Tag Archives: News

Empty Tributes and Avoiding Change

A recent discussion concerning cultural appropriation has identified an interesting question that needs pondering. Should it be considered an honor to have something attributed to a group, even if the thing in question is not a traditional piece of the group’s culture? Why, therefore, would a group of people be irritated or offended by such an honor, such a tribute? Upon pondering this, another question is arises. Who does the tribute actually benefit – the recipient or the one bestowing the tribute?

The tribute that generated these questions concerns the technique of chain-plying, a yarn spinning technique believed to have existed throughout the world prior to modern history. In the United States, this technique gained the name of “Navajo plying” because the indigenous people, the Diné (or commonly known as the Navajo), were known to use this technique in their weaving. It was not necessarily a traditional spinning technique for them, but rather a way of finishing a woven product. Therefore, it begs the question that wouldn’t referring to the spinning technique as Navajo-plying be incorrect or an empty tribute?

A tribute that is empty, not directly associated with any reason to honor or give acclaim, has inherent problems. Primarily, paying tribute without there being any real justification is often the result of a desire to feel better about how one has treated another. In simple terms, a tribute of this kind is made from a desire to make amends for past and/or present actions ill in nature. Therefore an empty tribute benefits the one bestowing rather than the recipient.  Does this tendency derive from racism? Is it merely a byproduct of colonialism? Can it simply be attributed to the notion that another culture is exotic and desirable? Or is the tendency simply paternalistic in nature – the notion that an honor is being bestowed on a lesser society who should be grateful for the tribute?

Throughout history, society has experienced the clash of cultures. It has also experienced the blending of cultures. Scholars now consider how the cultural blending of the past affects the people of the present. In particular, the question is raised as to whether the cultural blending of the past provides equanimity or discrimination for current members of the society. These considerations, and subsequent calls for change, have caused their own clashes of culture. In recent times tributes, particularly in the form of statues and monuments, have become the catalyst for heated debates and deadly violence. While these tributes may have originated out of differing intent than the empty tribute describe above, when they are challenged the reaction is quite the same. While is surprises few that challenges to statues and monuments associated with historical identity generate conflict, it may surprise many that something as seemingly simple as what people call a spinning technique, generates similar conflict. The heated debate over, and attempt to correct the name of a spinning technique highlights issue: change often causes someone to feel a sense of loss or inconvenience. One would think that by changing to a more universally understood name, one which is of greater descriptive nature and is already in general use, no one would feel a loss. At most, only a small inconvenience might be felt as an individual becomes accustomed to a different name. However, even when change benefits another individual or group, and where the change is of minor inconvenience, the change can generate a sense of loss for some. It can even generate a fear of greater loss. Therefore avoiding change, particularly when it means holding onto empty tributes, seems reasonable to many.

 

Additional Materials:

The Age of Homespun: Objects and Stories in the Creation of and American Myth by Laurel Thatcher Ulrich

Deculturalization and the Struggle for Equality: A Brief History of the Education of the Dominated Cultures in the United States by Joel Spring

Video blog on terms used in fiber arts by Abby Franquemont

 

 

 

 

Historiography: How the Story is Written

In the modern world of minute-by-minute news coverage, it is easy to assume that history is being recorded both comprehensively and accurately. One may even think that the role of the historian is passé and all that is needed for the modern world is the analyst who will try to make sense out of current events. Even in a world where the events of the day are documented, and where social media can turn our most mundane activities into a historical sketch that we can share with all of our cyber friends, the role of the historian is crucial. It may even be more crucial than ever before because of the sheer volume of data that must now be shifted through in order to create a comprehensive, yet pertinent, story.

Accuracy in historical record has always been important to historians, but it has not been nearly as important as the story. In the days in which history was borrowed from others in order to bolster a rising nation’s image, accuracy was often less important than fostering the image that a new empire was ancient and eternal in origin. A good example of this is found with the Roman Empire, which having risen in power desired an historical record that would magnify its greatness rather than highlight its youth. Throughout history, political entities as well as powerful individuals have sought to bolster their images by creating histories that connect them to other prestigious historical events, periods, and reigns. By likening themselves to others who were dynamic, successful, dominant, and strong, they create an image of grandeur that is only partially based on the events of their own time and of their own making.

As technology and the availability of the written record evolved over the centuries, it became harder to use the history of others as a means in which one’s own history could be created. Even before the printing press, some historians began comparing their own region’s historical journey with that of their neighbors. In some cases, as with the historian Tacitus, the neighbor was heralded for its purity and simplicity in contrast to the corruption at home. In other cases, the neighbor was villainized in an attempt to deflect attention away from unpopular home-state policy. In either situation, the history of others was borrowed, no longer as a means to explain where a political state had come from, but rather to explain how the home-state compared to others. This trend created an interesting phenomenon in the writing of history. No longer was it simply good enough to extoll the greatness of one’s own past, but now it was acceptable, and even expected to criticize the neighbor as a means of exhausting oneself. By making the neighbor seem less noble or even villainous, the historian could create an even more illustrious history of the home-state.

In the not so distant past, historians were at the whim and will of powerful men who could finance the historical pursuit of the scholar. Modern technology has changed this to some extent. Scholarly history may still be contingent on research grants made possible by powerful institutions and individuals, but technology has made everyone who uses the internet a historian, or at least a historical participant. No longer is it only the famous, powerful, or well-connected who get recorded. Some individuals may only be contributors of data, whereas others may add more significantly to the record of daily events. In this world of high speed technology and vast data collection, history is being recorded more thoroughly than ever before, but that doesn’t mean that the record is any more accurate. Often, history is being recorded in very inaccurate ways and by people with little to no understanding of the ramifications this has on both the people of today as well as the historians of tomorrow. In the race to beat the ‘other guys’ to the best story, accuracy, once again, is secondary to the story being told.

Modern historians bound by ethical parameters of historical accuracy, try to share a story that is comprehensive, and as unbiased as possible. They are taught to question sources and present a full picture of an event, a person, or a period of time. In some cases, they are even taught to use good writing skills in order to make the story enjoyable to read. They are taught to recognize that history is not always pleasant, but it can always be of value, if even to only a few. At times, history can be a story of valor, bravery, and patriotic glory. At other times, history can be just the opposite. The modern historian may write a tale that makes some readers uncomfortable, but the job of the historian is to write a comprehensive and pertinent story rather than the myths and propaganda so many others are determined to write.