Canadian Literature is a System of Enclosure

I’ll be delivering this paper on a panel dedicated to Canadian Exceptionalism at the Modern Language Association convention in New York City, January 4-7, 2018.

Slide 1.jpg

When John Locke wrote, in around 1689, that “in the beginning all the world was America,” he did not mean that all the world was the United States.[i] He was instead invoking a common rationale for the expropriation of Indigenous land and resources – the biblical ethos that would enable the founders of American settler states, like the US and Canada, to view the lands and resources they desired as the natural domain of a chosen people who carried their rights inside of them as they traversed the globe, seeking new land to convert into the service of their missions. When Locke wrote that “in the beginning all the world was America,” he meant that all the world was waiting to be converted into parcels of property by a chosen, exceptional people.

As cultural ideology, exceptionalism exists to systematically justify Settler peoples’ occupation of land and control of resources, but there are ways in which we used to be a whole lot more explicit about this. In the late 1620s, the Mayflower invader Robert Cushman justified his presence in New England by explaining that “[the] God of old did call and summon our fathers by predictions, dreams, visions, and certain illuminations to go from their countries, places and habitations to reside or dwell here or there, and to wander up and down from city to city, and land to land, according to his will and pleasure.”[ii] According to Genesis 1:28, the Judeo-Christian God had instructed his people to “‘fill the earth and subdue it,” to “‘Rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky and over every living creature that moves on the ground,’” and the Mayflower Settlers, Cushman believed, were simply furthering that mission, just organising their lives around that sacred directive.[iii] Because American settler societies today are comparably secular, it can be more difficult to recognize this rationale at almost constant work; some Canadians might actually recoil from any suggestion that as a society we’re still just trying to act out a command from the Old Testament, and yet this exceptionalism remains fundamental to our extractive structures and economies.

Slide 2.jpg

On the day in November when I started writing this paper, the Supreme Court of Canada greenlit the development of a massive ski resort on sacred Indigenous land in British Columbia. And this is just another day in Settler Canada – because in 2018, Canada’s highest governing structure maintains that section 35 of its Constitution Act does not grant Indigenous nations veto power over our God-given right to pursue development projects. Nothing will get between us and our sacred mission to “subdue” unsettled environments, to convert stolen Indigenous land and resources into our own properties.

Like the US, Settler Canada is an extractive, expropriative state whose unshakable belief in its own essential entitlement to land and resources is so ingrained that we no longer even recognize the historical ideologies informing our behaviours and governance decisions. The early Americanist Drew Lopenzina refers to this phenomenon, the process through which the colonizing culture legitimizes ongoing “violence and oppression by relying on intrinsically ahistorical narrative frameworks,” as unwitnessing – “the largely passive decision to maintain a particular narrative structure by keeping undesirable aspects of cultural memory repressed or inactive.”[iv] Today I’d like to speak about exceptionalism as a deeply undesirable aspect of Settler Canadian cultural memory – one that we have tried to obscure beneath popular invented narratives of peacekeeping and multiculturalism. To facilitate this discussion I’ll be referring to Oliver Goldsmith’s 1825 The Rising Village, known today among Canadiansts as “the first poem to be published in book form by an English Canadian.”[v] In what is perhaps my favourite piece of criticism on this poem, David Jackel argued against Goldsmith’s prominent position in the Canadian canon, concluding that “the poem has historical value, but it is neither a very good poem nor a Canadian documentary. What it ‘documents’ is a state of mind, and that state of mind is not Canadian but colonial.”[vi] For Jackel, as for many others, Canada was something much nobler than a colonizing culture, and Canadian Literature was much more than a settler colonial power structure.

But the colonial mechanisms of this poem are precisely what make it so enduringly Canadian. The poem manifests Settler exceptionalism – through the speaker’s invasion and seizure of land – and then Goldsmith unwitnesses that same exceptionalism through the assertion of a peacekeeper myth. Here’s the point where I’m picking up the thread of Goldsmith’s vision of early Canada – he’s describing the so-called “savage tribes” here:

Slide 3.jpg

So he’s got a cottage at this point, but the woods around his dwelling place are filled with these unsettling people who “maintain / Their right to rule the mountain and the plain.” He’s being told repeatedly and explicitly that the land he’s trying to steal is already someone else’s home, and yet he’s buoyed by an enduring sense of his sacred mission to convert this soil into his property. In accordance with the ideology of exceptionalism, he “retains possession of the soil” no matter what dissenters may say, because the rights he carries inside of his body always trump those of peoples who were not chosen by his God.

Goldsmith offers an important and deeply conventional vision of how to assert and normalize these imported rights, which is fundamentally a matter of outnumbering Indigenous peoples on the ground and of holding or occupying land against competing interests. Here’s how Goldsmith describes the progression of Settler Canadian settlement:

Around his dwelling scattered huts extend,

Whilst every hut affords another friend.

And now, behold! his bold aggressors fly,

To seek their prey beneath some other sky;

Resign the haunts they can maintain no more,

And safety in far distant wilds explore.

Here we’ve got a classic “vanishing race” trope – the Indigenous people just pack up and leave because, in time, they too recognize the Settler’s inherent right to this soil. In deference to those rights, the Indigenous people vacate their ancestral land, the land their Creator gave to them as a gift, the land to which they have important responsibilities — they leave their homes and go west. Because in Settler mythology, Indigenous peoples aren’t really rooted anywhere, they are just wanderers. Goldsmith continues:

His perils vanished, and his fears o’ercome,

Sweet hope portrays a happy peaceful home.

You eradicate Indigenous peoples from your vision, since they’ve been the only thing, to your mind, contesting your title. You drive them from their territory, and then you amend your cultural memory by establishing an idea of yourself as peaceful.

On every side fair prospects charms his eyes,

And future joys in every thought arise.

He has rescued Settler Canadian futurity by eradicating unsettling knowledge from his vision.

His humble cot, built from the neighbouring trees,

Affords protection from each chilling breeze;

His rising crops, with rich luxuriance crowned,

In waving softness shed their freshness round;

By nature nourished, by her bounty blest,

He looks to Heaven, and lulls his cares to rest.

The arts of culture now extend their sway,

And many a charm of rural life display.

Where once the pine upreared its lofty head,

The settlers’ humble cottages are spread;

Where the broad firs once sheltered from the storm,

By slow degrees a neighbourhood they form;

And, as its bounds, each circling year, increase

In social life, prosperity, and peace,

New prospects rise, new objects too appear,

To add more comfort to its lowly sphere.

And here we have the systematic establishment of “home” for the Settler populace. Again, the Settler’s violence is elided from this vision – he has driven Indigenous people from their land just by maintaining his own natural rights. They’re OK – they’re safe! – they’re just gone. It was their choice to leave! There was no war, there were no scalping proclamations. And there are no treaties in this vision because there’s no one left to treat with. All that exists in this vision is the realization of this sacred covenant between the chosen ones, the soil they’ve subdued, and their god in heaven.

So the Settlers convert Indigenous land into their own homes first by building houses and cottages, then by expanding their comfort zones through systematic enclosure, and finally by planting crops on their land. This is a deeply English way of claiming, holding, and thinking about space.

Slide 4.jpg

In Ceremonies of Possession, the American historian Patricia Seed describes the peculiar systems of enclosure that the first English settlers brought to bear on this continent. Anglo-American people created property through a three-part process – first we’d build houses or dwellings, then we’d draw a line or build a fence around the swath of land we were stealing, and then we’d plant gardens inside those boundaries to very clearly and literally mix our labours with the stolen soil. This highly ritualized sequence consisted of actions that were so conventional by the seventeenth century that their meanings could be easily understood by English people on both sides of the Atlantic “without elaboration” and “often without debate.”[vii] In the sixteenth- and early seventeenth centuries, what Seed calls the “enclosure movement” had converted huge sections of England and Wales into private, individually-held properties, pockets of land that individuals suddenly owned against their neighbours; through these rituals, some people produced property for themselves, but at the same time, “a considerable number of people” became “landless.”[viii] The historian Alan Taylor estimates that “about half [of England’s] rural peasantry lost their lands” through enclosure “between 1530 and 1630.”[ix] And some of those people came here.

Like their forebears across the pond, the first English Settlers on Turtle Island enclosed parcels of land in an effort to replace any existing ideas of shared or collective ownership with English expressions of individual ownership.[x] Over centuries, American colonizing cultures intellectually disavowed enclosure, rendering it effectively invisible to themselves.[xi] Of course, we still practice and benefit from enclosure – when we “buy a house in the suburbs” or in the country, for example,

“we are doing more than engaging in a private financial transaction: we are purchasing the idea of that land as ours – our own circumscribed space with attendant amenities like a backyard and privacy fences. Our purchase is a benefit of our placement on the inside of the structures of settler colonialism, and also a denial of Indigenous claims to those same lands.”[xii]

We enclose land to hold it as property against our neighbours. We pushed Indigenous peoples outside the boundaries of our enclosures, and then we normalized ahistorical narrative frameworks to make it very difficult to understand or imagine what Indigenous rights might look like within our settled environments. Through enclosure, we identified ourselves as the mediators of Indigenous presence within settled environments. Our daily behaviours actively carry forward the enclosure movement from sixteenth century England and yet enclosure itself has been disavowed as an undesirable aspect of Settler Canadian cultural memory – we maintain a murky sense of how enclosure dispossessed Indigenous peoples of their land during a far-off colonial period, but we cannot so easily accept that our lives and societies carry forward the same action and consequence. We cannot be those violent invaders, damnit, we are Canadians, we are peacekeepers, but those invaders are nonetheless who we are.[xiii] By unthinkingly living our lives inside these systems of enclosure we continue to hold huge sections of land against Indigenous peoples, interests, and claims.

To conclude, I want to think about this line where Goldsmith says that within the settled environment, “The arts of culture now extend their sway.” Because for me, this is a chilling and direct reference to how the arts function institutionally to reinforce and normalize structures of settler colonial occupation. Simply the words “Canadian Literature” or “CanLit” invoke enclosure – the physical borders of the settler state. The clearest example of this for me, and the one I use in my book, is how non-Indigenous scholars have collectively decided to define what an early Canadian author is today. If you scan the table of contents in any anthology that includes an “early Canadian” section, you’ll see that we define an “early Canadian” writer as an English, French, or Indigenous person who produced alphabetic text within the physical borders of what became the Canadian state. These borders didn’t even exist in the early period in question, but we compulsively impose them onto maps and onto history retrospectively. Because when we say “CanLit,” we are invoking these borders, this contained sphere of dominance, this system of enclosure that only exists to hold this section of northern Turtle Island apart and against competing claims.

This is the Canadian enclosure, the frame that supports our extractions. Settler Canadians view themselves as governors and as mediators of the contents of this frame, the boundaries within which we have established all our rights as an exceptional people. Without this frame, unbearably, we’re just Americans or Europeans. And so we intuitively proceed as though this frame contains the soil that we have subdued, peopled, and mastered, and this is why our exceptionalist ideology surfaces and resurfaces in the mechanisms of our society –  not only in our violent and expropriative development projects and Supreme Court decisions but also in our daily behaviours and in our most fundamental intellectual frameworks. And we struggle to treat others with love, respect, or generosity within the confines of an enclosure that was created by Settlers to hold space against Indigenous claims and interests.

_____________________________

References

[i] John Locke, Second Treatise of Government. Edited by C.B. Macpherson. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, 1980. 121.

[ii] Robert Cushman, Reasons and Considerations Touching the Lawfulness of Removing out of England into the Parts of America, from Remarkable Providences: Readings on Early American History, Edited by John Demos. Boston: Northeastern University Press, 1991. 4-10. 4.

[iii] Genesis 1:28. For more on the Old Testament as a basis of colonial claims to ownership, see William Cronon, Changes in the Land: Indians, Colonists, and the Ecology of New England (New York: Hill and Wang, 1983): 69.

[iv] Drew Lopenzina, Red Ink: Native Americans Picking Up the Pen in the Colonial Period (Albany: State University of New York Press, 2012): 12, 9.

[v] Desmond Pacey, “The Goldsmiths and Their Villages,” The University of Toronto Quarterly, 21 (October, 1951): 27-38. 38.

[vi] David Jackel, “Goldsmith’s Rising Village and the Colonial State of Mind,” Studies in Canadian Literature, 5.1 (1980): https://journals.lib.unb.ca/index.php/SCL/article/view/7941/8998

[vii] Patricia Seed, Ceremonies of Possession in Europe’s Conquest of the New World, 1492-1640 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1995): 3.

[viii] Ibid., 20.

[ix] Alan Taylor, American Colonies: The Settling of North America (New York: Penguin Books, 2001): 120.

[x] On the distinction between common gifts and commodities, see Robin Wall Kimmerer’s beautiful discussion of strawberries in Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants (Minneapolis: Milkweed Editions, 2013): 22-32.

[xi] Emma Battell Lowman and Adam J. Barker identify disavowal as “a key part of the Settler identity” that “marks Settler people as benefitting from the dispossession and destruction of Indigenous peoples while at the same time vehemently denying complicity in the events and processes that make that happen.” Settler: Identity and Colonialism in 21st Century Canada (Black Point and Winnipeg: Fernwood Publishing, 2015): 16.

[xii] Ibid., 32.

[xiii] For a thorough discussion of the peacekeeper myth, see Ibid., 44-47.

Maritime Urban Planning and the Interruption of Indigenous Life Ways

While out on a walk through Menahkwesk (Saint John, New Brunswick) yesterday, I took this picture from the top of what Settlers call Bentley Street. This street was built over top of a Wolastoqiyik portage path, a key part of an extensive and ingenious transportation network that regional Indigenous peoples used for trade and travel. This is the view from the top of Bentley Street, facing the Saint John harbour:

IMG_3949

Before this road existed, the Wolastoqiyik would travel this route on foot so they could reach the supekuk (the ocean) from the Wolastoq river while strategically avoiding the treacherous rapids at what Settlers usually call Reversing Falls — the mouth of the Wolastoq where the most powerful ocean tides in the world dramatically reverse the current of the river twice a day. (Jason Hall’s fantastic 2015 dissertation is by far the best resource I have found on this river system.)

Based on recovered artifacts, archaeologists have very roughly estimated that for over 10,000 years, Indigenous peoples carried their canoes, babies, and cargo up and down this hill. After the Europeans arrived, Wabanaki peoples frequently used this route to bring furs and trade goods to the Settlers at Fort LaTour.

From the same spot on Bentley Street, I turned around and took this picture of the New Brunswick museum archives. This building is directly between the Bentley portage route and the river. I’ve been inside this building many times — the cover image of my book is actually an iPhone photo of a text that is currently held by this archive.

IMG_3947.jpg

On the other side of this massive building are the riverbanks where the Wolastoqiyik would camp. This is now a protected archeological area that the NB government hasn’t figured out what to do with yet.

Every time I walk here, I think about the fact that New Brunswick chose to build its archive, to drop a massive rock, in the middle of this important portage route. There is a metaphor here about the ways in which the colonial archive interrupts the life ways of the Wolastoqiyik — and about how we have built our archives over existing archives. Literally, in this case, we built our archive over more than 10,000 years worth of stories and memories and materials that developed continuously on and with this soil across millennia.

Actively Supporting the Wolustukyik Mothers and Grandmothers

IMG_3528

About thirty minutes north of Stanley, near Napadogan, New Brunswick, a group of Wolustukyik land and water defenders are building a culture and language camp. I was grateful for the invitation and opportunity to visit them a few weeks ago with my family, and they’ve not only built an impressive foundation for a lodge, but they’ve also successfully bartered for additional construction materials.

It’s cold and getting colder, and until they can get their winter shelter up, these women are living full time in a collection of tents and camping trailers. It’s very cozy in the trailers, but they have a continuous need for fuel (firewood + gas and propane for their generators), not to mention other essential supplies. Other ongoing construction projects include the installation of plumbing services — and everything costs money!

As Settlers who live and make our family’s living in this territory, my partner and I have been doing what we can to support the mothers and grandmothers and their camp. We are uninvited guests in this territory, and these women are protecting the land and water for ALL of our babies and grand babies. This is what true leadership looks like. The price of tungsten has recently rebounded, and this camp is already an active frontline of defence against Northcliff Resources’s plans to poison crucial headwaters in this region. Please understand that as of today, the mothers and grandmothers are being actively bullied, intimidated, and surveilled by industry representatives, by RCMP, and by Settlers who support the mine — and all this while the Sisson Brook project sits (for the time being) dormant.

As the Wolustukyik have always done, these women are showing us how to live in balance in this territory, how to be good neighbours, how to live in concert (rather than in power) with the more-than-human beings of the land, and how to take care of one another in the long term. As Settlers, we need to show that we’re listening and that we are doing our best to learn and to follow their important lead. So it was an honour and a privilege to cozy into one of these trailers, to sit with these women for a few hours, to talk about measurable ways in which we could lend our skills and show our support, to chat and to listen to their stories. My son watched a Toy Story DVD while my daughter crawled around happily with a runny nose, and when we left, we did so with a new jar of bear grease that quickly soothed the raw skin on her upper lip.

I left behind two copies of my book, and one of those copies is currently up for grabs, along with many beautiful items, in a basket raffle. Here’s an image of just some of the items included in the basket:

22730214_1829560130687650_6419780401127941657_n

Most of these items were made by the mothers and grandmothers, and every dollar raised will support the construction of the camp. Tickets are $20 CAD and can be easily purchased through Andrea Polchies on Facebook.

A beaver was killed near the camp this week. He had been working hard alongside his kin relations to flood a key road leading to the proposed mine site. For taking measures to protect his land, water, and medicines, someone shot him — and they left him dead in the roadway for the the mothers and grandmothers to find. They are understandably heartsick, and yet they are working, as ever, to build their winter shelter.

Our actions and inactions reveal important things about what we value, how we see the world, how we see ourselves and our neighbours within worlds. What do the actions of this killer tell us about the settler society’s capacity for violence? What might silence and inaction say about where a person stands on this issue and about who they support? If you live in Wolustukyik territory, are you actively supporting the mothers and grandmothers, or are you acting as though they aren’t there? Irving acted like the mothers and grandmothers weren’t there when they sprayed them (twice) with glyphosate through arial applications.

As of today, the mothers and grandmothers are being actively bullied, intimidated, and surveilled by industry representatives, by RCMP, and by Settlers who support the mine. Please take this opportunity to support them actively!

 

Thanks Giving and the Homing Place

It’s Thanksgiving weekend here in Canada, and my first book is about to come out. My good friends at Wilfrid Laurier UP cut a deal with the printer last week to rush a few copies out to me by mid-week so that I’d have them in time for a weekend conference.

The book will be a strange thing to hold in my hands. Even in this seemingly solid, seemingly final form, The Homing Place will remain, for me, a work in progress. Homing is how I will spend my career. It is about deep listening — listening through interruptions. It’s about about transforming the relationships between Settlers and place and between people and texts; about moving away from proprietary relationships of all sorts and toward a continuous process of engagement and learning; about actively participating in an academy that is much more than just a site of Settler power consolidation; and about the ongoing intellectual labour that Settler scholars must undertake and model if we truly wish to become better neighbours to Indigenous peoples.

And because it’s Thanksgiving weekend, I’m giving thanks today for four wonderful people whose fingerprints are all over my book. Elizabeth Mancke supervised and contributed to this project at the dissertation stage, meeting with me once a week for over a year to talk through these ideas over coffee and/or supper. She showed me how to map my ideas out on paper and always challenged me to think further and more deeply. I will never forget the things she taught me in those sessions — not only about my own work but about contributing to students’ intellectual development with respect and generosity. As I’ve mentioned before, I truly love historians, but I love Elizabeth the most.

Lisa Brooks graciously stepped in and helped me rewrite, from the ground up, a chapter dedicated to Wabanaki wampum protocols. With characteristic kindness, she pointed out fundamental issues with my approach to this material and showed me how I was producing the same kind of scholarship that I was trying to critique! I’m so proud of that chapter now, which, for me as a northeastern Settler, proves once more the incredible and transformative power of Lisa’s work on this region. And I am extremely excited to read her new book, which will be out in January.

Drew Lopenzina first taught me how to read early American literature “against the grain.” Seven years later, there are still ways in which I am merely emulating the way he reads and teaches literature — with equal parts creativity, respect, and empathy. I am forever grateful for the example.

And my partner Charles Bryant mulled over every sentence in this book with me. He is my silent co-author on this and all other projects.

I wanted to specifically recognize these people today because they deserve more credit than I give them in the book, and that’s something that has been bothering me. They each receive blanket thanks in the acknowledgements section, but there are a few key places where I wish I had recognized their contributions with endnotes. Today and every day, I am deeply thankful for my family and friends and for the generous contributions of senior scholars like Elizabeth, Lisa, and Drew, who actively foster the development of emerging voices in their respective fields. I’m a better scholar for knowing them and for reading their work, which you can check out at these links:

Responding to Hate Speech on UNB and STU Campuses

This week, the CBC reported that

The University of New Brunswick has confirmed that [white supremacist] posters were found on its campus. This comes after posters directing people to alt-right websites were posted on a Maliseet welcome sign at St. Thomas University.

As my colleagues think about how to best address these posters in the classroom, I thought I’d throw some of my own ideas out there, which may or may not prove useful. I’m not teaching currently, but if I were, this is what I’d do.

Directly acknowledge what the posters mean, the specific kind of hateful rhetoric that they further, and the role of that rhetoric across Canada in the present moment. These are not alleged posters; the people on the posters do not appear to be white; there is no confusion about what these posters mean. They have been showing up on campuses and in Canadian cities for years now, so talk about that. Say words like “white supremacy” and “Canadian white supremacists.” Explain that there are white supremacists at UNB and at STU in both the student and faculty bodies. Explain how white supremacy functions systemically in the institutions of settler colonial power — in power structures  like Maritime universities.

Talk about the kinds of fears that inform these posters. Talk about the differences between Indigenous and EuroWestern ways of knowing — and about the kind of knowledge that Canadian universities have traditionally valued and protected. Talk about what it means to teach students to value knowledge that originated in Europe over knowledge that originated in the ground under their feet. Read and assign this important essay by the Anishnaabe/Haudenosaunee scholar Vanessa Watts.

Talk about how the beneficiaries of white supremacy and EurroWestern dominance react when they feel beset upon by Indigenous thought and resurgance. Talk about how those fears will increase as we continue to collectively work toward the transformation of entrenched Settler understandings of history and of place. Talk about how white supremacists adopt and distort the discourses of minority groups to reconsolidate their power.

And talk about the CBC article I linked to above. A useful classroom exercise would actually be to unpack that article, which raises all kinds of questions, like:

  1. Is it responsible to invoke Canadian multiculturalism when the hate speech we’re dealing with is anti-Indigenous? Isn’t multiculturalism itself an extremely fraught concept? How can a Settler Canadian formulation of nationhood respect Indigenous knowledges?
  2. Do white people really have a right to be here in this territory? What are the checks on those rights? Talk about the pre-confederation (Peace and Friendship) treaties.
  3. What other signs challenge the claim that Indigenous peoples are “welcome” on these campuses? According to a 1788 report called “Progress of New Brunswick,” the schools in this province were created “with a view of Civilizing the Indian natives and thereby making them useful inhabitants.” How, specifically, have the goals of our education system changed, and is assimilation into Settler Canadian society truly no longer one of those goals? How many UNB and STU departments employ Indigenous people? What percentage of UNB and STU courses are primarily designed to respect and further Indigenous thought? How are BIPOC students to infer, from the all-and-majority white makeup of most of these departments, that they are in fact “welcome”? We (settlers) rip down these signs when we find them, we “investigate,” and we distance ourselves from their hateful messages, but in what ways are we simultaneously complicit in their rhetoric?

Introductory remarks for The Outside Circle – September 26, 2017, Lorenzo Reading Series, University of New Brunswick (Saint John Campus)

It is my privilege this evening to welcome Dr. Patti LaBoucane-Benson and Kelly Mellings to UNBSJ and to the land that the Wolastoqiyik people call Menahkwesk. So as a Settler New Brunswicker and perpetual guest myself, I welcome you in the traditional spirit of the pre-confederation treaties that first bound my ancestors to the Wabanaki nations of the northeast as neighbours. These treaties tell us how to be together here in this territory and in this room as members of distinct nations, how to share space, and how to extend fairness and gentleness to one another. So I hope I can do them justice!

We’re here together tonight to learn more about this beautiful graphic novel, The Outside Circle, which was published by the House of Anansi in 2015. This is on the one hand a painful story about intergenerational or historic trauma – about the most visible symptoms of trauma, like addiction, violence, and self-destructive behaviour. It’s about the ugly realities that the EuroWestern genocide of Indigenous peoples continues to produce within and without the urban spaces of Settler Canada.

a500788c83ca061559776b6ae0ee56f5the-outside-circle-1

And it’s a story about healing and love. The kind of love that made me cry in front of my three-year-old while I was sitting on the sofa last week, otherwise quietly reading – and he said, “Mama, what is you doing?” and I thought to myself, “I’ll share this with you someday when you’re older, and it will help teach you about the important difference between a symptom and a character trait. It will help teach you to extend tenderness to people who are hurting.”

This is a story about the intergenerational love that has endured in Indigenous communities and in Indigenous bodies despite horrible violence and unspeakable trauma. The powerful love that remains between an Indigenous man named Pete and his community, between Pete and his elders, his family, his ancestors – the love between Pete and the bear who helps show him who he is and where he fits in his communities and in the important work of Indigenous recovery and resurgence.

And so we are here together to learn more about this difficult, painful, beautiful story.

I’m going to get out of the way here in just a moment, but I want to mention one more thing. You’ll often hear people say that in contemporary works of Indigenous literature, oral and alphabetic traditions occupy the same space. Probably because I work primarily on the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, it’s never before occurred to me how wonderfully this idea is represented by the graphic novel form – where you are essentially reading an alphabetic and a material text side by side and simultaneously. Sometimes the non-alphabetic, the visual, just takes over and tells the story for a while, and as a reader, even one who is perhaps otherwise totally immersed in EuroWestern norms and notions of literacy, it feels like the most natural thing in the world. As a reader, you just follow along, constantly and intuitively moving between alphabetic and material literacies in the context of a single story, and what an incredible way to teach the intimate interplay between traditional Indigenous and EuroWestern forms of literature.

There is something beautiful, too, I think, in the fact that the words of this story were produced by a Métis woman, and the images by a Settler Canadian man. At the end of the novel there’s a section of thanks, and Kelly thanks all those who “changed how I think and feel about First nations people. I hope my art has shared what I have learned.” I haven’t been able to stop thinking about this since I first read the novel last week. About the tender interplay between these beautiful images and these powerful words. About how Patti trusted Kelly with this story, and through his artwork, he said, I’m listening. I care about understanding, about getting this right, and I hear you.

I see this exchange now in every panel – an Indigenous woman saying, this is the story. It’s an important story. And a Settler man saying, I am listening. Let me show you, through my art, just how hard I am listening.

So let’s listen too. Please join me in welcoming these storytellers.

Scat Theory

Yeah, scat. You know, animal droppings. Bear with me here.

Recently, my three year old came home from forest school talking excitedly about scat. My kid is a big talker so this went on for hours. I began texting casually about this with one of his former forest school teachers, the wonderful Breanne Card, who recently moved to Iqaluit. She said that scat is important and that it can tell you many things about an animal — what it is, what it eats, and whether it is healthy.

She then mentioned that she and her husband had just seen some northern lights and that they were spectacular. My funny partner, Charles, quipped, “I’ve always thought of the northern lights as the scat as the ionosphere!” (It’s possible that he meant the magnetosphere. This is neither of our areas of expertise.) This all makes perfect sense if you think of the northern lights as a living being that communicates information about the health of the atmosphere.

There are so many possible applications of this idea.

Scat is what a being emits or leaves behind to communicate information about its wellness. Think about the recently published articles in the National Post and other major Settler Canadian media outlets by authors like Conrad Black, Barbara Kay, Jonathan Kay, and others. (I am not linking to these pieces, since as someone recently pointed out on Twitter, hate shares+clicks look the same to analytics programs as interest and support). Think about Frances Widdowson’s so-called scholarship.

Like scat, each of these articles communicate information about the state of their author’s health. And in important ways, they speak directly to the state of Settler Canada’s health. They are scat that powerful members of this social body are emitting and leaving behind for others. They communicate important information about who we are as a collective — as members of this vast society that continues to consolidate itself against the lands that comprise northern Turtle Island. The things that our members write, publish, and read communicate what we value and what we consume.

It’s time Settler Canada took a good hard look at its scat.

Yeah, scat.

MIKWIDIHAMIN — Refusing to Remember a Passamaquoddy Artist

I’ve been working on a short piece about this fabulous Passamaquoddy picnic basket, which is part of the Wabanaki collection at the Fredericton Regional Museum.

picnicbasket_0

The basket is clearly the handiwork of Tomah Joseph, the iconic Passamaquoddy artist whose creations on birchbark “often included the phrase mikwid hamin, which means ‘recall me in your mind’ or ‘remember me.'”

But through a Google search last week I stumbled upon an interesting description of the basket from a website associated with the Atlantic Canada Visual Archives, which was a joint initiative of the historian Margaret Conrad, a former Canada Research Chair in Atlantic Canada Studies, and the Electronic Text Centre at the University of New Brunswick in Fredericton (now called the Centre for Digital Scholarship).

Here is a screenshot of the website’s description of the basket:

image1

I was surprised by this attribution, so I immediately reached out to Micah Pawling, whose current work focuses on Sabattis Tomah. Micah replied to my e-mail almost immediately, raising a number of red flags and asking a series of important questions:

In 1884, Sabattis Tomah was about 12 years old. Did he sign the basket? What are the other images on the piece? Can one rule out that the basket was not made by his father, Tomah Joseph? Both Sabattis Tomah and Tomah Joseph were from Motahkomikuk (Indian Township), not Sipayik (Pleasant Point). I wonder about the details of allegedly breaking the law (in Maine)?

In short, the description appears to be a total fiction, and in that sense, I find its level of detail to be deeply unsettling. It’s as though someone invented these narrative details, almost at random, to create an illusion of truth, indeed to bury the truth — but why?

Mikwid hamin, the basket asks. Please don’t forget me. But we forget anyway, almost as an act of petulant defiance. You can’t tell me what do to.

Here, then, is another example of Settlers acting as poor stewards of Indigenous cultural materials. I’ll be traveling to the Fredericton Regional Museum at some point in the next few weeks to take a look at the basket in person, and I’ll be interested to see how it has been represented in that venue. I’m hopeful that someone at the museum will also be able to speak to where this description originated.

Why comparing “local alternatives” cannot defend the colonization of Canada

In a recently published Macleans piece, Mark Milke argues that “We should celebrate Canada’s British influence, not denounce it.” Milke is a former senior fellow from the Fraser Institute, a conservative policy think tank based out in BC. I first noticed this article when Derek Simon posted about it on Twitter. His thread focuses on some of the article’s primary contradictions and failings, and it is well worth a read.

My favourite line from the article is its first conclusion — that “when looking back, one should always compare to local alternatives available at the time.” I totally agree. So what “local alternatives” were in place at the time of the Euro-Western colonization and settlement of Turtle Island?

To be sure, early colonists and Settlers harbored ideas that were very different from the beliefs that were held and put in practice by Indigenous peoples. The Anishinaabe scholar Niigaan Sinclair recently described “Turtle Island in the 16th century” as

a village made of thousands of villages, a nation of nations. Not perfect by any means, this was a place of large and small governments and communities who worked collaboratively and competitively, trading and warring and sharing and migrating over the seasons and with many reasons. People were travelling all the time, meeting new people, tasting new tastes, witnessing new ways of being, adopting and changing, and so on. It was this way for millennia.[i]

In the integrated landscape that Sinclair describes, villages were fluid, mobile spaces, continuously changing with the passage of time in form and function as peoples travelled in groups across and sometimes beyond their territories, moving between and among distinct subsistence bases and erecting and dismantling their dwelling-places as they went.

The sophisticated nature of early Indigenous village sites had been intentionally and thoughtfully developed across centuries as a means of “[reducing] potential strains on any particular segment of the ecosystem,” thereby “keeping the overall human burden low.”[ii] The palisaded longhouse villages of the Haudenosaunee/Iroquois, which were described in some detail by Cartier and then again, decades later, by Champlain, were themselves periodically dismantled, moved, and rebuilt to protect the integrity of the soil and to ensure the people’s continued success in agriculture.[iii]

Fundamental differences in early colonial and Indigenous dwelling practices are well documented in the Euro-Western archive. In sixteenth- and seventeenth- century European imaginaries, villages were generally envisioned as immobile structural units – as self-contained, permanent settlements consisting of entrenched, immovable buildings. In around 1675, when the Recollect missionary Chrestien Le Clercq advised a group of Mi’gmaq that “it would be very much more advantageous for them to live and to build [their villages] in [the French] fashion,” he immediately attracted the ridicule of a man identified by Le Clercq only as the “leading Indian” among those present:

“I am greatly astonished that the French have so little cleverness, as they seem to exhibit in the matter of which thou hast just told me on their behalf, in the effort to persuade us to convert our poles, our barks, and our wigwams into those houses of stone and of wood which are tall and lofty, according to their account, as these trees. . . . My brother, hast thou as much ingenuity and cleverness as the Indians, who carry their houses and their wigwams with them so that they may lodge wheresoever they please, independently of any seignor whatsoever? Thou art not as bold . . . as we, because when thou goest on a voyage thou canst not carry upon thy shoulders thy buildings and thy edifices. Therefore it is necessary that thou preparest as many lodgings as thou makest changes of residence . . . As for us, we find ourselves secure from all these inconveniences, and we can always say, more truly than thou, that we are at home everywhere.”[iv]

By recommending French settlement expertise to the Mi’gmaq, Le Clercq indeed betrayed an “astonishing” lack of “cleverness.” After more than a century spent watching colonists struggle (and often fail) to keep themselves alive through the long winter months, the Mi’gmaq, like the other Indigenous nations of northern Turtle Island, were skeptical of any suggestion that they might emulate the “French fashion” of village life or settlement. To be sure, the French who had fared best in the Native northeast were those, like the Jesuit missionaries, who had grudgingly embedded themselves with Indigenous groups, adapting, for a time, to their cultural practices and seasonal movements.

I agree with Milke that “when looking back, one should always compare to local alternatives available at the time.” But when we do that in good faith — when we really compare what EuroWestern peoples brought to bear on this landscape with what was here before — we are led to produce altogether different think-pieces.

Notes

[i] Sinclair, Niigaan. “Kanata 150+, not Canada 150.” UM Today News, June 30, 2017.

[ii] Cronon, William. Changes in the Land: Indians, Colonists, and the Ecology of New England (New York: Hill and Wang, 1983): 48.

[iii] According to Champlain, “they sometimes change their villages at intervals of ten, twenty, or thirty years, and transfer them to a distance of one, two, or three leagues from the preceding situation.” Voyages of Samuel de Champlain, Volume 3, 1611-1618. Translated by Charles Pomeroy Otis. (Boston: The Prince Society, 1882): 161.

[iv] Le Clercq, Chrestien. New Relation of Gaspesia: With the Customs and Religion of the Gaspesian Indians (Toronto: The Champlain Society, 1910): 103-104.

 

“I tried on the buffalo-horn headdress” – Settler CanLit Entry #1 – Fred Wah, Pictograms from the Interior of BC

How has CanLit appropriated Indigenous voices? Last month, in the wake of Canada’s “cultural appropriation prize” debacle, the Mohawk/Tuscarora writer Janet Rogers powerfully addressed Canada’s appropriation-defenders, writing:

What is it about your own stories that you find so limiting, that you must reach out, beyond your comprehension and compassion, to tell our stories? How does asking you to please stop mining our stories for your benefit threaten your ability to shape and breathe life into your own culture? . . . Write about how my reality affects you, don’t write about me. Write about your relationship to Indigenous issues, communities, and experiences; don’t write as if you are me. I’m here. I can write my own stories. We stand on our stories as territories and foundations. And like all the other resources that shape us and support us, you want to take that, too.

This is the first of a series of syllabus-building blog posts in which I’ll explore how Settler Canadian authors across generations have appropriated Indigenous cultures; I’ll also suggest possible text pairings for classroom analysis. So often, texts that claim to engage with Indigenous histories only emphasize the degree to which we Settlers have cut ourselves off from Native stories, effectively consolidating our own voices and perspectives against those who we claim to honour and respect.

Fred Wah’s Pictograms from the Interior of BC (which is available freely through the author’s website), first published by Talonbooks in 1975, is an obvious example of this practice in action. This would be a great text to use early to get the conversation about appropriative CanLit started. In this collection, Wah creates what he calls “transcreations,” a word he borrows from Samuel Taylor Coleridge, of an early Indigenous writing system, crafting poems in response to Secwepemc and Okanagan pictographs. The images, which are printed alongside each piece, are sourced from John Corners 1968 book Pictographs (Indian Rock Paintings) in the Interior of British Columbia.

To some degree, this repeated sequence of pairing pictographs with alphabetic text mimics the process of reading and interpretation through which Indigenous “rememberers” may associate pictographic images with specific stories, events, and histories, transforming the images into words that can be shared or passed on to subsequent generations. But the pictographs that Wah uses as the basis of his creations are not abstract representations that are open to any old outside interpretation. By glossing over the culturally-specific meanings and functions of these writings, along with the events and histories they are meant to preserve, Wah severs the pictographs from their cultural contexts and forges new associations that are meant to be shared by all Canadians. For example:

FullSizeRender.jpg

FullSizeRender.jpg

Here, incredibly, and as though he somehow knew that his poems would eventually be discussed within the context of cultural appropriation, Wah glosses over a complex pictographic story relating some kind of event or cultural practice to describe putting on a “buffalo-horn headdress.” After putting on the headdress, “things happen” to him — a pathway between his brain and the story represented by the graphic opens up and he’s overcome by “visions and pictures.” These visions become the content of his poems, which hinge on such EuroWestern assumptions as the “battle” between human beings and “the forest” — the fundamental struggle between Settler peoples and what Robert Pogue Harrison calls “the shadow of civilization.”

FullSizeRender.jpg

FullSizeRender.jpg

I’m intrigued by this pictograph, which appears to feature a woman entering an enclosed space with a man and a turtle. In an appendix, Wah identifies the image as Okanagan. I have absolutely no context for reading this text but would love to know if this is a creation story. Wah certainly interprets the image as a representation of origins in a settler colonial sense; he reads the enclosed space as a kind of primordial womb from which the Canadian emerges to find themselves at home.

Possible pairings for in-class discussion and analysis: