A Humanities/Social Science Method of Interpreting Stories and the Experiences of Others


Preparing to gather some "Huckleberries"

Eye Juggling (Cheyenne Coyote story about ways of seeing the world)    entails an appreciation of four critical components and processes: story, symbol, value and engagement.    Consider the metaphor of "landscape," such as the Palouse landscape


1. "story" is analogous to a specific landscape, its particular and unique characteristics and boundaries - for example, the Palouse.


2. "symbol" is analogous to the visual, natural surface features of that landscape, for example, the rich soils of rolling hills


3. "values," "teachings" and "principles" - collectively called, the "bones" - are analogous to the underlying climatic and geological processes and events that formed the natural features and gave the landscape its character, such as wind erosion and the Missoula Flood of some 15,000 BP


4. "engage" is analogous to traveling the Palouse landscape, entailing your full engagement and participation - being very attentive and observant, as you apply the tools of "story," "symbol," and "values/teachings" to your travels, all in order to make an interpretation of the meaning of that landscape.


KEY:  As the symbols/natural features of a story/landscape are influenced by their values/geological processes, to interpret and acquire a sense of the meaning of a story, focus on the symbols of that story, as they will point the way to the underlying values and meaning of the story.     To do such is to Interpret the stories of others. 


A - STORY (the landscape) - We are the stories we tell.   We carry forth our stories into virtually every aspect of our lives, creating our institutions of family, church, school, recreation, art, government, economy, science, technology, work.  From our aesthetic as well as pragmatic views of a sunset on a landscape, to our social as well as spiritual relations with kinsmen, with gods, or with a stone - all are animated, structured and given meaning through the stories we tell.  To appreciate the stories we tell one another to to appreciate who we are.  e.g., a feather.

e.g.,  Baaéechichiwaau "retelling one's own" (Crow)

Note/Premise: Nature vs. Nurture and Free Will.   Everything our science has demonstrated and shown, that through natural selection and evolution, our species is uniquely endowed with the capacity to symbolize and create story.  Genetics gives us the capacity to tell the story, but our wired brains do not determine the content of our stories.  Our genetic endowment has set us free, with free will, to imagine unlimited horizons. 

We are what we choose to tell; choose wisely!


B - SYMBOL (the surface features) - A story is made up of a clustering of symbols.   

A symbol can be defined as a specific unit of reference that refers to a particular referent. The unit of reference can be an object, a behavior, or a sign.  The referent can consist of a concept, phenomenon or process.  Simply put, a symbol is something that stands for something else.      e.g., what constitutes a "rainbow"?     e.g., Story of Rainbow


1. Symbols presuppose displacement.    e.g., phonetic pronunciation of word,  rānbō,  refers, in displace/separate time and space, to a particular phenomena.


2. Symbols entail meaning.   e.g., what are some of the meanings of "rainbow"?


3. Symbols can be transmitted in time and through space, i.e., they can be learned and shared.  e.g. how have you come to learn the meaning of "rainbow"?


4. The meaning attached to the symbol is autonomous of and not bound by the unit of reference, i.e., any given symbol can refer to anything. The meaning of a symbol is arbitrary.  e.g., Olmec Figurine


5. Symbols define the parameters of and assign the meaning to the phenomenal world of objects and of images, i.e., that which symbols refer to is brought forth and created.                e.g., what is it that constitutes a "rainbow"?


6. Spiritual Symbols.                     In action, aligning with the "Bones"


C - VALUES ("teachings" or mi'yep) and PRINCIPLES: the BONES (the underlying forces) - Values - teachings (what Clifford Geertz calls, a "model for" one's actions or "ethos") significantly contribute to the make-up and disposition of the specific symbols of a story.   A story is also given its very reality based upon more fundamental ontological principles, principles upon which "reality" is itself constructed and perpetuated.  Or re-phrased, the symbols of a story are expressive of the underlying values, teachings and principles of a story, collectively known as the "bones" of a story. 


Values - "teachings" mi'yep can be defines as learned, relatively enduring, emotionally charged, epistemologically grounded and represented, moral conceptualizations, that assist us in making judgments and in preparing us to act.

1. All values/teachings are learned.


2. Values/teachings are relatively enduring.


3. Values/teachings are not necessarily consciously known by either the individual or the society.


4. Values/teachings enshrine and impart a society's concepts of the morally desirable and ethically correct.  Values and teachings are as road maps, laying out the territory and the bests paths to take, helping guide our choices in life. 


5. Values/teachings are inundated with affective qualities - emotional feelings and are held with strong conviction.


6. Values/teaching establish a disposition to act.


7. Any given value/teaching is based upon and expressed in terms of certain epistemological criteria.


Ontological Principles refer to fundamental qualities and components that create and perpetuate the very fibers of what is considered reality, that is most real, what is experienced as existence and has being.   They define how time and space are structured and composed.   

Examples of ontological questions would be: is reality ultimately created by material or spiritual forces?     Is my being an indistinguishable participant of existence, subjectively interwoven within it, or can I stand back from the world and view it from afar, objectively?   

Indigenous experiences are premised on spiritually animation and monism, among other ontological principles, resulting in reality as the transitory intersection of those participating, an event of interrelationships.



Together, the values ("teachings") and principles make up the "Bones" of a story - the underlying forces and currents that usher forth and manifest a story.  



Reflection: What is the source of these "bones," where do they come from?     From an Indian perspective? 


Reflection: In what ways are these "bones" real, and the stories they are embedded within, real?


D -  ENGAGED INTERPRETATION (engaging and travel a landscape to render it meaningful)

Our GOAL is to interpret the values from the perspective of others, and avoid the indiscriminate imposition of your own perspective on that which is "the other," to avoid being biased and ethnocentric.

In seeking an appreciate of the perspective of the other, attempt to understand how the values were meaningful as originally constructed, i.e., seek the "cannons of construction," as well as how, though time and circumstances, subsequent interpretations, embellishments, and additions may have been layered onto the original values.  Rendering these distinctions is particularly insightful when attempting to interpret values "closer to home," those associated with one's own cultural heritage.

In addition, seek to appreciate the multiple and varied meanings associated with a given value, as that value attempts to address critical issues relating to aesthetic, economic, historical, religious, philosophical, political, psychological, and/or social sensibilities, dilemmas, and/or challenges.  

What can be some of the benefits in seeking to appreciate the world as seen through the eyes of someone else?


NOTE: We are not asking you to embrace this reality as your reality, not asking you to give up your beliefs and values.  

But we are asking you to allow others to hold tight to what they cherish, and attempt to understand and appreciate their perspective.



Background: consider both the social sciences and humanities methods, and their integration in our Eye Juggling.   


While focusing on symbols and values embedded in a "story text," but also consider the "texture" and the "context" of the  story text itself, as well as what you bring to the entire process.


1. The Text refers to the symbolic meanings of the actual text, e.g., what is being said, what are the world view themes or moral lessons of the story, what is referred to by the key symbols?

Look for dominant units of reference, such as repetitions, e.g., "act, renouncing the fruits of your action" in the Bhagavad Gita, and paired contrasts - binary opposites, e.g., good and evil, one rendered meaningful in juxtaposition to other. 

Texts include:  oral and written narratives (Hindu Upanishads of 9th cent. BCE, Jewish Torah Genesis of 8th cent BCE, Christian Gospel of Mark),     as well as song traditions,      visual arts (Chinese Taoist, European Cubism or Romanticism or Inuit),      clothing worn,     and architectural  structures (Cathedral, Mosque, Tipi).     Texts also include ceremonial expressions, such as rites of passage, pilgrimages (to the Big Horns or Mecca), and world renewal ceremonies, e.g., Crow Indian Sundance.      Table manners are certainly a text.      And story texts can also include the scientific theory of evolution.

Identity the key symbols and values into a Coding System; build a coding list.  As you apply the coding labels to additional related story texts for interpretation, be willing to modify your labels to better reveal the meaning of the texts.  


2.  The Texture refers to how the text is being presented, e.g., what is the style of the writing or the techniques of the telling, what are the interactions with the readers or the listeners, what are the linguistic components and structures?

Consider the distinction between orality and literacy in expressing a text.  (also see Frey 1995:141-47)    Most Indigenous communities are anchored in Orality, supplemented with Literacy.


3.  The Context refers to when and where the text is being presented, e.g., to whom, when, where, in what social situation and for what cultural purpose is the story directed?  What is the historical background of the story text?  In considering the context of a given text pay attention to how that text is embedded within a larger aesthetic, economic, geographic, historical, religious, philosophical, political, psychological, and/or social association of influences.


4.  Interpretation is ultimately a process of creating symbolic meanings.   Interpretation is a construction, a dialectic, a coming together of something new.  It is the resulting culmination of the predominate voices of the other, in consort with and acknowledgment of your own voice.


5.  Eye juggling is done with great effort, and best done as a social activity - dialogue with others.  Bounce off your ideas with others in your family.


E - Examples of story texts, 1. Burnt Face and 2. Genesis, and possible interpretations of Burnt Face, of Genesis



But Also . . . Have Some Fun!