Society for Linguistic Anthropology
Oral Presentation Session
Barbra Meek (University of Michigan)
Navajo poet Rex Lee Jim once suggested that meaning was “fragile like a cobweb.” We take up Jim’s metaphor as a way to think through questions of ontology and perspectivism. Rather than beginning with a sense of meaning as semantico-referential, we take up the ways that meanings are fragile
Our first example, comes from the Navajo and, more precisely, a Coyote narrative told by John Watchman to Edward Sapir in the late 1920s. Rather than approach it as an ahistorical “myth,” we ground this narrative within Navajo poetic traditions and as an interactional moment between them. Our interpretation hinges on the fragility of sounds, linking meanings via iconicity.
Our second example comes from the 1994 film, Maverick, starring First Nations actor Graham Greene as Joseph, a Native American character. Greene’s performance “bundles” social-linguistic features in ways that complicate the generic persona of Indians in Westerns and challenge the assumed “radical incommensurability of modern and non-modern worlds” (Bessire and Bond 2014:442) through a fragile re-alignment of sounds and meanings.
What makes “the other” significant to ontologists is that they live in another world. We have taken a different route, rather we have begun with coevalness, that we share the same worlds, that significance is in that act of sharing. Crucial is a respect for a non-bossy interpretative framework—one that doesn’t resolve ambiguities, but sees them as a bundle of possibilities, informing each other simultaneously, fragile like a cobweb.