A Response to Contradictions Among Indigenous Sources*

The primary sources for this lesson plan are meant to be problematic for those beginning to study research methodologies. Most notably, they are contradictory. This section provides an Indigenous approach to resolving this contradictions and is meant as a supplemental reflection for those who have completed the activities. If you have not yet completed the activities, do note continue.

A challenge with Indigenous sources. When reviewing and analyzing the Indigenous primary sources from the Module A activities, it is apparent that the two sources are similar in nature. They center Coyote as a main figure who battles a monster that was eating up “the people,” or other animals. Coyote then defeats this monster by cutting its heart out. Both of these stories are creation stories that detail how certain animals gained their notable features, but there are some apparent contradictions between them as well.

First, the Nez Perce legend only identifies one monster, whereas the Yakama legend identifies multiple monsters. This is important to note because both stories tie the events to their representative geographical locations: the Nez Perce legend occurring in Idaho, near what is now the town of Kamiah; and the Yakama legend occurring in Central Washington. Each of them carries distinct geographical features associated with the events that could be argued as proof for a more legitimate creation story. However, one of the defining differences is the creation of human beings and the various Tribes from the body parts of the monster in the Nez Perce legend. But the Yakama legend explains that the human beings were not created from the defeat of the monster, but eventually “came” to the lands. So here we have several notable contradictions among these stories.

When contradictions arise in primary sources, historians have various methods in order to resolve, clarify, or circumvent such conflicts of information. By consulting other primary sources, utilizing corroborating archaeological evidence, and engaging in textual criticism, historians can overcome these issues.

An Indigenous approach to contradictions among oral sources. When contradictions arises among Indigenous primary sources, Indigenous scholars or those utilizing Indigenous methodologies often use the same tools that Western researchers have available to them.

While we previously discussed several methods that can be applied to the investigation of sources, there is another aspect to approaching Indigenous oral sources that needs to be consider: how to ethically resolve such contradictions. In other words, it is not always appropriate to highlight and “expose” such contradictions that might exist among Indigenous stories.

An example: suppose a researcher wants to write about little known Indigenous groups in a particular region. To do this, they travel to the region and is able to connect with a particular group. They meet one of their Elders who is responsible for keeping their oral traditions and relating them to their people. Perhaps the Elder shares the creation story of their people with the researcher. In the story, the Elder relates how their people came to be and how the other surrounding groups came to be.

Later, this same researcher is able to meet with another local group in the same region as the first. This second group has very similar, perhaps almost identical cultural customs as the first, but with some minor nuances. The researcher sits down with an Elder and the Elder relates their creation story, a story in where many of the details are the same as the first creation story imparted to the researcher. The only noticeable difference: this story accounts for a different way that the surrounding groups came to be.

Now, this researcher is faced with an apparent issue. Two groups with very similar customs, with very similar histories, and very similar stories have a contradiction between their creation stories. Even more so, both of the stories do not seem to be corroborated by current archaeological evidence, which seemingly indicates that the groups migrated there as opposed to being created there. What is this researcher to do?

From an Indigenous experience, non-Native researchers will often note the stories to some detail in their works, but then dismiss them in light of the supposed scientific evidence produced by non-Indigenous sources. Then the researcher could very well write about these groups and purport the accuracy of one story over another if that story is then more consistent with other observable evidence. What results now is, for Indigenous peoples, a misrepresentation of the historical narratives and a diminished representation of the very humanity of one of the groups.

So how could this contradiction be resolved differently? Indigenous scholars approach it from a different perspective. For example, Melissa K. Nelson, a citizen of the Turtle Mountain Chippewa Indians, provides some insight on this:

“Within diverse Indigenous ways of knowing, there is ultimately no conflict . . . In fact, it points to two very important insights generally practiced by Indigenous Peoples: for humans to get along with each other and to respect our relations on the earth, we must embrace and practice cognitive and cultural pluralism (value diverse ways of thinking and being). We need to not only tolerate difference but respect and celebrate cultural diversity as an essential part of engendering peace . . . As the late great Lakota scholar Vine Deloria Jr. has written, “Every human society maintains its sense of identity with a set of stories that explain, at least to its satisfaction, how things came to be”

Melissa K. Nelson, Original Instructions: Indigenous Teachings for a Sustainable Future (Rochester, VT: Bear & Company, 2008), 4-5.

“Many Native Peoples believe that the center of the universe or the heart of the world is in their backyard, literally. And there is no conflict over this as the Wintu of California can perceive Mount Shasta in norther California as the center of their universe while the Kogi of Colombia can understand that they are from the “heart of the world” in the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta of Colombia. Place-based spiritual responsibility and cognitive pluralism are imbedded in most Original Teachings. It is good that each nation, each tribe, each community perceives their ancestral lands as the center of the universe, as their holy land…”

Melissa K. Nelson, Original Instructions: Indigenous Teachings for a Sustainable Future (Rochester, VT: Bear & Company, 2008), 10-11.

In other words, contradictions that result from differing details related through stories are often reconciled simply by letting them be. For Indigenous peoples, trying to choose a narrative as being “true” or “correct” over another isn’t necessarily an issue – nor is it considered the “right” thing to do. They are seen as mutually existing and overlapping where they do, but parting where they may.

But how on earth does this confer an accurate telling of the past? What happens if these stories contradict science or archaeology? These are valid questions. For Indigenous scholars, the differences are not what are observed, but the similarities. Suppose we go back to our previous analogy. How would an Indigenous researcher resolve the conflict between the two stories and allow the observable evidence speak for itself? By letting them all exist. Rather than recording which story is more accurate or which conforms more to the available archaeological evidence, the overlapping similarities may be listed and support is conferred by any other evidence aside from the oral narratives. Where the difference exist, they are not seen as false or something to be disproved, but should be viewed as an opportunity to further investigate the results of such differing details. What happens a lot of the time is that these supposed differing details are actually the result of a metaphorical interpretation of the same event, meaning that there could be no contradiction at all in the recording of event, but a difference in the retelling of such events.

Indigenous scholars recognize the inherent value of each groups’ traditions and stories. Contradictions that crop up do not invalidate the story of another and should be viewed on their own merits. When a pattern of error is detected that is fully unsupported by any other pieces of evidence, that is when stories can begin to be credited as dubious. These patterns should not be included into historical works that are to be produced. Clarity should be striven for when creating a foundation of credibility and veracity.

For Indigenous peoples, these types of contradictions are not presented as impossible barriers to overcome. They are left to exist and impart the meanings to their peoples as intended. A similar notion is taken up with the idea of spirituality and metaphysical aspects existing in such stories. They are not seen as items that complicate a matter, but rather as aspects that enrich said stories. For Indigenous peoples and scholars, many of these supposed contradictions or “non-objective” aspects are accounted for accordingly and are simply not considered problems.

* Adapted from an earlier work of mine, which can be found here.