Written Assignments

The Native American Self


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The Native American Anthology

The "Self"   When you approach cultures that are different from your own, you always start out by setting up a stable point of reference: your own world view. You start out with what you know about the world (individuality, good and evil, etc.) and you either read that into or use it as a comparison to what you're experiencing from the other culture, whether it's a story, a work of art, or a cultural practice. Really understanding another culture, however, requires that you come to terms with a system of thought that varies significantly even from your own stable reference points. The only proper way, then, to use your cultural assumptions about individuality, society, good and evil, etc., is to use them as a comparison point.   Of all the notions that form the basis of your understanding of the human world, none is more pervasive and harder to let go of than your understanding of the self. At the heart of everything you do is a sense of what a self is. A self is not just an "individual," but rather a complex set of relationships between and individual and the culture around her. A "self," then, is a definition of the individual in relation to the society and culture around that individual.
   If you think critically a moment about your own sense of "self," you'll find that it entails a number of assumptions about your relationship to the people and culture around you. For instance, your definition of your self probably includes some principle of autonomy, or self-rule. At the heart of your experience as a self is a conviction that a true self directs its own actions independently of the expectations of the people and culture around it. You will probably think of your real self as that part of your life which you're in charge of, while the part that is under other people's control, such as your classwork or your job, is not your real self.
   The purpose of this assignment is for you to try to understand what a different concept of the "self" might be. We're going to focus on Native American culture and use Native American stories to come up with a working definition of the Native American "self." Since Native Americans have been throughout their history a multiethnic people, we're not going to fall into the error of believing that we can come up with a definition of the Native American "self" that can apply to all Native Americans. Instead, you're going to focus on one ethnic group and define the nature of the "self" for that one ethnic group.
   Your definition of the "self" for that particular Native American group is going to come from the stories and mythologies of that group. You are to read around in the Native American Anthology and select one story from one ethnic group. You are then to interpret that story to come up with a definition of the "self" as it is represented in that story.
   Your essay should have at least three paragraphs. One paragraph should be a long and complex definition of the "self" as it is understood in that story. The other two paragraphs should be detailed interpretations of the material in the story—you must show how individual details of the story contribute to your definition.
   There are several questions that might help you in your definition of the "self" in the story (remember, a "self" is the complex set of relationships between an individual and the society and culture around her that constitutes her as a person): a.) what is the nature of society and the basis of human relationships and responsibilities? b.) what is the nature and experience of the individual? c.) what is the relationship between the human and nonhuman worlds? d.) what is the relationship between the genders?


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Updated 9-15-97