished, so couldn’t review it.)
4. Family stories told many times that I picked up and used without comment: for instance, how Mrs. Stone gave a birthday party for Wessie Scriver (Bob’s mother) and was upset when someone gave Wessie a joke gift, a giant set of long red underwear.
5. Family stories that I repeat but correct: Bob claimed that his father was a “Vermonter,” but in fact the Scriver family left Vermont when it seceded from the British Commonwealth and re-established in Quebec, where Scrivers fought against the new United States -- they were Loyalists to the English King.
6. Stories about Bob I’d just as soon no one knew. (Censored)
7. Stories about Bob that I think show something about who he was: how when the boys unintentionally shot at me, he bent their gun into a horseshoe, but never said a word to them.
8. Stories about people in Bob’s life. How Hubert Bartlett had a chance to shoot two wolves on the elk flats in Marias Pass, but didn’t.
9. Riskier stories about people in Bob’s life: drunkenness and violence on the part of the Indian help.
10. Stories about myself, positive or negative. Who is qualified to decide whether I’m telling the truth?
11. Stories that Bob told people that I know are false. That his father was the first government-authorized Indian trader among the Blackfeet. (More like the fifth or sixth.)
12. Stories that others tell about Bob that are false. Phil Scriver constantly claims to be related when he simply is NOT.

All these stories affect Bob’s reputation as an artist and therefore affect the value of his sculpture. People or institutions that own his work are concerned that the value not decline and therefore are motivated to control them. But I intend to make money from telling these stories and I intend to make them true and vivid. Our interests are not congruent.

In the same way, the interests of Indians of whatever kind are not necessarily aligned with the interests of those who tell the story. This is human. Somewhat political. In the end economic. And very hard to control or even to evaluate in terms of justice.

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