Textual (De)colonizations

  • Sophie McCall (Author)
    First Person Plural: Aboriginal Storytelling and the Ethics of Collaborative Authorship. University of British Columbia Press
Reviewed by Renate Eigenbrod

In the early 1980s, I was introduced to Native literature by reading Wilfred Pelletier’s biography, No Foreign Land (1973), written in collaboration with Ted Poole; I never taught it in my Native Literature classes because I privileged texts written solely by an Aboriginal author. McCall, however, in her study on collaborative authorship, challenges notions of voice as “singular” and “pure” and values forms of intersubjectivity throughout her readings of a wide variety of Aboriginal (co-) authored texts—from literature to reports to films. Her emphasis on composite texts corresponds with her composite, interdisciplinary methodology of reading several texts in tandem instead of focusing on isolated, singular works.

In her opening main chapter on appropriation and subversion of the “Native Voice,” she discusses literary and anthropological “salvage projects” in early Canadian anthologies and the denial of power imbalances between recorder and teller in “colonial textualizations” of Aboriginal orality. However, in spite of her acknowledgement of differences between “insider” and “outsider” perspectives, she argues, like representatives of the literary nationalism movement, for a turn away from the Native/ White binary in favour of a more in-depth analysis of differentiations within Native cultures. It is in this sense that she considers her study of the complexity of “the Native Voice” as supportive of literary sovereigntist arguments, a point that is illustrated in her chapter on the legacy of Oka. Reading Alanis Obomsawin’s four films on the “Oka crisis” in tandem with Lee Maracle’s literary works, she shows how their double-voiced and multiple strategies of representation disrupt dichotomies and “the oppositional aesthetics of the standoff ” in favour of underscoring the diversity of Aboriginal communities.

The main part of the book starts out with a chapter on Justice Berger’s Report Northern Frontier, Northern Homeland read together with community hearings associ- ated with the Mackenzie Valley Pipeline Inquiry and Hugh Brody’s ethnographies and documentary films. This chapter is of interest to anyone who wants to “produce politically transformative work” as an out- sider. McCall is critical of the way both Berger and Brody downplay their function as mediators in cross-cultural exchanges. This criticism is part of a larger argument in her study throughout. Re-defining the role of the “outsider,” McCall often points out the fallacy of the argument about the silent recorder who lets the tellers speak “in their own voices,” or the urgency for the “outsider” to understand his or her implication or complicity. The last point is emphasized in her discussion of the RCAP report paired with Night Spirits by co-authors Ila Bussidor and Üstün Bilgen-Reinart. In a compelling analysis of both texts, “produced under different terms of authorship,” she shows how the report does not actively engage listeners or readers, whereas in Night Spirits, this tendency is reversed, “thus encouraging the listener to remain accountable to history” (a challenging form of witnessing as she explains with regards to Bussidor’s non- Native collaborator). The story of the forced relocations of the Sayisi Dene is embedded in cultural and linguistic misunderstandings. In her discussion of the Delgamuukw court case, McCall comes back to this theme, reading the court’s mistranslations of the Gitksan and Wet’suwet’en oral traditions and Aboriginal land title through the corrective lens of the collaboratively pro- duced texts by Harry Robinson and Wendy Wickwire and Life Lived Like a Story by Cruikshank, Sidney, Smith, and Ned.

Just recently, I read a new Inuit collaboratively authored text, Fatty Legs—with some scepticism. McCall finishes her book with a discussion of Zacharias Kunuk’s Atanarjuat as a “counterethnographic” film; in his collaborative, cross-cultural, community filmmaking he creates, she argues, “medi- ated Inuit voices” instead of “a singular cultural essence.” She reads this as a poten- tially decolonizing strategy, inspiring me to re-evaluate first-person plural texts.

This review “Textual (De)colonizations” originally appeared in Canadian Literature 214 (Autumn 2012): 175-76.

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