A Feast of Literature and a Helping of Literary Criticism
- Cheryl Suzack (Author), Janice Acoose (Author), Lisa Brooks (Author), Tol Foster (Author), LeAnne Howe (Author), Daniel Heath Justice (Author), Philip Carroll Morgan (Author), Kimberley Roppolo (Author), Christopher B. Teuton (Author), Sean Teuton (Author), Robert Warrior (Author), and Craig Womack (Author)
Reasoning Together: The Native Critics Collective. University of Oklahoma Press (purchase at Amazon.ca)
- Beryl Mildred Cryer (Editor) and Chris Arnett (Editor)
Two Houses Half-Buried in Sand: Oral Traditions on the Hul'q'umi'num' Coast Salish of Kuper Island and Vancouver Island. Talonbooks (purchase at Amazon.ca)
Reviewed by Niigonwedom J. Sinclair
In 1993 Anishnaabe writer Kimberly Blaeser lamented dominant western literary approaches to Native literatures, calling for “a way to approach Native literature from an indigenous cultural context, a way to frame and enact a tribal-centered criticism.” Now, fifteen years later, Blaeser’s multifaceted vision is coming to fruition in two recently published texts.
The first, Beryl Cryer’s Two Houses Half-Buried in Sand: Oral Traditions of the Hul’q’umi’num’ Coast Salish of Kuper Island and Vancouver Island, is a seemingly odd place to find Indigenous-centred theories and ideas. The text is an ethnographic recording of sixty narratives from several Hul’q’umi’num’ Coast Salish storytellers, collected by Cryer in the early stages of the Great Depression and published from January 1932 to March 1935 in Victoria, B.C.’s Daily Colonist Sunday magazine. Covering a wide range of topics, from place-names to family trees, origin stories to ceremonial protocols, “sxwi’em” (sacred mythologies) to “syuth” (true histories), Cryer includes quoted stories and detailed, keen descriptions of peoples and places – lapsing into occasional (and not so surprising) myopic, stereotypical comments on her interview subjects and their stories.
But, Cryer also includes elements not often found in ethnographic recordings. Multiple voices and conversations are included, as well as her informants’ descriptions of important historical events that impacted their lives, such as a 1782 smallpox epidemic, intertribal wars and treaties, and devastating colonial laws. These all reveal important rhetorical contexts, interpretive lenses, and literary approaches both raw and available in these activist, political, and cultural stories.
Adding a well-researched introduction, archival compiler and editor Chris Arnett makes a compelling case that Cryer’s dated commentaries are relative, reflective of her own limitations, and rhetorical pathos to her audience. For the most part, Arnett claims, Cryer profited minimally from the work, “possessed a genuine affection for the elders,” and “carried their message, even if inadvertently, to the newcomers.” While time and scholarship will tell if Arnett is correct, the many contributions here cannot be ignored. With her inclusion of contextual references, time- and community-based specificities, and political subjectivities, Cryer’s collection is perfectly positioned for a Hul’q’umi’num’ Coast Salish-centered critical lens to be theorized and historicized from the work.
Scholars can certainly learn from the groundbreaking standard set in Reasoning Together: The Native Critics Collective, a text that will resonate and influence literary criticism of Native literatures for years to come. Asked to describe “an ethical Native literary criticism,” these twelve leading Native critics have given the field much to consume, reflect upon, and debate about.
It would be impossible to capture the complexity of each contribution here, but certain pieces stand out. Craig Womack’s introduction, “A Single Decade,” is a brilliant connection between federal Indian policy, book-length approaches to Native literatures, and the rise of postmodern literary criticism. Womack argues that history, subjectivities, and philosophical productions are deeply interrelated. Later, in “Theorizing American Indian Experience,” Womack continues this strand by suggesting that future Native literary theories be based in physical, emotional, and/or spiritual knowledge(s). Phil Morgan’s “Who Shall Gainsay Our Decision?” is a dynamic exploration of literary criticism found in letters written by early nineteenth century Choctaw writer James L. MacDonald – certainly a model for tribally-centred criticism. Cheryl Suzack’s “Mapping Indigenous Feminism” is a profound claim that Native womanhood can be viewed as a historical space where gender, racial, and communal identities intersect, meet material realities, and demonstrate Native women’s agencies.
Most interesting is how these critics demonstrate what Womack calls “a commitment to grounding literary theory in social practice,” and remind us that traditional and today’s Native literatures and oratures have continuing intellectual pertinence. For instance, provocative implications found in tribal literary concepts of “relationality” and “kinship” are suggested by Lisa Brooks and Daniel Heath Justice. Janice Acoose makes an impassioned argument for a Nehiyawiwin-Metis critical reading position that privileges language and memory. Intertribal and pantribal lenses, historically decried by critics as overly-reductive, are defiantly suggested by Tol Foster and Kimberly Roppolo as important ways in which Native storytellers engage projects of nationhood. Native eroticism is suggested as a method of intellectual sovereignty by Robert Warrior, theoretical historical portraits are drawn by Christopher Teuton, and politics are centralized by Sean Teuton as a praxis of real-life Native intellectualism. And, in an all-too-rare display of creative and critical theory-making, LeAnne Howe’s contribution is a refreshing reminder that story creation can be life-giving.
Some pieces are stronger than others, with some disappointingly resorting to problematic romanticizations of Indigenous cultures in rejectionist and reductivist modes (especially in binary opposition to hegemonic “western theories”). A bit of editorial sloppiness – such as typographical errors and an incomplete bibliography – detracts from the overall impact of the book. To be honest, though, the strengths of the book’s contents far outweigh these errors.
Perhaps the strongest aspect of Reasoning Together comes in the second part of the name, The Native Critics Collective. This text is an incredible example of academic collaboration, with each contributor sharing co-authorship and co-editing duties (although Womack, Justice, and Christopher Teuton did take over much of the book’s final editorial stages). This results in essays that quote generously from others’ comments and contributions, as well as powerful reflections upon how critical inter-relationships (sometimes radically) alter approaches. Even critics that didn’t make it in, including Blaeser, are included, making the text a powerful model of community creation and expression by Native academics. As seen in many texts that speak about, celebrate, and study Native communal approaches, this text actually engages this discourse in its very makeup, structure, and creation. Without question, Reasoning Together is sure to provoke more dialogue and bring more voices and “critical centres” to the literary feast, as the political, historical, and aesthetic beauty of Native literatures are collectively defined, theorized, and employed in the interests of Indigenous social movements and sovereignties.
- Images of Selves by Laurie McNeill
Books reviewed: Suspended Conversations: The Afterlife of Memory in Photographic Albums by Martha Langford and The Mirror : A History by Katherine H. Jewett and Sabine Melchior-Bonnet
- Nations and Their Narrations by Isidore Okpewho
Books reviewed: Once Upon a Kingdom: Myth, Hegemony, and Identity by Isidore Okpewho
- Mapping Native Lives by Jennifer Kramer
Books reviewed: Songhees Pictorial: A History of the Songhees People as seen by Outsiders, 1790-1912 by Grant Keddie and Lelooska: The Life of a Northwest Coast Artist by Chris Friday
- Liminal Voices by Catherine Rainwater
Books reviewed: Bloodlines: Odyssey of a Native Daughter by Janet Campbell Hale and Feminist Readings of Native American Literature: Coming to Voice by Kathleen M. Donovan
- Views of the Frontier by Bryan N. S. Gooch
Books reviewed: The Fort Langley Journals, 1827-30 by Morag Maclachlan and The Burden of History: Colonialism and the Frontier Myth in a Rural Canadian Community by Elizabeth Furniss
MLA: Sinclair, Niigonwedom J. A Feast of Literature and a Helping of Literary Criticism. canlit.ca. Canadian Literature, 8 Dec. 2011. Web. 22 May 2013.
This review originally appeared in Canadian Literature #200 (Spring 2009), Strategic Nationalisms. (pg. 137 - 139)
***Please note that the articles and reviews from the Canadian Literature website (www.canlit.ca) may not be the final versions as they are printed in the journal, as additional editing sometimes takes place between the two versions. If you are quoting from the website, please indicate the date accessed when citing the web version of reviews and articles.