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.

What would William Apess do?

ZoomImage.phpMy friend Drew Lopenzina has been making the rounds in support of his brilliant new book on William Apess (including a stop at the Newberry Library last month). So far I have missed out on every single one of these exciting events, which has been devastating, but Drew has made it easier for people like me to cope with these cool t-shirts. He will send you one for $20 USD and all proceeds will go toward putting up a commemorative sign to mark William Apess’s birth in the town of Colrain, Massachusetts. Look Drew up and send him an e-mail.

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.

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.

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.