Truth and Tribalism

I read a story years ago in the Atlantic Magazine, a story told as true and which I wanted to be true.  Ian Frazier, in his book On the Rez, tells of SuAnne Big Crow, and of her triumph over racial and socio-economic class taunting and heckling at high school basketball game.  Her team from the Lakota Indian Reservation was about to play against the team from nearby Lead, South Dakota, a mostly white town and team.  The team center did not want to go onto the court in the face of this invidious heckling so SuAnne went to center court, took off her warmup jacket, faced the hecklers, and performed the Lakota Shawl Dance.  A silence came over the crowd and the hecklers were quiet as with her power of expression and evocation she wove them together into one commonness of humanity.

SuAnne Big Crow died in a single car accident at age 17.  She was big in her life and bigger in her death.  Her obituary describes her as “…a natural leader, who desired nothing more than to improve the lives of the people in her beloved community.”  Ian Frazier invests her with a perceptiveness, a social intelligence beyond her years.  I fell in love with his story and wanted it to be true but that dance may never have occurred and that is another story.

SuAnne may or may not have danced at center court.  She may have only done a short dance on the sidelines to reduce her pre-game nerves.  The hecklers may or may not have made racial taunts.  But the grass was barely planted upon her grave before her mythologization began.  Who first told the Shawl Dance story is unknown, several people told it to Ian Frazier.  It was a “truth” among some residents of the reservation at the time that Frazier was there.  He fell in love with the story, wanted it to be true, and retold it in his book.

I fell in love with that story when I read it and wanted it to tell a true story of the human condition.  Bill Harlan, a reporter with both family and experience in the area, did not fall in love.  Quite the opposite, he was disturbed, upset that he had not heard the story first hand.  He began fact checking and interviewing, and learned that the game did not occur as reported and that the Shawl Dance story was largely myth.

Someone, sometime, somewhere, embellished a small story into a large story that resonated in some other minds, a story that told a truth of a brave young woman who faced down racist taunting, overcoming it with a display of skill and evocation.  It was told and re-told and, in the telling, became true.

For the truth of the myth, it matters not whether she did or did not perform that dance.  What is good and true is the story of humanity that is told one person to another, for it is possible for truth to be told out of imagination.  How might that be?  Clearly there are factual, or event, stories and truths; and there are social stories that carry truths of a different sort.  In earlier essays I used the word truthional setting it in contrast to functional.  Stories are functional: in the previous essay I noted that they are ‘honest signals of the motivation of the teller’ even though that motivation may be entirely cryptic to both the teller and the recipient and the ostensible subject may be nonsense.  Stories do something for the teller and to the recipient.  They need not be true in the factual/eventual sense to accomplish their purpose.

A social truth may trump a ‘factual truth’ when the social value is high and the factual or event truth value is low.  Social truth does not rely upon factual truth.  Social truth stories function within the space defined by the hyphen ‘we are an individio-social species,’ in the interface between the individual and the group, between psychology and sociology.  These stories look both ways: they define the behavioral patterns for the individual that are required to form, operate, and maintain the group and that signal that the individual is a member of the group and integrated within it.  Stories also define the responsibility of the group toward its individual members.  In between personal and tribal truths, between psychology and sociology, lies social truth, stories that fit the individual (and familial) into the group promoting those interests mutually.

Stories bind us into societies or tribes and divide tribes one from the other.  The mythologization of SuAnne was enhanced by the exaggeration of the heckling and taunting, a demonization of the other to make her victory more complete and meaningful.  Stories function to form the individual into the group and to set the group in some relation to the other.  Stories function to conjoin or to conflict us.  Stories tune our perceptual filters, install perceptual patterns, write survival rules, energize our emotions, create and regulate motivations, and map experience to perception and perception to response.  Stories teach us about exploration of our environment and about dangers and resources that might be found along the way.

Myth contains powerful social truths, stories that are told of how to be human within the context of the tribe.  One source of the power of myth is heroes and heroines: individuals who are presented as exemplars of the best of human behavior.  Their stories are intended to elicit emulation of the heroic virtues of confidence, judgment, fairness, bravery and optimism – the natural leader.  There is also in myth the anti-hero, one who is not to be emulated for he/she does not exhibit those qualities.    Emulation, that great and powerful mythic motivation, to be worthy of entering into the tribe of heroes, to become the subject of a new myth, to be larger than life, and to be remembered triumphantly, is our immortality and is worth seeking.

This then is the truth of the SuAnne Big Crow Shawl Dance story: “here, in this one event told in this story, SuAnne rose above their perception of our racial and socio-economic status and brought us together as we watched her dance.  SuAnne is one who should be emulated, a heroine.”

The SuAnne Shawl Dance myth does not have any meta-story interpretative abstract concepts.  Its purpose is to convey a social truth from one mind to another.  This purpose is performed in a mytho-factual form, telling a ‘true’ story of an event replete with meaning, a form that is directly apprehended by the receiving mind.  This social truth story is imitable, telling of heroes and heroines doing marvelous deeds that can and should be emulated.


I chose an interpretation of the SuAnne Big Crow Shawl Dance story that is closer to Bill Harland’s than to Ian Frazier’s.   I concluded that the story was more mythological than factual.  That interpretation led to the concept of social truth expressed in myth, binding the individual into a group, and regulating individual behavior by emulation of mythical larger than life heroes/heroines.  Shared myth and the social truths contained therein is one of the social glues.

In my previous essay I sought truth.  I found instead that the concept of truth may have been generated by the experience of deception, a behavior that is far more ancient and very much more widespread among plants and animals than the telling of truth, more ancient than language, speech and writing.  In this essay I once again sought truth.  I found instead that truth inheres in stories that advance my personal and tribal interests.  The more I search for truth and falsity the less of it I find.  I find its usage and its effects.  I find its psychology and its sociology.

I find that truth has an evolutionary history.  Truly there was a time before truth.  Someone, somewhere, in some time unknowable, said in the heat of the moment “that is not true!” and our mental world, our perceptual world, our story world, changed for all time.  We live within the results of that exclamation – within the concepts of true and false.

Truth was preceded by deception and tribal conflict.  I phrased the exclamation ‘that is not true’ in the negative because conflict seemed to be a likely source of the concept of truth.  If, for all time and in all places, there was only one set of ‘mutually agreed upon truths’, there would be no concept of true or false.  There would only be the stories and “that is not true” would never have been uttered.  Truth is, itself, functional rather than truthional.


What is required to form an individio-social species?  Our sociality is not that of the social insects.  We have individuality: choice, variability, personality, etc. What is required is social glue, various ways to incorporate individuality into a functional group.  One way is the telling of glutinous stories that aggregate individuals into a whole.  Myth functions within this ambit giving heroes and heroines to emulate, stories about how to be an individual within the group.

We are an individio-socio-verbal-tribal species that tells stories to fit the individual within the tribe.  While we live and die as individuals, our survival is not individual but socio-tribal.  Likewise, our reproduction and child raising occurs within that context.  We require the tribe and to be a tribe we utilize or even require stories.  Stories form a functioning survival unit – a tribe.


My sources for the SuAnne Big Crow Shawl Dance are listed in the bibliography in this Wikipedia article: