Dynamic Equivalences

  • Mareike Neuhaus (Author)
    “That’s Raven Talk”: Holophrastic Readings of Contemporary Indigenous Literatures. Canadian Plains Research Center, University of Regina Press
Reviewed by Sylvie Vranckx

In Indigenous Studies, interdisciplinarity is not a fashion but a strategy for avoiding fragmentation of knowledge: its division into airtight disciplines has been criticized as Eurocentric and artificial. Mareike Neuhaus follows the push for holistic methodologies in her groundbreaking “That’s Raven Talk.” “[T]he first comprehensive study of North American Indigenous languages as the basis of textualized orality in Indigenous literatures in English,” it interweaves recent and older sources as well as literature, linguistics, anthropology, and cultural history.

The cover illustration, combining a Pacific Northwest Raven and a Cree syllabics typewriter, provocatively suggests that writing has become an Indigenous way. For Neuhaus, Native and Inuit writers appropriate English-language writing and its genres to assert their rhetorical sovereignty: she defies a tendency to underestimate the impact of Aboriginal linguistic and discourse conventions on literatures composed in English. Moving from Jeannette Armstrong to Roland Barthes, she bases her argument on the holophrase or one-word sentence typical of many American Indigenous languages. Thus, the Cree kikînohtenitawikociwîcinehiyaw’kiskinohamâkosiminâwâw conveys “you folks wanted to come and try to learn Cree with me” and displays semantic density: it is a significant narrative unit that forms part of the grid of a story. Because this polysynthetic structure does not exist in English, its function can be fulfilled by the paraholophrase, a phrase equivalent in effect that can only be identified from the narrative context, as it lacks the morphology of the holophrase. Thus, the translation technique “dynamic equivalence” preserves the impact of the source text rather than any formal correspondence. (Para)holophrases belong to linguistics, rhetoric, and literary criticism: they are figures of speech. They constitute what Van Camp calls “Raven Talk,” the vernacular of The Lesser Blessed. “Holophrastic reading” is therefore “a culturally specific reading strategy for textualized orality in Indigenous literatures in English.” The works analyzed are Call Me Ishmael by Ishmael Alunik (Inuvialuit); Arctic Dreams and Nightmares by Alootook Ipellie (Inuit); The Lesser Blessed by Richard Van Camp (Dogrib); Green Grass, Running Water by Thomas King (Cherokee); and Blue Marrow by Louise Halfe (Plains Cree).

This book is impressively detailed, from a linguistic glossary to an appendix discussing a personal translation from Cree. Neuhaus guides the reader through the steps and recapitulates her highly technical argument—though one wonders if the lingo of linguistics is relevant to the average person on a reserve, so to speak. Thus, she demonstrates in her own writing her argument about textualized orality. She invites reader participation through conversational turns and operates a mise-en-abyme of the narrative frames that she detects in all five authors: the chapters have opening, closing, and internal frames. These repetitions enable one to read each chapter on its own, but the repetition can be tedious.

This dedication is also visible in Neuhaus’s upholding of the mutual participation of the author/speaker and reader/listener. Praised by Daniel Heath Justice (Cherokee) for its “profound ethical regard,” “That’s Raven Talk” avoids the traps of Eurocentrism. Neuhaus presents holophrastic reading as a “theoretical construct” that should be evaluated based on its usefulness. She stresses reader involvement and responsibility, and avoids the ethnographic present: for her, Native traditions are living, breathing, dynamic. One also learns in the acknowledgements that she studied Intermediate Cree and consulted Cree and Inuit teachers. She indicates the diversity of Native literatures in the plural and selects authors with varying ethnolinguistic groups, geographical areas, generations, and exposure to language and culture, working with different genres and degrees of holophrasis (most of her corpus was written by men, but hopefully further research will take more women’s writing into account). Aware of the ethnocultural diversity within the category “Inuit,” she selects Inuit writers from two generations—though it would have been worth noting that the Dogrib are traditional enemies with the Inuit and Cree in the NWT. The acknowledgements mention that research requires “human interaction” and end with thanks in Cree, Polish, German, and English.

Therefore, it seems surprising that Neuhaus does not reflect on her status as a European scholar, whom the biographical note presents as Renate Eigenbrod’s “temporary settler,” one who completed her PhD in Germany and received a research grant and two postdoctoral fellowships in Canada. This information would have belonged in the introduction along with Eigenbrod’s positionality of the (im)migrant reader. Indigenous studies in Germany are a fraught context; this could have fostered self-reflexivity about what Hartmut Lutz calls “German Indianthusiasm.”

All in all, Neuhaus provides a refreshing, nuanced, and convincing new voice. I look forward to reading more by her and by researchers taking up her concepts, especially in Native women’s writings.



This review “Dynamic Equivalences” originally appeared in Canadian Literature 214 (Autumn 2012): 181-83.

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