by Mike Bonifer
In a presentation he gave at the Quantum Storytelling Conference in Las Cruces, NM, in 2013, Leroy Little Bear, an elder in the Blackfeet Nation in Alberta, Canada, and founding director of the Native American Studies program at Harvard, taught me about a big difference between indigenous peoples' stories and what he calls 'Western' storytelling.
He did it simply, using a whiteboard in a classroom at New Mexico State University where he gave his talk.
"In the Western mind," he said, "stories live in time. That means a lie..."
He drew a small 'x' on the whiteboard.
"...told at one point in time, will disappear over time."
He drew a line the length of his arm, tipped it with an arrow, and added a '0' at the end of the arrow.
He drew a line the length of his arm, tipped it with an arrow, and added a '0' at the end of the arrow.
"In the Western mind, a lie told today will be of no significance two years from now. The lie, and all stories, disappear with time.
Then he drew a square on the whiteboard.
"In the indigenous mind, stories live in place."
He drew a small 'x' inside the box.
"A lie told in a place lives in that place. Will never leave that place. That means anyone visiting that place, for the rest of time, will be visited and affected by that lie, and by all the stories that happened there. The stories do not go away with time. They stay. They live in place."
In American culture, we see the Western storytelling model in time-eroded and covered-up historical narratives of the indigenous tribes, slave labor, and capital markets, where money has a time value and time has a money value, and so acceleration and time/timing of transactions takes precedence over what the transaction is or does to its actors.
We see the clash of Western and indigenous story frames in the 2016 protest at the Standing Rock reservation, where a linear, time-based narrative of capital investment and extraction (the pipeline), cut through a palimpsest of 'stories living in the land,' like a scalpel opening a body without any intention of healing it.
Closer to home and today, a man I have done business with over the years made me a promise in 2004 that he has not kept. In exchange for equity in a company the two of us launched, I told him if it was successful, I'd like it to pay for my children's college educations. He agreed. I got no equity. To date, the dude (of course it was a dude. a white dude.) has probably made $30 million personally from that company and what has spun out of it. He is a founder of a venture capital fund. Owns a virtual reality company. Is personal friends with Al Gore and Meg Ryan and Bono. Bought a second home in Aspen and completely remodeled it. Flies private jets. Bought an immersive theater company. Has screening rooms in all his houses. Drives a high-end Tesla. Me? I owe $164,000 on student loans I took out based on a handshake with the dude 15 years ago. Stupid, yes? Where was Leroy Little Bear when I needed him? Even before I knew of it, I was operating with an indigenous mindset, and the dude with whom I'd launched the company was operating 100% in Western mode. The man with the millions counted on the promise he made to me going away, and for the most part, it has. He has put enough time between him and the promise that it is invisible to anyone but the two of us. Is there a contract? No there is not. Do I have legal recourse? Not that I can afford.
Meanwhile, the time pressure on servicing the student loan grows. The burden of carrying it weighs heavier by the week. Ticking clocks are a Western story trope. As the promise dissipates, greed fills the vacuum. The unchecked capitalist fever--of acquisition, extraction, exploitation, consumption, status, self-orientation--builds, with no regard to the land or its people. With no concerns of equitable allocations, or of win-win games. Only stakeholder optimization in win-lose scenarios.
Typically, in Western stories, promises are made to be broken, and broken badly--or what's the point? Typically, in Western stories, there are winners and losers, or what's the point? It's why there's a famous saying in Hollywood, "It's not enough that I succeed. Everyone else must fail." To a totally Westernized mind, the man with the millions is the winner and I am the loser in this story.
Thanks in no small way to Leroy Little Bear and others, including Joseph Gladstone, David
Boje, Gregory Cajete and Grace Ann Rosile - elders in our tribe of storytellers who hold deep understanding of indigenous stories, and have roots in Blackfeet, Navajo, Nez Perce and Hopi cultures - I now have better framing and language for the scenario I have described here, as I've experienced it.
The white dude who's made millions? I see him not as a winner (his version of our story) or a villain (in my linear telling of it) but as a Coyote character in it. A mythic trickster. He comes from somewhere (in the white dude's case, he comes from Indiana, same as me) and is going no place in particular. As Coyote his motive has never been to hurt me or my family. He is without motive. He is pure opportunist. What he says and does can have malicious outcomes, but is not said or done with malicious intent. He does it to stir things up. To prompt questions. To provoke thoughts and actions.
There is no beginning, middle, or end, to our story. For over 20 years, Coyote has come and gone in my life at odd intervals, each time to and from a place where the promise re-visits us. A party. A phone call. A meal. A visit. Coyote knows he made a promise. His intention in returning to a place is not to make good on his promise, it's to make another promise that will be broken all over all over again. This is his trick.
A week ago, Coyote showed up again, with another promise. He phoned and told me (excitedly! - he is always excited when he arrives, inevitably in a hurry but going nowhere in particular) that he would introduce me to a high status person. A New York Times best-selling author, an expert on entrepreneurship, whose organization has billions to invest. This is the Crow in our story. The character who can see to the far horizon. Can see the curves of land and spirals of time. Coyote tells me that how I tell stories can help Crow realize his vision of visiting far horizons.
Coyote says his Russian Assistant will set up a phone call with the Crow, him, and me, in Coyote's office the following week.
The meeting does not happen. Instead, Coyote emails me an introduction to a small non-profit with a wobbly business model - in our story this is a Flock of Geese, who honk a lot, but do not make sense.
I tell Coyote this is not what was promised. I tell him conversations with Geese are useless. That he promised a meeting with Crow.
"Crow left his company," he says. "It was a surprise."
This morning I called Crow's company, and asked if he still worked there. The person who answered the phone said yes, Crow is here.
I text Coyote: Crow has not left his company. He is still there. Please make the intro.
Coyote forwards me an email he received from Crow, announcing that he will be leaving his company at the end of the year. Four and a half months from now.
In the Western way, the white dude has time-shifted his story to justify his behavior and ease his conscience, and he gaslights me in the process. What was true yesterday is not true today. What is not true today will be true four and a half months from now. It's a shell game. Pacification. Stalling. It is the same strategy that pipeline companies use to run their construction through native soil without accounting for the ancestral stories living in the land. A Westernized telling of our story counts on time to do its work. Over time, the 'x' of a promise, will become a zero, a statement hollowed of all meaning. Empty. Distant. Forgotten. Or at least plausibly deniable.
When, by comparison, I frame our story as indigenous--as a story living in place--I experience it in a different way. As non-linear. I experience it as the comings-and-goings of a Coyote who makes promises without intent, malicious or otherwise. I can understand that Coyote and I keep bumping into each other on our life's journey because our stories are forever entangled. I can appreciate that the positives and negatives of our 20-year relationship co-exist simultaneously, undiminished by time. I can see that this is why I am still in conversation with the man. Not because I will ever see a check for $164,000. No chance of that. Coyote never makes promises in order to keep them. Nor does he make them in order to break them. He makes them because they seem like an interesting thing to say. He knows something will come of them, and neither he, nor anyone else, knows what. (Think of what Coyote might have stirred up at Crow's company by sharing news that Crow will be flying in four and a half months.)
What comes of a promise made by a trickster is not up to the trickster, but up to me. When I frame our story as indigenous, I understand that what will happen in the four and a half months between today and the day Crow flies from his current perch, is not Coyote's to determine. The choices I make, the path I walk from here, will shape the future as I experience it.
When I frame our story as indigenous, I can be entertained by it. I can laugh. I can write this.
And as I write this, my friend Shannon Lee is currently caught up in a very public clash between Western and indigenous ways of experiencing a story. Shannon's father, the legendary martial artist and movie star, Bruce Lee, is depicted (by actor Mike Moh) in the writer/director Quentin Tarantino's new film, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. There's a fight scene in the film involving a fictionalized version of Bruce Lee that no more resembles the real Bruce Lee than a toy action figure in a child's sandbox. Says Shannon, in an interview for the entertainment news site, The Wrap. “She added: ‘I understand they want to make the Brad Pitt character this super bad-ass who could beat up Bruce Lee. But they didn’t need to treat him in the way that white Hollywood did when he was alive.’” (Molloy, T. 2019)
The hokey story treatment to which Shannon alludes includes having the make-believe Bruce Lee refer to the boxer Muhammed Ali as ‘Cassius Clay’ which Ali always called his ‘slave name.’ Ali changed his name from Cassius Clay to Muhammed Ali in 1964. Once Upon a Time In Hollywood is set in 1969. Because Westernized stories are tied to time, the distance in time makes the fiction more palatable to a Western mind. The story takes place 50 years ago. What difference to a Western mind does a five-year gap fifty years ago make? In this framing, Tarantino’s fiction is only off by 10%. “90% accurate!” is what I imagine the studio spin on Tarantino’s depiction of Bruce Lee would be.
For Shannon Lee, for many masters teaching today in the dojo, and millions of lifelong fans of her father, the legend of Bruce Lee lives, not in time, as a Western storyteller like Tarantino would have it, but in place, fully present, as a philosophy, a way of life.
Shannon herself oversees Bruce Lee Enterprises. Her work is keeping her father’s story alive, not as cartoony fictions, but in ways that are as alive and relevant today as they ever were. That Tarantino scripted Bruce Lee referring to Muhammed Ali by his slave name five years after he’d changed it is a weak sauce cooked up by a storyteller who wants to extract value from Bruce Lee’s story without participating authentically in it. This is a story approach I imagine would sound familiar to the Dakota and Lakota people of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, and all other North American indigenous tribes too.
“My father worshipped Muhammed Ali,” says Shannon Lee.
Thank you, Leroy Little Bear, for showing me a way.
Molloy, Tim (2019) Bruce Lee’s Daughter Saddened by ‘Mockery’ in ‘Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood’ (Exclusive) The Wrap. July 29, 2019
Mike Bonifer is the founder of
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