January 21, 2012

The Form of National Myths

Storytelling pole of the Haida nation

I was reminded of the tremendous elasticity of narrative forms when I recently visited the Denver Art Museum’s amazing American Indian art collection for the first time, by the  Haida storytelling pole near the entrance of the collection. The Haida is a native tribe of the Northwest coast of the United States and Canada and, like other tribes of the coast, are known for the immense carved poles through which tribal myths are told.

The story told in this pole is about a man who was almost captured by otters when his canoe capsized.  The figures at the very top of the pole are watchmen.  Next lowest is the man who escaped the otters, holding an otter by the tail. The figure in the middle represents the cave where the otters live and at the very bottom is a cave spirit, who holds a stingray.

My own inclination was to try to “read” the pole in a linear direction, from top to bottom, to find in it the action part of the story, in which the man escapes the otters. But the real story may lie less in the pole itself than in the interaction between community members and the symbolic item, as Randy Hoyt, who writes about myth, suggests:

Though these great columns are undoubtedly related to narratives, the exact nature of that relationship is difficult to define. It provides an interesting dilemma for narratological studies. Though the columns are often referred to as “story-telling poles,” the poles do not really tell a story …The figures are not arranged in any chronological order like panels in a comic book would be, nor does the pole as a whole depict one particular scene from the story like a painting world. Instead, the combination of characters together seems to suggest a particular narrative — more like a montage-style book cover or a movie poster would  …. The narratives related to a column were most likely recited at the ceremony in which it was raised, and even those well-versed in the myths of the culture might not be able to identify with certainty the story depicted without knowing the history of that ceremony.

Iconic symbols to join us so powerfully to a particular community and its history that we do not necessarily need to remember it more than impressionistically. If otters had captured the man, there would have been no story to tell. But he survived, producing the occasion for telling his story, and for the community to commemorate his survival.   Sometimes, the story is less in the content of what is said than in the interaction between a community and the symbols it holds dearest.

National myths seem to lend themselves perfectly to communal survival. They needn’t be too detailed; they are temporally indeterminate and thus eternal; they have recognizable icons and suggest, rather than tell, a story.  In the coming months,  we will see a great deal of shorthand gesturing by candidates seeking to win the chance to be the storyteller in chief, who can relays to the rest of the world who we are and what we mean. They will point to longstanding totems of American values and we will respond to their mythic power, often without really knowing the history that produced the myths.  The good thing–and the consummately American thing–in such forgetfulness, is that we’ll also have the chance to retell old myths and infuse them with new meanings.

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