Speaking to Colonization
- Howard Adams (Author)
A Tortured People: The Politic of Colonization. Theytus Books (purchase at Amazon.ca)
- Maria Campbell (Author) and Sherry Farrell Racette (Illustrator)
Stories of the Road Allowance People. Theytus Books (purchase at Amazon.ca)
Reviewed by Emma LaRocque
Some 20 years ago when I was a young intel- lectual in search of fellow Native intellectuals, I came across Adams’ first book Prison of Grass. I found his ideas on the problems of colonized Native peoples internalizing the ’White Ideal’ particularly perceptive and useful. Throughout these years I have directed students to Adams in my university classes. And I looked forward to further developments of these ideas by Adams.
In A Tortured People: The Politics of Colonization Adams continues with the theme of colonization but focuses on Native people’s failed struggle for self-determination from the 1960s and 70s. He argues that what started out as the Native peoples’ movement for liberation in the 1960s has ended up in the 90s as a disjointed collection of corrupt and repressive Native organizations and leadership. He attributes this to government manipulation in the form of unaccountable patronage monies meant to suppress Native resistance. Such neocolonialism he argues, has rendered Native leadership completely unable to fend off continuing corporate confiscation of Native lands and resources. And behind government and multinational corporate control is capitalism. Adams seems to call for a working-class movement organized by the grassroots. He seems to propose that Native people join forces with other "subproletariat" minority and interest groups if they hope to succeed in their liberation struggles.
Adams’s gloves-off ’let’s cut the crap’ style is as intact as ever. His ability to see through sham, and his courage to call a spade a spade is as refreshing as ever. He shows the disturbing history of Indian slavery in early Canada. He questions government-sanctioned heroification of Riel and points to Riel’s pacifism as one cause of the failed Metis resistance of 1885. He challenges eurocentric historiography of "European colonizers who saw themselves as grand organizers." He exposes, among other things, poverty, racism, Native male domination of Native women and constitutional pretensions surrounding Aboriginal self-government. He hammers corporate-controlled governments and Native leadership soaked in capitalist corruption. He is astonished by the extent to which Indian and Metis peoples seem unconscious of their political place in Canadian history. For example, he criticizes a government-funded ’Back to Batoche’ "mardi gras" celebration. "The ultimate insult to our ancestors who died fighting for our freedom is the parade of the RCMP—the murderers of our dead heroes. How culturally and historically ignorant can we become?" He also offers a poignant analysis of caricatured cultural activities "that serve to obscure political awareness and action . . . These are ’primitive’ cultural creations of the colonizer, and are not appropriate for current Indian and Metis cultural references."
There is so much in this book that is so ’right on’—yet, there is much missing. Generosity of spirit is missing. While his rage against the failed Native leadership is understandable, his name-calling is not. His book is littered with ideologically-based accusations ("comprador regimes," "collaborator elites," "Aboriginal petty bourgeoisie," "Aboriginal middle-class types") which are not only devoid of contemporary meaning but sound simply harsh. If colonization is as profoundly destructive as he argues, is there no room for compassionate comprehension for the no-win situation all Native peoples often find themselves in? More importantly, the book is missing hope and vision. While he proposes "a genuine, liberating nationalism" which "must include and promote revolutionary and working class and socialist ideologies," he does not spell out what exactly liberation for Native people would entail. It is not clear whether he is suggesting that Native people throw themseves into a a mass working class movement, or that they maintain "Aboriginal renaissance" in the form of "cultural nationalism." He describes Native economy as backward, stagnant and underdeveloped but can only refer vaguely to "progressive policies." He speaks of revolutionary re-organizing yet basically says all efforts will be thwarted by the omnipotent colonizer. There is an overwhelming sense of despair throughout this book which has a paralyzing effect. Even I yearned for a meaningful, vibrant, articulation of hope and vision. At this time in human history is old Marxist ideology all that can be offered?
There is also much inconsistency in style. At times Adams is conversational, falling into stereotypical phrases ("mocassin row," "red" "restless"), and in the next paragraph he could be lecturing on class consciousness in a graduate seminar. This in itself could be seen as a new genre within the post-colonial intellectual context but the book’s problems cannot be overlooked merely as post-colonial. Adams constantly repeats his points (and his ideological language) throughout the book. There are grammatical, historical and typographical errors. A major shortcoming is the sloppy usage of references. Most chapters are not only missing footnotes, but some references are mismatched. This is as much a reflection of poor editing by the publisher as it is of carelessness by the author. But the author as a historian and an experienced Native intellectual is responsible for not only placing references in their proper context, but giving credit where credit is due, something Adams fails to do in many instances.
Adams dutifully mentions Maria Campbell. This is as it should be; however, since Adams’ and Campbell’s first books appeared in the mid-70s, numerous Native writers have sprouted and even a number of Native scholars (many of whom are also creative writers) have emerged. Since the vast majority of these scholars/writers continue to confront colonialism, it is puzzling why Adams harps on "a certain number of indigenous intellectuals who are subservient to the imperial master" (not that he ever names or provides examples of such). So is Adams saying that only Marxist Native intellectuals (and he mentions only himself and Ron Bourgeault in this regard) are capable of correctly analyzing colonialism?. While it is despicable and inexcusable the degree to which racist history and literature is extant in Canadian writing, Adams errs in failing to address the growing new, exciting, de-colonized history and literature being provided by both Native and non-Native scholars and writers. Albeit, much of this new thinking is still ghettoized as "Native Studies" or Native literature. But it is there for anyone who wants to inform or update themselves.
Perhaps Adams tried to cover way too many topics in one book. His unbending Marxist stance, though, raises the question: what would a Native-based liberation platform look like? He is perhaps most clear with respect to the necessity of indigenizing the English language as a source of empowerment for Aboriginal writers who are reflecting the colonial experience. He picks up on points made by Native writers and scholars, among others, that ’Standard English’ has served to humiliate and subjugate Indigenous peoples. Accordingly, Native scholars/writers have tackled this quintessentially colonial burden in various ways. Maria Campbell is one such writer.
Maria Campbell loves the language of her ancestors. And language of a people is about subtleties: an inflexion, a wave of the hand, a raise of an eyebrow, the cool stare, the meaningful silence. Then there are the sounds: the rhythms and music of voices, the whispers of cheepayaak (night ghosts/spirits), the songs of lost loves, deep rumblings of Pehehsoo and laughters of Wehsakehcha. And what can one say about the words? Amazing, exquisite, cultivated, inventive, hilarious, visceral, powerful, engaging, wonderful words. How can those writers who were fortunate enough to grow up with their peoples’ languages ever adequately translate the ’soul’ of a people into standard English? Not only does English come from a totally different linguistic family, not only is it a written language, it is also a colonial weapon traditionally used by colonizers to dehumanize indigenous peoples.
It is against this backdrop that Maria Campbell in Stories of the Road Allowance People offers "the dialect and rhythm of my village." Knowing full well that standard English cannot adequately express the nuances and the cadences of Metis mythology and humour, Campbell leaves the stories as intact as possible by phonetically translating into English the accents of Metis storytellers.
I must confess I began reading these stories (of ghosts, legends, priests, pain, pride, humour, human foibles) with some skepticism and I could not help but wonder about the relationship between the language of this work and W.P. Kinsella’s Silas Ermineskin and Frank Fence Post’s broken English. I think part of the answer lies in the cultural knowledge of the reader and audience.
What Campbell offers is not caricature. What Campbell offers is a complex culture which must be experienced beyond print. So I read the stories out loud; I made sure to rise and fall with the landscape of legends and human foibles. And before long I was laughing, crying and muttering to myself "I must pass this along to my siblings." Even though I had not heard of any of these stories specifically, they were familiar and what is more, I could hear the cadences from my childhood hamlet. Each story is illustrated with colorful paintings. Stories of the Road Allowance People is a unique enjoyable text. For a ’tortured people’ we still know how to tell stories, the stuff of living! There are many ways to tell the story of colonization and both Adams and Campbell’s styles and contributions are necessary. We can take some hope in the knowledge that dispossessed people do know the long-term consequences for people who steal. Listen:
Hees not just dah stealing dats bad you know. All dough dats bad enough. Dah real bad ting is your kids and all your grandchildren. Dey don got no good stories about you if your a teef. ("Dah Teef")
- The Sincerity Test by Bert Almon
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MLA: LaRocque, Emma. Speaking to Colonization. canlit.ca. Canadian Literature, 8 Dec. 2011. Web. 24 May 2013.
This review originally appeared in Canadian Literature #157 (Summer 1998), (Thomas Raddall, Alice Munro & Aritha van Herk). (pg. 114 - 116)
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