Writing about other cultures as an outsider

The Northern Light has received responses and telephone calls, in addition to in-person comments, about Linda McCarriston's poem “Indian Girl,” and Diane Benson and others' opposition of it. Should a person who does not belong to a specific clan, race or group of people be allowed to point out what he or she perceives to be that group's failings? Everyone who writes critically about groups to which they don't belong becomes a target for criticism.

 Yet, where would America be without the input of other nations? Outside input can be a tremendous tool. We all like to see the best in our country and our cultures. Outsiders are neither so kind nor so self-censoring. Therefore, in many literature and political science courses every semester, students read the opinions of a Frenchman by the name of Alexis DeTocqueville

This Frenchman examined America under a powerful magnifying glass in 1831. What he saw shocked the developing country. No one had ever said such things in polite culture, least of all an outsider.

 “Three races,” DeTocqueville wrote. This was what he saw in America. “Three races, naturally distinct, and, I might almost say, hostile to each other, are discoverable among them at the first glance. Almost insurmountable barriers had been raised between them by education and law, as well as by their origin and outward characteristics, but fortune has brought them together on the same soil, where, although they are mixed, they do not amalgamate, and each race fulfills its destiny apart.”

This is how he described America's democracy.

Even when certain races in America could not vote because one segment of society — the white, male property owning part — saw those of other cultures as outsiders, even though they were born of the same soil. Few Americans saw what DeTocqueville did, and if they did, even fewer dared to mention it. They simply lived by the often-unwritten rules of white culture.

 DeTocqueville wrote, “…we should almost say that the European is to the other races of mankind what man himself is to the lower animals: he makes them subservient to his use, and when he cannot subdue he destroys them… The Negro of the United States has lost even the remembrance of his country; the language, which his forefathers spoke, is never heard around him; he abjured their religion and forgot their customs when he ceased to belong to Africa, without acquiring any claim to European privileges. But he remains half-way between the two communities…”

INDIAN GIRLS

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By Linda McCarriston

I.

They come down all the ways
waterways or over snow and
frozen river, or come down
roads in pickups, getting
away, getting to town.

Many clans, tribes,
the Snail, the Raven,
many complexions, the thick
black hair. They learn
they are not my sisters
for I am white
though I would tell them — have —
that my road into
this town, too, was long
and bitter and began
breathlessly, silently,
under a chief still
called wise one.

II.

Out in the low and
wind-shriven villages
winter is warming its
hands on the flat roofs.

Women are making
fire inside, and food, and
mukluks for the babies.

Women are making
light, trying, trying
to shine it over the
whole house, even
to the dark rooms of
cold, where savage
rights of the old
body over the
young, the great
body over the small
are preserved
as the oldest charter.

III.

They swagger out of the
Avenue Bar at midnight with
some tonight's Honey
laughter that's a dare to
make them scared of
you or any buddy. They
wear wallets on chains
and cowboy boots worn to
the cardboard heels
and their hair wants
washing. A few still
young — too ripe too
early — figure even
this picking is better
than being handed
over without so
much as beer. Who
might any of them
have become
in even the least
of the villages
had Christ not
come with his cross
and bottle
of vodka, his father's
god-awful rights
to
the daughter,
the sister,
the son?

Ice-Floe, Vol. I, Number 2

DeTocqueville's comments about America were considered less than flattering. He considered all races to be deserving of full benefits of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, even though America's laws didn't. Did he, therefore, overstep his boundaries in commenting on a foreign land and its people? Probably.

Like many have said of McCarriston, many said that DeTocqueville had no business butting into a culture to which he did not belong. It may be true.

Then, it may be true that if DeTocqueville's comments brought any kind of positive change, then they were well founded. If the white man gave a little more thought to the Native Americans and African Americans being born into a country that treated them like outsiders, DeTocqueville's writings served a noble purpose.

Perhaps the Frenchman should have kept quiet about things that did not concern him personally. But perhaps, like McCarriston's writings, his observations were written down for a purpose. No one has to like them and they may be wrong.

Still, they are an outsider's view. They reflect only the fact that McCarriston has considered Alaska Natives and took the time to come to some conclusion, however right or wrong it might be.

McCarriston, in her poem, even points out the differences between herself and Native women.

“They learn / they are not my sisters / for I am white.”

At that point, we should know the following: Her comments are only observations. She may be writing about the worst experiences of a people only — much like DeTocqueville did in parts of his writing. A glimpse and not a complete picture.

When McCarriston spoke of specific peoples, she did so only after generalizing, then providing specific examples of those with which she was familiar.

“Many clans, tribes, / the Snail, the Raven”

This is where the big problem arose. She mentioned specific peoples.

The question becomes whether she should write anything about a culture if she does not know everything. The answer is not known, but our experience with outsiders tells us that, no matter what they write, there is a good chance that whatever they write will touch a nerve but, hopefully, we might learn something from it.