Wednesday, March 29, 2006

Against tribalism

The Alabama-Coushatta Tribes live on Texas' oldest Indian reservation. On a grade school field trip there, I remember learning an odd thing: the ceremonial dances we saw the Indians perform were not the tribe's native dances, because none were remembered. They had to learn these dances from Oklahoma Indians. The tribe's web site confirms that the performances were created as a response to a "boom in tourism" in the early 1960s.

alabama-coushatta indian
Performer in "authentic Tribal Dance Square," Alabama-Coushatta reservation, c. 1965.

A persistent critic of heritage tourism, David Lowenthal has recently written,

Each group claims its 'own' history and heritage, insisting that only a Native American can know what it was like to have been Indian, only an African American to have been black, only a Jew an ancient Israelite. Ancestral mystique determines how legacies are divided, whose legends are heard, how and to whom heritage is displayed. This is politically correct, but practically wrong - wrong because we are all multiply mixed, wrong because ancestral pasts cannot be possessed anyway. To say 'my ancestors, the Gauls', or 'my forebears, the Athenians', or 'my people, the Africans', makes a statement not about them but about us; these Gauls, Athenians, Africans are not actual progenitors but presentist emblems of ancestry. 'Claims that "we have always been a people" actually are appeals to become a people, appeals not grounded in history but rather, attempts to create history.'

Creating history is a fraught enterprise. 'Who has the right to frame and interpret the past of others?' The implication is that no one has such a right. But we all have a stake in each other's history. No 'past of others' is truly distinct from our own. All pasts are those of others and ourselves. Nobody 'owns' a past whose interpretation is their exclusive privilege. The real question is 'not which past should count as ours but why any past should count as ours', since most past events and actions did not happen to and were not done by us. 'The history we study is never our own; it is always the history of people who were in some respects like us and in others different.'

Thanks to Ralph Luker for the link.

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