“We Are Nothing More Than Stories”: An Interview with Natchee Barnd
By Marisa Yerace, WIC Intern
Natchee Barnd is an Associate Professor in the School of Language, Culture, and Society. A 2017 WIC Seminar alum, he taught the Ethnic Studies WIC course, Public Discourse and Writing on Race, last Winter term. He also recently published a book, Native Space: Geographic Strategies to Unsettle Settler Colonialism, last year. In this interview, WIC Intern Marisa Yerace chats with Natchee about his research, his book, teaching a WIC course, and his writing process in general.
Q: How long have you been at OSU? What is your research specialty?
I’m newly-tenured, so it’s like a whole new world now. I’ve been here seven years, I’m a comparative ethnic studies scholar. I also have expertise in indigenous studies and I do cultural geography, race and space, and indigenous geography work, more specifically.
Q: Let’s talk about your new book! What do you want people to know about it?
I would say it’s an interdisciplinary book. It reflects my training (ethnic studies) and my approach to questions or problems.
I had a question about what indigenous geographies look like, and how do they continue? What sort of practices are used to maintain them? The question wasn’t so much whether they did continue—I knew they did—but more of, “How do they do this?” What are the ways in which they’ve done this, from sort of infrastructural questions—like streets and street-naming—to artistic versions of that to cultural practices and performance?
This is all rooted in a notion of geography and space as always in production. It doesn’t just exist out there. We only understand it as we exist and engage with it and make sense of it. That, in turn, shapes how we see ourselves—by the way we engage with it and the structures we’ve created. I wanted to see how that works with native communities in the more mundane ways. What about those more nuanced ways we make meaning and sense of the world? When we see a forest, do we just see trees? Do we see them as potential resources? Do we see it as relatives, as part of the stories of our creation? Those are all very different questions which create different kinds of space, and then we reflect and create different kinds of identity based on the answers to those.
Some people say we are nothing more than words. I agree with that. On my syllabi, I say “We are nothing more than stories.” That’s the way we convey our understanding of the world, is through our words, through our languages. Without that we can’t actually produce or reproduce or sustain. We can’t make sense of the world. We’re just kind of bumbling around with no ability to process anything.
Q: What was your writing process like for your book?
It’s a project that sort of stretched over time, a small piece started in a dissertation, and a lot of that dissertation was written—actually, I think I kind of paralleled this as I wrote the book—at some point I hunkered down and was practicing writing every single day. Literally, every day I had to write, so when I was finishing—I had been working on it for years as an ABD—I had a deadline and I thought, now it’s a 9-5 job. I was writing every day.
I think all writing instruction or guidance tells you that you need to practice it like anything else. You need to practice that craft every day. Writing, for me, has always been a means of thinking. Like many people, I wrote to think. I edit a lot—I try really hard to not edit as I go. I definitely get into these modes where I’m writing every day as much as I can, in spurts. I allow myself to go where the writing or the thinking’s taking me, and sometimes I go elsewhere and come back. I trust that is always, in some way, going to be beneficial.
I did the same with the book, I spent a lot of time every day—just carving out a little bit of time, whenever I had a little bit of spare time. Sometimes I had a word count, just trying to get to 300 words. I think it was more word count than time, ‘cause you can say you’re going to write for three hours but if you only write 300 words you’re not very productive. I thought, if I aim for a small amount, and it went from there—it was great, it felt more productive. I think the psychology is really important, you have to feel like you’re making moves, it’s so easy to stop yourself or make excuses, or undercut your writing, and as a faculty person there are so many things that take you away from your writing. You have to carve it out. My process was always about trying to protect that time, and then letting it flow as loosely as I possibly could.
My schedule was different every single week, but I would try to block it for a morning time—I’m a morning writer, I’m a morning person and morning thinker. Somehow, if I could both work out and write at the same time, like really early in the morning, that would be amazing, but for some reason I can’t figure out how to do that. I feel like exercise and writing are the same in my mind: you have to make the choice to get that done in the beginning, before other things sort of overtake your day.
Q: Do you still try to write every day?
I try… I have other things I’m working on and those kind of keep me going.
Q: What other kinds of writing do you do?
I write for different audiences. I do stories for speculative nonfiction stuff. I have a course that’s a methods class which is an archival research and writing course that then also delivers, as a spoken tour, an actual tour of the community. I’ve written a few pieces for those with my students.
I was writing a conference presentation, which I write for oral delivery, but I’m finding my written and my oral styles are actually coming closer together. I tend not to actually change a lot, depending on what the argument was at different points. In my book, I started off with narrative beginnings, and then I go into a more formal and academic analyses and discussion. I usually start with a story and then I use that as an illustration or encapsulation of the analysis they’ll see later.
Q: Do you find that there are specific Native American genres in writing, or specific aspects of Native American genres?
Yes. Story is always a sort of major writing and telling mechanism—speaking, conveyance, communication mechanism. I think everyone tells stories, but in this case, there’s a difference between stories that are explicitly understood as stories and stories that are more than stories.
This is in my brain right now. I have a Native American Activism and Assimilation class, and throughout the term every week they are assigned—in addition to the usual scholarly pieces and poems here and there—they are assigned stories from graphic novels based on either trickster stories or native sci-fi-slash-fictional stories, and I give them to them for a couple reasons: one, because there’s a lot of information in them, and two, they’re enjoyable and accessible and easy-to-read. I think people will think of them like fables, like sort of Aesop’s fables or something like that. This is something I kind of realized this term more than I have before—they were just kind of looking at the moralistic outcomes, like what is the lesson? And those were definitely part of the stories, but what they would miss was actual traditional knowledge also embedded in them.
Let’s say I would have a story that’s eight-to-ten graphic novel pages. That’s just a little bit of dialogue, but also a lot of imagery. There are little indicators. They describe a location or they mention something about an animal doing something with another animal. If you’re looking at just the moral of the story, there’s a lot of information—biological, geological, geographic, botanical, zoological—all these pieces of information are actually being conveyed. If that story then gets meshed-up with some other stories in the network of stories, then that story is going to be read differently.
The one we talked about in class, for example, was a story about a racoon who sees a rock that kind of looks like a person, pushes it down, and after running under it, getting squished. There was this moral lesson around the treatment of elders and mischievous behavior, but what was being missed was the anatomy of the raccoon, why it looks the way it does. The story ends up talking about the shape of the racoon and why it moves the way it does and the body form. The rock itself was a very distinctive rock, so if you’re from a particular area, you’re locating the story to a very specific place in the world. It’s not an abstracted, generated story about just a rock that could be anywhere—no, it’s a very specific rock in a very specific place, so if you’re from there, you’ll know what that is. Then that story is attached to that place, and there are other elements of the landscape.
Actual knowledge that’s embedded in that may seem like context or decoration. I think those are really important in native stories—they are not abstracted. Usually they are very specific about place and relationships. Maybe there’s a relationship between two animals that hunt together, and Western science has always told us that they’re both predators—why would they cooperate? Then, in recent years, they find out, Oh, they actually do that. I think that’s something unique about those stories. They aren’t always writing, per se, but now they’re in writing form a lot.
It’s opening up students’ awareness of what’s there and what they may not be able to access and being okay with that. I’ve told them, sometimes you can’t access this, you don’t know all the things, but you should be able to see the possibility that this is connected to something more and realize these stories are not just fictionalized accounts and the reason they have the detail. In a novel, you have detail to try to craft a reality or what seems like a reasonable, tangible, kinesthetic experience. In this case, details are not created for that effect—they’re conveying certain information and knowledge that’s been passed along from direct experience, basically through a scientific process—engagement, learning, observation—so it’s in the form of a story, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t hold that knowledge.
For students, it’s a matter of recognizing you’re just reading this in a really simplistic way, but what if these are all real things (which, I argue, they are)? The value of the story becomes so much more intensified if you’re losing those stories. In order to sustain a culture, it becomes harder if all of that knowledge is embedded in those stories. One story is not going to be enough: you need all those stories. I think that’s where I tend to leave them.
Q: What was the topic of your Winter WIC course? How did you design it?
The WIC course I taught last winter is called Public Discourse and Writing on Race. A lot of times what I try to do is connect an external motivator to courses, so in this case the timing was such that Oregon had just passed a requirement for K-12 to teach ethnic studies in the curriculum. There’s a task force that is working through that curriculum, trying to lay out what those curriculum guidelines will be, so I asked my students to target high school, and to write to this task force or to teachers to explain to them why discourse around race in particular was a really important thing for them to consider while constructing these classes.
It was a persuasive set of essays. They had to use the material and draft this over the term and pitch it to these educators and their administrators—who will be thinking about how we implement this in 2020, so this was a real thing. I had one of the task force members Skype in and talk to them about what they’re doing so the students saw that this was something that can go outside of the classroom. It’s not just me as an audience, it’s different teachers.
It shaped their writing: how do you pitch this to someone who, maybe, is nervous about doing this, they don’t know how to incorporate this, they don’t understand this element of discourse, how a racial discourse works in a way that is not just “Let’s add another story besides Martin Luther King, Jr.?” How do we think about the larger discourse, which is not just adding stories or adding historical events, but thinking about how we understand race through discourse as a whole? It’s something that’s more fundamental.
So that was their charge. I find that when there’s something really concrete, they do really, really well with it, having to craft a voice, figuring out what to expect, what their audience will know and they don’t know, how to provide examples to help them make their argument—and they had to think about what that person would be concerned with. Part of that was because Ethnic Studies doesn’t have a single sort of audience. Some disciplines they have a single audience, or a fairly narrow set of audiences. Ethnic studies can apply to any audience, so it’s a matter of in which capacity you want to write. You’re dealing with the fact that most folks think they understand race and racism, but they do not very well, so you have to undo some of those commonsense understandings which are not really right.
In this case it was very specific, it was helpful to have educators and administrators who would be funding those classes, to point to those folks and think about how you need to talk to them opposed to the general public. Some students were thinking about their high school teacher–“Oh! I have this one teacher who this would really resonate with.” I need to circle back to see how they did with that.
Q: How would your course change when you change the external motivator?
I always shape courses specifically to the kind of tasks they deal with, or I would change the materials, but there are certain ones I think I gravitate towards because they make sense to me. I would definitely adjust things based on what I thought my goal was.
Q: How do you incorporate informal writing into the WIC course?
Informal writing matches my practice of just wanting to let myself write without the editing voice as much as possible. When you have informal writing, people need to be aware it’s okay to just write—don’t edit, don’t worry about spelling, get those ideas out, get moving. I think students tend to want to be efficient, get it done once, get it done right, validate themselves, they did it right, got it done the first time—and I have to remind them, “That will never happen, you will never get the perfect thing down.” I tell them I want them to fail, and fail as early as they can, and I say “failure” loosely—they hate that though. They don’t like process-oriented as much as they like outcome-oriented. It’s hard to sell that.
In [my WIC] class, and I need to do more of this, I had them project, like pre-flection of what they expect to see, what sort of questions they need to be thinking about, before getting into a reading, as a sort of guidance. I have these great pieces I’ll give to students, but they won’t always know what to do with it or why I’m assigning it. It’s not necessarily that I’m looking for a main point, it’s thinking about certain things to look for.
I had them writing each time we met—sort of pre-thinking, post-thinking, as a way to generate thinking on the spot, getting used to the idea, all those things. We were going to read this piece that was a critique around tourism culture and the power dynamics that were at play, specifically in the Caribbean. I asked them to think—before they read, before they knew anything about what the piece was about—to imagine they were going to the Caribbean on a trip. Why are they going there, what are they doing, what do they see? Just sort of thinking through the normative visions of what it means to go to the Caribbean. A lot of the thoughts were about vacation stuff: the ocean, sunshine, they were having fun. And then they get this piece that has a pretty dark turn to it—while folks are here as tourists, here’s the other side of what’s happening in this community, how people are locked in by economic disparity, by race, by the history of this particular island. It sort of really flips that and makes people rethink how they imagine themselves in relation to the Caribbean. But they wouldn’t have thought about it quite as strongly as if they hadn’t envisioned it, it would’ve been easy to pretend as if—but I already had the evidence of what they’d been thinking, and they have to reconcile that.
With things that are pre-reading, they usually have some ideas and thoughts that they can utilize. Sometimes it’s just questions. It’s just a way to really up the amount of processing they do. And they have something to write about later! “I thought this, and now—” How do you feel embarrassed? Not that my goal was to embarrass them… in that case it kind of was.
Q: What are your primary goals for writing assignments in your WIC course?
They’re the goals that were laid out for us in some ways. I think a lot of the students came away from this knowing who you write to matters—your audience. It’s helpful to understand there are different ways of writing, different modes of writing. I have them do that exercise of thinking about, “What are the different kinds of things you write? What are the kinds of things professional you could write? What are the different kinds of audiences that are out there?” With Ethnic Studies, because it doesn’t have a specific kind of audience—it’s not a science audience, it’s not a policy audience, it could be any and all of those things—being clear about what that audience is, at first, and then crafting writing to match is critical.
There’s the idea of revision. It seems to be a novelty to students. Everything I’ve written in my book, I’ve probably edited, like, a hundred or two hundred times. I have draft after draft after draft of those things. The idea that revision is making it better, is making your thinking better, is obviously important to WIC, so that’s one of my purposes.
Then, for me to see which ways their writing is applicable to current, real things. I think those are my goals for them.
Q: How did the WIC faculty seminar help you teach your WIC course?
I was doing it [the seminar] right before I was doing the class. I was a lot more thoughtful about how to make it most productive for students—how to actually develop their writing and thinking. I was a lot more encouraged to use the kind of creative prompts I normally like to use.
I like to be a little more flexible, and that can be frustrating to students, and I think in this case I had to have that stuff prepared, with a purpose and why I was going to do those things. I think, if nothing else, it gave me a space to kind of plan out that class a little more thoroughly. I don’t always like to plan that detailed, but I think those were some of the best things about it.
We used a lot of techniques from the seminar—write and pass, process memos. I was just talking about process memos the other day in (my non-WIC) class. It’s a kind of way for me to get a sense of what they think they need help with, and it’s a way to minimize the labor. It can be an all-encompassing thing if you’re doing a Writing Intensive and unlimited feedback. It’s a way to narrow down what they think they’re having trouble with, or that they really want attention to, and then I can maybe do one more thing in addition to that, so they have three things to deal with rather than 55. It really refines your thinking and your labor, which is crucial!
Q: Has your WIC training affected your teaching outside of the WIC course?
Yes! I mean, I say yes, and here I am this term thinking “Aah! I should’ve used more of those strategies!”
I definitely am still using some of the assessment time-saving techniques of not pointing out every little thing, and thinking, What are the three important things? I guided my TA to do the same, and I think those are important strategies because this is a class of forty, so I can’t spend the attention that I could on a WIC class. I think that works better, not just for me, but also for students. They feel it’s more accessible, more successful—they can actually meet those goals.
I remember using a lot more of [the WIC techniques] even the term after, ‘cause they’re so successful, they’re so helpful as engagement tools.
Q: What advice do you have for other people teaching or designing WIC courses?
I think if you take the seminar it’s helpful. It gives you a good frame for getting out of the idea that, no matter what the discipline is, the writing and the writing intense model is somehow external to the content, and that it’s one more thing you have to do, rather than using it as the tool by which to do the thing you want to do. That was a good thing for me to be reminded of, the thinking through writing. I can’t ask them to perform this final writing without having given them the chance to practice that, and have those revision processes, and understand what writing is and use it as a way to move along thinking. It’s a simple reframing, and it’s common sense, on some level. You have your content and you’re like, Oh, I have to make them write multiple things, and this is actually a really great way to get them to think through this material.