Finding the Feather: Peter John and the Reverse Anthropology of the White Man Way

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University of Wisconsin--Madison, 1999 - Athapascan Indians - 630 pages
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"This dissertation outlines and analyzes Interior Athabaskan Chief Peter John's critique and reverse anthropology of the 'white man way.' Peter argues that the dominant culture has 'fallen' from a 'true understanding' of received tradition (Tr'oottha kenaga') into the confusion of self-created knowledge (ch'ughu kenayh). He argues further that both Athabaskan stories and the bible chart the practical and moral consequences of this fall. An apparent failure of the 'white man way' to recognize that its history conforms to a tragic plot outlined in myth is taken as proof of its expulsion from the garden of true knowledge. He uses traditional narratives not only to establish a meaningful relationship between Indian and white man ways, but even more importantly, to redeem that relationship through the healing power of the spoken word. I argue that Peter's philosophy and practice exemplify a distinctly if not exclusively Athabaskan epistemology which promotes the conscious linking of received tradition to practical experience: in Cruikshank's (1990) terms, 'life lived like a story.' Moreover, in keeping with Athabaskan conceptions of knowledge as super sensible 'power, ' Peter advocates the need for individuals to redistribute the benefits of their knowledge through socially beneficial action. I term this 'collective' versus 'atomistic' individualism, linking Peter's religious vision with anthropological theories about the pronounced 'individualism' of Athabaskan culture. I show that Peter's view of an epistemological 'fall' from this personal encompassment of 'collective' truths (received tradition) is believed to beget a practical 'fall' into selfish and socially divisive, or 'atomistic' behaviors. I link this alternate epistemology with contemporary social science discourse and show that it contradicts anti-foundational trends in postmodern theories of meaning: Athabaskan epistemology presumes a fundamental (though ambiguous) correspondence between symbols and reference. I discuss how Athabaskan premises about the power of words and speech not only explain indigenous reticence over the journalistic pretense of the 'white man way, ' but also contribute to anthropological debates surrounding knowledge and representation. Finally, I show that Peter's 'reverse anthropology' contributes intriguing indigenous support to structuralist theories of history and culture"--Leaves vi-vii.

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CHAPTER 2A Frontier Home and a Postmodern Prophet
The True Picture Individual Power as Collective

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