Owning versus Owning Up
- Bernard Schissel (Author) and Terry Wotherspoon (Author)
The Legacy of School for Aboriginal People: Education, Oppression, and Emancipation. Oxford University Press (purchase at Amazon.ca)
- Michael F. Brown (Author)
Who Owns Native Culture?. Harvard University Press (purchase at Amazon.ca)
Reviewed by Christopher Bracken
Both of these books ask what happens when aboriginal people become subjects in a discourse that has traditionally treated them as objects of study. Both therefore study the problem of studying others. And both reproduce the problem they study. Scholars still see aboriginal people as a problem to be solved, but now it falls to aboriginal people to solve the problem that they themselves are.
Michael F. Brown evaluates the efforts of contemporary aboriginal societies to regain control of art, music, artefacts, and places they consider essential to their heritage. The book contains an introduction and eight chapters. “The Missionary’s Photographs” examines the “right of cultural privacy” that is now invoked to sequester photographs and recordings of traditional practices. “Cultures and Copyrights” discusses how copyright law is being used to protect traditional images in Australia. “Sign Wars” studies the trademarking of traditional images, such as the Zia sun symbol. “Ethnobotany Blues” evaluates the project to patent drugs discovered by traditional healers. “Negotiating Mutual Respect” deals with the reassertion of aboriginal ownership of sacred places, such as Devil’s Tower national monument in Wyoming. “At the Edge of the Indigenous” describes how groups dispossessed in the past are reinventing themselves in the present to lay claim to elements of traditional culture. “Native Heritage in the Iron Cage” discusses the UN-inspired project to protect indigenous cultures in their entirety, a “quarantine” that Brown calls “Total Heritage Protection.” The conclusion, “Finding Justice in the Global Commons,” contains Brown’s recommendations for resolving conflicts over cultural ownership. He calls for pragmatic compromise and the pursuit of locally negotiated solutions.
So who owns native culture? According to Brown, every citizen of the global commons has “a stake” in “decisions” affecting cultural property. It is necessary to “balance” the proprietary rights of aboriginal people with the universal right to study, travel, and do business. He scrupulously examines both sides of every issue he discusses. But there is never any doubt which side he is on. His dream of achieving “balance” assumes that the two sides of the debate have equal weight. Predictably, he does not raise “the question of power” until page 245.
Schissel and Wotherspoon note that aboriginal societies are trying to influence how they are studied now because “Native people have been studied to death” already. Brown counters that cultures have never hesitated to borrow and learn from each other. The heritage protection movement cannot legislate hybridity away. But there is a troubling undercurrent to his argument. His diction repeatedly implies that aboriginal people act on “feeling” rather than “reason” when claiming cultural ownership. It is an old stereotype. Still, nobody who studies aboriginal cultures can afford to ignore the questions raised here. Brown’s case studies are fascinating and carefully researched. Read them and draw your own conclusions.
Schissel and Wotherspoon aim their book at the college classroom. The first two chapters, “Educational Dreams and Disappointments” and “Aboriginal Education in Canada” discuss the significance of aboriginal education and provide a list of sociological keywords. Chapter Three, “The Legacy of Residential Schools,” is a concise, punchy history of Canada’s project to use education to assimilate aboriginal societies into settler society. Chapter Four, “The Voices of Students of Aboriginal Ancestry,” discusses the authors’ conversations with First Nations and Métis students enrolled in alternative schools in Saskatchewan. Chapter Five, “Determinants of Successful Schooling,” stresses the need for compassionate teachers and a curriculum that acknowledges the perspectives, contributions, and social circumstances of aboriginal people. Chapter Six, “Education, Justice, and Community,” offers five recommendations for harmonizing aboriginal education with its social context: an understanding of difference, a flexible approach to time, access to aboriginal cultures, languages and elders, sensitivity to social and economic circumstances, and the hiring of “good teachers.”
Ironically, the first two chapters indicate that Schissel and Wotherspoon lack confidence in their own student-readers. Keywords are set in bold type, which is patronizing, and supplied with question-begging definitions. “A theory is primarily a tool,” they affirm, “used to developed a systematic understanding of a given problem or set of phenomena.” Theorists debunked instrumental reason in the earlier twentieth century and have debated the givenness of phenomena “since Plato.” Are not “good teachers” those who bring good information into the classroom?
The book’s contribution is the survey of “aboriginal voices” in Chapter Four. The 80 students interviewed do not wish to overhaul current Canadian education systems. They enjoy learning and wish to continue their studies after high school. They want more control over how they are educated. They value efforts to include aboriginal languages and cultures in the curriculum and to bring Elders into schools. They are “resilient” rather than “at risk” and find school discipline counter-productive. This is necessary reading. In Chapters Five and Six, Schissel and Wotherspoon retreat to the realm of truisms. It is difficult to disagree with their formula for success, but it is too vague to be of help to teachers and administrators. “Effective educational practice,” they argue, “requires an understanding of how socio-economic conditions affect people at both individual and community levels.” Indeed. Instead of saying that we need understanding, though, they would do better to produce understanding—a more daunting theoretical task.
- Records of the Past and Future by Norman Ravvin
Books reviewed: Awakening Lives: Autobiographies of Jewish Youth in Poland Before the Holocaust by Jeffrey Shandler and Citizenship in Transformation in Canada by Yvonne M. Hébert
- Varied Stories by Rita Wong
Books reviewed: A Larger Memory: A History of Our Diversity, With Voices by Ronald Takaki and Choose Me by Evelyn Lau
- Gay Men and Femininity by Stephen Guy-Bray
Books reviewed: Something for the Boys: Musical Theater and Gay Culture by John M. Clum and Fags, Hags and Queer Sisters: Gender Dissent and Heterosexual Bonds in Gay Culture by Stephen Maddison
- Accountable Readings by Penny Van Toorn
Books reviewed: How Should I Read These?: Native Women Writers in Canada by Helen Hoy
- A Balanced Education by L. M. Findlay
Books reviewed: The University of Toronto: A History by Martin L. Friedland and Creating Carleton: The Shaping of a University by Don McEown and Blair Neatby
MLA: Bracken, Christopher. Owning versus Owning Up. canlit.ca. Canadian Literature, 8 Dec. 2011. Web. 22 May 2013.
This review originally appeared in Canadian Literature #190 (Autumn 2006), South Asian Diaspora. (pg. 130 - 131)
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