“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:

FullSizeRender.jpg

FullSizeRender.jpg

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.”

FullSizeRender.jpg

FullSizeRender.jpg

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.