Buying local, the rhetoric of “buy local,” and buying Indigenous

This weekend, while raking up last year’s leaves, I noticed a “thank you for supporting local business” message typed across our paper yard waste bags. We bought the bags at Kent Building Supplies, which is an Irving-owned, New Brunswick-based company with headquarters here in Saint John. But the brown bags themselves were produced by a Prince Edward Island paper company. So which “local” business was I supporting with my bag purchase? I like to know what I’m being thanked for!

Back in January, premier Brian Gallant came to Saint John, hyping a “major economic announcement.” The announcement, as it turned out, heralded the opening of a new Sears call centre for the city. Don Darling, the mayor of Saint John, welcomed the news and suggested the centre would help Saint Johners “buy local” — by which it actually appears he meant “shop at our local Sears,” a company based in Chicago.

Here in Menahkwesk/Saint John, my family lives across the harbour from a traditional Maliseet meeting place called Ouigoudi. In the words of Pat Paul, editor of the Wulustuk times, 

In this village, traditional pre-contact, inter-tribal bargaining, exchange, and trading was conducted regularly. It was the first known Indigenous trading centre of its kind in the east. Within a close proximity to Ouigoudi was a vast abundance of food that consisted of moose, deer, bear, caribou, beaver, muskrat plus many other smaller wildlife species of every description. . . . It is no wonder that after Champlain visited this important and strategic location other Europeans were drawn to Ouigoudi to witness and partake in the abundance and [in] indigenous trade and barter. . . . And the fact that Saint John claims to be one of the oldest cities in the country lends credence and proof to its drawing power for immigrants and settlers from earliest times to the present.

So many people gathered here seasonally at the mouth of the Wolastoq – to fish, to hunt, and to trade – that there is still debate in historical scholarship about who it was that the French encountered in 1604 when Samuel de Champlain dropped anchor and promptly re-named the mighty Wolastoq in honor of St. John the Baptist. Early 17th century writers placed the Mi’gmaq at the mouth of the river; others identified the so-called “Etchemins,” or the Passamaquoddies and the Maliseet/Wolastoqiyik, as this land’s original inhabitants.

As a guest of the Maliseet, I still think of this land as a meeting place, and one of the ways in which Settlers can honour this association is by supporting traditional economies and purchasing Indigenous goods.

C9hrWvbUIAA5isU.jpg-largeAt Maliseet Studios, Gina Brooks and Susan Sacobie produce clean, chemical free, colour free, and additive free soaps and bath products. In Gina’s words:

We use essential oils and infusions that we harvest in our own territory, and also bear grease, moose grease, coconut oil, avocado oil, shea nut oil, sweet almond oil and Epsom, sea and Himalayan pink salts, pine sap, cedar and of course cedar, sweetgrass & Sage infusions, as well as PEI red clay and our clay. We don’t want to compete with large company’s and other diy people who may use colorant and or chemicals. Our work is always about accessing the land and the ingredients we use will be harvested by us, and made by us as much as possible. Obviously there are things we can’t grow here but we get the best quality we can from reputable merchants.

At this point in my life, these are the only products I’ve knowingly consumed that contain bear and moose greases. They’ll ship these fantastic products anywhere in the province or beyond (you cover shipping). Email them at maliseetstudios at gmail.

This is also the right time of year to stock up on fresh maple syrup, which is my family’s sweeter-of-choice for baking and even for coffee. Passamaquoddy Maple is tribally owned and operated, and you can read all about them (and even order a few bottles) here.

I’ll add to this list of other Wabanaki vendors and artisans periodically:


Weighing in on “Canadian exceptionalism”

I really love the group blog and #twitterstorians movements in History, and I wish we were similarly motivated in literary studies. Sometimes just clicking through the links in Andrea Eidinger’s weekly history roundup is enough to leave me with the same feeling of exhilaration I’ve received from the very best conferences I’ve attended. Historians know how to generate energy online.

And it finally occurred to me to contribute something. This week’s Borealia post is mine, drawn from material that is developed further in my forthcoming book. In the post, I discuss exceptionalism as a deeply ingrained and inescapable part of Settler Canadian identity, exploring its contemporaneous presence in political, religious, and nationalist discourses.

. . . Exceptionalism is premised on this fundamental if sometimes unspoken or secularized belief that the God of Israel gave the world to industrious Western peoples so they could do with it as they pleased. In Canada, this vision was officially consecrated into statehood with the adoption of Psalm 72:8 as the basis of the national motto in 1867: “He shall have dominion also from sea to sea, and from the river unto the ends of the earth.” This is the same essential idea that John Locke so carefully developed in his second treatise on government, where we find what is generally treated as the definitive argument in defense of the supposedly natural rights of English colonists to conquer and acquire the world. According to Locke, the seizure of land and paranoid control of resources is not a “prejudice to any other man,” and even if “God gave the world to men in common… it cannot be supposed he meant it should always remain common and uncultivated. He gave it to the use of the industrious and rational.”

The creation of Canada was another aggressive consolidation of this self-aggrandizing mythology against “the common pot” of Turtle Island – the Indigenous perspective of land as a shared territory capable of equally sustaining all kinds of beings across generations. By adopting “A Mari Usque Ad Mare” as their unifying motto, the founders of Canada expressed their conventional belief in the right of “exceptional” people like themselves to acquire and dominate the world, signaling, too, a belief in their own principal and essential place in what was, to their minds, a predestined but unfinished tale of Western deliverance. If, decades earlier, the American Revolution had robbed the world’s most exceptional people of their supposedly “natural” right to dominance over the lands and resources that some now call the United States, those exiles had persevered in their search for the so-called promised land, casting their gaze upon the Canadian “wilderness” and on the great material bounties that were waiting in its depths. . . .

I’m grateful to Keith Grant and Denis McKim for allowing me to hang out with the historians for the week. Click through to their site to read the whole piece.

Foregrounding Settler subject positions

What does it mean when Settler scholars position themselves in their writings, and what does it mean when they don’t? In 2016, I opened a job talk with a relatively detailed description of how my ancestors came to live in North America. At the time, it felt like a bit — though the more I’ve included these kinds of details in my work, the more natural it has become.

In my discipline (literary studies), students are pointedly taught to write papers devoid of any reference to “I” or “me.” We are taught that our subject positions are implicit. But are there people whose subject positions are less implicit — perspectives that require more explanation or context? Is a student’s subject position only implicit if the student and the instructor share a cultural positionality?

Are some peoples’ subject positions more implicit than others’?

Settler Canadian scholars of Indigenous literatures have long shown an interest in understanding themselves in relation to the critical readings they produce. In 2001, Helen Hoy’s How Should I Read These? Native Women Writers in Canada modeled a process of reading in which the Settler scholar – instead of assuming expertise over any and all materials – is transformed through his or her encounters with Indigenous texts. And in Traveling Knowledges: Positioning the Im/Migrant Reader of Aboriginal Literatures in Canada (2005), the late Renate Eigenbrod, a self-described German-born interloper in the field of Canadian Native Studies, spoke of the importance of coming to Indigenous texts with an unwavering and self-conscious understanding of her own imported knowledge system. To this end, her study speaks “not just through the persuasiveness of [her] intellectual arguments but also through [her] lived experiences” (xii). Like Hoy, she crafts her personal reading strategy openly for the expressed purpose of facilitating non-Indigenous access to the epistemologically transformative and “unsettling” powers of Indigenous voices.

Studies like Hoy’s and Eigenbrod’s have informed the work of other Settler Canadians working in the field of Indigenous studies, but the implications of such moves have yet to catch on outside of the academy or even in the neighbouring realm of Canadian Studies – a field still generally characterized by the piecemeal incorporation (and frequent appropriation) of Indigenous cultural materials, where scholars almost invariably leave essential information about the historical and cultural forces that shape their readings and perspectives out of their writings entirely.

Meanwhile, Indigenous scholars frequently foreground their personal subject and geographic positions in their scholarly offerings. The Kahnawake Mohawk scholar Taiaiake Alfred identifies his book, Wasáse: Indigenous Pathways of Action and Freedom (2005), as “a journey on the path made for us by those who have found a way to live as Onkwehonwe, original people. The thoughts and vision I am offering through these words are rooted in the cultural heritage of Anówarakowa” (19). In The Common Pot: The Recovery of Native Space in the Northeast (2008), the Abenaki literary historian Lisa Brooks writes, “I spend a lot of time tracking the forested marshes and uplands where I live, in the country of my Abenaki ancestors, and my writing reflects this familiarity” (xxiv). And in the first pages of We Were Not the Savages: Collision between European and Native American Civilizations (2006), the Mi’gmaw historian Daniel N. Paul dedicates his writing to “the memory of my ancestors, who managed to ensure the survival of the Mi’kmaq people by their awe-inspiring tenacity and valour in the face of virtually insurmountable odds” (vii). These writings are diplomatic. These voices reach across existing cultural divides with a potential of transformation.

David Perley, a Wolastoq elder and the current director of the Mi’kmaq-Wolastoquey Centre at the University of New Brunswick, weighed in on this practice of self-identification in a 2016 interview with The Brunswickan, UNB’s student newspaper, explaining that “‘Traditionally, when we introduce ourselves, we would first identify our region, then identify our connection to our territory. When you see land in that way, you need to preserve it in a respectable way’” (qtd. in Kim). According to Perley, Indigenous self-identification asserts a perspective of land as a central part of human identity and as a fully animate being/ecosystem that must be respectfully considered and engaged.

In part, then, Indigenous scholars include information about themselves, their families, and/or their territories in their writings as a way of informing their audience of where their knowledge comes from; it comes from the specific, animate place-worlds that are still speaking and functioning from beneath the inscriptions of Western dominance on Turtle Island. Indigenous knowledge comes from the ground. In 1749, a Mi’gmaw letter to Governor Edward Cornwalis put it this way:

The place where you are, where you lodge, where you are building a fort, where you seem presently to want to entrench yourself, the place which you want by any means to control, that place belongs to me. I came out of this ground, just like the grass, me the native, I was born here, generation after generation from father to son, so this land is my land. I swear, it is the Creator who gave me this land to be my country in perpetuity. (“Mi’kmaq Declaration” 8)

This passage reflects an intersection of Settler and Indigenous cultural geographies in the northeast – along with the insidious spread of a transatlantic knowledge system that has always actively and aggressively defied the specificities of place that Indigenous peoples have been working, ever since my ancestors entrenched themselves in this territory, to protect against us.

Settler Canadian knowledge does not come from the ground. It was built over the ground using imported cultural materials, entrenched here like a fort as a means of controlling a larger and larger percentage of space and resources. In Settler: Identity and Colonialism in 21st Century Canada (2015), Emma Battell Lowman and Adam J. Barker wrote with insight and urgency about the tensions that exist today between “who we are” as Settler Canadians and “who we claim to be” (1). This distinction is crucial in the context of current discussions around so-called “nation-to-nation” relationships between Indigenous peoples and the Canadian state, for how can we even begin to negotiate in good faith with Indigenous nations when we have yet to sort out the differences between who we are and who we claim to be? What does it mean that, instead of viewing ourselves as transnational or transatlantic Settler subjects, we continue to position ourselves authoritatively within the contexts of the broad nationalities and regionalities that we have fashioned and refashioned for ourselves across time as a means of shoring up our forts?

If, as most scholarship concedes, terms like “Canadian,” “Maritimer,” and “Torontonian” are undefinable, so vague as to be all but meaningless, then why are we still using them to explain or identify ourselves? What is the essential “connection to territory” that I am claiming for myself when I refer to myself within the context of a subject position that was built like a fort over the ground?