10 May 2012

A Culture’s Maps, A Culture’s Experience

Posted by Kathryn under: Crossing Cultures .

“Covered Wagon” (c) 2012


The serendipitous appearance of these two sources in today’s media is notable.

From Neil MacGregor’s book A History of the World in 100 Objects, (c) Trustees of the British Museum 2010, published in the US by Viking Penguin, and in audio installlments on WNYC-FM, discussing a North American buckskin map (probably Piankashaw, Ohio River Valley)  from 1774-75:

“What the map shows above all is rivers … where the people are grouped together, not the land over which they roam and hunt. This is a map about communities, not about geography, about habits of use, not patterns of ownership… The Native Americans, like everybody else, mapped what mattered to them. Tellingly, although the map includes all the rivers, it shows almost exclusively the settlements of the Indians. Virtually none of the European settlements are there. St. Louis, for example, … already a great centre of trade and communications, just is not shown. European maps of the same area do effectively the same in reverse, showing the European settlements but not the Indian ones, plotting the space not in use. Two quite different readings of the same physical experience: you could hardly have a better demonstration of a central Enlightenment problem, the difficulty of any society in trying to understand another.

If the Indians didn’t understand the notion of exclusive land ownership, the Europeans could not grasp the Indians’ intense spiritual relationship to their land, the notion that the loss of earth was in some  measure the loss of heaven. David Edmunds, Professor of American History at the University of Texas, elaborates:

‘…You  have to understand that land for tribal people is not a commodity. It … was a place where you lived, that you shared, that you utilized, but it was not something that you particularly owned… Land is so important and place is so important to tribal people that history for them is more a function of place than of time…’  ”


And from Nicholas Kristof’s column (“Poverty’s Poster Child”) in today’s (2012-5-10)  New York Times, writing of the Native American (primarily Sioux) reservations at Pine Ridge, Rosebud, Cheyenne River and Crow Creek, SD:

“The latest Census Bureau data show the … lowest per capita income in the entire United States in 2010 … half the population over 40 on Pine Ridge has diabetes, and tuberculosis runs at eight times the national rate. As many as two-thirds of adults may be alcoholics, one quarter of children are born with fetal alcohol spectrum disorders, and the life expectancy is somewhere around the high 40s — shorter than the average for sub-Saharan Africa. Less than  10 percent of children graduate from high school. … even though the reservation system is largely failing in the West, there are bright spots. One is the growing number of American Indians getting a good education. Another is that initiatives to emphasize traditional Sioux culture and spirituality seem to have boosted community pride and helped wean some families from alcohol and drugs.”

* *

The relationship between these two passages, to me, could hardly be clearer.  Our perceptions and interpretations of time and of space, of our relationship to nature are three significant aspects that help define the differences between/among cultures, differences rooted in deeply held values and the experience on which they are based. Over time the values continue to interpret experience, and experience shapes and defines values. Our culture and its values (and sometimes our disagreements with them) guide us, provide a foothold  in a world and ascribe definition, meaning and value.  The loss of this earth, our cultural grounding,  can surely mean as MacGregor states,  the loss of heaven.


See also: http://www.bbc.co.uk/ahistoryoftheworld/objects/-UqCYd_4Rfy85epzSvpaQA





3 Comments so far...

Kathleen Reid Says:

13 May 2012 at 6:37 pm.

This is thoughtful, intelligent material and certainly related to intercultural services!

Lynn Ramsey Says:

7 June 2012 at 9:28 pm.

For an in-depth, personal view of the life of original Americans today, read Alison Owings’ book Indian Voices: Listening to Native Americans, published by Rutgers University Press in 2011. Her oral history documents the lives of people from 16 different tribal nations and their interaction with the non-natives surrounding them. Talk about cross-cultural!

Vecino Acosta Enrique Says:

12 December 2012 at 4:35 pm.

My name is Vecino Acosta Enrique , I just needed to say that the blog is really good. Waiting for your next article!

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