Three Canada (should) Reads

With the distressing elimination of Katherena Vermette’s The Break in week one, I lost all interest in Canada Reads for 2017. So in the wake of this unmitigated disaster, I’ve assembled a short list of texts I think all Canadians should be reading this spring.

Settler: Identity and Colonialism in 21st Century Canada by Emma Battell Lowman and Adam J. Barker (Fernwood 2015)

Canada has never had an “Indian problem”— but it does have a Settler problem. But what does it mean to be Settler? And why does it matter?

Through an engaging, and sometimes enraging, look at the relationships between Canada and Indigenous nations, Settler: Identity and Colonialism in 21st Century Canada explains what it means to be Settler and argues that accepting this identity is an important first step towards changing those relationships. Being Settler means understanding that Canada is deeply entangled in the violence of colonialism, and that this colonialism and pervasive violence continue to define contemporary political, economic and cultural life in Canada. It also means accepting our responsibility to struggle for change. Settler offers important ways forward — ways to decolonize relationships between Settler Canadians and Indigenous peoples — so that we can find new ways of being on the land, together.

Indigenous Writes: A Guide to First Nations, Métis & Inuit Issues in Canada by Chelsea Vowel (HighWater 2016)

In 31 essays, Chelsea Vowel explores the Indigenous experience from the time of contact to the present, through five categories – Terminology of Relationships; Culture and Identity; Myth-Busting; State Violence; and Land, Learning, Law, and Treaties. She answers the questions that many people have on these topics to spark further conversations at home, in the classroom, and in the larger community.

Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants by Robin Wall Kimmerer (Milkweed 2013)

Drawing on her life as an indigenous scientist, a mother, and a woman, Kimmerer shows how other living beings—asters and goldenrod, strawberries and squash, salamanders, algae, and sweetgrass—offer us gifts and lessons, even if we’ve forgotten how to hear their voices. In a rich braid of reflections that range from the creation of Turtle Island to the forces that threaten its flourishing today, she circles toward a central argument: that the awakening of a wider ecological consciousness requires the acknowledgment and celebration of our reciprocal relationship with the rest of the living world. For only when we can hear the languages of other beings will we be capable of understanding the generosity of the earth, and learn to give our own gifts in return.

New work on Archive (In)digitization

I’m always excited to see new work from Siobhan Senier at the University of New Hampshire — like this fantastic new piece on early Indigenous digital collections, which highlights some of the best digital repositories for early Indigenous literatures around.

Certainly anyone who cares about Indigenous literary history in the northeast (or more generally about the digitization of Indigenous cultural materials) should be following what Siobhan is doing. This is a fascinating and tricky area of the digital humanities. Over the course of the last few years, libraries and archives in both Canada and the US have been rushing to digitize their holdings to promote their collections and to improve public access. With the official launch of the Digital Public Library of America in April of 2013, US-based humanities scholars were thrust into ongoing high-level debates about information management. Suddenly, scholars who had never given digitization much thought were seeing their research topics as important cogs in worldwide discussions about how cultural materials are preserved, protected, and disseminated. This is perhaps especially true in the realm of Indigenous Studies, which has always been concerned with the preservation of culture and heritage.

And so a small cohort of scholars began to engage in essential conversations about which Indigenous materials “want to be free,” about what should be restricted, and about how those controls should function. Siobhan’s work in this area introduced me to important debates about digital rights management and about how culturally-specific ethical concerns can be productively incorporated into collective notions of information freedom.

I also generally come away from Siobhan’s work with valuable new avenues for research and teaching. The Kim-Wait Eisenberg Collection at Amherst College looks especially useful for anyone putting together a syllabus on early Indigenous literatures.

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?

The role of education in the Settler Canadian civilizing mission

In The Homing Place, I compare the culture and spacial organization of early New England meeting houses with Settler Canadian universities — seats of Western cultural rule and epistemological control where the lectern has replaced the pulpit and where populations are generally trained to revere transatlantic traditions and modes of thought.

I earned my PhD in 2016 from a school (the University of New Brunswick) that was founded by Loyalists in 1785. This morning I stumbled upon an anonymous report from 1788, titled “Progress of New Brunswick”:

When we look back to the origin of this new province, and trace it to a short period of only four years we find it rapidly arriving into use and consequence to Great Britain. The public Academies and private Schools establishing in that province with a view of Civilizing the Indian natives and thereby making them useful inhabitants, as well also for keeping their own youth from going into the neighbouring States of America for their education and imbibing the disloyal principles of that country.

A clear articulation of the role of these institutions in the consolidation of settler state power. Here’s to all the unlikely products of this system that was specifically designed to produce a citizenry that is unNative and unAmerican.