Mapping Kinship

Perhaps you have noticed a trend here at DryErase Writings–a multi-coloured, infantile trend (see previous posts involving colour & drawing here and here). Today I’d like to continue that trend by sharing with you yet another way you might introduce pencil crayons & drawing to your classrooms.

Have you ever considered having your students draw kinship maps?

Kinship maps are interesting from a teaching perspective for many reasons:

1. They can translate textual narratives into visual, spatial ones, and therefore provide another way of knowing a text, concept or history.
2. They can function as time-keeping devices, like a timeline might. But unlike timelines, kinship maps can translate linear time into something more complex. They can translate a linear history into something multi-directional.
3. Like any map, kinship maps are good mnemonic devices. They help you remember sh–, er, I mean stuff. And the relationship between stuff.

Asking students to draw their own kinship maps makes active all of these important processes. Drawing a kinship map in class might facilitate the analysis of a narrative, the recording and interpreting of a particular history, and the memorization and comprehension of how different concepts, moments, people, etc. relate to one another.

Beyond Pretty Colours

Cut and paste your face! It’s easy!!!

But kinship maps are also interesting teaching tools because they represent a particular way of knowing, and a particular methodology. And, both are tied to a particular history: to European history and, as we shall see, especially to European colonial history.

Consider this: the ubiquitous family tree found at the beginning of many a memoir or available to any with the inclination and the money at has its own particularly European family history. In her article, “Family Trees and Their Affinities,” anthropologist Mary Bouquet shows that the genealogical maps with which we are familiar today–picture here a simple graph in the shape of a tree, or perhaps in the shape of an upside-down tree–have their roots in Judeo-Christian family trees that recorded and regulated lineage, reproduction and the inheritance of property. These semi-sacred, semi-regulatory roots later branched in the nineteenth century into the sciences: into philology (the study of the history of languages) and evolutionary theory. From the sacred domain of the Church, then, to the no-less sacred domain of Science, and from a concern with class pedigree to a concern with biological heredity, genealogy carries a lot of baggage. Add to this their more recent use in anthropology at the turn of the twentieth century, when anthropologists relied heavily on the study of kinship in their ethnographic work, and we can begin to see why borrowing the kinship map for a tutorial or a class might involve more than just getting your students to play with a box full of pretty colours.

Bouquet explains that at the turn of the twentieth century, understanding a culture’s kinship system–how a community defines social relationships amongst one another–was deemed of primary importance for the study of any “foreign” culture. This is because how a culture or community defines relationships tells a great deal about that culture, and understanding this can allow an anthropologist to recognize just how large the gap might be between how he or she views the world, and how another culture might. In the West, kinship has historically been defined according to specific, so-called “natural” biological ties. But ethnographic studies of non-European cultures have made any such claim to the “naturalness” of defining kinship in these terms untenable.

This, I think, is the magic of anthropology: it allows you to recognize that systems and ways of living thought natural or intuitive are in fact often constructed and arise out of specific cultural conditions. Despite this, what I find really interesting about kinship maps is that while they might try to capture non-European ways of understanding social relations, the map itself, and its tree-like appearance, reflects a particularly European understanding of kinship and family. The kinship map can easily misrepresent what (or whom) it seeks to describe, and it has historically been tied up with colonial projects to understand, document or assimilate colonized peoples. Bringing kinship maps into your classroom therefore introduces a rich teaching moment to a lesson: it get students actively involved in a meaning-making project, and simultaneously gives instructors the opportunity to draw attention to the ways in which meaning is, indeed, made, framed, or, as it were, mapped.

Back to the Box of Crayons

By way of conclusion, I would like to share with you a possible application of this idea. Last week I drafted a sample lesson plan for a second-year Canadian Literature class. First up on our list of readings for tutorial was one of my favorites of the year: Brian Maracle’s “The First Words,” a re-telling of the Iroquois creation story. Warren Cariou, Professor at the University of Winnipeg, describes it as “an act of living, historical memory” and stresses the importance of “[s]eeing this narrative as a kind of history, rather than as a myth or a legend” (Globe and Mail, Dec. 2004). I love reading and re-reading Maracle’s text. And I love discussing it.

So, I leave my draft lesson plan with you. And along with it, a few questions, too, that jostle around uncomfortably in the back of my mind:

Are exercises like these too juvenile for the adult classroom? Do you think they undermine the seriousness and importance of the subject matter?

Draft Tutorial Lesson Plan: Brian Maracle’s “The First Words”

Materials Needed: pencil crayons and scrap paper.

Intended Learning Outcomes: By the end of this tutorial, students will…

1. Have a clear understanding of the relationships between the personages described in Brian Maracle’s interpretation of the Iroquois creation story.

2. Consider how those relationships are described by Maracle, and the values they might speak to.

3. Recognize and question the assumptions a reader familiar with settler culture and history might bring to their understanding of the relationships in the text.

Explain briefly what kinship maps are: like genealogical trees, they indicate who descends from whom, and what relationships people have with one another. As an example you might draw your own family tree on the board. This could be a traditional family tree, but it could reflect non-biological kinship ties.

Explain to students that they can decide how they will indicate what type of relationship different people in the map share (ie, brother & sister, parents & children, friend, etc). They could colour-code, for example, or simply draw lines connecting people, or they could write captions explaining relationships.

Give students 15 minutes. Then check in:

1. Who is represented in your kinship maps? Is there anyone missing?

2. How did you indicate the relationship between the First Woman and the grandson of the sky woman? Is she like a daughter? Or is their relationship different? How did you represent the relationship between First Woman and First Man? Why?

3. Did you include any animals on your kinship maps? Why/why not?

4. What about the land? Is the land related to some of the people in the story? How so?

Ask students to return to their kinship maps and make any final revisions that they would like. They might want to add/change things after the discussion you just had. If you like, let students know that you are collecting them, and that next week at the beginning of tutorial there will be a contest: the class will vote for the what they think is the best kinship map (most creative, most robust, etc).


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