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?