Introduction (Draft)

I'm soliciting feedback on a draft for my intro. In footnotes, I mention that 1) all names of people are pseudonyms and 2) Goodman’s use of past tense here indicates how even a careful researcher and a document published by Sinte Gleska University can relegate native cultures to the past rather than admit their “survivance” in the present. For the sake of simplicity, I retain his past tense but work against it in my own characterizations of Lakota culture.

Let me know what you think!

“though the principles of symbolism are not reducible to sheerly physical terms… the meanings cannot be conceived by empirical organisms except by the aid of a sheerly physical dimension”
--- Kenneth Burke, “Definition of Man”

We slept most of the day before Jim Jacobs came back to talk with us. The night before, we walked the trail up Mato Paha, or Bear Butte, an ancient, granite laccolith rising 1200 feet from the high plains like a lone advance scout of the Black Hills, some six miles distant. Rising as it does so distant from the other Black Hills, Mato Paha is extremely exposed, almost isolated from its sisters. It is truly a unique mountain and it serves as a spiritual site not only for Lakota, but also for many other plains cultures. We were at Mato Paha during June, one of the holiest months of the Lakota calendar. Jim was there as a member of the Lakota nation to participate in ceremonies marking the end of a three-month procession of spiritual renewal and rededication. According to Ronald Goodman (1992) “the Lakota lived between stories and symbols written in the sky and mirrored on the earth” (9) and traditional Lakota still gather at sites around in the Black Hills between the spring equinox and summer solstice, “synchronizing their movements to the motions of the sun along the elliptic” (2). In other words, traditional Lakota culture, like many other cultures around the globe, teaches that the heavens and the earth mirror one another. In this view, the Black Hills, as a geographic area, mirrors that part of the sky dominated by the sun during spring. Places such as Mato Paha have stellar analogues in Lakota constellations so that to map the heavens is to map a mirror image of the earth and vice versa. As a matter of religious practice, traditional Lakota may mirror the path of the sun as it journeys through these constellations by embarking on a ceremonial procession through the Black Hills. Mato Paha, according to both Goodman and Jim Jacobs, was usually the culmination of a three-month series of ceremonies designed to balance earthly and spiritual matters.

This practice bears a certain resonance with Burke’s quote that opens this introduction. The sheerly physical dimensions of land and sky, the physical correlation between geography and astronomy are necessary preconditions for the symbolic tapestry of traditional Lakota culture. Likewise, as a ceremony some may partake in for the benefit of the whole culture, the physical movements through these dimensions is necessary for the Lakota, as “empirical organisms,” to conceive meaning in areas of life beyond the ceremony itself. For traditional Lakota, as it is true for many peoples, the physical land is important not for what it represents and not because it stands as a symbol for something else. Rather, it is the opposite: the land is important because without it there can be no symbolic. Without the physical movement across the land concurrent with the movement of the sun across the sky, traditional Lakota would fail in the very real and important re-creation of a symbolic order. The journey across the Black Hills no more represents the sun’s journey as any reading of a text represents the process used to write it. Both movements are necessary and, to some degree, mirror one another, but they cannot be said to be representative in any true sense of the word. Rather, each depends upon the other: place and symbol, hills and stars, reading and writing, stitched together in time and space. This re-creation should not be understood as a return to an original or a static form of mimesis. Rather, because of the double movement involved, this is a dynamic re-creation that affirms change and remains at least partially open to what cannot be captured or contained within any iteration of the order itself.

This helps me understand some of why the Lakota have yet to accept any monetary settlement to the breaking of the Fort Laramie treaties by the United States, a settlement now worth over $570 million. Their denial of the money officially rests on their belief that one cannot sell sacred land and we should respect that position. But when viewed from the position that to accept that money would be to enter their land into the symbolic order of economics, thus eradicating the very foundation of their culture, we might better understand this decision despite the rampant poverty, violence, despair, unemployment, and other social problems, that the money might help alleviate on each of the Lakota reservations and in Lakota communities across the upper Midwest. Rather than the inverse double movements of land and sky, accepting a monetary representation of the land replaces the entire equation with a foreign order.

This raises a whole set of important questions for rhetoric and composition studies as well as other areas of inquiry that focus on the relationships between place and the symbolic – areas such as geography, environmental sociology, and ecocriticism. Much of this, I argue, has been distracted by an endless play of signifiers, focusing too much on language and symbols and not enough on the physical structures upon which those symbols depend. While I do not claim to have discovered a “ground” upon which we might rest our postmodern feet, I do claim to make some further progress in understanding how our discourses literally matter in the world. If we can only know the world through discourse and discourse is just an endless play of arbitrary signifiers, then we are fundamentally cut off from creation. But such an extreme version of postmodernism has come under scrutiny in the past decade and more and more scholarship is turning to the material world and the ways it is involved in making meaning every bit as much as social material. This leads me to inquire into material places: are they also involved in the production of meaning and, if so, how? And what might that mean for research into writing or for the teaching of writing?


sh-ron said...

I was recently reintroduced to some of these concepts in a part of a google book:

The moral imagination: the art and soul of building peace‎
by John Paul Lederach
Political Science

There is something very beautiful about this idea of using the physical earth as a context for a flexible frame reference in what is such a changing world. I think what you have to share is so relevent not only about the cultures you discuss but to everyone.
I am starting to raise my awareness not my in personal life and the rhythms I follow with the morning dawn chorus of the birds, and recognising our relationship. Professionally I work with children in art studios. Children's thinking is so constructed around drawings of many flowers and rainbows etc, volcanoes and larva etc, and of course family and friends. They do not dwell on buying bigger houses, chasing better jobs with higher pay, these things that can be so spiritually empty. This is something I would like to develop a working theory around. Children also have so much to offer people when we listen.
I do think you would need to speak the language of beauty, to potray the beauty found in this culture as it is so intrinsic to what I feel you seem to be saying.


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Not always theoretical... not even always academic.. but always written..