Citation: Macfarlane, Heather & Armand Garnet Ruffo. Introduction to Indigenous Literary Criticism in Canada. Broadview Press, 2015.
Argument: The book is a compilation of 26 critical essays, and seems designed to provide educators with tools for teaching Indigenous literature. Contextualization is an important function of the essays, or if the essays do not provide context, they at least recommend reading practices that take note of the place and time in which literary works emerged.
Scope/Organization/Main Points: E. Pauline Johnson, “A Strong Race Opinion: On the Indian Girl in Modern Fiction”Johnson takes issue with representation of Indigenous women. The “Indian character” dies across all “romances”, a consistent and persistent trope that implies the necropolitical trajectory of an Indigenous woman’s life (3). Widely held beliefs that Indigenous people are doomed to extinction reside, in some part, in colonial literature. She suggests that better familiarity and engagement with Indigenous peoples will lead to better representation (5), but perhaps does not fully consider how the demise of Indigenous peoples in settler society’s conceptualizations of colonized space is necessary to take ownership of land. N. Scott Momaday’s “The Man Made of Words” is a famous essay in which he outlines the relationship between language, imagination, and being. His words have some pertinence for how Indigenous peoples read themselves into the land. “I am interested in the way that a man looks at a given landscape and takes possession of it in his blood and brain. For this happens, I am certain, in the ordinary motion of life. None of us lives apart from the land entirely; such an isolation is unimaginable. We have sooner or later to come to terms with the world around us – and I mean especially the physical world, not only as it is revealed to us immediately through our senses, but also as it is perceived more truly in the long turn of seasons (11) and of years. […] We Americans need now more than ever before – and indeed more than we know – to imagine who and what we are with respect to the earth and sky. I am talking about an act of the imagination essentially, and the concept of an American land ethic” (12). This statement reminds me of John Burrows’s essay and his concept of “landed citizenship.” This line has resonance with concerns about reading ethically: “Our sense of the natural order has become dull and unreliable. Like the wilderness itself, our sphere of instinct has diminished in proportion as we have failed to imagine truly what it is” (12). At the same time, Momaday is “concerned here not so much with an accurate representation of actuality, but with the realization of the imaginative experience” (14). He uses the Kiowa as an example. In the 19th century they had recently suffered severe losses at the hands of other Indigenous peoples, and during their travels they witnessed a meteor shower that terrified them. In the years that followed, they signed treaties, and not long after that, their numbers were greatly reduced by disease and life on the plains altered dramatically due to the death of horses and buffalo. “The terrified Kiowas, when they had regained possession of themselves, did indeed imagine that the falling stars were symbolic of their being and their destiny. They accounted for themselves with reference to that awful memory. They appropriated it, recreated it, fashioned it into an image of themselves – imagined it” (15). Afterwards, in the wake of desperation of division, they became “a lordly society of warriors. Along the way they had acquired horses, a knowledge and possession of the open land, and a sense of destiny” (16). Tomson Highway (“On Native Mythology”) contends that Indigenous art is crucial for a people’s imaginative potential: “The mythology of a people is the articulation of the dreamworld of that people; without that dreamlife being active in all its forms – from the most extreme beauty to the most horrific and back – the culture of that people is dead” (24). Basil Johnson’s excerpt, “One Generation from Extinction” is about the value of Indigenous languages. In line with Keavy Martin’s discussion of asking “why?”, Johnson recalls advice from elders to youth: “’Don’t talk too often…Don’t talk too long…Don’t talk about those matters that you know nothing about.’ Were a person to restrict his discourse, and measure his speech, and govern his talk by what he knew, he would earn the trust and respect of his (her) listeners” (28). Thomas King’s essay “Godzilla vs. Post-colonial” argues that the term post-colonial entrenches us in thinking about the colonial encounter as the defining event in the lives of Indigenous peoples; the moment to which all analysis must refer. He theorizes two (not always distinct) categories of Indigenous literature: the polemical and the interfusional / associational. Polemical attends to “the clash of Native and non-Native cultures” while interfusional incorporates oral and written literature (42), and associational literature describes Native communities in a way that does not centre on the difference between Indigenous and non-Indigenous communities (43). “For the non-Native reader, this literature provides a limited and particular access to a Native world, allowing the reader to associate with that world without being encouraged to feel a part of it” (43). “Non-Natives may, as readers, come to an association with these communities, but they remain, always, outsiders” (45). Kimberley Blaeser (“Native Literature: Seeking a Critical Centre”) raises questions about how to approach Indigenous literature in a way that doesn’t simply measure it according to preexisting of Eurocentric conventions. While European literary theory has provided tools, it approaches Indigenous literature “with an already established theory, and the implication that the worth of the literature is essentially validated by its demonstrated adherence to a respected literary mode, dynamic or style” (70). One strategy might be considering how and if criticism exists in the texts themselves, in part because (as Krupat writes) Indigenous literature is such that its own literary theory does not exist as a separate entity, an idea that “brings us back to the idea of criticism as existing within and arising from the literature itself” (73). This reminds me of Womack’s discussion of the New Criticism. Willie Ermine (“Aboriginal Espitemology”) turns to Engel’s critique of “false consciousness” and notes that “the Western world has capitulated to a dogmatic fixation on power and control at the expense of authentic insights into the nature and origin of knowledge as truth” (103). His concern is that Indigenous thinking is threatened by “the assumptions that drive the search for knowledge in the Western world. One assumption is that the universe can be understood and controlled through atomism. […] In viewing the world objectively, Western science has habitually fragmented and measured the external space in an attempt to understand it in all its complexity” (103). By contrast, Indigenous knowledge is a process of inner exploration: “The various Aboriginal cultural structures that have survived attest to the conviction of our progenitors and to the depth of their explorations and understanding of the cosmology of the inner world.” This has implications for pedagogy and politics. “The accumulation and synthesis of insights and tribal understandings acquired through inwardness, and the juxtaposition of knowledge on the physical plane as culture and community, is the task for contemporary Aboriginal education” (105). Margery Fee (“Writing Orality: Interpreting Literature in English by Aboriginal Writers”) argues that for English Canadians to lay claim to “Canadian soil” involved taking over “the myths of the Aboriginal peoples” (115). ß Read this book The Search for English-Canadian Literature. It’s at Mills. Read it now. This is a helpful point in terms of non-Indigenous readers: “When dealing with writing that is produced in direct resistance to their settler cultures, non-Indigenous critics must realize that they are no longer post-colonials ‘writing back’ to Empire: they are now the target of a colonized people’s resistance. In this situation, critics must us all the knowledge they have gained from their own experiences as colonized to consider their role as colonizers, to interrogate their own political and psychological investments in reading Indigenous literature in ways that produce themselves as Subject” (116). Armand Garnet Ruffo (“Why Native Literature?”) has a great line: “To address Native people themselves so that they can empower and heal themselves through their own cultural affirmation, as well as to address those in power and give them the real story: this too is the answer” (143). Central to his discussion is the implication of reading Indigenous literature, as well as the consequences of the much-discussed ‘loss’ of orality. He analyzes his own poem “Sahquakegick” to note a central metaphor: “Prior to the arrival of white settlers, Native literature in its oral form was spiritually centred in that it was, and is, informed by an Indigenous worldview that sees humans not at the top of an evolutionary pyramid but rather as a link in a circle of creation in which every entity is endowed with spirit” (141). Jeannette Armstrong (“Land Speaking”) writes, “My own father told me that it was the land that changed the language because there is special knowledge in each different place. All my elders say that it is land that holds all knowledge of life and death and is a constant teacher. It is said in Okanagan that the land constantly speaks. It is constantly communicating. Not to learn its language is to die. We survived and thrived by listening intently to its teachings – to its language – and then inventing human words to retell its stories to our succeeding generations. It is the land that speaks N’silxchn through the generations of our ancestors to us. It is N’silxchn, the old land/mother spirit of the Okanagan People, which surrounds me in its primal wordless state” (146). Language also allows her to identify differences and similarities between peoples: “The language lets me feel the points where our past was one and lets me ‘recognize’ teaching sites of our common ancestry” (149). She includes her poem, “Threads of Old Memory” to indicate that speaking is “a profound and sacred responsibility” (152). This portion would be great to quote for the field paper: “When I speak / I attempt to bring together / with my hands / gossamer thin threads of old memory / thoughts from the underpinnings of understanding / words steeped in age / slim / barely visible strands of harmony / stretching across the chaos brought into this world / through words / shaped as sounds in air / meaning made physical / changers of the world / carriers into this place of things / from a place of magic / the underside of knowing / the origination place / a pure place / silent / wordless / from where thoughts I choose / silently transform into words / I speak and / powerfully become actions / becomes memory is someone / I become different memories to different people / different stories in the retelling of my place / I am the dreamer / the choice maker / the word speaker / I speak in a language of words formed of the actions of the past / words that become the sharing / the collective knowing / the links that become a people / the dreaming that becomes a history” (153). This would work in conversation with Eliot’s essay. Armstrong is also concerned with the losses and limitations of English. English lacks a “musical coherence. For the most part, the ‘sounds’ of the words and the rhythms created in their structure clrealy are not constructed to draw a musical response. In fact, the language is deaf to music and only chances on it through the diligent work of writers. Perhaps this has to do with the loss of the body as the sole carrier of words” (156). Moreover, English terms are abstracted from individual experience (although I’m not sure if I agree with this). Still, I like her conclusion, “It must be a frightful experience to be a dog in English” (157) without companions, interactions, and complex liveliness. Finally, she discusses “Rez English” as not only an adaptation and reappropriation of the colonizer’s language, but an inventive form of orality: “Okanagan Rez English has a structural quality syntactically and semantically closer to the way the Okanagan language is arranged. I believe that Rez English from any part of the country, if examined, will display the sound and syntax patterns of the indigenous language of that area and subsequently the sounds that the landscape (158) speaks” (158-159). Neal McLeod (“Coming Home through Stories”) McLeod’s notion of the “ideological home” is interesting: “’Being home’ means to be part of a larger group, a collective consciousness; it involves having a personal sense of dignity. Furthermore, an ideological home, housed in collective memory, emerges from a specific location, spatially and temporally. An ideological home needs to have a spatial, temporal home as well” (172).
McLeod recounts some “Trickster-Treaty” stories, including two about Indigenous people using children or the appearance of pregnancy to wheedle more funds from the Indian agent (173-4). “The narratives of the colonizer can be subverted through a shifting of interpretative reality and space” (177). Change and flux are necessary for creating a “new narrative space for Cree [Indigenous] consciousness” (168). (Vizenor’s “trickster hermeneutics”).
In “’Everybody Likes the Inuit’: Inuit Revision and Representations of the North” Renée Hulan writes, “By merging their traditional conventions with European literary forms such as autobiography, Inuit writing plays a historical role in preserving details of past traditions, a pedagogical role in addressing and educating outsiders, and a political role in making statements on behalf of Inuit” (203).
This is also crucial: in addition to allowing for Indigenous literature to stand on its own and be understood as distinct from European literature, “[c]riticism of Aboriginal literature should also examine how, just as land is appropriated by the Canadian state, so is the experience and imagination of aboriginal writing appropriated by non-aboriginals. In this context, the uniqueness of the Inuit case lies in the way Inuit culture has been depicted by national discourses of identity” (204). Daniel Heath Justice – “The Necessity of Nationhood” To presume that difference does not exist does not only ignore fundamental and important elements that distinguish Indigenous peoples from settler society, but does actual violence in terms of disregarding and undermining ongoing struggles for respect and restitution. “To deny the centrality of politics from Indigenous identities and cultural and artistic expressions is to dismiss the centuries of armed and ideological struggle of Aboriginal peoples to retain their communal, self0determining sovereignty” (244).
Justice reminds us that “Indigenousness is not ethnic difference; it is both cultural and political distinctiveness, defined by land-based genealogical connections and obligations to human and nonhuman bonds of kinship” (244). “Cultural readings, by themselves, distract us, and they fix our attention on shallow surfaces. Culture alone cannot change the world. The power-and danger-of nationhood is that it can” (248). Literary nationalism can lead to assertions of peoplehood: the peoplehood matrix includes “Language, place/territory, sacred history, and ceremonial cycle” (245). Peoplehood is not cultural or racial difference but political.
“To dismiss nationhood from analysis, especially when it is such a concern of Indigenous peoples themselves, once more silences Native voices and perspectives and reinforces the dominative power of Canadian colonialism” (246). “A nationhood focus, far from being myopic or parochial in scope, actually necessitates engagement with broader influences, as one cannot know the intimate without understanding the ways in which that intimacy has been shaped by exterior social and environmental forces” (250). Is it worth noting how pleasurable it is to read a scholar from another country identifying the very real force that is Canadian colonialism? “Literary nationalism looks first to Indigenous contexts for interpretive analysis, to social histories, intellectual values, ceremonial traditions, and lived experiences of being both tribal – as in one’s specific nation—and being Indian/Native/Aboriginal/Indigenous, a broader category” (248). Literary studies much prioritize respect and contextualization, which is related to the sorts of mindset necessary to visualize and sustain an “associated sovereignty” (247) between Indigenous peoples and Canada.
Justice advocates for respect rather than recognition: “for any alliance relationship to truly be successful, it must be built on a foundation of mutual respect and equality, where the sovereignty of each participant is substantively acknowledged and taken into consideration, no matter how large a disparity there may be in size or power between the associated sovereignties. Anything less than full reciprocity of respect – on shared terms and standing, not imposed assumptions – is inadequate to the task of an informed ethical understanding within or among peoples” (247). Paying attention to the political and historical web that produced a certain national literature allows for not only “a deeper understanding of the conditions under which this literature has been produced, advocated, challenged and disseminated, we are also more thoughtfully immersed in the relationships between the texts, their times, and their authors” (250). Points of Importance/Interest: