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.

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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.

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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:

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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:

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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.”

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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: