Jo-Ann Episkenew, “Socially Responsible Criticism.”

Citation: Episkenew, Joann. “Socially Responsible Criticism: Aboriginal Literature, Ideology, and the Literary Canon.” Creating Community: A Roundtable on Canadian Aboriginal Literature. Eds. Eigenbrod, Renate, and Jo-Ann Episkenew. Penticton, BC: Theytus Books, 2002.

___________________________________Argument:   Scope/Organization/Main Points: Episkenew recalls an undergrad class where she notices that the professor has misinterpreted a Silko story. She does not tell him that her personal experience proves that the story is saying something other than what the prof has perceived, in part because she is embarrassed about the content of her early life (ie. her Indigeneity) but also due to a fear that he will not believe her: “Somehow my husband’s story smacked of poverty and social problems and all the things that I was sure that my professors associated with Aboriginal people. Even worse, what if I told him and he didn’t believe me? What if he accused me of telling or believing tall tales? His was the voice of authority. How could I convince him that my voice contained authority, too” (56)? A main concern is that non-Indigenous works that interpret Canadian Indigenous Literature “lack a fundamental understanding of the ideological context in which the works were written,” as well as ignoring the ideological context from which the author of the theory writes. Interpretation can thus be a sort of social, spiritual, and scholarly colonization (56).  Literary analysis by settler scholars has high stakes, as interpretation that re-valorizes the voice of academics likewise affects the lives of those who produce, and those who are subjects of Indigenous literature. In fact, Episkenew makes Indigenous literary studies sound like a battleground: “choosing Canadian Aboriginal Literature as a field of study has its own challenges, especially when Aboriginal people are able to write back” (57).  An analysis of Halfbreed and April Raintree deftly show both how settler scholars (including feminists) love to read disconnection and conflict into Métis identity – “though there is abundant evidence to prove that Métis people are not inherently confused, isolated, and alone, this icon remains intact” (57) – as well as how a reading that takes into account context and settler ideology produces more relevant and nuanced readings – readings that the texts are clearly asking for (57-65). Importantly, Episkenew reminds us, “It is their proximity to the white settlers, their legal status, and their poverty—not their mixed blood—that erodes the Métis sense of pride and security in their identity” (61). She also notes that Raintree and Halfbreed are different, in part because of how proximity to family and social context function. Métis identity is not central to their alienation, but their place within settler Canada.  Ultimately, Episkenew expresses hope that writing and participating in the academy marks a turning point for Indigenous peoples, particularly in terms of being “subjects of their own” scholarship rather than “objects of academic discourse” (66) – a claim made complicated by Simpson’s assertions regarding the effect of ethnographic incorporation in the academy.

Points of Importance/Interest: 

  •  Episkenew’s concerns about the ‘believability’ of accounts by Indigenous people is relevant for my question about the rift between cultural studies, with its distrust of texts, and Indigenous studies, that might not be compelled to ask texts, “Why?”
  • Clear ties to Smith and Simpson’s work with ethnographic refusal.
  • Key for a wider discussion of how meaning is thought to arrive through analysis – by asking “Why?” of a text – rather than…  something different?    



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