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Teaching Amerindian Autohistory.

Teaching the history of Native North America is difficult. Teachers must ask students to read and to write about past peoples whose transmission of knowledge was oral and performative. The available pool of books and articles for assignment often work more as exercises in "othering" than understanding. And everyone in the classroom must find some way to engage essential questions of blood and relative ones of culture. Is there a way to teach such a course without being paralyzed by such basic ontological dilemmas? George Sioui's For an Amerindian Autohistory offers a way out. Sioui, a Wendat philosopher, calls for an approach to the writing of Native history that is rooted in certain cardinal aboriginal values, but his ideas work equally well as pedagogy. (1) To say Sioui's teachings can lead non-Native students to a Native understanding of the past and of the world would be an inappropriately essentialist interpretation of his work, but the book does force students to come to grips with alternative ways of conceiving of personhood, community, and history. Faced with teaching a course on the history of Native North America, I found Sioui's work to be helpful in finding a new kind of conceptual ground on which to base my teaching and the lessons I try to impart to my students.

Sioui's autohistory is predicated on five basic elements: (1) didacticism, (2) morality, (3) confidence, (4) acceptance, and (5) harmony. By moving away from objective observation toward subjective moralization, autohistorians are supposed to create new ways of understanding the past that speak to the needs and beliefs of their communities. To this end, after discussing the method in class, the students and I decided to constitute the seminar as a community and to create and to tell our own autohistories. We had to conduct our autohistories by speaking to members of the community we chose to represent--families, neighbors, and friends--and had to store all of the information we gathered in our heads. Nothing could be written. Web sites, chat rooms, and all things hi-tech were strictly verboten. The point of such strictures was to force students to rely on what is probably the tool that is least tapped by today's curricula--memory. I also made a point of not telling anyone in my department what was going on.

Autohistory must teach, Sioui says. The education comes not from exposing students to pages and pages of historiographical debate but from choosing what they believe is right in reference to themselves and their community, in this case their classmates. A method based on interpreting what is inherently right has no time for positivism or objectivism, nor for anything post- this or that, because arguing what one believes involves righteousness more so than theory. For this reason autohistorians must imprint their audiences' value systems. It is a scholarship of the heart.

Didacticism, at least according to everything I have heard and read about modern teaching in primary, secondary, and postsecondary education, runs counter to the way many of us have been taught to teach. To be didactic is to believe one has a truth worth hearing. In my class the assumption that the speaker had the floor and that others were there to listen granted each speaker a certain pride of place not possible in general seminar discussions where relativity prevails. They held the floor once they spoke and had to maintain their hold with each word that passed from their mouths. As diverse as the class was, certain truths emerged from the students' use of didacticism. Our lives take on a much different shape when placed in the context of grandparents, great-grandparents, and children yet to be born. We might wish away the tragedies of our lives, but to do so would be to deny who we are. Despite our fractured pasts, we are all whole people.

Effective didacticism hinges on morals. When I use the term "morals" I mean neither Moses's commandments nor the teachings of Deganawidah. I mean it in the most generic sense--the fundamental beliefs that shape what we each see as what is right and what is wrong. In the class each student's morals began as privately held beliefs, but over time the community developed its own morality, which took into account the myriad idiosyncrasies of the whole. The result was a sometimes disagreeable but mostly supportive network of interested and involved people that established a high level of expectation and equally high knack for delivering. Each week our community was remade as the autohistories of the week revealed new and different parts of the internal and constitutive workings of our community. This gave the students a greater sense of the depth and complexity of the world they inhabit.

By buttressing didacticism with a moral imperative, speakers challenged listeners to absorb information in a visceral as opposed to a critical sort of way. For this reason, each student's autohistory was never questioned. Instead, listeners evaluated presentations by what they felt. Tears, laughter, frustration, and anger flowed freely and enabled each student to see that the fact that they had either mystery half-siblings, an ethnic origin that was being challenged by their immigration from a faraway place, or just eccentric parents made them a part of a broader community, as opposed to their earlier feelings of standing outside in one way or another. Laying one's sense of morality, the past, and the truth on the line for all to hear is a frightening experience, but because each autohistory resonated with the community of the class, each speaker gained confidence through the acceptance of his/her story. Confidence also came from having one's past accepted for what it was and seeing that it mattered to others as they incorporated insights from the autohistories they had heard into their own. What resulted was not fake esteem building but a serious recognition of their abilities to create, to speak, to be heard, and to matter.

In due course each student who enrolled in the class became a part of the community. To an extent all classes work on one level or another as a community. In this class, however, the normal affinities of a classroom community gave way to an overpowering sense of actual community that reached beyond three hours on a Thursday morning in the fifth floor of Watson Hall. Whenever acceptance edged into submitting to some sort of majority will, dissenters reared their heads to argue that consensus and hegemony are two words for the same thing. The definition of consensus that emerged from the class derived from our readings in Native history and governance and worked because it instilled harmony. Because the autohistorical experiment could only work if everyone was on the same side, students in the majority were always solicitous of compromising with dissenters. The most impressive achievement of consensus and harmony came though discussions that involved grading. The class came to an agreement that they would work together instead of in competition to debate and discuss readings and to reach a larger sense of what the course was about. At each step students expressed unease with the concept of grading them as a class rather than as individuals, particularly those with their sights set on law school, but through discussion and compromise fears were eased, qualms were settled, and we ventured further and further into unmarked territory. The final consisted of a one-hour written examination followed by two hours of seminar discussion about what they had written.

Increasingly the course, as most courses do, focused on discussing Native history to help the students figure out who they were; not in the sense of the Native, the non-Native, or the other, but in the sense of being sojourners in a place that has been inhabited for millennia. Coyote, as Thomas King has written, believed colonization was in many ways a history of unabashed impoliteness on the colonizers' part. (2) By listening to other people's autohistories the students learned how to act appropriately in their own lives and toward each other, which will hopefully ripple across the nation as they each head their own way after convocation.

If all of this sounds a little too warm and fuzzy, the scholarly content of the class was inspiring. Students deconstructed readings along traditional lines of sources, scrutinized arguments, and interrogated methodologies, but they also brought to bear their own understanding of autohistory to recast old histories in new lights. Having imbibed an autohistorical ethic over the course of the year, it took each student just about to the middle of page six of Tom Flanagan's First Nations? Second Thoughts to realize he was writing for people who still believe in colonization and that being Canadian did not necessarily entail buying into the fantasies and fears of the settler mentality. (3)

As professional historians, our book and article manuscripts are always peer reviewed. Editors need to know if what we write is sound and accepted by our community. As colleagues we need to know whether or not we are using proper sources, methods, and language. One has to earn respect in our profession. In autohistory respect is something that is more lost than gained. Everyone is considered equal in integrity and legitimacy. Given the social compact that ties autohistorians to their communities, they offer a scholarship of lessons, not citations. Such trust predisposes listeners to take autohistorians as people who have something to say. The confidence with which autohistorians can approach their communities facilitates the acceptance of the relationship that brought speaker and listener together in the first place. It is an ethic that can work wonders in the seminar room. Unfortunately, many of the students felt that what they were learning had no application in what they consider to be the real world because autohistorical principles are at such odds with what they experience as citizens of Canada. I think they sold themselves short on that one, but only time will tell.


(1.) Georges Sioui, For an Amerindian Autohistory (Montreal: McGill-Queen's University Press, 1992).

(2.) Thomas King, One Good Story, That One (Toronto: HarperCollins, 1993).

(3.) Tom Flanagan, First Nations? Second Thoughts (Montreal: McGill-Queen's University Press, 2000).
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Author:Carson, James Taylor
Publication:The American Indian Quarterly
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jan 1, 2003
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