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Practicing Praxis: A Response to The Yellowman Tapes

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As a scholar invested in the progression of the field of Native American material cultural studies, I consistently recondition my understanding of both epistemology and the appropriate ways to approach cultural circumstances of the so-called “Other” through personal encounters and the shared experiences of my contemporaries. My own ethical position is forever fluid, negotiated by both Native and non-Native sources as I attempt to find ground in what exactly I intend to do (outside of an occupation) with the knowledge I accumulate. Perhaps the most vulnerable facet of existence in the world of academia is the ease that comes in the failure to compromise one’s own advancement for the well-being of those being studied. Barre Toelken is an encouraging exception to this conundrum, considering his explicit analysis of both Navajo and Western ethics in the case of the Hugh Yellowman tapes. His essay argues for an approach that surrenders the fieldworker’s hypothetical gain to the socio-emotional needs of subjects’ epistemological structure and, most intriguingly, he treats ethnographic materials as praxis rather than data. After years of apprehension with the objectifying habits of cultural anthropology, a discipline internally dithered by the bickering of Science vs. Humanities, I am finally moved to disengage from such authoritatively based methods altogether as a result of Toelken’s example.

Perhaps the most ubiquitous quality shared between humans is the capacity to know. The English language seems stark and stale when considering a definition for the word itself that encompasses the various feelings that can be summoned in knowing something. John Farella examines the inequality that exists in the relationship between the West...

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...in our collaborative endeavors as progressive scholars in cultural studies, I had never considered until now just how much of my own work I would actually compromise if a circumstance similar to that of Toelken’s Yellowman tapes ever arose. Considering his position pushed me to identify a nameless discomfort that has left me uneasy about so much of the material I consume—“one party [enjoys] inherent advantages by virtue of controlling the infrastructure and the output.” In the end my own morality and the relationships I choose to maintain in my research will dictate the decisions I make in actually practicing praxis.

Works Cited

John Farella. The Main Stalk: A synthesis of Navajo Philosophy. Navajo Religion. (Tuschon: University of Arizona Press, 1984)

Barre Toelken. “The Yellowman Tapes.” Journal of American Folklore. (American Folklore Society, 1998)
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