Enrichment Assimilation, part 5

Will Sarvis
7 min readMay 30, 2022

CULTURAL “AUTHENTICITY”

The United States is still such a young nation. Groups like the Sons of Norway are eager to preserve “tradition” such as the Potetlefse (potato lefse) flat bread recipe. But we know potatoes were originally a western hemisphere food. Only well after the Spanish “discovery” of the Americas did Europeans eventually get access to potatoes, tomatoes, corn (maize), and many other foodstuffs.¹ There is nothing wrong with such a “tradition,” of course, but it only goes back so far, and in this case illustrates cross-cultural influences. “Brief and hybrid” may be the easiest way to describe a great many American traditions, especially within a world historical context. Claims or pretensions toward “cultural authenticity” are another matter.

One of the more amusing results of “cultural authenticity” notions involves the particular sort of literary hoax in which someone poses as a chic ethnic writer depicting an exotic life that armchair elitists (usually white) have come to expect. This sort of writing might as well be classified parallel with travel writing literature, in which the comfortable reader seeks and finds a vicarious adventure. But everyone gets what they deserve in these hoaxes: the identity politics police have their claims to authenticity undermined, the bourgeoisie readership gets what they ask for in seeking the exotic (without sacrificing personal comfort) and by getting duped, and the hoaxer gets the first and last laughs. The hoax proves that “authenticity” is too often merely an artificial construction.

Louis Menand claimed that such hoaxes revealed writing as “a weak medium,”² but that is a serious mistake. It is not the medium that is weak; in fact, you could argue that writing is ultimately the strongest medium of communication that we possess. In this case, the weakness lies in the tenuous or untenable notion of authenticity. If the would-be weak medium of writing were the culprit, then music and art would be even weaker. After all, can anyone tell a musician’s “cultural background” by listening to the music he plays? The pictures she paints? Of course not. Yo-Yo Ma makes the cello sound beautiful, but so does Clyde Thomas Shaw (Scottish-American, Audubon Quartet) and his son Jeremiah Shaw (half-Chinese, Telegraph Quartet). Some American Indians get irritated when whites criticize them for making “non-Indian” art.³ But who is to tell anyone what to create or not? What is supposedly authentic or not? Too many notions of cultural authenticity come from racial thinking, and racial thinking often leads to racism or romantic stereotypes. Genuinely “authentic” reality is so much more enjoyable and refreshing.

The U.S. is hardly the only place to invent “authentic” culture: Sir David Wilkie’s 1829 portrait King George IV, during his 1822 visit to Scotland. In their 1983 book, The Invention of Tradition, Eric Hobsbawm and Terence Ranger demonstrated how the “traditional” Scottish kilt was actually a comparatively recent English invention from the late 1700s. The English encroachment on Scotland likely fostered an enhanced (and self-conscious) Scottish identity, including claims of the “ancient” kilt. (Wikimedia Commons image).

Like inherently false claims of “cultural appropriation,” declarations of “cultural authenticity,” often thinly mask power plays by the Culture Police announcing the rules. These sorts of ideas of what makes culture authentic are usually static, frozen in some bygone, idyllic time before the modern world “corrupted” whatever traditional culture. Many contemporary American Indians have noticed this, observing that tourists from the white mainstream expect “museum pieces.” This was the term a former student of mine (with Tlingit and Klamath ancestors) called it. That inspired me to share with her a joke I’ll repeat here. This is my favorite Indian joke. In 2001 I heard Lummi artist Pauline Hillaire tell this story about her father, Joseph Raymond Hillaire, a gifted carver. During 1962, Joseph Hillaire was carving totem poles for the Seattle World’s Fair. One day he was working when one of the white observers said, “Hey, you’re using a steel chisel. Your ancestors didn’t have steel.” Mr. Hillaire paused for a moment and quietly replied, “That’s true. My ancestors used wood and stone tools, but they also had common sense.”⁴

Native culture, like all culture, has always been evolutionary. As any archaeologist will readily attest, Indians naturally changed their technology over time, and certainly long before Europeans arrived. In fact, tool and artifact types are exactly the sort of evidence that helps archaeologists create their various chronological eras, such as Paleoindian, Archaic, Hopewellian, Woodland, and the Mississippian periods.

Voluntary acculturation among Native Americans goes back to the earliest contact with Europeans, that much-decried historical meeting place. There is an endless list of historic examples and, in fact, the cultural mixing continues to this day. So, to name some obvious cases, just consider things like the horse, firearm, or iron cooking pot.

Not only did Plains Indians readily adapt to the Spanish horse, but in short order became some of the most skilled mounted warriors the world has ever seen. Imagine galloping at twenty-five miles per hour without a saddle, hanging on to a horse’s neck with your legs, and firing arrows at an enemy beneath that horse’s rhythmically lunging neck. That requires tremendous skill. Mounted warrior skill among Plains Indians found a horse husbandry counterpart among tribes like the Nez Perce, who became famous horse breeders. The horse changed practically everything for mid-continent Indians alone. Distance was the Plains Indians’ greatest enemy, the Kiowa writer N. Scott Momaday once observed, and how the horse miraculously improved upon that.⁵

Also consider how silver and sheep changed Navajo culture. After introduction of Spanish forging techniques, the Navajo began producing some of the most exquisite silver and turquoise jewelry the world has ever seen. They also became skilled shepherds and weavers in a magnificent textile tradition unknown before the Spanish arrived.⁶ Obviously very terrible things accompanied these sorts of cultural innovations. Any student of American history should be familiar with the tragic stories of fatal diseases, violent deaths, and forced relocations following loss of land, resources, and entire ways of life. We should all know those stories. But we should also note the cultural flowerings that came out of these disruptive cultural clashes.

Consider contemporary American Indian contributions to science, a topic mainly overlooked by those romanticizing natives via neo-Rousseauan distortions, or by those claiming “native identity” while ignoring their own Caucasian ancestors and thereby practicing artificial, self-conscious culture.

Navajo biologist Dr. Wilfred F. Denetclaw wrote in 1999, “I believe American Indians can be productive in the sciences and can use their unique cultural background to provide new insight into current problems in science.”⁷ Denetclaw well appreciated the serious challenges posed by cultural and social divides between western and native worldviews. But he concluded, “An understanding of one’s tribal values and teachings is an asset to meeting this challenge.”⁸ Denetclaw’s philosophy is epitomized in his own career, as well as that of the late physicist Fred Begay.

Dr. Fred Begay (aka Young), was a Navajo-Ute man who never finished high school, nevertheless earned a doctorate in nuclear physics from University of New Mexico, and went to work for Los Alamos Labs. In 1978, the BBC made a documentary about him called The Long Walk of Fred Young.⁹ This was back in the era of the ethno-cultural false dichotomy, when many thought Native Americans had to choose between mainstream and aboriginal cultures. Like the myth of the “vanishing race” before it, this happily turned out to be erroneous. The wealth in cross-cultural mixing seems so obvious now.¹⁰ Begay directly attributed his understanding of scientific abstract reasoning to his native worldview. He was also featured in the much more optimistic 1997 film, Dancing with Photons.¹¹ Allen A. Hauer, Dr. Begay’s colleague at Los Alamos Labs, recognized the limitations of his own conventional training in western science. Of Begay he said, “I think that Fred’s background and perspective has helped him to have that kind of intuitive feel for new concepts and new ideas that are a leap beyond the conventional.”¹² A number of other American Indian scientists exemplify the enrichment assimilation illustrated by Denetclaw and Begay.¹³

The late Dr. Fred (Young) Begay, a Navajo-Ute man with a doctorate in nuclear physics (Wikimedia Commons image).

Enrichment Assimilation is one of those facts of American history and contemporary society, whether people know it or not, appreciate it or not, fight against it or for it. Enrichment Assimilation resembles natural law in this sense. It is like syncretism in religious traditions; it is inevitable as long as a religion (or a culture) continues to survive.

See my List, “Enrichment Assimilation” for other installments in this series of excerpts from my unpublished book, Enrichment Assimilation: A Lingering American Dream, Copyright © 2019, 2022 Will Sarvis. All rights reserved.

ENDNOTES

[1] Alfred W. Crosby wrote two books detailing this massive cross-Atlantic biological exchange: Ecological Imperialism: the Biological Expansion of Europe, 900–1900, new ed. (NY: Cambridge University Pr., 2004); The Columbian Exchange: Biological and Cultural Consequences of 1492, new ed. (Westport, CT: Praeger, 2003).

[2] Louis Menand, “Faking It: Literary Hoaxes and the Ethics of Authorship,” New Yorker (Dec. 10, 2018), 73.

[3] For an interesting defiance of this cultural expectation and stereotyping, see Ryan Heinsius, “‘The Force Is With Our People’ Connects Indigenous Culture To A Galaxy Far Away,” NPR’s Morning Edition (Dec. 18, 2019).

[4] I heard Pauline Hillaire’s much-repeated story at a 2001 public address in Concrete, Washington. A tribute to her father may be found in Pauline Hillaire and Gregory P. Fields, A Totem Pole History: the Work of Lummi Carver Joe Hillaire (Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Pr., 2013).

[5] Stephen Ives, dir., The West, episode one (PBS, 1996).

[6] Arthur Woodward, Navajo Silver: A Brief History of Navajo Silversmithing (Flagstaff, AZ: Northland Pr., 1971); Kathy M’Closkey, Swept Under the Rug: a Hidden History of Navajo Weaving (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Pr., 2002).

[7] Wilfred F. Denetclaw, “Learning to be Unreasonable,” University of Washington Lunch Title Talk, March 1, 1999 (no longer available on the web, or the Wayback Machine, but retrieved on August 1, 2009 from http://mailman2.u.washington.edu/pipermail/nat_issues/1999-March/002603.html

[8] Ibid.

[9] John Angier, Executive Producer, The Long Walk of Fred Young (Boston, MA: WGBH Educational Foundation, 1979).

[10] For other indigenous scientists, see Jetty St. John, Native American Scientists: Fred Begay, Wilfred F. Denetclaw Jr., Frank C. Dukepoo, Clifton Poodry, Jerrel Yakel (Mankato, MN: Capstone Press, 1996).

[11] Beverly Morris, Producer, Dancing with Photons (Washington, DC: Corporation for Public Broadcasting, 1997)

[12] Ibid.

[13] Other examples appeared in “Celebrating Native American Heritage Month: Honoring Diversity in Science,” retrieved July 27, 2012 from Stanford University (but no longer available on the web).

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Will Sarvis

Author of Embracing Philanthropic Environmentalism and other books.