Ethnopoetics and the Interpretation of Culture: California Anthropology. Its Reflection in the Life and Works of Theodora Kroeber

By Jana Rivers-Norton.

Published by The Diversity Collection

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The California Anthropologists Lowell J. Bean and Thomas C. Blackburn espoused in their 1976 publication Native Californians: A Theoretical Retrospective, the need for a re-evaluation and expansion of the existing data and interpretation regarding the indigenous cultures of California. What is required they contend is a “new perspective [ . . . ] involving a fresh appreciation for the very real complexities” of these cultures, which have been traditionally “denigrated” by the “anthropological fraternity” (p.9). It is the purpose of this paper, therefore, to provide an ethnopoetical approach to the canon of northwestern California native literature in an attempt to address the damaging misconceptions and distortions regarding the rich oral heritage of native northwestern California. Although recent anthropological materials have kept pace with contemporary philosophical, psychological and sociological constructs, this paper argues that no substantial mode of literary interpretation currently exists, which accurately reflects a responsive understanding of the highly diverse and imaginative properties of native northwestern California oral traditions. Instead, the authentic voices of native California have been consistently portrayed by ethnographers and folkorists alike as “strange” or “rude,” voices created out of “sheer boredom” which possess no “apparent literary value” (Kroeber, 1967, p.5; LaFarge, 1959,p.7). Conversely, the paper asserts that these apparent distortions are due to conflicting concepts of consciousness as they are revealed in cultural attitudes pertaining to verbal artistic expression. This paper, therefore, has three main objectives. First, the paper provides a brief historic overview of mythological concepts typically held by western culture along with how these differ from an ethnopoetical approach. Second, this paper explores the existing anthropological record as it relates to the native peoples of northwestern California. Third, the paper compares and contrasts how these constructs relate to the writer Theodora Kroeber as well as the lives of the native California women she wrote about in the work entitled The Inland Whale. In addition, the transformative potential of the imagination as embedded in language as a symbolic system of cultural identity and insight is emphasized. In doing so it is hoped that a “new perspective” on “the very real complexities” inherent within indigenous mythos emerge to capture the beauty and sophistication of native northwestern oral traditions.

Keywords: California Anthropology, Ethnopoetics, Cross-cultural and Gender Identities, Literary Expression, Interpretation of Culture

International Journal of Diversity in Organizations, Communities and Nations, Volume 7, Issue 1, pp.97-106. Article: Print (Spiral Bound). Article: Electronic (PDF File; 541.794KB).

Dr. Jana Rivers-Norton

Adjunct Professor, College of Letters and Sciences, National University, La Jolla, CA, USA


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