Where Some Ideas Are Stranger Than Others...
The closing phases of a major writing project led me unexpectedly to a 2016 book that I had not heard of before, The Memory Code by Lynne Kelly. The rather silly and pretend movie-style title aside, the book is a less academic introduction to the material she discussed in Knowledge and Power in Prehistoric Societies published the year before. Thanks to the happy coincidence of her longterm work with Nungarrayi, her Warlpiri advisor, friend and colleague, Kelly began learning about memory training systems, especially those first of Indigenous nations in what is currently called australia, and then around the world. Finally struck by the apparent puzzle of how Indigenous people without what is usually understood to be paper and ink or computers keep records, Kelly wanted to understand how they could learn and maintain accurate knowledge of what she endearingly refers to as "so much stuff." Well, there are lots of ways, applied to different tasks, all of them taking advantage of the inherent human ability to encode information on places and then revisit and recount that information to others by going to the places. The places may be virtual or real, the visits may be virtual or real. Keith Basso's famous book Wisdom Sits in Places engages with the specific case of the Cibicue Apache, while at first Kelly found herself utterly taken with how her new appreciation of these methods could be used to propose a practical, testable explanation for the many layers of construction and usage at Stonehenge, among many other neolithic sites.
Among the things she learned about and describes are objects used in training the memory, especially the Luba lukasa, which consists of a board with a back engraved with a tortoise-shell pattern and a front adorned with shells, beads, and carvings. Kelly's delight in improving her memory for material she wants to learn and share, together with making what are works of art is infectious, and she comments frequently on her emotional response to the network of places and handheld memory tools she makes and uses. I suspect that she holds back a great deal of how much sadness she must also feel, as she develops a sense of just what was being actively attacked and destroyed by colonizers who declared all such Indigenous materials evidence of witchcraft and means of resisting assimilation. They were not the former, but they were and are certainly the latter. When Kelly recounts her visits with her selected ancestors, whose details are encoded to a pack of regular playing cards and a pack of tarot cards – an interesting choice because these two types of cards used to be one deck and used for, you guessed it, maintaining peasant knowledge systems without using writing in much of europe – she remarks on how surprised she is by her affection for them.
There is far more to Kelly's book than this, as she delves into evidence for how Indigenous-built and maintained places were used to encode and maintain bodies of information today properly recognized as scientific. Not just animals, plants, and astronomy, but also medicine, construction, planting, and hunting. If her travels and interests had led her there, she might also have gotten quite a shock on learning more about wampum and Indigenous governance systems in northeastern north america. She has a new book out now, Memory Craft, and her website is well worth visiting and keeping an eye on as well. Read at least her two "Memory" books, and then if you'd like to learn still more about pre-invasion Indigenous cultures that starts from the fact that Indigenous people were anatomically modern humans then and had the same basic desire and ability to learn and categorize as europeans, albeit often turned in very different directions, try David Graeber and David Wengrow's The Dawn of Everything. For now though, I am now going to pick up on a revealing paragraph from Kelly's first Memory book, fairly early in chapter 2. She is reflecting on what she has learned from using her memory board.
Over a few months, I became so familiar with the look and feel of each bead that I could trace the board in memory without having it with me. I sometimes drew it on paper, singing the songs I had attached to it as I went. I then threw away the drawing. It was the process that mattered, not the product. I gradually understood why so many indigenous 'art' works were simply erased or left to rot after ceremonies and rituals. They had already served their purpose by the very fact that they were made.
The whole chapter, if not the whole book, should be required reading for any person who is not grounded in any Indigenous tradition but is going to be or is in a position to work with regalia and objects taken from Indigenous communities. I have read more than one colonial tourist or loosely anthropological account decrying how Indigenous people did not take proper care of their artwork and regalia, leaving what the colonial observer deemed too precious to lose to rot or waste. While their appreciation of beauty and skill in making artwork, regalia, and other objects that may be tools for memory training and the like is to be praised, the way this became one more rationalization for treating Indigenous peoples as wasteful children certainly is not. Add to that the self-serving notion of "salvage anthropology" plus the curio market, and soon colonial newcomers were gathering up everything they could get their hands on, taking advantage of grinding poverty and social disruption to seize materials for pennies, rob graves, and sometimes dismantle and carry away whole buildings let alone carved poles of all types. The end result is an often crazed mix of spiritually potent and dangerously inappropriately stored and handled regalia and objects, ancestors and their grave goods, plus a riot of gear understood to have its due lifetime. The longterm storage of the regalia and objects with their own lifespans was not those literal things, but the minds, memories, and actions of the people.
Meanwhile, right now, people from colonizing cultures the world over are suffering from a catastrophe of forgetting. Unwilling or unable to train their memories, they have little or no real historical knowledge, let alone a clear and independent memory of who did what in politics a bare year or two ago. They are utterly disconnected from their ancestors and have no relationship to places, know no names, and more and more often, spend most of their time inside very similar boxes gazing into computers of various types, expecting the computers to remember for them and frustrated that they feel so disconnected. It is understandable that they should feel this way, they have been destoried and discouraged from training their memories to support acting on the matters they care about, from building positive relationships to putting a stop to the colonial practices that are doing untold harm to all of us. They have been persuaded that their propensity to build up remarkable mental catalogues of obscure knowledge about television programs or comic books or computers is merely childish, when it is in fact their own desire to learn and make useful day to day objects to support learning and remembering being channeled into the only outlets they are encouraged to focus on. How extraordinary that there are so many practical ways to do otherwise.