Athshean Resilience: Indigenous Cultural Pedagogy and the Dream of a Future State

The Word for World is Forest by Ursula K. Le Guin is a fictional narrative that describes the impacts that the Athsheans face when their planet Athshe is determined to become a new colonial settlement by those of Earth or Terra. Originally published in 1976, this novel is commonly understood as Le Guin’s metaphorical opposition to the Vietnam War and it highlights environmental concern – specifically in regard to western society’s carelessness with natural resources. Le Guin also depicts a curious perspective of the Athshean people whom maintain an autonomous ideology and sense of agency throughout the narrative. To understand the deeper thematic meaning behind The Word for World is Forest, the reader must place themselves in a cultural and lived framework that opposes or differs from the colonial forces settling on Athshe. I will be referring to Potlatch as Pedagogy - Learning Through Ceremony, an educational resource comprised of written findings, memories, and transcribed oral storytelling, authored by Sara Florence Davidson and Robert Davidson, as a means to describe pedagogical practices based on cultural knowledge, tradition and ceremony from the Haida Gwaii nation and how this connects to the plight of the Athshean people. This reflection is not meant to reduce Haida Gwaii culture to be considered as equivalent to fictional works but instead to enrich the perspective of how separate ideologies and pedagogies are represented by “Indigenous” type civilizations in works of fiction. For instance, how does the practice of Indigenous ideology support resistance against predominant settler and colonial culture?

Le Guin uses three character perspectives in The Word for World is Forest, she takes reprieve from the colonial perspectives of Captain Don Davidson and Anthropologist Raj Lyubov, both members of the Terran people, to carefully describe the philosophy and cultural history of the Athshean people through the character, Selvar. Le Guin manages this through an omniscient perspective that threads together the historical and present understandings of the Athshean civilization, specifically, the way in which Athsheans utilize dreams as a means to make sense or balance their existence and how this philosophically differs from how Terran people dream. This is articulated by Selvar who states: “…I showed him how to dream, and yet even so he called the world-time ‘real’ and the dream-time ‘unreal,’ as if that were the difference between them” (Le Guin 45). The decision that Le Guin makes to not use Lyubov as the primary character to explain the Athshean people is intentional — Raj Lyubov is not given the opportunity to become a hero by “going native”, instead his positionality wavers from ally, to curious bystander and ultimately, remains as other from the Athshean people. This is articulated by Selvar later in the novel who reflects on what it means to have introduced the word and action of murder to the Athshean people, he questions Raj Lyubov’s role as ally but concludes how his “character and training disposed him not to interfere with other men’s business. He preferred to be enlightened rather than to enlighten” (124). This cognizance reinforces Selvar’s resolution to become the force and agent of change necessary for the Athshean people to survive against the colonial impacts of Terran people. The Athshean’s are best described through the lens of Selvar and Le Guin’s decision to ensure the Indigenous people of this novel was told from someone within the community reinforces the validity, autonomy and strength of Athshean ideology as a stand-alone concept. It causes the reader to extract themselves from the disposition of Captain Davidson and Raj Lyubov, and centre their understanding from the Indigenous perspective of the Athshean people. 

This ideological perspective caused me to reflect on the intention behind Potlatch as Pedagogy — Learning from Ceremony. A book that builds a pedagogical framework for Indigenous learning and knowledge-keeping, a system of theoretical practice that exists beyond or outside of the colonial or Eurocentric institution of education. Co-author Sara Florence Davidson explains the intention of this book originated from her experiences as a secondary-school teacher, “…I noticed that many of the Indigenous students were experiencing challenges in the academic setting. I did not blame them for their ‘inability to succeed’ or assume that they needed to conform to Eurocentric educations expectations, because I understood that mainstream educational practices were failing to meet the needs of these Indigenous students” (Davidson 11-12). Sara Davidson’s assertion, as an Indigenous woman from the Haida Gwaii Nation, references longstanding racism and prejudice that non-Indigenous educators and people have concluded regarding Indigenous students and their ability to succeed within European-based institutions and she calls out the system as the source of deficiency, not the people. There is a parallel that may be drawn towards these observations and how the Athshean people are perceived at the beginning of The Word for World is Forest. The first chapter is written through the perspective of Captain Davidson, who describes the Athshean people as lazy, dumb, treacherous and incapable of feeling pain – he misinterprets the Athshean’s ability to dream as a sign of lacking intelligence, when in actuality it is a deeply cultivated form of spiritual consciousness (Le Guin 20). Captain Davidson wrongfully concludes that the Athsheans come from a less sophisticated civilization and are subsequently, subhuman. Although this is presented in a fictional format, this presumption of conformity towards Eurocentric or colonial institutions is a historic form of colonization as it does not take into consideration additional cultural values and frameworks held by other people, societies, cultures and groups.  Potlatch as Pedagogy similarly aims to articulate an education framework that is should respectfully stand alone as its own framework, its own pedagogy, and is not intended to conform or fit inside existing institutional structures.

Colonial practices often diminish the humanity or existing ideological structures of another culture or race of people in an effort to assert dominance and oppression, whether through aggressive, passive or presumptive actions. Le Guinn's decision to ensure that Selvar’s perspective possessed agency and detailed the collective responsibility of the Athshean people to return to an autonomous civilization is an important choice for an non-Indigenous author to make—  regardless of the troubling outcome of what it means to introduce murder and killing to the Athshean people. Potlatch as Pedagogy causes me to reflect on how culture can ensure Indigenous frameworks and ideologies hold equal importance to long-standing institutions and main stream modes of societal thought, and how this may be represented within fictional works. Additionally, Potlatch as Pedagogy makes sense of the efforts required to revitalize Indigenous culture post-contact, something that Selvar struggles with imagining at the end of the novella.  While Le Guin’s fiction stops short of imagining a hopeful future-state articulated through the dreams and existence of the Athshean people, books like Potlatch as Pedagogy describe how the traditional practice of Indige4nous culture and knowledge-keeping within contemporary society functions concurrently as a form of resistance against the persistence of colonial frameworks. One can only hope that the Athsheans can also dream their way towards a future founded in strength, healing, and resilience. 

Cited Works:

Davidson, Sara Florence and Robert. Potlatch as Pedagogy: Learning Through Ceremony. Portage & Main Press, 2018

Le Guin, Ursula K. The Word for World is Forest. New York: Berkley Books, 1976.