Russell Means on orality and literacy

Russell Means braids his son's hair, by Ilka Hartmann

I like the way Russell Means began his 1980 speech, For America To Live, Europe Must Die.

The only possible opening for a statement of this kind is that I detest writing. The process itself epitomizes the European concept of “legitimate” thinking; what is written has an importance that is denied the spoken. My culture, the Lakota culture, has an oral tradition, so I ordinarily reject writing. It is one of the white world’s ways of destroying the cultures of non-European peoples, the imposing of an abstraction over the spoken relationship of a people.

So what you read here is not what I’ve written. It’s what I’ve said and someone else has written down. I will allow this because it seems that the only way to communicate with the white world is through the dead, dry leaves of a book. I don’t really care whether my words reach whites or not.

I read a lot of media theory, where orality and literacy is a giant topic. (I can see a book called Orality and Literacy from my desk.) And I think this is the first time I’ve encountered a first person, pro-orality perspective from someone with an oral culture. I feel shocked to realize this. But of course books about media have a bias towards text. And of course online articles have a bias towards text and mass media. Somehow I had the two topics in my mind, media theory and resisting white supremacy, but hadn’t made many connections between them.

There’s a rule of thumb which can be applied here. You cannot judge the real nature of a European revolutionary doctrine on the basis of the changes it proposes to make within the European power structure and society. You can only judge it by the effects it will have on non-European peoples. This is because every revolution in European history has served to reinforce Europe’s tendencies and abilities to export destruction to other peoples, other cultures and the environment itself. I defy anyone to point out an example where this is not true.

Means was talking about Marxism, but now I am thinking about printing presses and the internet.

One thought on “Russell Means on orality and literacy

  1. I would like to write a very smart comment about this post, but for now I will just say “two thumbs up”. Also “great photo”!

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