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Orality and Indigenous Me

Orality and Indigenous Me

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Published by: drewlange7687 on Feb 21, 2012
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Orality and Indigenous Medicine of the Americas: An Epistemology of EcologicalAwarenesshttp://www.tlahui.com/medic/medic25/oralidad_francis.htmDiplomado de Tlahui-EducaHerbolaria, Temazcal, y Medicina Tradicional MexicanaDiplomate in Herbalism, Temazcal Sweat Lodge, and Traditional Mexican MedicineEstudiante/Student: F. J. M.Febrero/February, 2008IntroductionOrality and literacy are powerful influences on human thought and consciousness and canhave a significant influence on all aspects of the "mentality" of a culture. (Ong, 1982) Inthis paper I will focus on how orality influences the epistemologies (i.e. basis andmethods of knowledge) of Indigenous peoples of the Americas and explore theconnections between Indigenous American medicine and Indigenous Americanecological thought, discussing the ways in which the intersubjective and holisticecocentric perspective of Indigenous medicine can help to heal our entire planet. In thispaper I will often use the phrase "Indigenous oral" (Abram, 1996) in my discussion inorder to emphasize the connection between Indigenous cultures of the Americas and theinfluence of orality on traditional indigenous medicine which constitutes the focus of mypaper. Although orality is certainly not the only influence on medical thought and therelationship of humans to Nature in Indigenous cultures, I feel that the influence of orality on these cultures is significant, and is in need of being studied because it is aneglected area of research in the study of traditional Indigenous medicine. The study of orality-literacy differences is also important because in our contemporary literate culturewe are so immersed in literacy that it is difficult for us to understand or even imaginehow people from oral cultures think. This paper will be written from an interdisciplinaryperspective, bringing contributions from literacy studies, linguistics and philosophy tothis discussion of this topic.Some theorists in the field of orality/literacy studies have pointed out the politicallyempowering characteristics of the acquisition of literacy. The purpose of my paper is notto challenge this view (considering the obvious benefits of literacy for these purposes)but only to point out the positive values present within Indigenous medicine as anepistemology of Nature and ecological awareness-something which I believe is crucial intoday's world. For a similar reason, the medical effects of traditional Indigenous therapieson individual patients will also not be discussed in my paper since that would treat adifferent topic. Nor do I intend to imply that Indigenous medicine of the Americas is theonly type of traditional medicine that is influenced by orality-indeed there are many typesof traditional medicine around the world that involve the type of thinking present in my
 
discussion of medicine and epistemology of Indigenous oral peoples of the Americas.Furthermore, appreciating the value of orality does not require a rejection of science, butonly the reaffirmation of the living planet Earth itself as the basis for our awareness. Ifeel it should also be stressed that what I feel is the positive ecological consciousnesspresent in epistemologies of Indigenous Americans does not necessarily require theconversion to a particular religion or doctrine, but only the acquisition of a particular kindawareness or sensitivity to the sensing and sensitive natural world.The Shift from Orality to LiteracyOrality represents a very particular way of knowing the world - very distinct fromcontemporary Western thought, which is under the influence of literacy. According to thescholar of orality-literacy differences Walter J. Ong (1982), orality is not a form of writing, and writing is not a form of orality. The two have unique and differentcharacteristics. Oral thinking is deeply rooted in the life world and in the use of perceptual understanding and human senses to understand the surrounding natural world.In an oral culture there is no abstract separation of the knower from the known, nosecondhand knowledge separated from context, no feeling of separation from otherpeople, from the land, and from the nonhuman beings which share our planet. In oralcultures there is a wider dialog which people from literate cultures tend not to understandwell, or not to take seriously, a dialog that is not with purely human text, but with theentire world itself in a relationship, using language of a more-than-human world, in akind of "ecology of magic" (Abram, 1996). This type of thinking is found in all membersof Indigenous oral societies, and in varying degrees in recently alphabetized Indigenouscultures (Ong, 1982). Although criticized by some scholars as deterministic andgeneralistic, the theory of the orality/literacy "great divide" on human consciousness canhelp provide useful insights into the discussion of how humans came to loose theirintersubjective perceptual awareness rooted in the reality of the living natural world.Observing, and learning from Nature was part of the ancient animist/shamanist traditionof the Americas. The processes of differentiation over time created Indigenous culturesthat were unique in terms of language, organization, politics, society and economy;however there was always a common idea linking all these cultures. This idea was one of the basic foundations of Indigenous cultures, despite their variations. IndigenousAmericans considered themselves as being as part of a larger reality that includedhumans, culture, and society together with Nature (Aparicio Mena, 2005b).According to Ong (1982), the historical shift from orality to literacy has had an importantinfluence on the way humans perceive the world, by creating a separation of the knowerfrom the known, by removing context and the perception of the life world, and leading tomodern Western analytic thinking. Indeed, nonhuman natural forces seem to havewithdrawn both from language and from the senses in modern literate society. Accordingto David Abram (1996) with the discovery and learning of written words, literate cultureslost something that had been integral to oral traditions. With the written word, language,
 
the forest, the plants and animals fell silent and without meaning, and we have, in a sense,become strangers in our own land.According to this theory of "Animism and the Alphabet", when the Greeks adopted andmodified the Jewish alphabet and introduced letters to represent vowels (because theJewish alphabet used only consonants) the last gap through which the natural world and asense of the life world might breathe was closed off and the first fully phonetic alphabetcame into being. The alphabet becomes entirely airtight and self-referential-without anyneed for interpretation and without any references to other life forms other than thehuman (Abram, 1996).The continents of the Americas where Indigenous culture and medicine flourished wereregions of orality-even though there were complex writing systems in the Mesoamericanregion. The painted books that were used in Mesoamerica were basically oral texts,because they combined pictures with oral human speech/song and required interpretationof images, unlike reading the phonetic alphabet. These systems of orality-paintingtherefore served to maintain and support orality, unlike chirographic (writing-based)systems (León Portilla, 2003). Much as in Chinese script, these Indigenous Americanbooks (called codices) contained rich images which directly linked to the lifeworld, withplants, animals, and people in the environment being shown (Abram, 1996). After theSpanish conquest however, many of these Mesoamerican codices were greatly changedduring the process of translation and cultural mixing so as to conform with what ÁngelMaría Garibay (1953) termed "the luminous prison of the alphabet."With the development of the first fully self-contained alphabetic writing system inancient Greece, humans for the first time were able to be alone, and separate from others,and could relate to each other and reflect on the world without any reference to what isfor the Indigenous oral peoples of the Americas considered to be the source of all life andmeaning-- the mysteries of the Earth itself and a more-than-human field of meaningswithin Nature. The invention of the alphabet established a direct association between thesign and the vocal sound, for the first time completely bypassing the thing pictured.Because of this, the more-than-human natural world was no longer part of the semiotic,no longer a necessary part of the system. According to Ong (1982) contemporaryWestern culture derives from this meeting of human senses and alphabet in ancientGreece, and this type of thinking has infiltrated other cultures, even those such as in theAsian cultures which still continue to use a writing system that makes reference to thelifeworld.According to Maurice Merleau-Ponty (as cited in Abram, 1996), an important figure inthe field of linguistics and phenomenology (the study of phenomena as they manifestthemselves to the experience) the direct, prereflective perception of the world isinherently synestheic (using all the senses together), and is participatory and animistic,disclosing the things and elements that surround us as expressive subjects, entities andpowers. Each thing in the world, and each phenomena in the world has the power to reach

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