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 people used for trade and travel. This is the view from the top of Bentley Street, facing the Saint John harbour:
Before this road existed, the Wolastoqiyik would travel this route on foot so they could reach the supekuk (the ocean) from the 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.
Based on recovered artifacts, archaeologists have very roughly estimated that for over 10,000 years, Indigenous people 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 in their collections. I am comfortable and happy in this building.
On the other side of this massive building are the riverbanks where the Wolastoqiyik would camp. This is now a protected archaeological 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 built this archive, dropped this massive rock, in the middle of this portage route. There is a metaphor here about the ways in which the settler 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 an archive over more than 10,000 years worth of stories and memories and materials that developed continuously on and with this soil across millennia.
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.
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. 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 other-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 understand and learn. 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:
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.
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. Mention Ricardo Duschesne, but also 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 re-consolidate 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:
- Is it responsible to invoke Canadian multiculturalism when the hate speech we’re dealing with is anti-Indigenous? How is multiculturalism itself a fraught concept in this context? Can a Settler Canadian formulation of nationhood respect Indigenous knowledges, or are we using this construction to legitimize our claim to stolen land?
- Do white people really have a right to be here in this territory? What are the checks on those rights? How do most Maritimers understand their rights? Talk about the pre-confederation (Peace and Friendship) treaties.
- What other signs challenge the claim that Indigenous people 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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
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.
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.
[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.
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 Corner‘s 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:
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.”
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:
- Stories of Indigenous pictographs painted over by Settler Canadians
- Discussions of Settlers in headdresses
How does one read a basket? How does one read a stick of white spruce jutting out from a snowbank, left there by a family of Innu hunters? How, in other words, do non-alphabetic literacies signify, where do they signify, and what can these means of signification tell us about larger literary traditions?
Once or twice before, you have probably heard a literary critic say that in contemporary Indigenous literature, oral and alphabetic traditions occupy the same space. What you may have never heard is an adequate or thorough explanation of how this double-occupancy actually works, and this blind spot generally circumscribes the relationship between Settler scholars/students and Indigenous texts and voices.
Today, in most Canadian literary studies departments and classrooms, Indigenous texts and histories are treated and taught as what the Creek literary nationalist Craig Womack would call a “minority extension” of a larger Canadian multicultural tradition. In 2011, for example, Richard J. Lane’s Routledge Concise History of Canadian Literature reinforced a deep conceptual line between Indigenous “orature” and “Canadian” literary production without pausing to consider how this set of distinctions has always functioned to protect partisan North American narratives of Western cultural conquest and superiority against Indigenous correction. By adhering to an unnecessarily narrow definition of literature, which, for the purposes of this Routledge history, “implies a written down text,” Lane relegates all oral and non-alphabetic literacies to what he calls an “alternate expressive paradigm,” and his story of CanLit goes confidently on without them – that is, until the inevitably awkward moment late in the text, when the writings of people like Eden Robinson, Tomson Highway, and Thomas King are re-inserted, without any true sense of context or continuity, into a “Canadian” multicultural tradition.
Courses that engage non-alphabetic forms as a primary focus in the specific context of literary studies can offer cursory investigations of Indigenous national traditions from the pre-contact period to the present: how those literacies function(ed), how they have changed shape or form over time, how they are (mis)represented in Settler and colonial traditions, and how, when property acknowledged, they can significantly deepen understandings of the more popular Indigenous writings that so many English students are familiar with today.
In an essay from the collection Colonial Mediascapes (University of Nebraska, 2014), Germaine Warkentin urged literary scholars from across the Americas to divest themselves of terms like “book” altogether and to instead refer to all works of literature as “objects of knowledge transfer” – a clunky but fundamentally useful reclassification meant to help us see the continuities between non-alphabetic literacies and other texts and writing. We can follow her lead in this respect, endeavouring to become better listeners as we grapple with the many ways in which all literary forms continue to transfer knowledge across time and space.
This working list of possible texts and pairings reflects my own research emphasis on northeastern Turtle Island. For more help with this and other regions, keep up with essential and ongoing work by Niigaanwewidam James Sinclair, Daniel Heath Justice, and The People and the Text research project.
- Early Native Literacies in New England: A Documentary Anthology, ed. Kristina Bross and Hilary Wyss – includes images and critical readings of baskets, signatures, petitions, pictographs, last wills and testaments, medicine bundles, etc.
- Josephine Bacon, Message Sticks (Tshissinuatshitakana) // a description of message stick usage from Henry Youle Hind, Explorations of the Interior, Vol. 2 // a description of “tshishkaikan” from Kaniuekutat, an Innu Hunter, in I Dreamed the Animals
- Mi’gmaq petroglyphs // Rita Joe, Song of Eskasoni // Maureen Googoo, “Protecting Mi’kmaq Petroglyphs in Bedford” // Alan Syliboy’s Petroglyph Humans series
- See the Frank Speck papers at the American Philosophical Society for images of Innu and Wabanaki Confederacy material culture. Wabanaki wampum belts are referred to in Speck’s records as “Penobscot.”
- Darren Bonaparte’s The Wampum Chronicles // E. Pauline Johnson, The White Wampum
- Some Passamaquoddy maps are available through the Maine Memory Network.
- Garrick Mallery, Picture-Writing of the American Indians // From The Common Pot, “Alnobawogan, Wlogan, Awikhigan: Entering Native Space,” Lisa Brooks
- Gabriel Acquin, Pictograph, in Dawnland Voices: An Anthology of Indigenous Writing from New England, ed. Siobhan Senier