Landscapes of Silence

image from the cover of Landscapes of Silence

Over the years I’ve given away more than a dozen copies of English anthropologist Hugh Brody’s 2002 book The Other Side of Eden. The book articulates the vast difference between indigenous (etym. = ‘born into and part of’) and colonial/dominating ‘civilized’ cultures, and how, worldwide, indigenous cultures have adapted themselves to their land and environment rather than exercising ‘dominion’ over it. It’s one of the most important books I’ve ever read.

This year, a full 20 years hence, Hugh has published his next book, Landscapes of Silence, which, other than the fact that it’s also about anthropology, could hardly be more different from his earlier work. It is more memoir than study, and tells the story of a much humbled and much radicalized writer.

Like his previous books, it contains some remarkable insights and is almost impossible to put down. But rather than a plethora of observations about how indigenous cultures live differently from those in dominant cultures, it focuses on a few critical messages we’d all be wise to listen to — really listen to — and take to heart.

The book is about how dominant cultures silence indigenous ones in many ways — misrepresenting and appropriating their stories, relating their history solely from the dominant culture’s viewpoint, stealing and dispossessing them of their land, dislocating them, and subverting and even banning their languages. And it’s about how the trauma of both types of cultures is masked by a ghastly self-imposed silence about our cultures’ real stories.

After writing The Other Side of Eden, and revisiting the peoples of Nunavut and Iqaluit in the ‘Canadian’ eastern arctic, Hugh realized that he’d missed a huge part of the story of these peoples. He’d asked them to tell him stories of ‘indigenous wisdom’, rather than inviting them to tell him the stories that were really important to them. On his return visit, rather than a welcome letter, he was given a list of all the people in their communities who had committed suicide since his previous visit. It was a long list.

He wanted to correct this mistake, but after writing thousands of pages for a follow-up book, he realized “It’s not the right of some white colonial visitor to write about the psyches and lives of indigenous peoples.”

Instead, he started to write about his own story, as a second-generation English Jew, and discovered “the infinite well of grief” that stemmed from his mother’s fierce silence about the Holocaust that had wiped out most of his family in the 1940s in Austria — a silence she had imposed to try to protect him and his siblings from its horror, and her own guilt as an ex-pat survivor. Even after the war, in the English high schools Hugh attended, the Holocaust was never mentioned.

Hugh takes pains often to point out he is in no way equating the European Holocaust with the colonial violence and genocide still being inflicted on indigenous peoples all over the world. They are different stories. But what they have in common is that they are shrouded in silence, and an inability and unwillingness of most of those in dominant and colonial cultures, and even many ‘survivors’ of abuse, to just listen, without judgement or interruption, to these stories.

So Hugh spent more time in the north, without any agenda or book project in mind, learning Inuktitut and inviting everyone in the communities he visited to tell their stories — whatever stories they wanted to tell. And the stories they wanted to tell were about the abuse they had all suffered at the hands of those from the dominant, colonial culture. Implicit in this was a demand to ask those in the dominant culture: Why are you allowing this to happen? These were not stories about indigenous cultures; they were stories about the dominant culture.

He learned that indigenous stories are fundamentally different from the stories we learn to tell in the dominant, colonial, Euro-American culture.

  • Indigenous stories are always personal, direct experiences, never second-hand, never hearsay, never “what I learned” summations.
  • Indigenous stories are precise, factual, complete and unhesitant. They are never interrupted with questions or interjections.
  • Indigenous stories are direct, and flow in time order. They are not crafted for effect. They are told to inform, not to influence or manipulate.

(This reminded me of First Nations writer Thomas King’s assertion “The truth about stories is that that’s all we are.” And about Cynthia Kurtz’ assertion that in working with complex systems, the stories that are collected to assess the situation must all be direct personal experiences, never second-hand).

Hugh discovered that the Inuit people he spoke with lamented that, due to the horrible struggle to adapt and make do within the constraints of the dominant culture (loss of their land, rights, and ways of making a living, dislocation from their homes, pressure on their kids to learn English, loss of their language and of their culture of listening, etc) they had no time to “just be, to belong to the land” that was their home. And it was obvious that that massive dislocation has contributed to the mental illness and suicide epidemics there.

Hugh writes: “The breaking of listening is the breaking of well-being. You can’t be loved if you are not heard.”

He also talks about his time as a youth on a kibbutz, a “socialist utopia” in Israel, and the realization that this utopia was part of Israel’s colonial occupation of Palestine and its apartheid project — Israel’s “landscape of silence”.

Hugh stresses that this “breaking of listening” profoundly affects the cognitive development of children, so much so that young Inuit no longer listen to the stories of their elders and communities, so the landscape of silence grows ever broader and deeper. I wondered, as I read, whether this is actually a global phenomenon, and has been for generations, in all of our cultures.

The injustice and abuse by the dominant culture comes, Hugh says, from ignorance and not from malice, and he asserts that the indigenous people he has met share that sentiment. Colonialism is based on settler culture that takes for granted that colonized people are less than fully human, and that the land belongs to the colonizers, not the colonized. This needs to be “unlearned”, and that starts with unlearning and relearning how we hear and listen to stories. The stories of residential schools are not indigenous peoples’ stories, they are the colonists’ stories. Real stories emerge out of the silence, the silence of the natural world, the silence of the space between thoughts, when we just pay attention, and listen.

If you’re not ready to pick up or download a copy of Landscapes of Silence, here’s one more provocation: In a recent Long Table podcast at the Upstart & Crow bookstore in Vancouver, Hugh talked about the book and how his worldview has utterly changed over the past 20 years. It’s an hour long, but very well done and you can speed it up to 2x and it’s still very intelligible.

We all live in landscapes of silence. Do you know what yours are?

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