When I walk in late to a lecture and the first thing I hear is “colonial, neo-colonial, and post-colonial,” I expect to be bored and annoyed. In fact, I was fascinated and largely convinced instead, by James Clifford of UCSC talking about the politics and aesthetics of indigenous culture in Alaska. The high points for me were:
–The images of contemporary masks, which completely blew me away. My taste in sculpture runs to the archaic Cyclades, classical Greece and Etruria, and modern West Africa, not to the New World or the Pacific, but I found some of the Yup’ik (new vocabulary word for me) masks just astonishing. (There’s a slideshow here if you click on “View the Masks,” but the slides there are only a faint echo of the slides from the talk, though they’re drawn from the same book.
–An account of the modern heritage movements that acknowledged their incomplete connection with the past they celebrate without being dismissive of them for that reason. Clifford compared them to the Renaissance, which also involved the appropriation, modification, and to some extent fabrication of an old, largely dead, culture, under the guise of rediscovery.
–A story about religion among the Alutiiq (another new vocabulary item) people who live on Kodiak Island. They are largely Russian Orthodox. One the one hand, the church has embraced various aspects of Alutiiq culture, including the traditional masks and shamanic dancing. On the other hand, at Christmastime, they sing thirteenth-century carols in Old Church Slavonic: songs no longer extant in Russia or Ukraine.
–The reported dialogue between a young woman building a traditional skin boat as part of a “heritage camp” and her parents:
“We’re building a boat.”
“You don’t know how to build a boat. It will sink.”
“But they’re going to put the boat in a museum.”
“Good. In a museum, it won’t sink.”
I won’t try to do justice to Clifford’s argument. He has a related paper here.