Jean-Guy Goulet's Ways of Knowing is a vivid account of the Dene Tha, a community of Northern Athabaskan natives living in the settlement of Chateh in northern Alberta. The book focuses on how the Dene Tha have reconciled indigenous and Euro-Canadian forms of knowledge after a history of missionaries, discriminatory policies, and oil and natural gas exploitation. Goulet lived with the community for five six-month periods from 1980 to 1984 and returned later on several occasions for extended visits.
The book is bracketed by theoretical reflection in the introduction and in the closing chapter. The ethnographic description stretches across the 200 or so pages between these two poles. In each chapter, Goulet explores a single theme, braiding interviews, published literature, stories, and personal encounters into imaginative explanations of Dene Tha social life. Goulet's themes range from alcoholism and domestic abuse to reincarnation and the Dene Tha concept of "true knowledge." Goulet takes an experiential approach that imitates the Dene Tha way of learning and teaching indirectly through stories and personal experiences.
While Goulet does write directly about native knowledge, he prefers to string together tales that enable the reader to learn from his encounters and visions. The greatest success of this approach is the "jolts" Goulet creates. These are the unexpected moments of revelation for Goulet and reader alike, such as meeting the spirit of a deceased Dene Tha woman in a lecture hall or seeing visions in a smoke-filled teepee at the Prophet Dance. They literally jolt the reader out of the text and into the moments when Goulet himself learns about Dene Tha knowledge and experience.
At a few places the discussions of theory overshadow the Dene Tha. Conversely, the ethnographic description that spans the interior of the book delves into the community of Chateh but rarely resurfaces to consider broader issues such as environmental degradation or self-determination. The transitions between theory and ethnographic description are sometimes disjointed fissures that break the flow of Goulet's narrative. Goulet also tends to privilege only the cultural constraints the Dene Tha create for themselves and considers less frequently external pressures such as technology and private development.
Despite these drawbacks, Ways of Knowing is a striking accomplishment in ethnography and Athabaskan ethnology. The book should be high on the reading list of anyone interested in new trends in ethnography, or knowledge and meaning in contemporary native communities. Not only will readers learn much about the Dene Tha, but they will also be drawn into the stories and dreams Goulet drapes across the text. For those looking for the lushness of a close experiential account of a native community, Goulet's Ways of Knowing will be a gratifying read.
Article copyright Cultural Survival, Inc.