Listening to the North
- Norman Hallendy (Author)
Inuksuit: Silent Messengers of the Arctic. Douglas & McIntyre (purchase at Amazon.ca)
- Nymphs Byrne (Editor) and Camille Fouillard (Editor)
It's Like the Legend: Innu Women's Voices. Gynergy Books (purchase at Amazon.ca)
- Farley Mowat (Author)
Walking on the Land. Key Porter Books (purchase at Amazon.ca)
Reviewed by Sherrill Grace
Judging by these three books, and by others crossing my desk, there is continued interest in the North. This is as it should be. Every day brings news of serious climate change in the Arctic, of tragedies befalling northerners (like the Innu children of Labrador), and of southern attitudes of ignorant dismissal and blame. I hope that books like these will be read and thereby help to inform southerners about a North they rely on and yet know so little about. I place my hope for increased awareness leading to informed action in books like these because, unlike much that has been written about the North in the past, these books are either by southern Canadians with extensive personal knowledge of the North or by northerners themselves.
The most eye-catching of these books is Hallendy’s Inuksuit, which consists primarily of his stunning colour photographs, gathered over many years of research across the Arctic, of what southerners blithely call Inukshuks. As Hallendy argues, however, Inuksuit are multifarious, with many different Inuktitut names, meanings and purposes. That roughly human-shaped rock creation commonly called an Inukshuk is, in fact, an innunguaq (meaning "in the likeness of a human"); we see these objects for sale in airport gift shops, on the beach in Vancouver, and in a stylized form on the Nunavut flag. Real Inuksuit do not necessarily resemble the human figure because they "act in the capacity of a human" by encoding many forms of information vital to the physical and spiritual survival of those Inuit with the wisdom to read them; they can be as simple as two coloured rocks laid side by side or as complex as an extensive field of cairn-like and single boulders reaching up to the sky.
Although the photographs in Inuksuit are splendid and beautifully reproduced by the publisher, Hallendy’s text is disappointing. He writes in the first person about his search for these rock creations and their meanings, about his friendship with the Inuit men who acted as his Elders and mentors, and about his struggle to comprehend what he is seeing, but his narrative is repetitive, often unclear and fragmented. No references are provided in the text to connect a descriptive or narrative passage with a particular image, and I sorely miss any indication that he consulted with the Inuit to confirm that his narrative has captured the meaning of this complex stone language. Nevertheless, I am grateful for what he does provide—a glimpse into the rich cultural life and imagination of the Inuit and an important corrective to southern assumptions about those human-like shapes that have become clichés of Inuit life.
The Innu voices in It’s Like the Legend speak from and for Nitassinan, the Innu word for "our homeland." In their introduction the editors provide an overview about who the Innu are and how they came to live in communities scattered across Quebec and in Labrador, but the main goal of the book is to let the women speak for themselves. The stories gathered here are from women living in two Labrador settlements—Utshimassits (known as Davis Inlet) and Sheshatshu in central Labrador on Lake Melville, and they cover a wide range of experience from traditional legends and stories of life lived on the land to Innu resistance against white interference and exploitation, especially over hydroelectric projects or missionary zeal, to personal reflections on family history and individual lives.
The women speak in the first person. Thus the stories have the feeling of autobiography, but autobiography is a complex hybrid genre and in its southern or Euro-Canadian formulation does not always account for the story-telling found amongst the Innu, Inuit and northern First Nations peoples. Scholars like Julie Cruikshank, Robin McGrath and Nancy Wachowich have discussed the differences between these texts and those more familiar to readers in the south. But if I were to identify two features from these many stories that strike me forcefully they would be, first, the authority with which these women speak because they use the first person and speak from deep personal experience and, second, the empowerment incorporated in the very fact of speaking out. These qualities of authority and empowerment are features common to almost all forms of autobiography and as such they help to bridge the gulf that exists between the Innu and the whites who know so little about them and have caused so much damage in Nitassinan. In short, because I recognize aspects of the genre I am better able to hear what I am being told: "We have the right to exist as a people."
Farley Mowat is no newcomer to the discourse of the North. Neither is he anything less than a master of the narrative imagination. The narratives he brings us in Walking on the Land may be written in the first person, like so much of Mowat’s writing about the North, but they are only in part his story. First and foremost they are the stories of Inuit groups living in the central Arctic, between 1955 and 1958, in the communities of Baker Lake, Repulse Bay and Garry Lake.
The phrase "to walk on the land" means to commit suicide by going forth into the Arctic snow, storm or cold to die; Inuit do this when they recognize that their time has come and they choose this death with dignity. But these stories reveal that much of what happened to the Caribou Inuit during the 1950s was anything but dignified or respectful and most of the tragedy resulted from white interference followed by white neglect. Not all whites were guilty. A few like Doug Wilkinson and Judge Sissons made a positive difference, but many Inuit died from starvation due to a lack of game in the areas to which they were forced to relocate and from a basic undermining of their traditional way of life.
Mowat and others have already told the stories of Kikik, the woman charged with murder and negligence leading to the death of two of her children, and of the Garry Lake disaster brought on, in large part, by the wilfull interference of Catholic missionaries, but no one does so more powerfully than Mowat. Kikik was eventually acquitted by Judge Sissons, and a few survivors from the Garry Lake disaster were rescued, but these facts are not the point. What Mowat shows us is the staggering strength, courage, resilience and resourcefulness of these people. He forces us to see what southern interference has done, first by adopting a paternalistic attitude, and then by attempting to hide the truth of what actually transpired.
When I place Mowat’s account of the 1950s beside the pride and achivement of Nunavut I marvel and am humbled. Read his book. Read the others too. Read them and you will begin to understand that the voices of the North are telling important lessons about complex, proud cultures and about a history of cultural encounter that we must not repeat.
- Imagining Postcolonialism by Laura Moss
Books reviewed: Double Crossings: Madness, Sexuality and Imperialism by Anne McClintock, En-Gendering India: Woman and Nation in Colonial and Postcolonial Narratives by Sangeeta Ray, and Postcolonial Imaginings: Fictions of a New World Order by David Punter
- 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
- Ways of Going North by Sherrill Grace
Books reviewed: Great Heart: The History of a Labrador Adventure by James West Davidson and John Rugge and Light for a Cold Land: Lawren Harris's Work and Life--An Interpretation by Peter Larisey
- Nothing Like That by John Moffatt
Books reviewed: North Spirit: Travels among the Cree and Ojibway Nations and their Star Maps by Paulette Jiles
- Feminine Hygiene by Berkeley Kaite
Books reviewed: Caught: Montreal's Modern Girls and the Law, 1869-1945 by Tamara Myers and Types of Canadian Women: Volume II by K.I. Press
MLA: Grace, Sherrill. Listening to the North. canlit.ca. Canadian Literature, 8 Dec. 2011. Web. 25 May 2013.
This review originally appeared in Canadian Literature #174 (Autumn 2002), Travel. (pg. 145 - 147)
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