The University of Arizona

Memory and Enshrining Writing: Rethinking the ethnocentrism imbedded in written vs. oral traditions

Elizabeth Eklund


This essay seeks to shed light on the debate about the validity of oral history, not by focusing on oral traditions but rather by addressing cultural biases within mainstream US culture that undermine non-written histories. First, I will illustrate a few of the differences between folklore and sacred / historical accounts to show that there is a problematic expectation of entertainment and make-believe that has been associated with orally transmitted folklore. Then, I will discuss the vocabulary used to describe unwritten accounts versus written ones, to show how dominant (Euro-American) cultures have a strong ethnocentric bias that honors the written text over the oral form. I will also comment on some of the hegemonic discourses and practices that defend and reproduce this bias against oral traditions. Finally, I will show that, despite a firm belief that something that has been written down has permanence, Euro-American heritage (dominant US culture) writers are part of a tradition that intentionally changes stories in new and different written and recorded forms. This documented variation in narratives (histories or just stories), subtly reinforces the hegemonic discourse that a people cannot accurately maintain a sacred history in the absence of writing.

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