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Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Guest Post: Tyler Pennock

(Tyler Pennock)

Tyler Pennock is of Cree and Metis descent, from the community of Faust, Alberta. He was adopted into a military family at birth; and grew up in many places across Canada, and also Germany. Tyler writes poetry, creative non-fiction and theatre. His creative non-fiction work entitled Elijah Harper was published in Yellow Medicine Review in 2008 along with poetry. His play, "Al and the Snake," was workshopped at Weesageechak and later, the Mayworks festival, both in 2011. Tyler graduated from the University of Toronto in 2009, specializing in Aboriginal Studies. He is currently in the Creative Writing MFA program at Guelph University.

Whose Commons is it, anyway?
Tyler Pennock

I – The Beginning

We came from the stars.
We fell from the sky.
     If we were able to take a bird’s eye view of the world, to look at all it’s stories, social interactions, communications, and media, the world might actually seem likely a pretty interesting place to be. All over this planet there are billions of conversations occurring- personal, communal, national and even across continents, and the form of these conversations varies almost as much as the content! If we were to pull back further, and look across time – we’d notice that certain conversations present themselves over and over again. Love between enemies, the quest for an artifact to save a kingdom from starvation, or the unsuspected power of a slave over their ‘master’, a prisoner over their captor. Repeating patterns present themselves often, buoyed by the world’s renewed interest in them.
     It’s a bit like ocean currents – where certain stories are warmed and rise, while others cool and fall, spending their requisite time in the depths. Like currents, the constant pattern of what presents itself is no doubt fascinating – and we try to delve deeper – to find out what’s underneath it all, what’s driving the motion behind the resurfacing.
     So in an effort to understand it all a little better, we dive in. Of course, we are without water wings or life jackets, and a great deal of effort is spent trying to stay afloat in the sea of voices – of information.
     In today’s society though, we have help. From our earliest memories we are given the tools necessary to navigate the world of communicative beings. In kindergarten for example, we are taught to play with others, to know the value of story, and to move around in our relatively new, exciting bodies.
     Later on, we receive books (in my time it was the beloved Dick and Jane and Spot series) to inculcate the concept of communication further. Along with Coloring, Math, English, History and Drama we slowly become speaking, reading, and writing beings. This is how we are helped to stay afloat.
     I recall in one of my inculcations a play on the story of Little Red Riding Hood. I played the wolf. It was while I was in grade two, I believe. It was my responsibility to eat grandma and then promptly die when everyone’s savior shows up. At the time I had a blue wool button up sweater with a dog on it, and that made the role seem better suited to me. After I suffered the expected fate, the lumberjack character was to open the buttons of my sweater and reveal the recently masticated matron. I can’t recall how exactly that was done, but I’m sure it was magic!
     At around the age of seven, I happened across the 1978 film The Company of Wolves. I’m not entirely certain why I was allowed to watch the film, because even now the scene where the young groom morphs into the wolf troubles me. That doesn’t mean that I refused to watch it. My fascination only started then, and has grown ever since, for I soon sought out tales of the fantastic. That need for the fantastic then grew more serious, as Stephen King and Anne Rice replaced Terry Brooks, and Fantasy Films were replaced by brutal Horror stories. (Indeed, John Carpenter’s The Thing changed my view of horror films forever.)
     In my teen years, while reading voraciously about Werewolves and Vampires, my fascination grew with the release of Bram Stoker’s Dracula. Again, a man morphed into  - and communicated relatively easily with – wolves. He also had an affinity for human blood. I was hooked.
     So when I was brought in to play the role of Robbie Drunken Chief in a workshop production of A Very Polite Genocide, the character of Rougarou (A M├ętis trickster) caught my attention.  Plainly put, Rougarou is a werewolf. The word is a Michif word, derived from the French word Loup-Garou. However, this character has many of a trickster’s characteristics. He has all the humour, the irreverence, innocence, and lack of morality wrapped into a huge (and sometimes funny) furry ball.
     While we were in the production I Googled everything I could about Rougarou. One explanation was that Rougarou was a werewolf character based on the native Wendigo. If you google the Wendigo, you will find hundreds of descriptions and explanations as to what exactly a Wendigo is. Some say they’re zombies, some say they are spirits, and the number of possible explanations vary immensely. One thing common to all is the fact theat they really like human flesh. A lot. They’re also quite powerful. In fact, some descriptions of Wendigo closely mirror those of some (certainly not all) descriptions of Rougarou, in that (in addition to the taste for humans) a Wendigo can be considered a werewolf.
Wait wait wait.
You can’t be serious.

II – The Arc

     Imagine for a moment that the world is about to flood. There’s a man who knows about it, and also plans to do something. He and his people are partial to boats, and so he goes about constructing a very, very large boat. Soon it becomes apparent from the boat’s size that he’s planning on carrying much more than his family. After a time, all the animals of the world arrive in twos. They intend to mate, whenever they find land. Of course, we’re not entirely sure this man has thought it through, because it takes much more than two to re-populate a species. It’s also unclear what the animals thought, as the boat-builder doesn’t appear to have mastered much in the way of animal speak. In any case, the animals are invited, and presumably they were told that this was a couples-only engagement.  Besides, this guy purportedly knows god, whom we can assume will temporarily mess with genetics to allow the whole thing to be a smash hit. (Despite the unfortunate incident where Bear was caught with squirrel in his mouth, and had to be convinced that he would have more squirrels to choose from later, if only he let that one live. Math- and in particular, multiplication tables weren’t his strong subject.)
     While we may not all agree on this story’s veracity or this particular framing of events, Noah’s Ark is still pervasive. In this, it has become part of what we might call a commons, or what Jonathan Lethem describes in The ecstasy of Influence, as “belong[ing] to everyone and no one, … its use is controlled only by common consent.” [1] In other words, certain works, artistic endeavours, messages and concepts are so pervasive that they should no longer be controlled by copyright, and should be shared openly – to promote the growth of culture itself. Control by common consent in Noah’s case is implied in the fact that the written text (the Bible, the Qur’an) has been given away for centuries, and the story itself has been told in so many languages and forms that it is literally everywhere. Nearly anyone might recognize the story, if not in detail, then at least by its major plot developments.
     And yet the differences between the two stories are so obviously of my making. My own limited creativity is seen for the differences my text provides, perhaps for the humor or the awkwardness of Noah’s venture – complete with an anachronism borne in the name of genetics, and a disregard for the solemnity of his venture (after all, his people were dying). A great many people would be able to recognize the differences between my version and the original, because the original is ever-present.
      Despite my changes, Noah’s story occupies a kind of greatness, or as Lethem might phrase it – the story is one that has “moved to a place beyond closure or control.” [2] It has become part of the public consciousness to such an extent that its original form is left untouched by revisions, homages, or blatant re-writes. My influence cannot alter the space set for it in the minds of others.
     As a writer, however the question of ‘the sacred’ suddenly surfaces. Have I injured the original author of the story by retelling it the way I have?
First, I haven’t actually changed the major details of the story.
Second, I haven’t deliberately obscured the source of the story.
Third, I haven’t copied the story verbatim, assuming ownership over the author’s original expression.
     Yet if I have skirted the matter of plagiarism by following those rules, I certainly don’t feel any better for it. Deep down inside, I feel uncomfortable using another story without staying true to its intent.
     This reminds me of a Haudenasonee (Iroquois) story behind the bent-nose (also known as false face) masks. (Again, you can find many versions of this story online, by many authors.) One day, a man, particularly proficient in healing, was walking when he came across a healer. He boasted to the healer – telling of how powerful he was, so powerful in fact that he was the creator of everything around them. The healer disagreed. They fought about it for a while. So the healer challenged the man to a contest. The healer pointed to a mountain and suggested that the both try to move that mountain, and that whomever moved it the furthest would be the winner. The only requirement was that each man look away while the other was working. Now, it is important to mention that the healer was in fact in disguise. In some versions he was the creator, in other versions he was God, and in others the healer was the man’s original teacher. Irrespective of the details, the healer was in fact, the munchkin behind the curtain.
     So it was decided that the Man should go first. He tried, and lifted the mountain – moving it a few feet. After he was finished, he looked over smugly at the healer. So then the man looked away and the healer started to do his thing. Yet the man turned around early to see what was happening, and right then the mountain smacked him in the face, and broke his nose. [3] To this day, false-face masks are employed by those in a society whose purpose is to heal the sick. Every one of the masks shows the broken nose as a reminder of this story.
     It is also a story that reminds us that we shouldn’t present ourselves as something other than what we are. More importantly, the story is an example of plagiarism at its worst. The man claimed authorship over everything around them. The true creator showed him otherwise.
     In this, I’m reminded of a particular tendency in our culture to present multiple versions of a story. Normally, we in oral traditions believe that different versions are a good thing. But in the world of the written word, that can mean entirely different concept. For example, I found another version of the false-face story and was struck by the overt nature of the Christian influence present. In that version, the healer declares himself as the “Great Lord of the Universe,” and continues a much longer conversation in which the man discovers the lord’s identity and still challenges him. Naturally, he fails, just as Lucifer did. Yet, at the end of this version, the lord fixes the man’s face. [4]
     Wait - what of the false face society? What of the masks? What of the broken nose to serve as a reminder of past foibles? This is the crux of the problem with a public commons, then – an area where common consent can allow the change of material. Sometimes works change to fit the changing ideals of the public. (A beautiful example of this is in Milton’s Paradise Lost – where Milton makes the devil much more attractive and interesting than God and his son. Evil fascinates us.) Yet, the problem with this example is that the false-face mask is not recognizable enough to the public to ensure the original form stays intact. Also, the Haudenasonee aren’t a large (and hugely visible) part of wider public, so the original intent of the story gets lost in the flurry of revisions – the cacophony of interested voices. Which begs the question:

Whose commons is it, anyway?

     Some time ago I came across a children’s book that incorporated Cree legends in its storytelling. Freda Ahenakew and George Littlechild edited the collection, and it was titled, How the Birch Tree got its Stripes. In the publication details, the editors saw fit to mention that the stories they’d collected were the sovereign property of the Cree people. (That’s a lot of people by the way.) Any Cree person could use the stories as they saw fit. Here’s an example of how copyright actually benefits the original creators. I must say, however that the main difference is that in this case, the original creators are a people – and not a single person. This is because we often use our legends – and our legends are to our communities what Noah’s Ark, or Paradise Lost, or Pride and Prejudice would be to the wider public. We can share them among our own peoples without worry because everyone – even those in different linguistic and cultural groups – would recognize the fake from the original. But to share these things in the wider world is another matter entirely.
     Lethem writes that, “We in western society are going through a period of intensifying belief in private ownership, to the detriment of the public good.” [5] But the example I’ve provided is not one of public good vs. private ownership; it is one of public ownership vs. a different public’s ownership. In today’s world, we are fighting a copyright war. We are consistently copyrighting our public materials, or find ourselves in situations where other people have copyrighted what we consider our sovereign property. Indeed, I’ve known people prevented from publishing their own family’s story because someone else (part of the same linguistic community) holds the copyright! And in many other cases, copyrighting of our materials has been done outside our communities, without our knowledge. Those engaged in this process like Vampires [6] – never really killing our culture, but sometimes robbing it of its substance – it’s sine qua non.
     Lethem provides a tangible example of the commons as “anything like the streets over which we drive, the skies through which we pilot airplanes, or the public parks or beaches on which we daily.” [7] What makes these spaces a commons is their visibility and continued use. Were anyone to come into your park and change aspects of it, or pave over it completely, it is almost certain that the entire neighborhood would be in an uproar, particularly if your child went there every day after school. Petitions would be signed, councilors might be cornered, and the decision maker might find him or herself out of a job. But if no one in your neighborhood had used the park in many years, it is doubtful anyone would do anything.
     Consider this. What if the park wasn’t yours to begin with, and none of your community members ever used it? What if small parts changed here and there, until that park changed so slowly that you barley noticed? Each substitution of one feature for another “seen in glimpses, [and] not in panorama.” [8] What you wouldn’t know is that the community to whom it belonged would be up in arms. But would you notice?
      We would. It would be equivalent to looking up at the sky twice – and in the second glance finding that all the stars had reoriented themselves, and we no longer recognized them.

III – The Revelation

 … While we were in the production of A Very Poite Genocide I googled everything I could about Rougarou. One explanation was that Rougarou was a werewolf character based on the native Wendigo, who was many things, including a cannibal and a werewolf.
Wait wait wait.
You can’t be serious.
There’s something wrong here – this does not make sense.
     Allow me to clarify. First of all, I must say that Wendigo is a pan-indigenous concept. But the word itself is specific to Algonquin languages. Perhaps it’s best to provide a brief explanation. The root of the word is:
     A larger version of the root would be Wiintip. That literally means brain matter. Try to think of wiin as the self. Not the ego, but as one would see, or express themselves. It is the culmination of one’s cultural and social experience. The suffix to the word is:
     Iko means to be made passive. For instance, if I were to say, Kisaakihik, that literally means, he or she loves me. Not the other way around. So when we put wiin and iko together, we get Wiintiko. Wendigo. The self (or mind) made passive. [9]
     It is the quintessential evil in our societies – usually punishable by death. The most extreme example is of course, cannibalism. In this case all of your humanity is gone, and you become a shadow behind the consuming force. Another way to look at it would be obsession. The kind of obsession that strips you of the ability to reason, to make choices, to care for your family, and to engage with the wider world. It can manifest in many ways, notable for the lack of concern for community, self, other people, etc. How many people today occupy this role? Can we point to others that have eschewed the concern for humanity for their own (often twisted) desires and obsessions?  Would Gold be enough to turn someone this way? Money? Oil? Perhaps. Perhaps not. In any case the special place we have for this evil is inherent in some of the translated names for them, such as Ice Hearts or Cannibal hearts. [10] In many ways their power and self-consuming tendency is so pervasive that they are like a kind of positive feedback loop, [11] which is extremely powerful, and destroys itself in its making.
     Here’s the crucial part: What makes the Wiitiko so evil is the fact that it is the self, turning on itself. Or its own people. Or perhaps everything it was taught. It is a self-consuming phenomenon! Which is why it is important to insist that Wiitiko is not the incorporation of animal in human. Self-consuming human. NOT a werewolf.
     The inclusion of the animal as necessarily base and evil is a euro-western phenomenon dating back to the time when they had their own oral traditions – later captured in print by stories like Little Red Riding Hood, or Peter and the Wolf. So you can imagine my surprise and horror when I see films, plays, books and other media portray Wiitiko as half-animal, half-human. We must remember that Wiitikos are real, possible and not mythological half-beasts. And so against the greater commons I virulently protest that we should not allow western cultural concepts to infiltrate and change our stories. We should not be lulled into thinking of animals as evil. It isn’t our way. (Too bad we can’t copyright it…)
     Unfortunately, the tale of Wiitiko is so prevalent in dominant society that it is used in all kinds of stories tales without very little consideration for its true meaning. It is part of the commons now – beyond our control. Not that anyone today would notice that it has changed. But someone out there ought to be Chicken Little and point up in order to say, ‘our sky is falling. The things we look to in order to live good lives have been changed.’ The scary part is that no one has noticed. They may be lurking out there now. The cannibal is wearing wolf’s clothing, and I fear that if it remains so disguised, it will eat us all.
My what big teeth you have …

IV – Closing

We came from the stars.
We fell from the sky.

     “That is how it was, as I remember.[12] At least, we are told that our very first ancestor(s) fell from the sky. Winona, Sky Woman, First Woman, Spider Woman, Nis Bundor. Every single one of them – whether on the end of a spider’s tendril, falling at great speed, or “spin-spinning, whirl-whirling, swirl-swirling, twirl-twirling,” [13] all came from the stars above. Which is not that hard to believe. Every single element in the world around us attributes its beginnings to stars, and the intense fusion or explosions that once turned Hydrogen into other things. We truly are from the stars.
     Ergo it makes sense that whenever we think of our origins, or wonder about our direction or place, we look up – to re-gain our bearings. Countless stories and tales are themselves embedded within the constellations. The Oneida’s seven dancers, the Guna’s Seven brothers and one sister, or the Cree peoples’ fisher stars all refer to what is now known as the Big Dipper. This constellation tells us when we need to plant, harvest, prepare for winter, or move camp, solely by its seasonal position. We know it by a different name, but just as navigators once used them to steer ships by, we also use stars to guide our lives. After all, the stars are the place of our origin.
     If stars are our beginning, then perhaps what lies beneath is our ending.
     And suddenly that is where we find ourselves again. Culturally speaking, it seems as though we are sometimes sitting helpless in the ocean – each change or movement in thought a kind of wave, knocking us about. We have been given water wings and life jackets – in the form of writing and education that favors western worldview, and up until now we’ve make due with what we had.
     But please bear in mind that unlike Noah, we are not partial to boats. We have eschewed our life jackets and water wings in favor of a turtle’s back. And instead of studying and learning the roiling waters of western stories and culture, we are looking downward. We are looking through the currents, underneath the waves. As a public, and considering some of us are writers, we’d like to see beneath the European concept of the public commons, copyright laws, rehashing old stories, and the production of art in the world of others, in order to find what of ours has been lost.
     Somewhere underneath it all, we expect to find a little handful of dirt. Maybe someone will go down there and grab some, bring it up, and start spreading it around. And – just to be cheeky – that someone will be an animal.

Bird, Louis. “The Spirit Lives in the Mind:” Omushkego stories, lives and dreams.    
            McGill-Queen’s University Press. 2007

Boyd, Doug. Mad Bear: Spirit, Healing, and the Sacred in the Life of a Native American
Medicine Man.

Fenton, William N. False faces of the Iroquois. Norman
              University of Oklahoma Press. 1987.
Lethem, Jonathan. “The Ecstasy of Influence: A Plagiarism.” Harper’s Magazine, 2007.

Mojica, Monique. “Chocolate Woman Dreams the Milky Way.”
            Chocolate Woman Collective. Toronto, June 2011.

[1] Lethem, Jonathan. “The Ecstasy of Influence: A Plagiarism.” Harper’s Magazine, 2007.
[2] Lethem, Jonathan. “The Ecstasy of Influence: A Plagiarism.”
[3] Fenton, William N. False faces of the Iroquois. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1987. There are countless versions of this story that can be found on the Internet. Fenton’s is considered among the most accurate, in that the origin of his version is in fact, a Haudenasonee community. Also, Fenton provides the different versions from among those communities. In this, I am cautious enough to note that this is not my story. Also, I would never orally tell this story, (nor should anyone one whom isn’t allowed to - whether in a lodge or in a public forum). There are rules to certain stories that each community practices, and only members of the Haudenasonee people know the rules for this one. Ironically, Fenton is not Haudenasonee, though he technically holds the copyright for this story.
[4] Boyd, Doug. Mad Bear: Spirit, Healing, and the Sacred in the Life of a Native American Medicine Man. Touchstone, New York, 1994.
[5] Lethem, Jonathan. “The Ecstasy of Influence: A Plagiarism.”
[6] I must insist at this point that William Fenton’s methodological approach is not under scrutiny. It doesn’t appear as though he harmed the story or the community or it’s stories greatly. I can only assume that he has done so properly. Unfortunately, we cannot blindly assume that vampires don’t still lurk in the shadows.
[7] ibid
[8] Lethem, Jonathan. “The Ecstasy of Influence: A Plagiarism.”
[9] I must also note that this attention to the language of the word, and its translation would not be possible without spending several years studying Anishinaapemowin through the University of Toronto’s Aboriginal Studies Department. I particularly owe the professors there (especially the Ojibwe teacher, A. McKay) a debt of gratitude for helping me through his concept over the years.
[10] Louis Bird. “The Spirit Lives in the Mind” 2007.
[11] Tyler Pennock. “Fear, Control, and the creation of Cannibal Hearts.” 2008.
[12] Mojica, Monique. Chocolate Woman Dreams the Milky Way. Chocolate Woman Collective, June 2011. This is a one act, one scene play.
[13] Mojica, Monique. This is a translation from the original Bire Ibire, Aibilia Aibiliali ,Aibire Aibiride, Bippir Maigde.

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