Monday, September 26, 2011

Families and Resorative Justice

It might be interesting for the Museum of Culture and Environment at some point to develop an exhibition on restorative justice, with special attention to how families attempt to make amends for historical wrong-doing, or at least to enter into productive dialogue with other families with whom they are linked through historical bonds of suffering and injustice.

A fascinating article by Lynda Mapes in The Seattle Times (9/25/11) details efforts by descendants of American explorer William Clark (of the famed Lewis and Clark expedition) to "right a wrong" committed against the Chinook tribe of the Pacific Northwest.

During the winter of 1805-06, the Corps of Discovery stole a canoe belonging to the Chinook; now, over two centuries later, Clark's descendants have made partial restitution by presenting an elaborate ocean-going canoe to the Chinook nation. Mapes describes a quasi-private ceremony in which the canoe was carried by Clark family members, and then ritually cleansed by Chinook and Clark descendants with cedar boughs. This ritual event, initiated by a family in an act of atonement and apology, is all the more poignant given the long history of dispossession suffered by the Chinook Nation, and given the fact, noted by Mapes, that canoes were traditionally regarded by the Chinook as quasi-animate members of the family. (The complex"birth" of this repatriated canoe is described in the event's website, at:   )

It occurs to me that this remarkable ritual event is exemplary of a broader recent pattern in restorative justice activities, in which family members have sought to make amends for the unjust acts of their ancestors. This phenomenon is related to the forms of institutional apology or historical reflection explored in my book The Accidental Slaveowner (which details the recent 'statement of regret" by the Emory University Board of Trustees for the institution's 'entwinement' with slavery). Yet these more private acts carry a special kind of force precisely because they are carried out by family networks, and involve such close person-to-person transactions and dialogue. 

Perhaps the most prominent examples in the U.S. of family-to-family restorative justice have taken place under the rubric of the remarkable grass-roots organization, "Coming to the Table,"

Descendants of slave-owning and enslaved families, in many cases distant cousins to one another, have engaged in difficult dialogues about the legacies of slavery and racial injustice in American society. Some of these conversations have been held in public or are documented on the group's website; others proceed in relative privacy.  

I don't know of a comparable event to the Clark repatriation of the canoe, among or between the Coming to the Table families. In the Clark-Chinook case, after all, there was a specific wrong on a specifiable date, that could be symbolized and partially righted by the 'return' of a specific object. In the case of chattel slavery, the histories of injustice and suffering are so vast it is difficult to imagine any specific act of restoration that would seem appropriate. (Hence, the intensity of debates around the Reparations movement; how can historical debts associated with slavery possibly be repaid?)  Rather, the work of social healing that takes place in the shadow of  chattel slavery seems continuous and piecemeal; attending family reunions across lines of race, helping to restore one another's family cemeteries, and so forth.  (In chapter two of The Accidental Slaveowner I  describe an important act of family-to-family restorative justice, which seems to have been only partially conscious; an elderly white descendant of a slaveowner gifts a house to her African American cousin, herself the descendant of that slaveowner and an enslaved woman.)

For all their differences, these family-to-family exchanges may be thought of as an outgrowth of the widespread turn to genealogy in the wake of the publication of Alex Haley's Roots in the 1976 as well as an emerging global sensibility that moral citizenship demands historical accountability for wrongs committed in the past.   These exchanges, of houses, canoes, or of dialogue, speak to the ambiguous nature of the extended family in modern society.  Most of the time, the modern extended family is conceived of as an object of pride often ignored or relegated to the background, yet periodically celebrated in family reunions.  Yet in recent years we have seen a growing tendency (by no means dominant) to conceive of extended families as ethical entities, who can in a sense settle moral debts with one another.  Curiously, this tendency would seem to mark a partial return to a premodern conception of the family, as a corporate person that functioned as a legal entity--and which would thus pay 'blood money' to another family for crimes committed by one of its members. Modern family-based instances of restorative justice are rather different, to be sure, but some of the older sensibility (of the family as a debt-accruing and debt-discharging entity) would seem to endure.

I'm not quite sure what an exhibition on families and restorative justice might look like.  If there were a number of physical objects that were exchanged among families, bearing complex memories of historical injustice, then they might serve as foci of the show.  

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Wellington the Mascot?

What is the origin of CWU's mascot "Wellington"?
At the Museum's staff meeting this afternoon, we had an intriguing conversation about "Wellington," Central Washington University's beloved mascot, evidently modeled on a cougar and closely associated with the school teams, The Wildcats. We're curious about how Wellington came to be the university mascot, and how he (or she?) has evolved over the years.
Mascots, as it happens, are a topic of great interest to anthropologists and folklorists. The term "mascot" is derived, anthropologist Ellen Schattschneider has noted, from the medieval Provencal, in which it meant a magical person or object destined to bring good luck. (The word has etymological associations with "mask".)  The term was popularized in Edmond Audran's 1880 light opera, La Mascotte, in which the title term referred to a peasant girl who had magical powers to bring good fortune to whomever possessed her, so long as she remained remained virginal.  The opera was a worldwide hit, and played in Paris, London, Tokyo and New York; the term then entered into global usage, with some interesting local twists. In Japan, mascots (masokotto) became dolls or inanimate objects.  Schattschneider writes in her paper "The Bloodstained Doll: Violence and the Gift in Wartime Japan" (Journal of Japanese Studies 31:2, 2005)  these mascot dolls were deployed as protective talismen by Japanese soldiers early during the Asia Pacific War (1931-45), and then later in the war were  used by kamikaze pilots on their final missions of no return, as ritual companions amidst the terrible loneliness of certain death.  In the US, the term "mascot" was adopted for live animals (such as the Yale bulldog) used to rally sports enthusiasts. Later, as if returning to the earlier "mask" associations of the term, mascots came to be linked to masked embodiments of school spirit,  usually in the form of animals or Native American figures.  
The modern popularity of mascots seems to exemplify the curious persistence of "totemic" thought in modern, ostensibly secular societies: as in small scale  or clan-based societies, social groupings express their solidarity through reference to an animal species or a masked being.   In recent years, as is well known, there has been considerable controversy over the use of Native American figures as mascots. What precisely is at stake in the appropriation of natural species or indigenous peoples in these contemporary semiotic forms, and why are they especially associated in the modern US with athletics?   (Hint: Perhaps Levi-Strauss' famous discussions of Totemism and of the modern significance of sports/games might cast some light on these enigmas?)
Masks are themselves fascinating cultural phenomena. In ancient or small scale societies, masked beings are supreme social personages, and in a sense an individual human being only becomes a fully realized social person when or she is authorized to wear a mask, thus embodying the mask's transcendent spirit. (Indeed our modern term "person" is derived from the ancient Latin term for mask, persona.)  What precisely does it mean, on a modern football field or basketball court, for someone to "be" the mascot, to embody the spirit of the team or the school as he or she wears the quasi sacralized mask? As in many human societies, these masked figures at times take on the personae of a trickster, and are authorized to behave in ways that violate, often humorously,  conventional codes of conduct.  It is as if modern persons secretly long that at the heart of seemingly bureaucratic, impersonal and alienating institutions there lurks an unruly, irrepressible spirit of unpredictable energy, which reaches out to each and every one of us. Perhaps the dancing, frolicking mascot serves as a ritual switch-point  through we may experience the transformative power of"collective effervescence" long ago described by Emile Durkheim in The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life?
So where does Wellington come from, and what are some special stories associated with this quasi magical being?  Speculatively, does the name Wellington have any associations with the Duke of Wellington, the victor at Waterloo, and thus connote the spirit of Victory, as as well as starting with the same letter of Wildcats?  Please post some comments or suggestions as we begin to explore this fascinating puzzle of campus cultural history!

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Fabricating the Fantastic

 "The Jackalope"Bob McConnell,  Michigan State University Museum
I'm delighted to begin work this week as the new director of the Museum of Culture and Environment (MCE) at Central Washington University, in Ellensburg WA. It is my hope that the MCE will continue to develop innovative, thought provoking exhibitions in close partnership diverse community organizations and individuals in the Kititas Valley, in Central Washington and beyond. I'm hoping the museum will also serve as a cross-roads for exciting interdisciplinary conversations at the intersection of the human sciences, the arts and humanities, and the physical and biological sciences. In the years to come we hope to host and faciliate important dialogues between the academy and the broader public on a range of vital issues related to cultural and biological diversity--in the Pacific Northwest and around the globe.

In Fall 2012, we're pleased to be hosting a traveling exhibition from the Michigan State University Museum, "Tall Tale Postcards, Storytelling through the Mail," an exhibition described at:
The show explores the genre of the tall tale postcard, often hilarious images that strain credibility while promoting local attractions.  The exhibition will be viewable starting from Thursday, September 29; our official opening event will be on Thursday, October 6 at 4:00 pm. We'll be featuring the gift 'cowboy storyteller' Hank Cramer, who will share some tall tales with us around a 'campfire' in the museum lobby in Dean Hall. Please stop by!

In support of the exhibition, we are also planning an interdisciplinary symposium, "Fabricating the Fantastic: The Pleasures and Perils of Exaggeration in American Culture," tentatively scheduled for Monday, October 31 (Halloween!)  from 4:30-6:00 p.m, in the Museum lobby.  Hyperbole, to be sure, exists in the narratives of all human cultures, but many, Mark Twain, among them, have argued that the Tall Tale is a quintessential American art form. The genre, drawing on Old World and Native American trickster imagery, appears to have developed in successive American frontier spaces; it may have been deeply influenced by the circulation during the early 19th century of the popular pamphlet Rudoph Raspe's Baron Munchausen's Narrative of His Marvellous Travels and Campaigns in Russia, as the Baron's delightfully fantastical exploits were adapted and retold along the expanding American frontier.  Some scholars have argued that the hilarity and manifest absurdity of the tall tale genre served important community building functions along the frontier, as persons of diverse backgrounds struggled with unfamiliar natural environments and fluid, unstable social contexts, reassured by the knowing 'wink of the eye' in absurdist story-telling.  In his marvelous fantastical novel American Gods, Neil Gaiman proposes that the well known American penchant for building absurdly exaggerated roadside attractions (from towering Paul Bunyans to giant Holstein cows) is motivated by the dimly understood impulse to mark "places of power" on the American landscape,  a complex mosaic that continues to attract awe and anxiety generations after colonization.

In addition to tall tales and roadside attractions we'd like to consider the significance of exaggeration in other human endeavors, including artistic and scientific pursuits. Anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss suggests in The Science of the Concrete that all art is predicated on suppression of certain features or dimensions (such as size or dimensionality) and the radical intensification or exaggeration of others (such as color or contrast). Scientists, in order to communicate or emphasize particularly salient patterns in complex data sets, often need to exaggerate or intensify specific elements in graphical representations of scientific discoveries. (The use of digitally enhanced colored imagery in the Hubble Space Telescope photographs of deep space phenomena is a particularly prominent example of this practice.)

To be sure, in some contexts,  hyperbole is less than benign; the same narrative and aesthetic devices that provide such delight in the Tall Tale and such edification in scientific drawings, may be deployed in support of stereotyping, demagoguery, know-nothingism and violent intolerance. In the symposium we'd like to consider the often enigmatic line between positive and negative uses of exaggeration.

Halloween, a holiday that calls forth the creative impulse towards hilarious (and horrific) exaggeration, seems an appropriate day to contemplate the power of hyperbole. We invite students, faculty, staff and community members to attend the symposium, wearing whatever wildly exaggerated costumes that suit their fancy!