“One could not exist without the other”: A Review of Peter J. Clair’s Taapoategl & Pallet

Peter J. Clair’s Taapoategl & Pallet was published in the fall of last year by Chapel Street Editions out of Woodstock, New Brunswick, and it was recently named a finalist for a New Brunswick Book Award in the fiction category. A few days before last year’s Word Feast literary festival in Fredericton, I stumbled across a copy at Westminster Books and was thrilled to have found a new Mi’kmaw novel to read – the first, I think, but please correct me if I’m wrong, since Lorne Simon’s Stones and Switches way back in 1995. Here’s the image from the store that I immediately and excitedly texted to friends and colleagues across the northeast:

ClairClair is widely known as an ash splint basket maker, and his baskets have been exhibited in galleries across the continent. When he’s spoken about his baskets in the past, he’s done so in the context of “a pattern without a break, without a beginning or an end” – a style of weaving based on the form of the periwinkle, a member of the shellfish nation and a traditional Mi’kmaw food source.[i] He uses the same design principle in his novel, where the narratives of Taapoategl and Pallet are woven together, at times echoing or merging before receding back into their distinct times and places. And like Clair’s baskets, it’s hard to say where this story truly begins. Is it with Taapoategl at home with her family? With the arrival of the colonizers and the forced displacements of Mi’kmaq communities? With the first steps of Pallet’s quest? Or does the story begin much earlier, with the weathered writings on birchbark, with the creation story that is brought to gatherings and read to the larger community – the story that produces the world through which both of these characters move despite the distance of centuries?

This story reaches into the future and cycles back onto itself almost continuously; its pieces are carefully interwoven to produce a larger historical sense of trauma and loss but also of connection, recovery, and irrepressible “belonging-to.”[ii] I’m searching for a way to discuss what I love about this incredible novel without giving too much away. I love the revisions of beloved Settler mythologies – the stories Clair weaves into his narrative about Chief Membertou, about Marc Lescarbot’s Theatre of Neptune, and about the invention of hockey. And I love the descriptions of the early Mi’kmaw writing system, which developed gradually within the context of the nation so that families could communicate with each other across time and/or distance. The system reflects “the connection between the Nigmag and the world around them” just as the language of the people “comes from imitating the sounds and motions in nature, the calls of birds or the manner in which a fish gathers food.”[iii] In part, this is a novel about the connections that were lost or endangered when language and stories began to be lost or forgotten – the histories and contexts and links that re-emerge when scattered pieces of bark are sought, recovered, and threaded back together by the people of their original communities.

Pallet enacts one person’s role in this recovery process. As a Mi’kmaw man, he has a place in the story of his nation, and through his journey, he both creates and claims his own belonging. He travels through a territory in which figures from Mi’kmaw oral tradition are ever-present, occupying their places on the land as always, living their stories and waiting to reconnect and share with their kin. While the Settler society of this region has systematically denied the relevance of Wabanaki oral traditions to the patterns of daily life, relegating traditional Indigenous stories to the distant world of mythology and intentionally weakening the relationship between Indigenous peoples and their cultural worlds, Clair does the reverse work, restoring the immediacy of his nation’s stories to the land from whence they first emerged.

Here is an exchange from his first encounter with a traditional figure:

Pallet stumbles past the fire and goes to the river to wash his eyes. He regains some vision and now sees a shadowy image. He is not sure how many there are. He squints his eyes toward his campfire; there is a dark round cloud above it.

Admitting to his confused state he says: “Ok. I’m Pallet and I’m from Signigtog. I can barely make you out. All I see is a dark cloud of smoke. I am glad you are here. I have been alone for so long. Are you from Tlaagati? Are you here to help?”

“Don’t be jumping to conclusions. Don’t be too hasty. Rest your eyes, Nigmag. It’ll come to you. My name is Miigemooesso. . .”

[. . .]

“I’m just trying to be honest, but I’m not used to this sort of thing. I’ve heard stories . . . and I accepted the stories for what they were. I have to accept that you are here. You are not just a story anymore.”[iv]

It’s significant that Pallet is half blind in this scene, which takes place relatively early on in his quest. He’s recovering from a compulsion to dismiss the possibility of what is happening to him, and he’s learning to accept that these figures aren’t simply of stories that long ago reached conclusions. The stories and their characters are alive, unfinished, ongoing – Pallet is himself inside of stories, and part of his journey involves learning to accept his place in those stories.

His journey also involves the recovery of Taapoategl’s story and the contribution of a ten-year-old girl’s survival knowledge to the collective memory of the Mi’kmaq. Pallet works with the elders at a summer gathering to piece together the fragments of this story, messages on birchbark that Taapoategl left behind in hopes that her family would find them. And while this process of finding takes centuries, her people are unyielding in their recovery efforts, refusing and refuting the notion that a little girl and her story could be irrevocably stolen from the present and future of her nation.

Taapoategl gathers a pile of pine needles and carefully covers over the gravesite, arranging them so there is no sign of disturbance. Like the old Nigmag, Taapoategl hides the gravesite as best she can. Hopefully, she will not have to move it. She knows gravesites are sacred because they are the hidden portals by which we return to our origins. She has heard Nigmag say the portals to the past must be tended to. You never know when the past will visit the present, the two feed on each other; one could not exist without the other.[v]

Taapoategl & Pallet empowers the future of an already powerful Indigenous nation by tending to the portals between the past and the present. It speaks of a territory that has been exploited and defiled across centuries by a colonizing culture that has strewn artifacts and bodies in the wake of its attempts to scramble and destroy connections between the Mi’kmaq and the land that mothered them. Like the people who kidnap Taapoategl, we have tried to steal and contain Indigenous stories — to hide them away, to hoard them, to render them unintelligible to Indigenous peoples. And yet the land has always remained occupied by its own stories.

Searching for a sense of connection and purpose, Pallet moves through his homeland, guided by an understanding of protocol passed down by his grandparents and his community. What he encounters and enters into on his journey are the stories of the land — the stories that have produced his living culture and connected his people as a nation for millennia. And by joining these stories he finds the sense of “belonging-to” that he seeks.

You can purchase a copy of this important book through the publisher or on Amazon.

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[i] Janet Clark, Epogan: Recent Work by Peter J. Clair (Thunder Bay: Thunder Bay Art Gallery, 1997).

[ii] Peter J. Clair, Taapoategl & Pallet: A Mi’kmaq Journey of Loss & Survival (Woodstock: Chapel Street Editions, 2017), 2.

[iii] Clair, 118.

[iv] Clair, 22, 23.

[v] Clair, 143.

News & gratitude

Last month, Lara Minja of Lime Designs was honoured for the absolutely stunning work she did on my book, The Homing Place, which will be showcased during the 2018 Association of University Presses Book, Jacket, and Journal Show in recognition of Lara’s beautiful typographic design. Lara is a graduate of the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design, and I am so grateful for the work that she did with this project!

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Even more recently, the book was selected as a finalist for two regional awards: the Writers’ Federation of New Brunswick Book Award for Non-Fiction and an Atlantic Book Award for Scholarly Writing. I was extremely surprised and humbled by these announcements, and more than anything else, perhaps, I am looking forward to the opportunity to meet and chat with other shortlisted authors at events in May and June. Peter J. Clair’s incredible book Taapoategl & Pallet, the best new novel I’ve read in some time, is a finalist for a New Brunswick Book Award in the fiction category, and there’s a question about periwinkles I’ve been dying to ask him.

My experience working with the team at Wilfrid Laurier University Press continues to be fantastic, and I’m grateful to Clare Hitchens for submitting my book for consideration in these competitions!

I’ll be reading from The Homing Place at the Central Branch of the Saint John Free Public Library on Tuesday, May 8 at noon as part of the Atlantic Book Awards Festival (the event  will be co-presented by Fog Lit Festival).

The Lone Mitten

the-education-of-augie-merasty-a-residential-school-memoir1My students will begin grappling with The Education of Augie Merasty: A Residential School Memoir tomorrow evening, and one of our many topics of conversation will be this striking book cover, which features a photograph of a single green mitten, taken by Alan Clarke.

In the second chapter of the book, Augie describes being sent out of school with another boy and made to walk for about 20 miles in a -60F windchill — their “punishment” for having each lost a single mitten on the previous day. It’s a distressing story of two “very nervous and scared” ten year old boys, alone but for each other in the middle of a vast frozen lake, each clutching a stick to protect against the wolves. When the boys eventually return to the school without their lost mittens, they are beaten.

Today it’s not uncommon to see lone mittens or other articles of clothing laying lost on the ground in parking lots or beside sidewalks or roadways. There’s even a Facebook group dedicated to images of shoes found lost on the side of the road. Some people are deeply fascinated with the lost-clothing phenomenon and can’t help but wonder or imagine how the items came to be lost.

Personally, when I see an abandoned shoe or glove on the side of a road, I think, with some amount of trepidation, what happened? There’s a story here — but if I’m being honest, I don’t especially want to know what that story is. I am not curious, I do not wish to know more, and I quickly avert my eyes. Because I always fear that it might be a sad or an upsetting story — like an abduction, an assault, or an accident. I don’t want to know what potentially horrible thing that lost piece of clothing might mean to somebody, somewhere.

So I have been thinking today about this photograph and about its efficacy as a representation of Settler Canada’s desire to avert its eyes from the history and legacy of the residential schools. Maybe we see the mitten and we look away because, if we’re being honest, we’d rather not know its story. And maybe our lives would be easier or happier if we didn’t have to think too hard about the mitten or about what it means to somebody, somewhere — if we didn’t have to connect it to a story of little boys, cold, alone, afraid.

Merasty’s memoir is powerful and it deserved powerful cover art, so kudos to the design team at the University of Regina Press.

Teaching Mihku Paul’s “The Water Road”

Mihku Paul gave me this beautiful copy of her poem “The Water Road” after I organized a reading for her at the Saint John Free Public Library several summers ago. This now hangs in my kitchen and I look at it when heating bottles of milk for my babies. It’s one of my favourites of hers, but also, more generally, one of my favourite things ever written about the Wolastoqiyik homelands.

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And because it’s featured in the wonderful Dawnland Voices: An Anthology of Indigenous Writing from New England (ed. Siobhan Senier), I have the privilege of discussing it with students this week in a third-year Indigenous Literatures course at the University of New Brunswick in Saint John. To some degree, the poem is a response to The Old Meductic Fort and the Indian Chapel of Saint Jean Baptistea paper that was read before the New Brunswick Historical Society by Rev. W.O. Raymond in 1897. Raymond refers to a tributary of the Wolastoq River that the Maliseets call “Madawamkeetook, signifying ‘rocky at its mouth,'” and also to a report penned by Abraham Gesner — the Settler geologist who invented kerosene — who noted, in his survey of Wolastoqiyik portage paths, that the “‘solid rocks'” between Meductic and Tobique had been so well travelled that they were “‘furrowed by the moccasins of the native tribes.'” Gesner’s writings on these trails are themselves fascinating, filled with detailed references to awikhiganak, the images inscribed into tree bark that helped Wabanaki peoples navigate dense forests.

Against this incredible image of people traveling, for centuries, down worn and familiar passages, echoing the footsteps and movements of their ancestors, mapping and inscribing their land with their bodies, and leaving written messages, warnings, and instructions for one another along the paths, Raymond consolidates his simplistic idea of wandering nomads. He describes “the Indians of the Maliseet and Micmac tribes” as “a race of nomads, wandering about from one camping ground to another, as necessity or caprice impelled them.” Paul counters his vision of aimlessness with an exploration of her own personal reasons for travelling the water road. Her poem moves from Madawamkeetook down the Meductic trail to the Chiputneticook lakes at the Maine border and to Mattawamkeag, an eastern tributary of the Penobscot — where, Paul writes, “a girl became a woman.”

Screen Shot 2018-01-25 at 3.30.45 PMPaul herself grew up primarily in Old Town, Maine, but she also spent portions of her childhood among family at Indian Island, which stretches for miles along the Penobscot River. An enrolled member of the Kingsclear First Nation in New Brunswick, her family’s life in Maine was born of her grandfather’s struggles in the New Brunswick residential school system — experiences that ultimately caused him to flee the province before Mihku’s mother was born.

Paul’s poem speaks of someone who “became a woman” along the Penobscot, but whose “body craves the past, its water seeking / The cool flow, ancestral memory, / Where tributaries meet, flooding / Undernourished roots that cling to her edges / Eroded year by year with forgetting.” And so she follows the “map / Flowing inside [her body]” — from Penobscot to Mattawamkeag, to the Chiputneticook lakes, and up the water road to Meductic, where furrowed rocks speak of old life ways and the purposeful movements of a people who always find their way home.

 

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.

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:

Resources for teaching non-alphabetic Indigenous literacies

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.