Thursday, April 22, 2010

Nudging my way into existence

Bearing in mind my voice might be echoing in the halls here, I still felt a desire to comment on something I saw in the ADN Newsreader today. Or rather, something the Newsreader brought from the Stop and Smell the Lichen blog.

Nuna Inua starts out, "I do not exist."

It goes on more about how it is her position, her job that does not exist as far as traditional culture. What position is there of "artist" in traditional culture, and how can creating art possibly trample upon culture?

It is something I have struggled with as a Tlingit fiction writer. While engaging since high school in nonfiction forms of publication, it is creative fiction that has my heart. Tlingit culture, I think, embraces the idea of "artist" more readily than what Nuna Inua describes her own culture as being able to define. There is no traditional "artist" who "only" created art for a living, but it was a position nontheless. People talented and disciplined in beautiful carving would supplement their own living by creating commissioned pieces to wealthy folk. This kind of practice goes far, far back in our culture.

But, as my mother said, "There's no such thing as Tlingit fiction."

In trying to recreate ficitonal stories from traditional legend, I now begin to wrestle with how I can do this without "lying" by creating a part that is not true to history, without plagiarism, without taking from what belongs to others. You see, while Native stories are more often labeled as "myth and legend" in educational circles, these stories were passed down for millenia as history. Fact. Only in very modern times has society begun to play with our culture's history as fiction, with little regard to the ramifications.

So, as a fiction writer trying to honor my culture's past, how do I fictionalize it and honor it at the same time?

To be honest, I'm not completely sure that my story isn't going to be rejected outright by many Elders immediately, despite the care I've taken for that not to happen, and despite my own fears.

There are many things in my culture, and I imagine in other Native cultures, that honor the past by "dishonoring" it. Tlingit people have so much complicated protocol, a traditional political and familial system that still weaves its way into contemporary politics and family life - and I love it. But it does present some difficulties for the modern Tlingit fiction writer.

Whenever you see a traditional Tlingit dance group, remember that there used to be no such thing. Everybody danced, everybody knew their clan songs, and they sang them with the clan. The need for, or the entertainment value of, a dance group would be quite strange. Being a member of one, I'm not saying there isn't a need now - but you see how things that are even now considered "traditional" become a little hairy when you talk about how traditional they really are? Yet a culture that does not change is not alive.

I was very intrigued by the inherent questions posed in the blog, because they are things I've long struggled with, and, clearly, I'm not alone in. How do you balance the razor's edge between tradition and adaptation? How do you keep a culture alive if it never changes - yet how much change makes the culture extinct? I like a friend's description of how Alaska Native cultures are in a twilight period between what they were, and what they will become... but it is still a bit bittersweet to think of.
I'm a firm believer that art will play a monumental part in the revival of Native culture in Alaska. So how do we artists, we Native people, we "real human beings" navigate this new realm built on the shoulders of our ancestors?



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