0.1 – Feather Folktale Pt. 1 – Introducing Featherfolk

Posted on September 15, 2010

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Featherfolk, a commentary on Aboriginal history, is a work in progress.

Feather Folktale

This is a personal book.

In a world where a dry tone and an impersonal style is often superficially equated with scholastic objectivity, for me to write personally might seem to risk not being taken seriously.  Well, I’ll accept that risk, because dry and impersonal writing just looks like bad writing to me, and I know of no sufficient excuse for deliberately manufacturing an unreadable book.

As for objectivity, my experience (and considerable scholarship by persons other than myself) indicates it is nothing more than an illusion anyway.  People are not cameras and cannot act like cameras, because people have motivations, hormones, fears, clubs they want to join, sandwiches they want to eat, attractive people they want to kiss on the ear.  The self is a concept defined differently by every person on the planet.  All of us speak from a single viewpoint, from an inner “I”, from the first person singular.

But if human beings are intrinsically subjective, then the use of  impersonal and “objective” language in scholarly works must be regarded as nothing more than pomp and circumstance, like a solemn British judge donning his wig and robes.  Objectivity is a rhetorical device.  It is a way to make a sale, a way to convince the customer of your sincerity and disinterest.  It is a pretense assumed for the purpose of persuasion.   Sven Lindqvist says, “The omission of all that is personal makes the scientific “self” into a fiction lacking any equivalent in reality.”[1]

Objectivity is a lie.

As a pretense of truth, it is a damned lie.

Nor do I believe that empathy clouds the issue.  As humans we are sensory and social animals, with nerves to feel pain and delight, with empathy to ascertain the pain and delight of others.  Empathy is a socio-sensory device useful for navigating the social environment, just as vision and touch is useful for navigating the physical environment.  The human world is inevitably social, which is why as a species we have developed empathy.  To travel the social and human world without empathy, is to travel blind.  It is a lack of empathy, if anything, which clouds the issue.

I don’t mean to say that we all must join hands with Sob Sister Sadie and think positive thoughts about one another.  I am simply pointing out that empathy is more or less a necessary tool for scholars studying the human world, just as vision is more or less a necessary tool for scholars studying the sky.  Without a measure of empathy, humanity can never be understood except as an abstract bundle of statistics.  There is a use, I suppose, for blind astronomers, and a use, I suppose, for historians and sociologists without empathy.  But before I hired either I would have to take a long close look at their resumes.

So pardon my empathy, gentlemen—and ladies, too.

This book is an act of passionate, not dispassionate, scholarship, a feather-folktale in scholarly garb.  It is about Aboriginal people and civilization, about history and culture, about education and racism.  It also tells the story—in broad outline—of the Aboriginal people of Canada.

History shapes and is the subject-matter of much of my argument.  But I will invoke any area of knowledge that I think might contribute to understanding, not the least being personal experience.  I have learned by living, not just by reading, after all.

To salt and spice the narrative (I am by nature a storyteller) I will resort to anything—anecdote, irony, illustration, metaphor, poetry and whatnot—that might be useful in making my point.  If matters are getting too earnest, then sometimes you bring in the clowns. Raven, the folk hero and trickster of the Northwest Coast, teaches, alters the meaning and shape of the world, but clowns and plays the fool as well.  Expect some of that.

I want the book to be useful both to Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people.  It is offered with good will, to contribute (perhaps) to understanding.


[1] “Exterminate All the Brutes”, 1996, The New Press, NY, 104.

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