Context about a matter, be it art or otherwise, provides framework for better understanding the subject as this example makes clear— ‘The ball broke the window.’ or ‘The home run ball that won the World Series landed in the parking lot and smashed a windshield.’
Perceptions about a work of art and the context for the work function correctly when both come from the same people. Works from the Western World are examined in a number of ways and typically fall within the discipline of Western Art Criticism. However, cultural context factors are usually not used or applied. In other societies, cultural context necessarily should be the first consideration given. Art from one culture is better understood by using values and other criteria from that culture.
Artwork from another society can, in turn, provide insights into that culture. The art can explain the culture and the culture can explain the art. For instance, a Maori mask might depict a lesser-known but important deity even more than it serves as a colorful, engaging wooden carving. With regard to the Native American Peoples, basic knowledge about their reasoning, perceptions and cultures should be delineated for both insights and context to be appreciated.
Beginning this issue, four consecutive articles will attempt to abridge the vast volume of knowledge about Native American Peoples with a final emphasis on a general but richer understanding of Native America art. This first article examines the differences in ‘thinking perspectives’ between Western and Native American societies. The key difference is how language functions for each.
Indigenous Peoples worldwide and Peoples of the Western World have differences across all spectrums of perception—thinking, comprehending and being. The field of History, recorded by Westerners, mostly states facts but does nothing to illuminate these alternate and competing ways of perceiving. Psychology, sociology and philosophy have attempted to resolve the differences, but the discourse remains grounded in the Western mindset.
Most Westerners know that our versions of history require the written word whereas Native Americans relied upon and still use oral teachings. Written history expresses facts about events in the past and when they occurred; deeper history involves the why, how, and what—influences upon a society, human understanding in a particular time, corresponding abilities due to technology of that era.
For Native Americans, the past instructs with stories about ancestors and interactions with the natural world. The oral stories of humankind, particularly their accomplishments and failures, provide messages of lessons learned and ways to live. Informing an individual about important understandings of the past in this manner also creates an intimate bond between the historian-elder and listener, whereas books or cyber devices are impersonal.
Written and oral differences go significantly deeper than as a methodology for recording history. Western Society’s languages are typically structured with a subject/noun emphasis; most Native American languages are verb/predicate centric. John ran to the store for band-aids and running for band-aids, John to store convey the same message but stress different things. When these slightly different approaches are applied in everything discussed, two paths of perception diverge.
A slightly different emphasis on a single topic does make a tremendous difference in perception as exemplified in the East Indian proverb The Blind Men and the Elephant. One individual understands ‘the thing’ to be ‘a rope’ from grasping its tail while, by holding the ear, another knew “this must be a fan.”
When Westerners speak of our planet in everyday conversation, it’s typically referred to as “The World,” but Native Americans say “The Earth.” World emphasizes nations, boundaries and places; Earth emphasizes the home for all living things or a great life force in itself. One way objectifies the planet; the other personifies it.
Westerners have culture but also look at, study and write about it. Concepts are used to explain culture, which is generally regarded as the ideas and values of
a civilization. Native Americans tell legends and behave in a manner that exemplify traditions, which are grounded examples of how to express ones identity, the identity of family, and the identity of a People. Culture based societies tend to rely more upon laws in order to maintain a functioning civilization; tradition based societies tend to rely upon obligations, implicit responsibilities and self-discipline to be sustaining.
Westerners have the written word not only for laws but for agreements also, such as treaties. Native American’s had the spoken word not only to declare societal norms but for understandings between parties.
A note of caution in all this is that different perspectives mean different ways of approaching and going through life, much as there is more than one way to make bread, decorate a room or teach someone to swim. The differences in all of these perspectives offer nothing inherently threatening to those of another perspective unless individuals attempt to make those differences appear to be threatening.
The difference in the written word and oral message also has a profound impact on another critical aspect of human existence—metaphysical beliefs. Religion depends upon the written word. Spirituality, however, a more personalized approach to embodying the metaphysical, results from oral traditions.
Printed language allows for academic learning, which is concentrated and mostly follows a linear progression. Simply, this is all publicly-funded educational models of the last 100 years. This shapes and then guides how most Westerners reason.
Oral language education, where knowledge passes directly as opposed to indirectly, depends upon the surroundings in which it is delivered. Instead of occurring in an institutional setting, oral language teachings happen in the natural setting and encompass the context of
The oral language learning experience develops extensive rather than intensive contemplation. After years of this type of ‘education,’ an individual reasons in what is referred to as a spherical manner, rather than a linear one.
Ultimately, the Native Americans Peoples have acquired a great deal of our Western ways of perceiving life. They had to in order to survive within the dominant culture. Western society, however, has ignored their way of seeing, which is why most people lack authentic understanding about the Native American Peoples, artwork being one particular example.
My wife and I taught on the Navajo Reservation for a number of years. Before that, we were deeply involved with the Alaska Native Peoples while growing up in the Far North. During these decades, we came to understand how much differently the Indigenous Peoples approach and think about life.
We found, at times, the Native American ways and how they consider things to be rather awkward and cumbersome; other times, their thinking proved uniquely insightful and illuminating. Among them, we had a stronger sense of connection with others, society in general, and interdependence; whereas, we feel a greater sense of independence living in our Western Society. While we certainly cannot claim to think or understand as they might, we know that our ability to consider the ‘what’ or ‘how’ of things when looking at life has expanded and become more rounded.