- Julia V. Emberley (Author)
Defamiliarizing the Aboriginal: Cultural Practices and Decolonization in Canada. University of Toronto Press (purchase at Amazon.ca)
- Deena Rymhs (Author)
From the Iron House: Imprisonment in First Nations Writing. Wilfrid Laurier University Press (purchase at Amazon.ca)
- Pauline Wakeham (Author)
Taxidermic Signs: Reconstructing Aboriginality. University of Minnesota Press (purchase at Amazon.ca)
These three new books by Canadian scholars attest to the ongoing and sustained interest in analyzing the conditions of Indigenous culture and life. All strong in their conceptualization and execution, each offers an important intervention into reading practices pertaining to both colonial and Aboriginal cultures. The very different terrain that each navigates, moreover, shows how varied the field of Aboriginal cultural studies has become in recent years.
Deena Rymhs' From the Iron House offers a reading of literatures created in relation to the prison system and residential schools. Rymhs terms this "carceral writing," discourses that arise from both inside formal penal institutions and educational ones like the residential school. Collating a unique archive of works, Rymhs reads the recent history of this writing in order to foreground rhetorical strategies for escaping confinement. Rymhs notes that "the personal histories of indigenous people in Canada are so heavily entangled in carceral institutions that it is difficult to assess the former without the latter." Even so, Rymhs notes, there has been little work done in addressing the themes that she addresses here. Her book attempts to bring a necessary focus upon this writing as a means not merely of addressing how inescapable disciplinary institutions are for Indigenous people, but also as a means of working beyond the stereotype of the Aboriginal criminal.
Some of Rymhs' focal texts are familiar ones; others much less so. The book's two-part structure focuses initially on prison writing before moving to writing that focuses on residential schools. Better-known works studied include Leonard Peltier's Prison Writings, Yvonne Johnson and Rudy Wiebe's collaborative Stolen Life: The Journey of a Cree Woman, Basil Johnston's Indian School Days, and Tomson Highway's Kiss of the Fur Queen. Also investigated are prison periodicals, shorter poems, and texts that have entered relative obscurity like Jane Willis' Geniesh: An Indian Girlhood. In each case, the text is addressed in critical terms that explore how Indigenous expression is limited by the carceral, but Rymhs also looks for sites of slippage that record resistance to such foreclosure. Ultimately, Rymhs uncovers how her focal writers are "seizing within writing the potential to liberate oneself and one's history through the act of self-representation." Although Rymhs could have helpfully written at greater length about many of her texts, her prose successfully conducts this analysis with great economy and clarity within this accomplished book.
Pauline Wakeham's Taxidermic Signs displays impressive depth, intelligence, and critical panache. Providing a genuinely original and important perspective on how the colonial imaginary has framed Indigenous peoples, this book charts an unexpected and very persuasive course through what Wakeham terms the semiotics of taxidemy. This term refers to the ways in which Aboriginal people have been associated with the preserved corpses of animals, both literally and metaphorically. There is, Wakeham suggests, "an equanimity and proximity" between taxidermied animals and Native bodies in museological displays, and this proximity renders both types of bodies "as substitutable focal points in a frozen and simulated spectacle of nature." This is the spectacle of a disappearing natural space before the onslaught of colonial "progress," one that encodes the familiar trope of the "vanishing Indian," Rousseau's Noble Savage retreating in a Romantic spectacle of death. Wakeham's analysis invigorates discussions of this notion by showing ways in which the semiotic proximity of taxidermy and the Native body in the colonial imaginary "preserve" and thus forestall the disappearance of pre-contact ways of life merely in order to invoke their continual disappearance and, thereby, to insist upon the ongoing death of Indigenous bodies, their ongoing disappearance in the world of late capital.
The texts studied display Wakeham's range as a scholar. Beginning with a discussion of literal taxidermy and the ways in which its practice in North America was used to "spectacularize" and "materially hasten the death of the conflated figures of nature and natives," Wakeham reads the Banff Park Museum in order to better understand how this semiosis functions in the popular imaginary from the early twentieth century onwards. She moves from this thoroughly convincing reading of taxidermy to the work of Edward S. Curtis whose photographs of a supposedly "disappearing" way of life on the American frontier constitute the best-known materials in the book. Examining how film encodes the simultaneous presence and absence of Curtis' subjects, Wakeham extends her analysis of taxidermy to other cultural works, particularly C. Marius Barbeau's 1927 documentary Nass River Indians and its recoding-within silent film-of Native voices on early phonographic wax cylinders. Here, again, the rhetoric of preservation is one that functions to signal the disappearance of Indigenous cultural practices and, in turn, Native people themselves. Uncoding the ways in which the rhetoric of these technologies allows for the easy continuation of taxidermic semiosis allows Wakeham to turn, finally, towards present-day genomic projects in her final chapter where she makes the crucial argument that today's genetic technologies represent the latest iteration of racist notions of miscegenation and purity. She does so through examinations of two important cases of repatriation of Native remains uncovered in Canada and the United States that illustrate - through the courts' promotion of genetic testing - how the projects like the Human Genome Project belie "a deep commitment to racial purity that is immensely productive for contemporary white interests." Convincingly linking the colonial imaginary from the early twentieth-century with contemporary discourses, Taxidermic Signs arrives in the present as a devastating critique of ongoing racism across North America and is vital reading for researchers in the field.
Wakeham ends by noting how her project might contribute to anticolonial projects, a perspective that she shares with Julia V. Emberley, who suggests in Defamiliarizing the Aboriginal that she wants to perform an "analytics of dis/memberment" that might work to resituate constructs of the family. Emberley does so in order to witness "the cultural representation of ‘the family' as an institution of colonial power in early twentieth-century Canada." For Emberley, the bourgeois European model of the family is one that has been systematically forced upon Aboriginal peoples as a means of social control, creating patrilineal descent, and disenfranchising women. Emberley analyzes the two key figures of the "bourgeois woman" and "aboriginal man," examining the construction of each within the colonial imaginary. Uncovering how Aboriginal bodies were rendered into docile and disciplined subjects for agricultural and domestic labour, Emberley explores writing by Freud, Engels, and Foucault, among others, before turning to an examination of cultural and artistic materials. These, in turn, range from the film Nanook of the North, Tarzan and Jane, ads for Pears soap, family portraits, to an RCMP archive's investigation into the suspected murder of an Inuit woman and her family. The breadth of this book is extraordinary in this respect. She also devotes chapters to kinship structures in Wiebe and Johnson's Stolen Life and Highway's Kiss of the Fur Queen, commenting on the sexual and gendered violence and its ties to colonial notions of the family in each text. Emberley argues that "late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century visual and textual materials were constitutive of the web of colonial power that contributed to making and unmaking the very category of the Aboriginal" and examines the consequences of this construct up to the present day.
- Three Solitudes by Laura J. Murray
Books reviewed: We Are Not You: First Nations and Canadian Modernity by Claude Denis
- Subverting Synecdoche by Jo-Anne Episkenew
Books reviewed: Strong Women Stories: Native Vision and Community Survival by Kim Anderson
- The Real and the Other by Albert Braz
Books reviewed: Les Indiens blancs: français et indiens en Amérique du Nord (XVIe-XVIIIe siècles) by Philippe Jacquin and Louis Riel: poèmes amériquains by Mathias Carvalho and Jean Morisset
- The Soul of the World by Catherine Rainwater
Books reviewed: Earth's Mind: Essays in Native Literature by Roger Dunsmore and Reinventing the Enemy's Language: Contemporary Native Women's Writings of North America by Gloria Bird and Joy Harjo
- Native Representation by Deanna Reder
Books reviewed: (Ad)dressing Our Words: Aboriginal Perspectives on Aboriginal Literature by Armand Garnet Ruffo, Anti-Indianism in Modern America: A Voice from Tatekeya's Earth by Elizabeth Cook-Lynn, and Native American Representations: First Encounters, Distorted Images, and Literary Appropriations by Gretchen M. Bataille
MLA: Deena, Rymhs, Dobson, Kit, Dobson, Kit, Dobson, Kit, Emberley, Julia V, and Wakeham, Pauline. Indigenous Defamiliarizations. canlit.ca. Canadian Literature, 8 Dec. 2011. Web. 21 May 2013.
This review originally appeared in Canadian Literature #200 (Spring 2009), Strategic Nationalisms. (pg. 189 - 191)
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