Reimagining Them and Us

It happened at a meeting between an Indian community in northwest British Columbia and some government officials. The officials claimed the land for the government. The natives were astonished by the claim. They couldn’t understand what these relative newcomers were talking about. Finally one of the elders put what was bothering them in the form of a question. “If this is your land,” he asked, “where are your stories?” He spoke in English but then moved into Gitksan, the Tsimshian language of his people – and told a story.

All of a sudden everyone understood … even though the government foresters didn’t know a word if Gitksan, and neither did some of his Gitksan companions. But what they understood was more important: how stories give meaning and value to the places we call home; how they bring us close to the world we live in by taking us into a world of words; how they hold us together and at the same time keep us apart. They also understood the importance of the Gitksan language, especially to those who do not speak it.

The language sounded strange; it made no sense to most of the people there. But its strangeness was somehow comforting, for it reminded them that stories always have something strange about them, and that this is what first takes hold of us, making us believe. Recognizing the strangeness in other people’s stories, we see and hear it in our own.

Other people’s stories are as varied as the landscapes and languages of the world; and the storytelling traditions to which they belong tell the different truths of religion and science, of history and the arts. They tell people where they came from, and why they are here; how to live and sometimes how to die. They come in many different forms, from creation stories to constitutions, from southern epics and northern sagas to native American tales and African praise songs, and from nursery rhymes and national anthems to myths and mathematics.

And they are all ceremonies of belief as much as they are chronicles of events, even the stories that claim to be absolutely true. We first learn this when we are very young; which is to say we learn to believe before we learn what to believe. It is what we believe – the second stage – that is at the heart of many of our current conflicts. We love and hate because of our beliefs; we make homes for ourselves and drive others out, saying that we have been here forever or were sent because of a vision of goodness or gold, or instructions from our gods; we go wandering, and we go to war. Whether Jew or Arab, Catholic or Protestant, farmer of hunter, black or white, man or woman, we all have stories that hold us in thrall and hold others at bay. What we share is the practice of believing, which we become adept at early in our lives; and it is this practice that generates the power of stories.

We need to go back to the beginning. We all want to believe. We all need to believe. Every parent, every farmer, every builder, every cook knows this. We have to believe that the child will grow, or spring will come, or that the house will take shape, or the bread will rise. Stories and songs give us a way to believe, and ceremonies sustain our faith.

They also give us things to believe, which is a mixed blessing. The reality of our lives is inseparable from the ways in which we imagine it, and this closeness sometimes produces conflict and confusion. But it also produces some of our most durable myths, whose contradictory character seems to be part of being human and is certainly part of our cultures. the contradiction is inseparable from the nature of belief and the dynamics of believing, which always involve an element of strangeness and surprise.

Every story brings the imagination and reality together in moments of what we might as well call faith. Stories give us a way to wonder how totalitarian states arise, or why cancer cells behave the way they do, or what causes people to live in the streets … and then come back again in a circle to the wonder of a song … or a supernova … or DNA. Wonder and wondering are closely related, and stories teach us that we cannot choose between them. If we try we end up with the kind of amazement that is satisfied with the first explanation, or the kind of curiosity that is incapable of general surprise. Stories make the world more real, more rational, by bringing us closer to the irrational mystery at its centre. Why did my friend get sick and die? Why is there so much suffering in the world? Whose land is this we live on? How much is enough?

And where is home? Home may be where we hang our hat, or where our heart is … which may be the same place or maybe not. It may be where we choose to live or … or where we belong, whether we like it or not. It may be all of these things or none of them. Whatever and wherever it is, home is always border country, a place that separates and connects us, a place of possibility for both peace and perilous conflict.

Except for the idea of a creator, there is no idea quite as bewildering as the idea of home, nor one that causes as many conflicts. It is a nest of contradictions. The late twentieth century image of the global village seemed to sound the death knell for home as a particular place, much as an earlier generation claimed to do for religion when they said God was dead. But the report of His death was an exaggeration as Mark twain once said when he read his own obituary in a newspaper; and so it is too with the idea of home. God has certainly not disappeared from the scene, and nor has Allah; the world seems to be getting larger, not smaller; and home is becoming more important, not less.

Can one land ever be home to more that one people? To native and newcomer, for instance? Or to Arab and Jew, Hutu and Tutsi, Albanian and Kosovar, Turk and Kurd? Can the world ever be home to all of us? I think so. But not until we have reimagined Them and Us.

J. Edward Chamberlin
from If This Is Your Land, Where Are Your Stories?
Finding Common Ground

If This Is Your Land, Where Are Your Stories?

J. Edward Chamberlin is Professor of English and Comparative Literature at the University of Toronto. He was previously the Poetry Editor of Saturday Night magazine and a senior advisor to the Mackenzie Valley Pipeline Inquiry and the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples. He has worked extensively on native land claims in Canada, the United States, Africa, and Australia.
J. Edward Chamberlin

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