To begin ...

As the twentieth century fades out
the nineteenth begins
it is as if nothing happened
though those who lived it thought
that everything was happening
enough to name a world for & a time
to hold it in your hand
unlimited.......the last delusion
like the perfect mask of death

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Diane Rothenberg: The Economic Memories of Harry Watt (Part One)

The Setting

We first met Harry Watt in December, 1967. Stanley Diamond prepared a letter for us to carry along and telephoned ahead to introduce us. Diamond was interested in the experiments in translation that my husband, Jerome Rothenberg, was doing and thought that a meeting with some of the singers of the Allegany Seneca, a group among whom Diamond had worked, might be conducive to further explorations in translation. Harry Watt received us in his warm house on a very snowy evening and, because of his fond memories of Diamond, made an effort to acquaint us with the community. We went back several weeks later and the next summer rented a barely converted gas station just outside of the Steamburg relocation area. During that summer, Jerry engaged in productive translation projects with several of the leading singers and songmakers, and our relations with many people intensified and expanded. Toward the end of the summer we were honored by clan adoptions in the Longhouse, and Harry Watt became my uncle in the Blue Heron clan.

We returned regularly to western New York in the following years to visit, to participate in ceremonies and to talk with friends. Some of the best talk was with Harry Watt. We would meet at his house, or around his sister’s table, or, in better weather, at the old house, several hundred yards away through the woods, where Harry Watt and his wife had their gardens and where he most liked to be. This was the house that he had preserved when the forced relocation in 1965 caused by the building of the Kinzua Dam required that everyone occupying a house within the flood plain move. The misery of the time of removal was vividly felt, and the new houses generally resented. Harry Watt’s old house was the almost singular representative of what had been a very recently transformed way of life and, as such, conveyed layers of meaning and emotion that we could hardly begin to appreciate. It was located high on a bank overlooking the Allegheny River, with the gardens on one side and the woods all around, and Harry Watt would point to places when he talked about his childhood, about herbal knowledge, about encounters with animals. He talked about his experiences at the local Indian school and his running away from it for a perceived injustice, about his experiences traveling around the country doing construction work, about the skills and men involved in his work, about his encounters with Indians in other parts of the country, about Indian sovereignty, and about his hopes and fears concerning a retention of Indian identity by those who were losing the Seneca language and ceremonial knowledge. He talked about schemes for teaching the old ways, about his respect for those who were educated and knowledgeable in those ways, about his own sense of deprivation in having chosen paths which led him away from an early immersion in Seneca language and culture, onto his return in his later years with an eagerness and a sense of responsibility toward a goal of Seneca cultural preservation. Harry Watt’s dedication in these matters was essential to the smooth running of the Longhouse Religion and, most importantly, to the preparation for the annual cycle of Six Nations meetings which preserved and carried the message of the prophet Handsome Lake throughout the intertribal circuit of believers. He was a model of a traditional Iroquois peace chief (although he did not have such a title): dignified, courteous, reasonable, personally available and generous, highly intelligent, and responsible to the collective. For these, and many other reasons, strangers were sent to see Harry Watt, and he was accustomed to representing his community to visitors – journalists, scholars, students. We witnessed many of these encounters and grew familiar with some of the regular turns the interviews would take, so that, over the years, we heard him discourse many times on some of the same subjects. Two of his favorites were religious epistemology and working, and I began to feel that I could “hum along” when he introduced one of these topics, although I tried not to seem inattentive and not to interrupt.

In June, 1972, we rented a house In Salamanca – on the Allegany Seneca reservation – for the beginning of a new project, this time the field work toward my dissertation. We had no clear idea of how long we would stay, but the work was going well and there was no other place we needed or where we wanted more to be, so we stayed for two years and left with great regret. My own work turned more and more toward historical research and archives and away from a systematic accumulation and recording of fieldwork notes. I regret now the tapering off of these detailed notes; when I reread them I hardly recognize my own voice, as if I were reading the experiences of some other person. Our social interactions and participation were intense, but became less instrumental, and the “participant” activity quite assuaged my early 1970’s discomfort with the “observation” part of the anthropological enterprise.

Harry Watt frequently remarked that “people say I should write a book.” I had heard that statement often enough to feel some impatience whenever I heard it again, but also to feel that maybe he really should tell the story of his life in writing and that I should help facilitate that ambition. While it also seemed to me that hearing a systematic account of life on the reservation at the turn of the twentieth century might be of use to my research, I was already more focused on the turn of the nineteenth century, so my own goals were of secondary concern in this project. I offered to come around with the tape recorder that I rarely used, to transcribe his dictation, and to collaborate with him on editing it for potential publication. It seemed like a tidy project.

On November 16, 1972, I sat on the sofa in Harry Watt’s living room, hunkered down for some serious descriptions of his early life on the reservation. He sat in his rocker, eyes slightly closed in an attitude of remembering and, to my distress, began, “When I was a boy, we really knew how to work.” I had heard that many times before and I was sure that was not the way to start this project. I tried to divert him, to suggest he talk about his grandparents, his memories of being a little child, events and people in his family. He responded briefly to my inquiries, but seemed determined to continue talking, in what seemed to me a platitudinous way, about working. The tape recorder ran on and he talked on, while I sat enveloped in a cloud of frustration. When he tired of talking, I turned the machine off, went home and transcribed what was on the tope, gave him a carbon of the transcription the next day, and never mentioned the autobiography again. My copy was filed away, that other filing system in my head contained only a record of my frustration, amended slightly by my feeling of superior wisdom about what a real autobiography should be.

About five years later, friends who were editing an issue of a conceptual-art magazine, proposed that contributors from various disciplines should consider the subject of memory from the perspective of their own work. My experience with Harry Watt’s autobiography still rankled, and so I began an essay exploring the generalizing tendency of the elderly in relation to their own pasts and the related problem of using oral history as data. After I had completed several paragraphs, I remembered that I had the transcript in my files and thought to search it out for relevant examples.

Harry Watt’s words flew out at me as a reproach both for my incomprehension and for the opportunity I had missed. The organizing principle of “work” was for him a primary value and a life metaphor. It was through working that he defined himself and it was through the core of economic behavior that the rest of life was elaborated. Because I did not open my ears and my mind, as the Seneca invocation directs one to do, I missed the opportunity to know more about it. The transcript which exists represents in small measure an homage to the man who died in 1986 and is included here in full to convey both the spoken cadences of the oral delivery and the richness of ethnographic detail.

(to be continued: Part Two, The Text; Part Three, The Commentary)

[Originally published in Dialectical Anthropology : Essays in Honor of Stanley Diamond, edited by Christine Ward Gailey, Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 1992. A professional anthropolgist & an active player in the emerging discourse around an ethnopoetics, Diane Rothenberg is also the co-editor of Symposium of the Whole: A Range of Discourse Toward an Ethnopoetics (University of California Press, 1983) and the author of Friends Like These: An Ethnohistorical Analysis (University Microfilms International, 1976. Copies of her book, Mothers of the Nation, in which this essay also appeared, are still available through Ta’wil Books, Another essay from the same collection, "Corn Soup & Fry Bread," was posted earlier on December 5, 2008.]