The Boundaries of Acquisition: The cultural limits in acquiring knowledge

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The Boundaries of Acquisition: The cultural limits in acquiring knowledge
Helenski, Katice
Cohen, Donna ( Mentor )
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Gainesville, Fla.
University of Florida
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The Boundaries of Acquisition: The Cultural Limits in Acquiring Knowledge

Katice Helinski


Boundary. Edge. Zone. These are terms often used in conjunction with physical and spatial concepts. They

are concepts that help delineate areas involving different activities, forcing interaction in some cases and restricting

it in others. Boundaries establish a limit, creating a distinction-whether it is between inside and out,

between acceptable and unacceptable, or between accessible and restricted. In addition to the boundary there is

an edge. It acts as a dividing line. Finally, a zone exists within the realm of the edge. These terms help to construct

a set of rules and conditions, which could then contribute to the study of various situations. Within the Zuni

culture, they are seldom applied to conditions of land ownership or personal space, but they are a significant part

of the transmission of information and knowledge. The significance of this manner of informing increases, due to

the fact that the perpetuation of information relies completely on the spoken word, as the Zuni language is not

a written one. Zunis teach the ways of their people in a specific manner that is as much a part of their culture as

their ceremonial costumes and their bread baked in hand-built ovens. The boundaries involved in learning

create zones of importance that require special rights of passage. Consequently, knowing is sacred to the

Indians when applied to their religion and culture. This relates directly to Zunis' outlook on conducting ones'

self within communities and society. It also relates to the social differences that cause conflict among the Indian

and white social and political systems. Through the discussion of some of the venues of knowledge transmission

and the boundaries that exist between them, as well as the manner in which the information is transmitted,

certain assessments can be made about the Zunis' outlook on life.

There are certain venues within the Zuni tribe where knowledge is transmitted, and varying degrees of

restrictions exist within these zones. Storytelling is a more open element of education. Young and elders within

the society use it as a part of conversation. It is not unusual for a Zuni man or woman to drift into a tale of

their people through accounts of childhood adventures or historical events. The stories are carried

throughout generations, keeping the culture alive. Throughout my research, stories were repeated in publications

by different Zuni people, and repeated again by Zunis I encountered on the reservation. This displays how the

tales are passed down through the generations. Storytelling is a way of perpetuating their ancient way of life,

which links to why it occurs so freely. Tales are told and retold until they become an integral part of life and

passed on to later generations. The details of the core of their culture that involve sacred history, such as the story

of creation, are told by people specially trained to inform repeatedly without variance (Wyaco, 3). However, there

are limits. In the multitude of Zuni knowledge that is recorded by word of mouth there is a select amount

of information that they are willing to reveal to the general public. Some things are only meant for Zunis, and

they make it clear, whether in publications or conversation, that there are some things outsiders should not

know. This position is not an act of resentment of other cultures; it is simply the way all knowledge is treated-

as something sacred and sometimes very private.

Many zones of learning are bound in a way that access to information is permitted only to certain people.

For instance, Zuni has six kiva groups, which consist only of men. "Membership is determined by the kiva group

of the husband of the midwife who first touches the baby as he emerges from the womb" (Wyaco, p. 101).

Then, when a boy reaches the age of twelve, he is initiated into the group and officially becomes a man. At this

point they become privy to new information, signifying the passage into a new group. This private place for men

is something that is solely theirs, balancing out the women's ownership of the household. This gender

separation becomes a part of childhood as well. Education and training of girls occurs in the household, where

they aid their mother and learn traditional elements of life in a Zuni home that will only be known by them.

Parallel learning experiences occur when boys are out together, learning about hunting, farming, and the land

in another setting. (Wyaco, p. 16,17) While this separation exists, it is not one of subordination. The

boundaries make the women and men dependent on each other. Sacred religious ceremonies, and the

positions people hold within this realm contain the most limits. Chosen people who are able to focus completely

on the sacred event impersonate the gods in ceremonies. When the "personators" are in the kiva, ceremonial

house or costuming they must not be observed. (Wyaco, p. 98) This is another aspect of privatization of

knowledge. Numerous other societies and rituals are bound by restrictions on certain tribal groups, but details

are held within a boundary of their own, keeping the secrets as close to Zunis as possible. As stated by a

respected Zuni man, "Religious business is religious business and not for common knowledge" (Wyaco, p. 54).

Evident in the discussion of Zuni social groups, acquisition of information is perceived differently at Zuni than it

is within Anglo culture. From childhood we are told about intellectual freedom, which gives everyone the right

to access information. In school students are commended for asking questions. Our lives are dominated by

the media, in which the best reporters dig the deepest for information and details. We always want to know all

the specifics, but Zuni life works in a different manner. They are comfortable with some things remaining a

mystery. There is not an obsession with finding out everything, instead knowing comes in stages, when it

is appropriate. In Virgil Wyaco's autobiography he explains the teasing, humor-loving nature of the Zunis by

relaying how his family repeatedly tells a story of when he sealed their dirt floor with lard as a child. Though he

has been curious about whether or not the lard harmed the floor, he has never asked because "it wasn't the point

of the story." "There is a mutual understanding that laughter is appropriate, but not questions. Even gentle

questions are considered aggressive" (p. 10).

What is the harm in inquiry? It relates to their social structure of a codependent society functioning as a solid

unit. Traditionally, Zuni has never been a society of dominating leaders-there is no archaeological evidence

of prominent houses or monumental architecture (Howell, p. 89). Due to the distribution of wealth, religion

and ceremony there are various types of status, providing each person with a vital role in society. Consequently,

the preservation of the social structure in Zuni relies on the concept that no one person rises high above the

group. Forwardness and self-pride are dangerous to this system that has been sustained for thousands of

years despite pressure from the invasion of outside groups. Even today, with the tribal council and governor

(drawn from Spanish influence), Zunis still have a driving desire to benefit their people in order to give

something from themselves to the tribe as a whole. When I was at Zuni, in a conversation about additions at

their Department of Natural Resources, Wilbur Haskie said simply, "If it's good for my people, I'll do it. If it's not

for my people, I don't want it" (Journal, May 17). Maintaining sustenance within a harsh highland desert

environment relies on a delicate balance between members of the community. Just as there is a balance between

a corn plant and the scarce rains, so the Zuni tribe thrives due to the balance between the members of society,

each holding their place in the pueblo as a whole.

Ethnocentrism present among people of other cultures results in demeaning attitudes about the Zuni tribe due

to uninformed assumptions. Whites may assume an Indian student is unintelligent or uninterested because he

does not ask questions in the classroom. They may not object to certain injustices, because it is not their way to

pry with aggressive interrogation. Consequently, this is part of what has contributed to the rift between the Anglo

and Indian cultures that inhabit the United States. An understanding of these cultural differences cannot only

benefit relations between groups; it can also provide another outlook on the manner in which we acquire

knowledge. It would be beneficial for people of other cultures to make an attempt to accept that certain

situations have a power that exists because of the presence of elements that are left unexplained. Sometimes part

of understanding is the knowledge of what is best left as mystery. The Zunis' annual ceremony of Shalako reveals

the power of this mystery. This time of feasting, involves the coming of the gods that bestow good life. Moving

in ritualized dances, the Shalakos-impersonated by those chosen by high priests-attend festivities in six

specially prepared houses, each representative of a kiva group. People of all cultures are welcome to view

the ceremonies and take part in the feasting (The Zuni People, p. 54-67). However, little explanation is given

to visitors about the ceremony's meaning and power. In addition, the Zuni people do not question why they do

not know what takes place among the Shalakos prior to performance. They do not ask personators about the

secrets of the event, though they may be a relative or neighbor. Without this mystery the presence of the gods

would not be felt as greatly.

This concept applies outside of religious ceremonialism as well. As Virgil Wyaco stated earlier, sometimes it is not

the point of the story. There is a respect for what is told and what is withheld and those boundaries are an

integral part of the culture. Because of the lack of an affinity to question asking, there is a different manner

of perceiving things. Observation, and intuition are heightened. I think the importance of learning through

experience and interaction is sometimes suppressed by our desire to research and inquire. I have taken part in

this aggressive researching myself. In this study of the Zuni culture, I learned a great deal about their history,

sense of community, and affinity for the land. Much of my knowledge was gained through research methods

foreign to the Zuni ways-I read numerous books about ethnographic research taken by anthropologists at Zuni

and archaeological studies. However, my most valued knowledge comes from experiences within Zuni itself. While

in this place I did not document ancient Indian activities or ask questions about their way of life. Instead, I

willingly absorbed what was offered to me and left the rest to remain unexplained. The adobe Mission

Church, reminiscent of the time of the Spaniards, sits in a prime location within the village. Through a kind gesture,

I was allowed to view paintings of important ceremonial Zuni figures in each season. Though the artist

talked extensively about his artwork, I never learned whom the figures depicted or what the significance of each

was, but it did not matter. As I sat in the cool dark church there was something inspiring and powerful that would

not have been amplified if I were able to provide an explanation for the sacred images.

At Zuni, injured eagles are housed in an aviary made of materials from their land, in order to collect the feathers

of the sacred birds for religious use. Through work with an architecture professor, I have become involved with

the project to expand the eagle project due to the high demand of feathers. No one has ever told us what the

people of the tribe do with the feathers, but we must accept that. It is sometimes difficult not to be

intrusive; however, the people recognize and appreciate that respect.

Limits provide structure and the unknown can sometimes inform the known. Divisions occur within all societies,

but what makes them unique within Zuni is that people respect the fact that the divisions do not make one

person higher than another; they are simply a component of a single functioning body. More importantly, the

Zuni people accept that there are aspects of their society of which they know very little about and inquiry is

not acceptable. No one is considered ignorant or uneducated because they do not know something-they

simply haven't been told. People are comfortable with finding out only what information is offered to them. I do

not think all cultures should stop asking questions, rather we should just ask fewer questions about Zunis. They

will share as much as is acceptable to their society. While I have spoken of certain ceremonies and traditions, I

have told only what Zunis have told. Details are not what understanding Zuni culture is about; it is an experience

and a knowing that is felt through interaction with the people and the landscape that they are linked to. With

this understanding of another way of life, our perception of learning within our own society can be

broadened, increasing the dimension of our understanding. We should learn to accept that there is an edge to

what can be known, and to be content with stating as they do in texts of the Zunis, "That is all that I know".

(Bunzel, 52)


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