Excerpt: Clackamas Chinook Performance Art

Victoria Howard (c. 1865-1930) was the teller of Clackamas Chinook narratives and oral traditions. Howard worked with the linguist Melville Jacobs to record Clackamas Chinook oral traditions resulting in an intricate and lively corpus of linguistic and ethnographic material, as well as rich performances of Clackamas literary heritage, as dictated by Howard and meticulously transcribed by Jacobs in his field notebooks. Catharine Mason is an associate professor of ethnographic linguistics and English studies at Université de Caen Normandie, Caen, France. Mason is the editor of Clackamas Chinook Performance Art (Nebraska, 2021) published this month as a part of the Studies in the Anthropology of North American Indians Series.

Introduction: The Present Text Collection

This republication of selected texts from Howard’s Clackamas corpus, more than half a century after Jacobs’s original publication, is motivated by the wish to make a variety of her more well-crafted pieces accessible to Chinookan descendants and to members of the Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde and for the benefit of further scholarly work on American Northwest Coast literatures. More generally, it is my hope to make Howard’s works available for greater understanding and celebration of the rich cultural heritage that lies therein.

In selecting works for the present collection, I have given preference to performances with biographical, family, and historical content that reflect Howard’s ancestry, personal and social life, education, and worldview. At the request of some Grand Ronde tribal members and other Chinookan descendants, I have excluded myth narratives from this edition. This is largely out of respect for inheritors’ rights to appropriate and define the values and purpose of cultural heritage. It is also because one must acknowledge the remoteness of the contextual meanings and, especially, the ancestral meanings of Howard’s repertoire. These issues, in combination with the complex nature of myth itself, inevitably leave gaps in expressive meaning that cannot be recuperated without painstaking interpretation and analysis. As one of the deepest layers of human consciousness accessible to objective study, myth is entangled with configurations and codes of historical and symbolic realities that require constant adjusting of conceptual frameworks and methodological approaches. Academic interpretation of this complex symbolic form should be most carefully carried out in cooperation with its cultural inheritors, an ongoing endeavor that I hope to continue with my associates and friends of Native American descent in the Pacific Northwest.

I have made an exception to this rule, however, for two short myth excerpts that are not really performed as myths: “Seal and Her Younger Brother Lived There” and “Two Maidens: Two Stars Came to Them.” In both of these narratives, Howard interprets brief mythic episodes as contemporary historical events, pointing to the cultural context of contact with Euro-Americans. Given the modern implications of Howard’s interpretations of these myth excerpts, her performances of them emerge as entirely distinct from the sacred mythtellings of Chinookan tradition. They also reflect the daily discursive use of myth excerpts and references in the indigenous life of Howard’s ancestors and contemporaries. (See my discussion of Mythe et quotidien [Mason 1999, 213– 36].) This kind of secular use of mythical insights, images, and views of social life, expressing renewed interpretations in light of changing political circumstances, is still practiced among American Northwest Coast Natives today.

It is well known that myth performances in American Northwest Coast civilizations were complex, culturally encoded, formal events at which participating children and adults honored the authority of the tellers and the lessons, both sacred and profane, that were to be learned from them. Community rules, beliefs, and principles guiding their performance had been handed down and respected from generation to generation. These practices were disrupted by the removal of Natives of western Oregon from their homeland, the imposition of Euro-American cultural beliefs, the criminalization of Native practices and, finally, the dispersion of individual Natives, separating communities and families, as a consequence of economic pressures and the eventual termination of the Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde. The material base of indigenous cultural practice was all but eradicated, and the collective lifestyle that provided the spiritual and pedagogical foundation of traditional practice has been destabilized by the necessity of conforming to Euro-American governance and life demands. In short, the fragmentation and wearing down of cultural practice and social exchange has destroyed the languages in which the highest forms of expression of Native customs, beliefs, and worldviews were transmitted.

The existence of written and audio recordings of Clackamas and Molalla myths thus poses a dilemma for all interpreters and editors of Howard’s work. It also establishes a responsibility, for tribal members and scholars alike, to determine the guidelines and principles for handling sacred materials: for identifying the parameters of their sacredness and seeking a means of making that sacredness, as well as the many other elements that serve the narrative’s meaning and artistry, accessible to Northwest Coast descendants. This cannot be a matter of simply applying traditional rules to the con[1]temporary setting, since Native traditions have been altered—suppressed in some cases, revitalized in others—and where oral traditions have not been broken, cultural traditions have naturally evolved, since the number of forms of media and the material challenges of preserving, interpreting, and protecting cultures and languages have increased tremendously. All of these matters must be worked out as part of an ongoing dialogical interpretive process to which I remain fully committed.

Selection of pieces edited for this volume has been based on three broad themes: personal, historical, and cultural landscapes of the artist and her people. These groupings derive from the specific biographical line of inquiry that has guided my study of Howard’s works over the past twenty years and are not intended to exclude other themes that may be seen as dominating Howard’s corpus. First, many of Howard’s exceptional pieces involve, for example, shamanistic practices and healing ceremonies, which could be placed under the category of “spiritual landscapes.” However, shamanism is interpreted by Howard primarily in relation to its function as a medical practice, grounded in biological, natural, and historical circumstances. Moreover, the significant number of medical shamans in Howard’s personal narratives is, no doubt, a reflection of the large number of practitioners in Victoria Howard’s family as well as the poor health conditions at Grand Ronde during her early adulthood.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s