Honesty, integrity hallmarks of Native Indian communication discourse

Developing Just Leadership

J A Progler

Safar 06, 1419 1998-06-01

Book Review

by J A Progler (Book Review, Crescent International Vol. 27, No. 7, Safar, 1419)

A TIME BEFORE DECEPTION: TRUTH IN COMMUNICATION, CULTURE, AND ETHICS. By Thomas W. Cooper. Clear Light Publishers, Santa Fe, New Mexico, US. 1998. pp. 244. Pbk. US$14.95.

Anyone who has watched old American westerns - movies about Cowboys and Indians - will recall the popular phrase uttered by many an Indian, ‘pale face speak with forked tongue.’ Along with several other Indianisms, this one entered into American popular culture to such a degree that it lost its original rhetorical strength.

But what this phrase meant, besides connoting that the White man was like a snake, was that white people ‘spoke out of both sides of their mouth.’ To put it simply, White people were double-dealing liars. The abysmal record of broken treaties and land swindling deals alone illustrates the pithy wisdom of this Native observation. But there are other dimensions to the popular aphorism: it also speaks to Native worldviews, traditional forms of expression and communication, and the sacred ecology of indigenous peoples.

Thomas W. Cooper, Professor of Mass Communication and former assistant to the late Canadian media theorist Marshall McLuhan, researched communication and ethics among Native American peoples for his aptly titled latest work, A Time Before Deception. Cooper lived among several Native nations in Canada and the US, gaining access to their sacred spaces and sense of trust.

The book is endorsed by several Native elders, and Cooper is duly respectful to their traditions. But this is not another case of a White scholar appropriating Native wisdom, as is so common in the New Age cultural milieu now faddish in the west, nor is it a facile hodgepodge of simplistic and naive tales of noble savages. Cooper has produced a moving and informative insight into Native forms of communication, which, by extension, puts western norms into a new light.

When Europeans arrived on the shores of the Americas, they found peoples and lands vastly different than themselves and anything they had ever encountered. While Natives often cautiously welcomed the newcomers, several peculiar European habits caught their attention. For example, in the Caribbean, Native peoples’ first impression of the Spanish was that they must be starving, since they grabbed everything in sight and consumed food, women, and resources like someone insane with hunger.

Later, of course, when the well-fed and bedded invaders continued their gluttony and lust, Native peoples learned a new word: greed. Similarly, Cooper shows that when faced with European habitual lying, Native peoples’ first reactions were that the invaders must be insane, since in Native cultures only crazy people lied.

In his discussion of communication ethics, Cooper elaborates on the issue of truth and lying: ‘the European and the Native American might disapprove of lying but adopt differing attitudes toward prevaricators. For the European, lying was a violation of Scripture and of ôthe Truthö referred to in the Christian New Testament. For the Native, ôlyingö might signify insanity: one who did not speak truth surely must not know what it is and therefore must have lost touch with reality. Thus, cultural attitudes would differ: the white man who lied was devious, deceitful and not to be trusted by his fellows; however, within some tribes, the Native who lied was simply to be pitied, if not to be treated for his mind disease.’ In an epilogue to the book, Chief Oren Lyons of the Onondaga Nation relates lying to self-deception: ‘It is my opinion that to begin to lie to others you must first lie to yourself to the point that the lie becomes your rationale for reality.’

The thought that lying means insanity is startling at first, but as one continues through this interesting book, it becomes clear that the well-known and documented fact of European prevarication speaks volumes about Native attitudes toward truth, and the respect they attributed to forms of communication, both verbal and non-verbal.

Cooper elaborates on the theme that Native peoples truly believed that Whites were insane and that they could not distinguish truth from falsity. Eventually, this led to various communication strategies, he suggests, in which Natives mandated truth-telling among themselves, but learned to deceive the White man whose norms demanded strategies of resistance. Thus, lying becomes a temporary and deviant strategy, the introduction of which is akin to other more insidious colonizing norms, like guns and money.

Cooper relates some amusing anecdotes about western perceptions of Native Americans, and vice versa. In one case, he recalls the familiar image of the austere Indian, bedazzled in a feather head dress, facing the white man, raising his palm and uttering the infamous word, ‘How.’ The image should be familiar to anyone who has ever watched an American western or cartoon, or any other kind of program that features a token or stereotyped Indian.

Most people will likely assume that ‘How’ is some kind of Indian greeting, perhaps even the Indian word for ‘Hello.’ It is a greeting, in a sense, but not in the way expected. As Native Americans tell the story, white people whom they got to know always asked questions, like, ‘How are you?’, ‘How is your family?’, ‘How is your health?’, Or, ‘How do you do?’ Displaying the subtle yet wry wit of many Native peoples, the stereotyped ‘Indian greeting’ is actually a Native reciprocation to the white man’s inquires, encompassing all the usual formalities into a single word, ‘How.’

This anecdote provides insights into an aspect of the Native ethos of communication: less is better. In fact, people who speak too much or frivolously are traditionally regarded as suspect. In public speaking situations, for example, it is respectful to oneself, to one’s words, and to one’s audience to precede any speech with an equal amount of silence. The longer or more weighty the speech, the longer the silence that precedes it.

As Cooper suggests, ‘In some tribes it was expected that one would consider how long one wished to speak and then be silent for that length of time before speaking, so as to give proper thought and tone to what would be said. In such cases, the philosophy of communication indicated that what was expressed needed to be worthy of the listener and of the length of time allotted for speech. Hence the form of communication grew from a larger context - silence - and reflected a specific philosophy and purpose.’ This provides remarkable insight into a corporate media age in which ‘talk is cheap.’

Cooper is masterful in discovering and respectfully elaborating upon the assumptions behind various Native practices and forms of communication. His always reverent style leaves cause for reflection. This seems to reflect his putting into practice one of the key points of his inquiry, that Native peoples value respect above all else. In an interesting set of comparisons, for example, he ranks what westerners tend to value along side of what Natives tend to value.

The lists are strikingly similar in many regards, with truth and honesty ranking high in both worlds. But there is one glaring difference: while Native peoples rank ‘respect’ above all else, it does not even make the western list. The presence or absence of respect is quite a telling heuristic for doing comparative studies across cultures, and Cooper makes good use of it throughout his research. It is not hard to see, then, how western civilization is, at bottom, disrespectful.

Subsequent chapters cover a variety of broad issues, such as Native communication and ethics, literate and oral forms of communication, and indigenous forms of communication. Cooper also includes two case studies, based on his field research with the Shuswap people of British Columbia and the Navajo people of Arizona. In both cases, he explores the broader issues in specific contexts, but focusing especially on communication ethos and ethics. The appendix is useful here, where he includes a discussion of his research methodology, and in which he displays a particularly sensitive awareness of the complex relationship between research and theft.

Cooper concludes with a long chapter, ‘A Singular Ethic: Spirituality and Source,’ in which he attempts to synthesize both some of the broad and particular points he raises throughout. First and foremost in Native societies, he reminds readers, is that the ‘spirit is always the source of all,’ an assertion that Muslims will recognize as akin to the Islamic concept of tawhid. And other similarities emerge here, too. For example, Cooper recounts the words of Iroquois Chief Leon Shenandoah: ‘Our religion is all about thanking the Creator. That’s what we do when we pray. We don’t ask Him for things. We thank him. We thank him for everything that exists.’

Cooper elaborates: ‘Such thankfulness produced an atmosphere surrounding Natives which was distinctly different from that surrounding European conquerors with a demanding or demeaning expression. To the extent that a person perceived with his heart a deep level of communication with Nature, rather than merely conceived in her head that such was going on, communication occurred.’ This is a sophisticated sense of cosmology that warrants prolonged reflection.

Indeed, there is much to reflect upon in this work. In an age when western systems are becoming more and more particularized and destructive, it will be useful to seek alliances with peoples whose norms and allegiances operate far outside those adhered to in a west-directed world. Certainly, dialogue is more fruitful along these lines, rather than along the heretofore dysfunctional and often fruitless lines followed by Muslims, whether they be of the ‘interfaith’ variety with ‘People of the Book,’ or whether they spin around nationalists in the false East-West materialistic dichotomy of capitalism and communism.

In this sense, then, the ‘third world,’ which is largely populated by indigenous peoples, represents a third way to look at the world, a way which operates far outside the usual, narrow set of norms, and which can help in the larger project of decolonization from the dominant western norms and allegiances.

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