Come on, Come on, tell me if it’s “like that”…

Stand in the place where you were/now face west/think about direction/wonder why you haven’t now… -R.E.M.

 I recently read Wisdom Sits in Places by Basso, which is an ethnographic study of how the Apache see land and the stories told about land (that’s really not a fair summary, but it gives you context). As we discussed the text, several people in the class started talking about how their experiences of place were “just like” what is described in the book, but what they were describing was in fact different from what the Apache in the book were doing. The Apache saw physical places as taking on agency based on events that happened at a specific time in that place, and these places were named in ways that instantly called to mind a vivid mental picture (this isn’t a direct quote but a comparative example: “Cluster of rocks which water flows down, smoothing,” a place that might take on agency because of a story wherein a boy steals from another boy then slips on the rocks and falls to his death. Those hearing the story would then associate that lesson with that place and would carry it with them any time they thought of the place, giving that location the ability to act). This is not “just like” how people think of the arch in St. Louis when someone says “St. Louis” because one time the person went to St. Louis and saw the arch. Knowing there is an arch in a place called St. Louis doesn’t give St. Louis agency, and understanding that difference is critical if one wants to understand the Apache on their terms. 

 In the same class I presented this commercial: then asked the following question:

If we think about the importance of place, what does this advertisement get right, and what negatives does it re-inscribe? 

For some reason, the question (and my follow-ups) were poorly received, but I think there’s a lot to be unpacked here.

The ad features a man who is NOT a Native American “playing” Native American. It also plays with a very simple train of thought: “Natives love the land. Pollution is bad for the land. What if the Native American cried when we littered?”  One of the things I am fascinated about in popular culture is the way these stereotypes crop up and repeat (this commercial has been lampooned everywhere, even in the Simpsons and Family Guy).

 And certainly the core “nugget” is correct: Native Americans DO—in general—think about land (and nature) in a different way than do those who have colonized their lands. I was hoping we could unpack everything that goes wrong and how it re-inscribes either dangerous or painful misconceptions, but my classmates weren’t interested. Perhaps I’ll do all that work myself at some other point. 

But the big point I was trying to make is that the indigenous sense of “place” is not “just like” knowing X thing is in Y place so you think of Y when you hear X. That’s not even close, really. That sounds like someone who doesn’t understand attempting to map something to a construction that the person DOES understand.

 It’d be as problematic as me saying “I can kill turtles in Super Mario, so I’m an assassin!” 

Of course if I jump on someone’s head after eating a mushroom the size of my chest, it might kill him (or her).  I digress.


One Response to Come on, Come on, tell me if it’s “like that”…

  1. Nice analysis, I would have to agree with you based on my experience. Indigenous people’s sense of “place” often does involve agency – something most Westerners are still unfamiliar with since “places” are inanimate. Now, these are broad statments and there are exceptions to the rule, but in general you are correct. The problem is trying to get policy makers and resource managers to understand this version of “place”. Cultural landscape does not quite fit as it usually recognizes the place, but not the agency associated with the place.

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