Storytelling as Action

I don’t have much time today to expound on this, but here’s a fascinating excerpt from the book Telling Stories: Indigenous history and memory in Australia and New Zealand, edited by Bain Attwood and Fiona Magowan (Allen & Unwin, 2001). In the entry “The saga of Captain Cook: Remembrance and morality,” Deborah Bird Rose relates the story of Captain Cook as told by Hobbles Danaiyarri, who is an Aborigine living in Yarralin in the Northern Territory of Australia. His story is told in a mix of past and present tenses, and relates the injustices his people suffered at the hands of Captain Cook and other Europeans. After reprinting Danaiyarri’s remembrance, Rose explains how history and morality are tied up in Aboriginal thinking, explaining that this remembrance is a saga as opposed to a Dreaming myth:

…the saga is set in a time frame that is conceptualised as part of the present (ordinary time), whereas Dreaming myths are set in a time frame conceptualised both as the past and as a concurrent present. The latter are source of moral principles, and moral action is judged by reference to these principles, which are deemed to be permanent rather than subject to change and negotiation. Captain Cook’s law, by contrast, is seen as immoral, and this presents Danaiyarri and others with a problem: how to account for immoral action that is reproduced through time and thus appears to endure, just as Dreaming law endures. I contend that Yarralin people’s logic requires that the Captain Cook saga be kept in ordinary time — that it not be allowed to become part of the Dreaming past. (p. 70)

Moral action is seen to endure, and actions that do not fit the moral frame of reference cannot be part of the same timeline as moral actions. So these immoral actions are framed in the present, in ordinary time, as a current problem, even if they happened hundreds of years ago. By viewing morality and history as intertwined in this way, wrongs can be addressed in the present day, even if a linear timeframe would see those wrongs as too far in the past to warrant redressing. The very act of telling these stories is a move for social justice, keeping history literally alive in the general consciousness and demanding recognition and action. As Rose concludes, “far from being the consolation of the powerless, remembrance is an active force for social change” (p. 79).

What a powerful way of viewing history, storytelling, and collective action! What do you think? What stories should we be telling in “ordinary time”?

1 thought on “Storytelling as Action

  1. I like it. It makes explicit, I think, the tight connection between the past and the present. Viewing history as a straight line with easily defined events (hello timeline! ubiquitous throughout U.S. k-12 history education! mine anyway…) makes it easier to think of the past as distinct from the present and, often, the present as an improvement on the past. It then becomes really easy to ignore the ways we continue to act out the patterns of the past under different guises. My go-to visualization, which is different yet again from both the idea of “ordinary time” and straight line history, for anything that involves time passing is the spiral (which I think I picked up from a class at K…), because it shows a pattern of repetition with slight change moving forward. So, in the U.S., when whites drove blacks out of their towns starting in the 1890s, they weren’t repeating slavery but they were repeating certain aspects of it (use of violence to enforce an order that benefited the white population, dehumanization of the black population). Today, they’re repeated again, slightly changed, through white flight and suburb-inner city dynamics.

    Completely separate thought from the above:
    The moral vs. immoral dynamic is especially nifty. It’s completely opposed to the “just get over it” idea.

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