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Cover of issue #218

Current Issue: #218 Of Borders and Bioregions (Autumn 2013)

Canadian Literature’s Issue 218 (Autumn 2013), Of Borders and Bioregions is now available. Guest edited by Anne Kaufman and Robert Thacker, the issue features articles by Tamas Dobozy, Laurie Ricou, Lisa Szabo-Jones, Magali Sperling Beck, and more.

Book Review

Native Textuality

  • James H. Cox (Author)
    Muting White Noise: Native American and European American Novel Traditions. University of Oklahoma Press (purchase at Amazon.ca)
  • Jo-Ann Episkenew (Author)
    Taking Back Our Spirits: Indigenous, Literature, Public Policy, and Healing. University of Minnesota Press (purchase at Amazon.ca)
  • Lisa Brooks (Author)
    The Common Pot: The Recovery of Native Space in the Northeast. University of Minnesota Press (purchase at Amazon.ca)

Reviewed by Beverley Haun

These three books speak to the historic and continuing omission of Native voices in the Eurocentric cultural narratives of Canada and the United States and to the challenge Native writers are now bringing to this exclusionary narrative monopoly. By returning to historic Native texts in The Common Pot, and documenting the publication and performance of Indigenous counter-narratives in Muting White Noise and Taking Back our Spirits, these authors describe and assess the reion of Native voices and stories into historic memory.  They demonstrate how Native authored texts resist Indigenous erasure, assert their survival, and reimagine the story of this continent.

The title Muting White Noise refers to American Native writer Sherman Alexie’s use of the static emanating from a TV screen, when nothing is being broadcast, as a metaphor for the oppressive noise of white mass-produced culture and its insistence on conformity to narratives of imperial conquest and domination that not only enact, enhance, and justify colonialism in the past, but continue to do so now. Cox examines historic and contemporary Euro-American texts to demonstrate the frequency with which they express the desire to be relieved of the burden of imagining an Indigenous population in their American landscape.

Cox’s book divides into three main sections. He considers American texts by authors of European ancestry, both past novels and current popular cultural production, and the ways they persist in reifying the colonial right to North American space as well as colonial self-described superiority and Native subservience or erasure. He focuses on contemporary Native texts, demonstrating how Native authors are creating both primary and secondary texts simultaneously, combining literary works with social criticism, producing texts that resist the imperial narrative and challenge its authority by writing Indigenous peoples back into their own ancestral spaces. The third section offers ‘red readings’ of colonial texts to foreground awareness of their overt and hidden maintenance of their Euro-American sense of superiority and to show the many ways that non-Native authors foreclose on a Native future and imagine an inevitable Native absence from the landscape. Cox argues that survival for Native Americans depends on recognition of the power of narrative to shape perception and a sense of self and others, combined with textual strategies for liberating the imagination from those texts—literary, historical, scientific, biological—upon which colonial authors base their grand narratives.

Taking Back Our Spirits, by Jo-Ann Episkenew, focuses on horrific past colonial traumas experienced by Native Canadians and current healing through personal and communal narratives. It begins with an accounting ofhistoric government policies and practices, with a specific focus on the prairies, that displaced and marginalized First Nations. Episkenew then demonstrates how these physical exclusionary policies are also reflected in Indigenous peoples’ exclusion from the authorized story of the creation of the Canadian nation-state, resulting in a national collective myth that foregrounds and validates the story of settlers.

In the second part of her book, Episkenew considers the historic and continuing trauma experienced by First Nations as a result of these government policies, specifically removal from the land and residential schooling. She catalogues the repercussions down through time for parents forced to give up their children and children forced to live apart, being taught to discard their own languages and cultures as worthless. Into this bleak scenario, Episkenew introduces the hope of First Nations authors to use narrative, novels, autobiography, and community theatre as a healing anodyne for themselves and their own people. She explains how Indigenous life-writing helps Indigenous readers to heal from the trauma of colonization by recrafting their personal and collective myths. As well, Episkenew makes the case for such texts to find a place in the Canadian school curriculum and a place for study in the academy, arguing that inclusion in curriculum has the potential to disrupt the Canadian settler myth for young Canadians and inclusion in the academy validates the importance of these texts as a vital part of the recalibrated collective voice of the country.

The final portion of Episkenew’s thesis is to demonstrate the importance of communal narrative participation—through theatrical production—performance, and attendance, to transform. This transformation is accomplished by addressing unresolved grief and trauma present in so many Native communities. As well as her main focus on damages caused by imperial practices, she also quotes Ian Ross, who sees his play farWel as having the ability to challenge Indigenous people to examine the roles they play in perpetuating their own victimization and subsequent oppression.

Lisa Brooks’ The Common Pot is the most theoretical of the three books under review. Like Episkenew, Brooks emphasizes the historic importance of community over individuality for Indigenous cultures on the continent. She examines the connection between the Abenaki people and the land that informs their writing and shows how Native texts, written through the early colonial period on the American North East coast right through the American Revolution, use English to reinforce the importance of Native space, to resist colonization, and to describe the changes that were occurring through colonial imposition. Many maps of the East coast extending into Canada are gathered at the front of the book, offering a Native view of this portion of the continent without the European mapmaking borders and grids imposed through colonization.

Brooks begins by explaining the precolonization Abenaki narrative art of place making, Awikhigan, that functions as literature as well as history and is always rooted in their actual geographic space. It is an image-based, land-based communication form, an interactive text-map, originally including birch bark messages, maps, and scrolls, but later encompassing books and letters with the adoption of the alphabet. Brooks emphasizes that the interpretation of early Native texts cannot take place without a widespread understanding of the extensive place-worlds they inhabit and their role in these narratives of place.

The middle of the book examines postcolonial Abenaki texts, rooted in the Awikhigan tradition, that describe the ideals of their habitation of the land in the metaphor of a common pot into which all contribute and from which all take a share. Cautionary tales of individual land-greed creating hardship, and resistance to that greed restoring communal order, are layered with overtly political tracts addressed to the colonizers by such Native Leaders as Samson Occom and Joseph Brant. Finally Brooks turns to the present and the renaissance among Abenaki who are reclaiming their internal landscape by re-engaging with their Abenaki literary traditions.

Within these three critical works, many issues are addressed which continue to solidify the foundational place of Native voices and texts within a North American and Canadian narrative context. By acknowledging and privileging the work of Native scholars, these writers contribute to critical theory calling for Native literature to be judged according to its own criteria and not only according to the terms established by Euro-American literature and theory. By analyzing Native portrayal in colonial American texts, and analyzing contemporary Native writers and the power of their texts to memorialize trauma, these writers work to revise dominant histories and discourses and to continue the work of making the narrators and performers of colonial domination accountable for their past and continuing acts and exclusions.

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MLA: Haun, Beverley. Native Textuality. canlit.ca. Canadian Literature, 8 Dec. 2011. Web. 24 Apr. 2014.

This review originally appeared in Canadian Literature #205 (Summer 2010), Queerly Canadian. (pg. 155 - 157)

***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.

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