Narratives are stories. Most narratives we study involve an ordered sequence of events, stylized language, and developed characters that communicate a message artistically. Narratives and narrativity (telling stories) may be defining characteristics of humanity.
Generally, narratives are defined as stories with a patterned series of episodes including a beginning, middle, and end, and told in particular situations for particular purposes. Henry Glassie summarizes: "Stories begin and end in conversations. . . . Stories are narratives artfully ordered to do the serious work of entertainment, pleasing their listeners in the present, then carrying them into the future with something to think about. . . . a story is a plot, surrounded by words, set in a situation, followed by functions" (1982, 39, 40). Considerations and definitions of narrative sometimes inspire intense debate over the use, meaning, and boundaries of the term.
Many scholars problematize the notion of narrative in terms of its artfulness, social setting, and relation to history. For instance, Paul Ricoeur discusses the implications of the reciprocity between narrativity and temporality (1980). Narrative and time are intricately intermingled, influencing each other continuously, he says, thus calling into question some attitudes about history. When narratives are rendered as texts, they are bounded and removed from their context, rendering them lifeless or limited.
Richard Bauman summarizes the importance of narratives as situated events and explains the distinction between literary and anthropologically based notions of stories and texts: "Literary theorists occasionally look outward from the texts toward the relationship between narratives and the events they recount, whereas anthropologists tend to look in the other direction, toward the relationship between narratives and the events in which they are performed" (1986, 3). Narration is thus a moment of a "mode of communication . . . like all human activity, [it] is situated, its form, meaning, and functions rooted in culturally defined scenes or events – bounded segments of the flow of behavior and experience that constitute meaningful contexts for action, interpretation, and evaluation" (1986, 3). Because of its situation as emergent and in flux, narrative is part of a performance event that should be understood according to local knowledge, terms, and contexts (Bauman 1986).
The purpose of narratives is generally understood in a classic sense as "equipment for living," as Kenneth Burke suggests of all art: "Art forms like ‘tragedy’ or ‘comedy’ or ‘satire’ would be treated as equipments for living, that size up situations in various ways and in keeping with correspondingly various attitudes" (1973, 304). Burke implies an understanding of narrative as intimately connected to "various attitudes," which I will refer to as worldview. Like narratives and time, worldview also shifts and changes. Such shifts both influence and find representation in narratives. As culture, tradition, and worldview are dynamic, fluid processes, so are narratives.
Gerald Vizenor localizes narrative theory to Native American storytelling: "Native American Indian stories are told and heard in motion, imagined and read over and over on a landscape that is never seen at once" (1989, xiii). As "creative productions," tribal narratives are always changing, says Vizenor. Nevertheless, they involve artful, characteristic elements or tropes, such as the trickster and humor. Vizenor and others recognize the fluidity and flexibility of form and content as appropriate because of the dynamic nature of life itself. The meaning of narratives should likewise be considered emergent and in flux, to be interpreted according to local understanding, based on explanations, or observation of processes and institutions within the community.
Narratives are adapted to a particular audience, as Elaine Jahner affirms as characteristic of stories: "Fortunately, the stories are not such fragile structures that they need the aid of scholars and interpreters to maintain their vitality. Their existence is a protean one, adapting to time and place . . . tales embody artistic and moral energies that direct the trajectory of change. In the tales we can perceive the people’s motivations and sources of psychological renewal, which lead to new ways of living" (1983, 11).
Personal Experience Narratives
Virtuosic performances of artful narratives are not as common as what folklorist Sandra K. Dolby terms "personal experience narratives." This genre allows for symbolic expression of values: "The advantage of the personal narrative is that the storyteller chooses the specific situation (plot) that aptly expresses a covertly held value" (Dolby 19). As with the more artful narratives, we choose and construct personal experience narratives in order to express and learn values in daily life (Dolby 19-20). We all express values and worldview in these narratives, along with processes and details of our life journeys, to help solidify our own interpretations of our life stories and to help relate to and understand each other.
When I did fieldwork among Native Americans, many of the consultants with whom I worked told personal experience narratives. Because the process of cultural renewal in which they were involved is so important and life-changing, these consultants were eager to help me and my audience understand the process of living in a "good way" as a Native. As an example of this concern for the audience who might hear their words about being Native, one consultant explicitly addressed the process of fieldwork and scholarship during our interview:
So it’s really great to be able to share these kinds of things with non-Native people that never really lived the culture, and share. Then there’s more sensitivity to the culture. That’s really good that you’re able to do this, and pass it on to the non-Native people that you’re going to be meeting while you’re writing your dissertation, and then teaching afterwards then too, yeah. That’s really great. And this is where I feel that the Native and non-Native people are going to be able to get back in harmony and also get back to the natural things that we need and to be able to get back to our Mother Earth and be able to get together and be able to have feasts, and understand what’s happening. Because they say that Native people are going to be advisors, are going to be able to guide what’s going to be happening within the years to come, and that the Native people are going to be able to help to get everything back in harmony again, the way it was many centuries ago. And that’s the only way we’re going to be able to survive, as a people. And so I’m glad you’re doing this. And I think you’re going to be one of the liaisons. The liaisons of the people.
Like many consultants, Wabagoni expresses her values and worldview quite explicitly in the context of teaching non-Natives about how to live. Additionally, most consultants also discuss the process and details of their own personal journey to enacting a Native identity. They adopt such a focus and intuitively select personal experience narratives as a communicative mode in order to help solidify their own interpretation of their life story and to help outsiders understand their culture. This awareness of an audience helps frame the whole interview as a narrative performance as well.
Though I did not solicit any particular type of narratives for my interviews, nor did I consciously direct the content or focus of the interviews, the identity and experience of being Native American was a clear focus of most interviews. Each consultant shaped the interview for my project, which they understood generally from having known me for some time before the interviews. Whether sub-consciously or intentionally, they chose to communicate via narratives that teach about themselves and their culture. Since narratives communicate symbolically, they invite interpretation.
Stories are an effective, traditional way for humans to share and affirm ideas, issues, and values. When asked to explain their culture, many people will tell a story, as in the case of Ojibway writer and storyteller Basil Johnston,3 who has written numerous collections of stories of his people. He notes why he believes stories are so important:
If the Native Peoples and their heritage are to be understood, it is their beliefs, insights, concepts, ideals, values, attitudes, and codes that must be studied. And there is, I submit, no better way of gaining that understanding than by examining native ceremonies, rituals, songs, dances, prayers, and stories. For it is in ceremony, ritual, song, dance, and prayer that the sum total of what people believe about life, being, existence, and relationships are [sic.] symbolically expressed an articulated; as it is in story, fable, legend, and myth that fundamental understandings, insights, and attitudes toward life and human conduct, character, and quality in their diverse forms are embodied and passed on. (1990, 7)
Storytellers choose those narratives (from their repertoire) appropriate to the occasion, to communicate symbolically their message. They offer specific, symbolic examples of their culture or worldview, or "the sum total of what people believe about life, being, existence, and relationships," as Johnston says. The field-collected narratives I discuss are similarly representative of the worldview and culture of Ojibwe people in the Eastern Upper Peninsula of Michigan. They are discrete instances of symbolic cultural expressions.
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