Culture for Sale.

by Rhea Côté Robbins

6-24-93
 What is the best process for self-reclamation?  After you have turned your back on your self-culture, what is the best method for ìgetting back the landî?  Is the answer to who you are in a book?  Or is it in community?  Is it in relationships?  Are you aware of your culture-self an d, if you are, who are you and are there any other like you out there in the great cultural divides?  What of the traditional culture needs to be given air to breath and what needs to die? 
 Is it easy for someone else to put on your culture?  To rip it off?  Or is it difficult?  Or painful?  Is there a mark of joy in putting on someone else's culture?  I suppose it depends on the reason why another person would want to take on someone else's culture.  Or how. 
 Do you feel a dis-ownership or uncomfortable-ness in your own culture?  Why?  Do you realize that you even have a distinct culture?  Or do you figure it is the common stuffs of everyday living? 
 In taking on someone else's culture, one assumes one does not have a culture of one's own.  Or in the likely event of domination of one culture over anotheróappropriation of the conquered culture becomes the property of the conqueror.  That is painful.  To lose one's culture to a dominant culture is a painful experience.  But if the dominant culture chooses to take on the conquered's culture, it is assumed, erroneously, by the conqueror, that it is an all-around pleasant experience for all. 
 Culture is power. Power.  Mysterious power like a secret underground stream flowing into a deep well to be drawn off at will. 
 Culture power is for sale.  I have several catalogs at home full of cultural artifacts that originated in a space that may or may not of been sacred, but they are represented in the catalogs as being of cultural groupsóNatives, European, Russian, and others.  Some cultural artifacts that are for sale were purposely invented to attract tourism in that particular culture.  Some rituals and their sacred artifacts have doubles, lesser, valued imagery manufactured to lure the cultural tourists to an antechamber.  Anyone who values the worth of their culture can construct just such an antechamber until they know the intentions of these tourists. 
 Outsiders to a cultural group need to understand themselves and their own culture before they can attempt to know or own another cultural group beside their own.  If researchers, anthropologists, folklorists and other academics are insensitive to the nuances of a cultural group, they are retracing the paths or steps made on cultural groups which the churchesóthe missionariesóput there in order to save the cultural groups from themselves.  It is not too far from memory that some of the missionary workers buried the cultures along with the group's members.  Some rescue mission.
 For me, culture is relationship.  Between people, rituals and artifacts.  It begins with the selfóa relationship with the self and it moves out, away from the individual, toward others of the group.  One must have knowledge of their own cultural self before they can have a relationship with other members in their cultural group.  Major splintering occurs when one cultural group is thoughtlessly, mindlessly subsumed into another cultural group.  First, among the individual self and then among the group members.  No one even recognizes himself or herself.
 It serves no purpose to try to glue the people back together artificially.  One is responsible for oneís own cultural comeback.  Once a seed is planted, if one is to build a relationship with their own culture, one must take stock where one is in one's culture.  Or how disenfranchised they are.  How distant are they from their cultural selves.  How close.  What is personal and meaningful; what is foreign and distant.  What needs to die.  What do they possess of the culture which was passed on down through the generations.  Where does the culture exist in a day-to-day fashion for the self.  Is there community support for the way-of-being in a certain culture?  Is the accent local, geographically situated and unselfconscious?  Are you just being you and hanging out in your own natural skin or do you take on the spots of a leopard when you mosey on down the street?  Stripes of a tiger?  Whiskers of a pussy cat?  Or do you play hide 'n seek with yourself on a daily basis.  Now you see you; now you don't?  Square oneóthe self.  Start with the self.
 And from that point on, the cultural relationships radiate outward toward the other members of the cultural group.  Their rituals and their artifacts.  Social, sacred and otherwise.  Community, familial, close ties are bound by habits.  Small, seemingly trivial, daily interchanges and occurrences that barely register in the conscious mind represent the true backbone, underpinnings of a group. 
 Family habits accumulated over the centuries play themselves out subconsciously.  Do you eat blackened toasts and stand at the sideboard rather than sit down?  I do, and I found out that so didn't my aunt and my mémère before me.  What a shock.  It's like you don't have any control over who you are, almost. 
 Live in a community where your cultural self is not the dominant group.  Learn the pain of breathing.  Take your daily oxygen in such an environment and it becomes an exercise in being flayed alive.  Or you learn to wear spots that look ridiculous on you and you learn to like the spots and hate the person on which they sit.  You learn to hate who you are.  Without missing a beat, you cram self-hate down your own throat and gorge yourself on blame; shame is your pajamas.  On your toast in the morning, you spread good intentions to be less cultural, don't stick-out so much.  For God's sake, don't tell anyone where you live.  For years.  Don't take anyone home, either.  Make fat promises to kill the accented speech. 
 You go to the four-room, country school and you pretend Boston is your hometown.  You talk about Dorchester like you know the back of your hand.  Tremont St.?  Hell, I've rumbled there.  For the sake of two bottles of beer.  You are in 5th grade.  In 6th grade you study German because the cutest boy in 8th grade is of German extraction.  You teach French in the schoolyard to the other kids.  Yankee kids.  Protestants.  You become lifelong friends with them and the nuns tell you to give them up because of their religious affiliation.  You tell the nun to go to hellóunder your breath, when her back is turned.  It feels good.  So you say it again.  You brag about it on the way home.  To the French house.  To the land where maman and dad speak in Franglais and you respond in Englais.  Accents return.  You sip soup pour souper, watch superman on t.v. with your brother on special t.v. trays.  Your nose runs from the constant cold.  Tomorrow you start all over again.  Some go to school; some go to the mill and some stay home.  Or work in a clothing store for minimum wage because they are bilingual.  Bilingual?  What's a bilingual?  Me, I speak French, me.
 Culture in the buff or rough.  Take your pick.  And they tell me at a conference that the Catholic religion and the Franco-American culture are inseparable.  I tell them the Catholic religion is a template overlaid on the culture.  The man is shaken in his faith and his life.  The host and ployes or crêpes are one and of the same.  Really?  I'm always starving after church.  What did they do to the supper?  It's my quirk.  I want culture and I want it undiluted.  As far as I'm concerned, keep the church out of it.  Nationalism in the church is not a factor anymore and look where that has gotten the French culture?  Qui perde sa foi, perde sa lagne.  Church was doing upkeep on the language for so long, anyway.  Trusting someone or something else to take care of your culture for you while you're busy around back is a no-no.  I need to take care of my own culture.  I, for one, don't want any other folks in my cultural kitchen till I'm ready to give them the recipe.
 Looks like that is not going to be the way.  Multiculturalism, pluralism, you hear those buzz words now and then.  Often, in fact.  Culture for sale.  Culture for sale.  Unless you are careful.  Both sides.  The cultures and the culturers.  The owner should be in the store.  The newest missionaries coming down the tracks, seashores, sidewalks are armed to the teeth with tape recorders, survey sheets, and other paraphernalia from the religion of academe.  Well, bless my soul. ìmés, més, més,î as mémère used to say.  Show them our antechambers.  Please.  Quick.  Vite!
 But they get in anyway and the people spill their guts, the words get moped up and swept into the bin.  Take it down to the factoid factory and spit out the latest and newest ìresearch.î  I sound anti-smarts, don't I.  Not true.  Not true.  I only have standards.  There's a difference and value in both institutional knowledge and home knowledge. 
 How do the ones who are interested in taking a look-a-see into a cultural group's home knowledge go about doing so without alienating the possessors of that particular culture?  Providing the possessors know or realize they have a right to feel alienated.  The culture has been sold once before.  For plenary indulgences that sound as it meansóìyes, you may be excused from being yourself.î  Cool.  Hardly.  The bottom of the market on plenaries fell out and here I am left with all these useless indulgences and barely enough culture.  We can learn to value what we have and what we are.  We don't need to be indulged plenararily.  Not yet, anyway.  We are not on our high cultural horses as far as I know. 
 To learn about the Franco-Americans it is not a matter of reading books.  We are not there.  In a few.  But not what you could call a scientific survey's worth.  Listening.  I believe if I want to learn about another's culture, I listen.  And listen.  And listen.  It is not my place to read or randomly survey and then tell the cultural group who they are.  Yet, this is the way a culture is dissectedólike a frog.  No pun intended.
 I feel threatened when I hear the cookbook approach in learning about a particular culture.  It is more than a matter of writing a technical manual and going from there.  It takes lifetimes to evolve to the people we have become.  Ages.  Generations.  It cannot be easily explained in a paragraph or two or stereotypes laid out over the airwaves and there you are!  Instant Franco-Americans! 
 Wow.  I wish I could have done that after I was flayed of my accent.  My primary language.  My speech patterns.  My hand gestures.  My folklore that I was never fortunate to have heard in the first place.  My folk music that my father listened to every Sunday at noon (it was all the radio station would broadcast in a town full of Francos) and then he stopped because we ridiculed him so bad.  Self-hate will go a long way.  Spread it nice and thick as insulation against ever getting below the surface of the self.  I'd enjoy the memory of having some self-esteem because I was a Franco-American young woman coming of age in a Franco-American neighborhood rather than the confused picture I have of my self and my self worth.  I, and many others, feel robbed of our culture.  It is not an easy thing to get back.     Culture is a relationship.  An experience with the self and others.  Like music, a lived experience.  Culture, complete with the rituals and artifacts of a lifetime, takes much longer than a good read.  Culture is something to be honored, revered and revised or questioned, too; used on a daily basis and not shunned or shamed.  Canned culture, it is not.  And it is not for sale. 
 

Back to Contents