Monday, May 12, 2008

Do Glaciers Listen?

Julie Cruikshank, Do Glaciers Listen? Local Knowledge, Colonial Encounters, and Social Imagination (Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press, 2005)

Cruikshank, a professor of anthropology at the University of British Columbia, specializes in the ways in which different types of knowledge - scientific, "folk," native - struggle to establish themselves as legitimate; and works in the Yukon and also sometimes in Siberia.

This book is about the way that native Alaskans (Tlingit and Huna in the St. Elias Mountains area) look/ed at glaciers, and the difference between their conception of glacier "consciousness" and the scientific bent of Western explorers with whom they have come into contact. Following Harold Innis' ideas about the way that empire establishes itself by eliminating alternative forms of communication and knowledge; Bahktin's belief that storytelling and folk humor can equal resistance; and Benjamin's understanding of the tragedy of the loss of interactive storytelling, Cruikshank looks at stories told by Tlingit and Huna elders about the place of social glaciers in their cultural history, and compares these stories to white/"scientific" conceptions of the glacier as natural fact.

Glaciers, to the Yukon women Cruikshank interviews, are social beings, sensitive to being excluded or made fun of, and obedient to laws of their own (for example, they hate it when you cook with grease nearby them; glacier travel requires boiled food only). There is a reciprocal relationship between men and glaciers - a relationship not recognized by white men, or at least not by most white men - John Muir is cited as an example of an American who approaches sensitivity when it comes to interactions with the natural world, although his insensitivity to the native people who guided him through that world troubles that approbation a bit.

In a weird coincidence, a couple of days after reading this book I read this article in the New Yorker about a composer who makes music according to the rhythms of various instruments which measure activity of the earth. It would be interesting to know what the Native Alaskans might think about this...

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