Ro­man­tic no­tions that equate Indige­nous peo­ples with na­ture are not go­ing to cut it

Geist - - Geist - Lisa Bird-wil­son

Clowns, Cake, Ca­noes: This is Canada?

Last fall I par­tic­i­pated in two joint read­ings with the Nisga’a au­thor Jor­dan Abel (In­jun, Talon­books, 2016). Hear­ing Jor­dan talk about his work and present it in his unique style, via dig­i­tal mixer with the theatre lights turned low, was a fresh treat. In In­jun, Jor­dan works from found text, tak­ing lines of old West­ern nov­els con­tain­ing the word In­jun and us­ing them, via ran­dom gen­er­at­ing soft­ware, to cre­ate his po­etry. It’s a cre­ative and unique ap­proach.

Later in the year, I saw an ar­ti­cle in the Wal­rus in which Jor­dan writes about re­think­ing his read­ing prac­tices and about a friend men­tion­ing the idea of “read­ing Indige­nously.” Jor­dan ad­mits he doesn’t know how to do it, this “read­ing Indige­nously,” or what it even re­ally means, but one of his ac­tions is to fo­cus on read­ing works by Indige­nous authors.

Jor­dan’s sug­ges­tion of read­ing Indige­nously stuck with me. Like Jor­dan, I haven’t come to terms with all that read­ing Indige­nously might en­tail, but for me a part of the prac­tice means dis­sect­ing what I’m read­ing to iden­tify both what’s there, and— equally sig­nif­i­cant—what’s miss­ing. It oc­curs to me this might be de­scribed as de­col­o­niz­ing read­ing, where de­col­o­niz­ing is a verb and read­ing is both a noun and a verb. This kind of read­ing is not solely an Indige­nous act—it’s re­quired of us all.

Later, I stum­bled across a re­view of Jane Urquhart’s re­cent book A Num­ber of Things (Harpercollins, 2016), de­scribed as a book about fifty things that are meant to sym­bol­ize the story of Canada and “speak to our col­lec­tive ex­pe­ri­ence as a na­tion.” As an Indige­nous per­son in Canada, I was in­stantly sus­pi­cious of that de­scrip­tion. We’ll see about that, I thought. I didn’t quite know it yet, but I had just put on my “Indige­nous read­ing” glasses. In that spirit, I picked up a copy of Urquhart’s “150th birth­day gift to Canada,” un­did the rib­bon, tore away the pretty pa­per and found a book about fifty objects meant to rep­re­sent Canada, in­clud­ing trac­tors, barns, light­houses, ca­noes, books, a Moun­tie’s tur­ban and a train’s cow­catcher, to name a few.

Around the same time, Nêhiyaw NDP Mem­ber of Par­lia­ment Romeo Sa­ganash wrote a satiric let­ter to Justin Trudeau call­ing for a na­tional ca­noe­and-pad­dle pro­gram. Sa­ganash was re­spond­ing to the Prime Min­is­ter’s goofy re­marks in Saskatchewan about Indige­nous youth want­ing places to put their ca­noes and pad­dles. Glit­tery and Vogue as the PM seemed only a short year ago, his words landed like a clump of lake-sod­den weeds.

“Ca­noe,” one of Urquhart’s fifty things in A Num­ber of Things, echoes the PM’S odd hang-up with ca­noes and Indige­nous peo­ple. Urquhart states, “The ca­noe was the craft… as the abo­rig­i­nal [sic] peo­ples of Canada knew and con­tinue to know so well— that could take you to cer­tain re­mote parts of the coun­try.” For Urquhart, the ca­noe, and Indige­nous peo­ple by as­so­ci­a­tion, en­gen­der a dreamy psy­cho­log­i­cal trans­for­ma­tion, linked to na­ture, and jux­ta­posed with city “rules, timeta­bles, and obe­di­ence.”

A Num­ber of Things in­cludes of­ten sen­ti­men­tal vi­gnettes, his­tor­i­cal and per­sonal in na­ture, with the things them­selves act­ing as jumpin­goff points. About five items out of fifty spark par­tic­u­lar in­ter­est as I read through my Indige­nous lens. The rope that hanged Louis Riel, “the [an­gry] rebel” “fu­elled by a kind of glo­ri­ous fury.” A leg­ging be­long­ing to a Beothuk mother “on the cusp of ex­tinc­tion.” Re­duc­tive and frus­trat­ing ref­er­ences to First Na­tions “tribes.” Ro­man­tic no­tions equat­ing us with na­ture. The prob­lem is, in a coun­try whose very foun­da­tion is based on ex­tin­guish­ing Indige­nous ti­tle to the land in or­der to make room for Euro­pean set­tlers, to­ken rep­re­sen­ta­tions of our ro­man­tic or imag­ined van­ish­ing pres­ence on this land are not go­ing to cut it. Texts are as telling for what’s said as what is not said. Through the read­ing, I’m vexed by what re­mains un-ex­pressed,

who re­mains un-in­cluded, what ex­pe­ri­ences are un-re­flected in this cel­e­bra­tion of Canada.

Canada 150. It’s hap­pen­ing now, it’s hap­pen­ing all around us. There’s so much his­tory on this land that’s not about Canada and the last 150 years, yet we find our­selves in the mid­dle of a fre­netic birth­day party with bal­loons, stream­ers, fire­works, con­fetti, cake and clowns. Sud­denly, roused from our frost­ing-in­duced stu­por, we brush the cake crumbs from our lapel, turn to the clown next to us and ask: Why? Why are we in the mid­dle of this party cel­e­brat­ing the tiny frac­tion of his­tory that is set­tler his­tory on th­ese lands? Be­cause time, the per­cep­tion of time, is con­trolled and or­dered by those who hold power. The con­text for pre­sent­ing and un­der­stand­ing his­tory (read: Canada 150) is a white Cana­dian con­text.

Urquhart’s book re­flects the priv­i­lege to struc­ture time and tell of­fi­cial his­tory. In such a telling, it’s up to Abo­rig­i­nal con­texts, sto­ries and ex­pe­ri­ences to fit into the or­der es­tab­lished by the dom­i­nant frame­work. As if Indige­nous ex­pe­ri­ence must be wedged into the story of Canada on this con­ti­nent. As if it’s not re­ally Canada that fills the small space in the story. As if sto­ries are lin­ear. Em­bed­ded in Canada 150 are the work­ings of 150 years of un­ex­am­ined power and au­thor­ity.

Urquhart’s “col­lec­tive ex­pe­ri­ence as a na­tion” ren­ders Indige­nous ex­pe­ri­ences, thoughts, lan­guages and world views mar­ginal. And yet, th­ese are times of un­prece­dented at­ten­tion to Indige­nous is­sues, in great part sparked by the work of the Truth and Rec­on­cil­i­a­tion Com­mis­sion and buoyed by such ac­tions as the fed­eral in­quiry into miss­ing and mur­dered Indige­nous women and other emerg­ing aware­ness and in­ter­est in Indige­nous is­sues, not to men­tion the sheer un­will­ing­ness of Indige­nous peo­ple to ac­cept any longer our dis­en­fran­chise­ment from the na­tional con­ver­sa­tion. What I see hap­pen­ing right now is a chance to change the way we think about the story of Canada. In this vein, I find Urquhart’s book an out-of-shape aer­o­bics-class par­tic­i­pant in bad ’90s span­dex sweat­ing to keep up but ul­ti­mately one or two Zumba steps be­hind the rest of us.

Re­flected in Urquhart’s vi­gnettes are ver­sions of Indige­nous ex­pe­ri­ences ac­cept­able to, or de­fined by, main­stream think­ing, that re­flect the power of the au­thor to choose and the power of the pub­lisher to choose. The ques­tion, dur­ing this time of un­prece­dented na­tional ef­forts to­ward rec­on­cil­i­a­tion, is: How do we crit­i­cally an­a­lyze those choices, and per­haps come to a new un­der­stand­ing of how the choices were made and upon what foun­da­tion? This, I think, is what’s in­volved in read­ing Indige­nously.

In Urquhart’s 39th en­try, “Cree Bas­ket,” she writes with fond­ness about the Nêhiyaw poet Louise Bernice Halfe, for­mer Poet Lau­re­ate of Saskatchewan, also known as Sky Dancer. Ques­tion­ing, re­think­ing, re­solv­ing are at the heart of Halfe’s lat­est work, Burn­ing in this Mid­night Dream (Coteau, 2016). If there is a story to be at­tended to, it’s within the pages of her book, in the walk “back­wards on foot­prints/ that walked for­ward/ for the story to be told.” Halfe’s po­ems be­long in a story con­nected to hope for de­col­o­niza­tion (all of us—you too, white Canada) and the cur­rent na­tional con­ver­sa­tion about truth and rec­on­cil­i­a­tion. Each poem of­fers a gift of lan­guage, both Nêhiyaw and English, and deep re­sis­tance against the “seed of blind­ness.”

Hope and the de­sire to re­claim “what I lost/ what is needed for the red road” weave through Halfe’s collection. Fol­low­ing a se­ries of gut­ting early po­ems re­flect­ing the “truth” in truth and rec­on­cil­i­a­tion—po­ems, I might add, that although less san­i­tized “go deeper but never fully plumb the depths”—halfe writes, “I want to know how I can bring beauty/ and drink the nec­tar of de­light.” Louise Halfe teaches, she leads the de­col­o­niz­ing ef­forts that are so painfully fa­mil­iar to gen­er­a­tions of Indige­nous peo­ple: “We of­fer our to­bacco, hang our prayer cloth/ take th­ese small les­sons/ and re­claim them as our own.”

Both Urquhart’s and Halfe’s texts rely on per­sonal and his­tor­i­cal per­spec­tives, but the po­lar­iza­tion of the story of Canada, “our col­lec­tive ex­pe­ri­ence as a na­tion,” is ut­terly glar­ing when the two texts are placed side by side. Halfe’s X, “burned ink onto [her] skin for Treaty Six,” rep­re­sents the di­ver­gence that goes far beyond the two books. Urquhart’s Treaty X ought to be no less vis­i­ble, no less acutely felt than Halfe’s, and yet it’s as if Urquhart’s Treaty X is writ­ten in in­vis­i­ble set­tler ink. Not burned onto her skin but more like an all-but-faded tem­po­rary tat­too. This is the set­tler priv­i­lege, to choose not to know, to choose not to par­tic­i­pate mind­fully and mean­ing­fully in Treaty. The work ought not to be all ours. The tricky busi­ness of read­ing Indige­nously, what­ever that might fully mean, be­longs to us all.

While I firmly be­lieve your chances in Cana­dian Triv­ial Pur­suit might be im­proved after read­ing A Num­ber of Things, un­for­tu­nately your en­gage­ment with the most im­por­tant po­lit­i­cal and cul­tural ideas of the mo­ment won’t be.

Lisa Bird-wil­son, a Cree-metis writer from Saskatchewan, is the au­thor of three books: The Red Files, a po­etry collection (Night­wood Edi­tions, 2016), Just Pre­tend­ing, short sto­ries (Coteau Books, 2013) and An In­sti­tute of Our Own: A His­tory of the Gabriel Du­mont In­sti­tute (Gabriel Du­mont Pub­lish­ing, 2011). Her shorter works have been pub­lished in pe­ri­od­i­cals in­clud­ing the Mala­hat Re­view, Grain, Prairie Fire, Dal­housie Re­view, kimi­wan and Geist, and in an­tholo­gies in­clud­ing Best Cana­dian Es­says. Bird-wil­son lives in Saska­toon, SK. Read her story “Blood Mem­ory” at

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