"Carry Forth the Stories: An Ethnographer’s Journey into Native Oral Tradition"
By Rodney Frey
Anthropology is the study of human culture, and ethnography is the description of a particular culture. Both areas of study derive from European scientific aims, and both have often, in the past, led to cultural appropriation, assimilation and misunderstanding. In what he calls a “personal essay,” University of Idaho anthropologist and ethnographer Rodney Frey follows a different, newer trail with "Carry Forth the Stories: An Ethnographer’s Journey into Native Oral Tradition."
A student of both academic and indigenous teachers, Frey does not seek to describe and explain the cultures he has “studied,” but instead demonstrates how, through story and gifted storytellers, he and those cultures have interacted. Under the tutelage of Crow (Apsáalooke), Coeur d’Alene (Schitsu’umsh) and Nez Perce (Nimíipuu) elders, Frey began to realize, even as a young white professional, that empathy with audiences enabled these leaders to immerse their listeners in a world that actually could be changed, reinforced, even created, by the “bones” of stories held in common: “The shift is from viewing stories as explanations about and descriptions of the world, as predictors of reality or suspenders of disbelief about reality, to experiencing the stories as the world itself, as intensifiers of what is most real.” These stories can be and often are augmented by the tales individuals tell about themselves, narratives unique to individual lives. The interplay between the bedrock baaéechichiwaau and the indiosyncratic basbaaaliíchiwé (Apsáalooke words for mythic stories and personal narratives, respectively) underlies the book.
Frey explains that scientists, including ethnographers, are taught to view the world in terms of duality — subject and object, observer and observed. The indigenous teachers with whom he worked, on the other hand, see no duality, no division between subject and object, as all creatures interact, all are both observers and observed. This way of thinking may seem odd to those steeped in Western European learning, but it may hold the keys to survival in a time of global climate disruption. Stories and storytelling integrate different ways of looking at the world, allowing solutions that might escape those interested only in logical duality.
The practical usefulness of seeing the world as a sacred whole in which all things participate is amply demonstrated by Frey’s own basbaaalíechiwé, the story of his recovery from Stage 3 Hodgkin's lymphoma. Encouraged by Schitsu’umsh elder Cliff SiJohn, Frey undergoes standard biomedical treatments, including chemotherapy and a subsequent stem cell transplant, but also “attends” to his “inner healing,” thus making use of what Frey refers to as both Head Knowledge (science) and Heart Knowledge (traditional story). It is a refreshing admission that anthropological research is the result of many factors, not least of which is the individual narrative of the ethnographer him/herself.
Frey is learned and inspirational, but some readers will find his style difficult. Not only is the writing often abstract and convoluted — focusing less on the stories themselves and more on their significance — but also there are numerous rhetorical errors throughout that keep the reader at arm’s length. When clarity is most wanted, Frey often muddies the waters just by the density and imprecision of his prose.
Nevertheless, "Carry Forth the Stories: An Ethnographer’s Journey into Native Oral Tradition" breaks a trail toward a new/old way of looking at the world that promises cultural, personal and ecological healing. It is for anyone up to an intellectual/spiritual challenge, for anyone willing to see that stories do not simply describe the world but also form it, and for anyone willing to find compatible paths between varied cultures and religions.