On Memory

The words of philosophers, like poets, have the tendency to succinctly and powerfully convey intricate abstract concepts and, in the process, engender new understandings. Conducting researching for my final project, I have often returned to the relationship between cultural identity and continuity, especially of Native American communities whose traditions are often put under the microscope in ways not experienced by non-Native people. Reading a book on tribal approaches to CRM (Stapp and Burney 2002), I encountered an example that highlighted this discrepancy and, with the words of Basque philosopher Miguel de Unamuno, recast my thinking on the evolution of cultural traditions.

Stapp and Burney discuss how non-Native people implicitly accept simultaneous change and continuity in Western traditions without question. To illustrate their position, they forward the example of Catholic monastic life and how despite substantial changes in monks’ traditions and observances over the centuries, few would consider contemporary monks inauthentic or non-traditional. Identity is not the product of rigid continuity, they argue, but an adaptive process whereby traditions change and acquire new meaning with shifting times, places, and social contexts.

Preserved within this adaptation however is a thread of continuity, or perhaps more accurately, memory. At this point, the authors let de Unamuno’s words speak for themselves:

“We live in memory and by memory, and our spiritual life is simply the effort of our memory to persist, to transform itself into hope, the effort of our past to transform itself into our future”

Persistence, of traditions, sacred landmarks and resources, and place, runs through the literature on Native American cultural landscapes, but the importance of memory often receives less attention. De Unamuno eloquently reminds us that while identity is constructed in the present, it is informed by the past and the personal and cultural memories we carry and make manifest.

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