Category Archives: Transposing Experiences

Sagard and Schefferus




In the second week of our seminar, we read portions of two works, Gabriel Sagard-Théodat‘s 1632 The Long Journey to the Country of the Hurons,  and Johannes  Schefferus‘s 1673 LapponiaBoth works are similar in presenting a decidedly Christian, unmistakably exoticized view of a foreign other, the Wendat/Wyandot people of what is today Ontario, and the Sámi people of today’s Sweden and Finland. Both writers dwell on religious traditions and discuss foodways.  Both evince a fascination with the cultural traditions they describe. But they also differ in interesting ways.  For Sagard, huddled with his fellow Recollect missionaries in a leaky hut furnished him by kindhearted Wendat neighbors, the Wendat world is in striking flux: settlements are growing, dividing, relocating, coming into conflict; the economic norms of the region are rapidly changing; and Sagard seems intent on painting just a single point in a huge and complex mosaic that he sees around him.  For Schefferus, ensconced in the comfort of his study far away from Sápmi at the University of Uppsala, the Sámi world is both more seemingly complete and more certainly static.  Learning about Sámi culture second- and third-hand from the reports of others and the testimonies of divinity students spending time in Uppsala, Schefferus imagines a Sámi culture that has particular characteristics and particular tendencies. Despite all the evidence of considerable variation from one Sámi community to the next, Schefferus seems intent on constructing the kind of singular Other that will eventually become the norm for colonial representations of the peoples controlled and cultures suppressed in colonial “encounters.” Perhaps this was one of the first of Western academe’s many and multifarious contributions to colonialism: the ability to reduce cultural and social complexity—the messy and muddy world that Sagard tells us about as he dreams of converting the Wendat to Christianity—to the simple images of cultural inferiority and need of colonial supplantation that Schefferus so matter-of-factly delivers. Perhaps it was that authoritative tone that made Schefferus’s work such a best seller of its time, finding near immediate translation from Latin into French, English, German, and Dutch.


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Transposing Experiences


I am teaching a seminar in the fall of 2016 on the ways in which folklorists and others have represented the cultural products of other people.  That is a very complicated way to say that I hope we’ll explore what people say about other people.  The seminar topic is informed, of course, by the seminal works of the Writing Culture scholars in Anthropology (led by James Clifford and George Marcus), but Folklore Studies is a much older discipline than American anthropology, and in the seminar we’ll be reaching back into medieval and Enlightenment materials and moving forward from there.  Both in Europe and the United States, further, folklore has been used to assert or bolster ideas of national identity, not just exotic otherness,  and we will examine those aspects of the materials we look at as well. And we will look at the effects that medium has on such representations–i.e., what happens when a representation of another’s culture is not a text but rather a film, or website, or computer game?

Students in the seminar will be posting their own responses to the materials we discuss, but I will try to share my views via this blog for folks who want to join in the conversation, or just listen in….

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