Life-Passage vs. Life-History
Anthropologist David Mandelbaum makes a distinction between life-passage studies and life-history studies which emerged primarily out of research concerning Native Americans. Life passage studies, he says, “emphasize the requirements of society, showing how groups socialize and enculturate their young in order to make them into viable members of society.” Life histories, however, “emphasize the experiences and requirements of the individual, how the person copes with society rather than how society copes with the stream of individuals.” Life-passage studies bring out the general cultural characteristics and commonalities that broadly define a culture, but are unconcerned with an individual’s choices or how the individual perceives and responds to the demands and expectations imposed by the constraints of his or her culture. This distinction can clearly be seen in the autobiographies of Native American women.
For example, some early recorded autobiographies, such as The Autobiography of a Fox Indian Woman, a life passage recorded by anthropologist Truman Michelson, emphasizes prescribed roles. The narrator presents her story in a way that conforms with tribal expectations. Michelson’s work is valuable as ethnography, as a reflection of the day-to-day responsibilities of Mesquakie women, yet as is often the case with life-passage studies, it presents little of the central character’s psychological motivation. The Fox woman’s life story focuses on her tribal education and integration into the ways of her people, and relates only what Michelson ultimately decided was worth preserving. The difference between the two types of studies is often the result of the amount of control the narrator maintains over the material; autobiographies in which there are no recorder editors are far more reflective of the life-history category, for there are no outsiders shaping the story to reflect their preconceived notions of what the general cultural patterns are.
For example, in Maria Campbell’s account of growing up as a Canadian Metis who was influenced strongly, and often negatively, by the non-Native American world around her, one learns a great deal about the life of Native American women, but Campbell’s individual story, which is told to us directly, is always the center of her narrative. Clearly it is important to her to communicate to the audience what her experiences as a Native American have been. Through Campbell’s story of her family the reader learns of the effect of poverty and prejudice on a people. The reader becomes an intimate of Campbell the writer, sharing her pain and celebrating her small victories. Although Campbell’s book is written as a life history (the dramatic moments, the frustrations, and the fears are clearly hers), it reveals much about ethnic relations in Canada while reflecting the period in which it was written.