Thursday, September 29, 2011

On the origins of "giving back"

It's a good idea to differentiate the "giving back" under discussion here from the "gift of culture" exemplified by certain humanities agencies. And good, also, to ask about the origins of this "giving back."

I recall my surprise and pleasure at reading a review by Loyal Jones, nearly 30 years ago, of a documentary vinyl 2-LP set that Ken George and I recorded. It was published in 1983 by the University of North Carolina Press and featured singing, preaching, praying, witnessing, and storytelling from a community in Virginia's northern Blue Ridge Mountains. Jones, then director of Berea College's Appalachian Center, pointed out that although this enterprise had been funded in part by the National Endowment for the Humanities, it was in fact the reverse of the usual humanities effort. Instead of bringing the light of high culture to the less well educated, as Jones characterized most humanities initiatives, the recording brought the powerful expressive culture of a less formally educated group to a university press audience. Another way of looking at it is that the university-educated world was offered a gift from a group of people who represented something that the former world was unaware of, did not have, and might possibly learn something from. That both Greil Marcus and Dave Marsh put the recording on their Ten Best Albums of the Year list suggests that they thought the general public might learn something too.

For Jones, what might be learned were Appalachian values and virtues, a subject he spoke on often. Modesty was one of them. He recalled that when Halley's Comet reappeared in 1986, a reporter from Washington looking to interview someone who'd remember the last time the comet passed by, in 1910, came to the mountains of western North Carolina, where she thought she might find a suitable nonagenarian. By happenstance she turned up at Jones's homeplace, where his aged grandmother still lived. After announcing the subject, she asked Jones's grandmother if she remembered Halley's Comet from 1910. "Well, yes," Mrs. Jones replied, slowly. "And did you see it?" the reporter excitedly asked. "Well, yes, but only from a distance." Modesty, or humility, is one of the virtues that university humanists might learn from a people who were educated in their homes and communities to know and respect tradition, even if they did not always follow its example.

Recognition of this reversal is, perhaps, the origin of one impulse toward cultural anthropology. Why study the "other" otherwise? But giving back to the other, reciprocity, does not and did not necessarily follow. Experience suggests that it usually originates through personal encounters, personal relationships and friendships. Here is a little-known example. In 1881 Alice Cunningham Fletcher made a trip to the Sioux reservation as a representative of the Peabody Museum, to live there and study them. While living there she befriended Francis LaFlesche, an Omaha who became not only her principal consultant and co-author but, later, her adopted son. Folklorists, anthroplogists and ethnomusicologists know that she was the first woman president of the American Folklore Society, and a pioneer among the 19th century ethnographers collecting and interpreting Native American music. But her work in "giving back" is not well known. In fact, she developed an institution for making small loans to Native Americans to help them buy their own land and houses. One of those loans helped put the first Native American woman through medical school.

This is largely a lost history, the history of "giving back," though why that is so is not clear to me. It would be wise to recover it if we can. Fletcher, it turns out, stands as a relatively early example of a group of women researchers with a social conscience and a sense of social responsibility, whose reputations suffered greatly in the hands of later academic historians. Fletcher's efforts at aiding Native Americans are characterized today as attempts to Americanize them, a "grievous error in the administration of Native American lands and peoples" (according to a Smithsonian Institution author, at Ethnomusicologists consider it unfortunate that the Omaha songs she collected were published with Western harmonization, added to them by the musician John Comfort Fillmore, who convinced Fletcher that these harmonies were implicit in the Omaha melodies. With hindsight, today's historians fault Fletcher for failing to respect the integrity of Native cultures. But Fletcher was a person of her times and is best understood, I believe, in light of the prevailing climate of opinion regarding treatment of Native Americans. The alternative to Americanization, after all, had for nearly three centuries been to exterminate them and confiscate their lands. And prominent American composers such as Edward MacDowell were quoting, transforming, and harmonizing Native American melodies in their musical compositions.

Ironically, Fletcher's impulse to give back by helping Natives assimilate into American culture has something in common with humanities councils' initiatives to bring high culture to the general public; yet an arm of official culture today considers the one a "grievous error," while the other remains federal and state public policy.