Vocations: First Nations Voices
- Sharron Proulx-Turner (Author)
she walks for days inside a thousand eyes: a two-spirit story. Turnstone Press (purchase at Amazon.ca)
- Garry Gottfriedson (Author)
Skin Like Mine. Ronsdale Press (purchase at Amazon.ca)
- Dorothy Kennedy (Author) and Randy Bouchard (Author)
The Lil'wat World of Charlie Mack. Talonbooks (purchase at Amazon.ca)
Reviewed by Madelaine Jacobs
Appreciating First Nations literature often requires an aural engagement with the written word. In keeping with indigenous practices of telling stories with deeper meanings that must be unlocked as the recipients grow in understanding, Garry Gottfriedson’s Skin Like Mine, Dorothy Kennedy and Randy Bouchard’s The Lil’wat World of Charlie Mack, and Sharron Proulx-Turner’s she walks for days inside a thousand eyes: a two-spirit story impart challenging wisdom that may take a lifetime to absorb. In their unabashed complexity, their works are testaments to the increasing recognition of First Nations voices within Canadian society.
Garry Gottfriedson roams through history and transverses scales from a University of Victoria classroom in British Columbia to the continent of Europe in his collection of poems, Skin Like Mine. Wherever his words journey, Gottfriedson’s passages echo Secwepemcu’lecw, the land of the Shuswaps, as well as the sounds of contemporary Canadian urban life. Skin Like Mine is a mesmerizing cacophony of identity. By locating himself in both the particular and the global, Gottfriedson skewers the limitations of the English language with its own dualistic inventions. In his poetic precision, Gottfriedson avoids the over-generalization that sometimes comes from such a wide scope. Instead, he demonstrates that a life of holistic integrity encompasses every razor-sharp edge of human existence. Gottfriedson’s “Cover-ups” criticizes celebratory perspectives of Canadian history that do not recognize Duncan Campbell Scott, one of the most famous poets in Canadian history, as the “poet and the despot / who fetishized Indian women / schemed to kill their men.” Certainly, Scott’s masterful poetic portrait of the “Onondaga Madonna” and her “paler” child is compelling confirmation of Gottfriedson’s claim. Skin Like Mine is so finely crafted that it will fascinate new and experienced readers of First Nations literature.
Surely Charlie Mack Seymour, Nts’elásq’et, is also an author of the ethnographic tribute The Lil’wat World of Charlie Mack. While ably fulfilling the roles that English-language literature ascribes to authors, Kennedy and Bouchard act with subtlety as informative editors giving insight into their own development as ethnographers through the teachings of Charlie Mack. They respectfully avoid heavy-handed intervention in Charlie Mack’s narratives and devote much of the book to his stories. Kennedy and Bouchard’s humble approach make it possible to imagine that Seymour’s lyrical voice can be heard on the pages of their book as it might in their audio recordings. By situating stories in place, Charlie Mack acts as a critical geography, using deep relationship with the land to correct the inaccuracies that British Columbia geographer Cole Harris explains occur when mapping is used to translate the real experiences of places into the Eurocentric language of measurement. Two streams of scholarship come together through stories such as when Kennedy and Bouchard stretched the research budget of their ethnographic project by travelling past Mount Currie to the town called Lillooet instead of disembarking at what they later discovered was known to First Nations as the home of the “Real Lillooet”: the Lil’wat7úl. In his own words, Charlie Mack was a “sophisticated Indian” who mastered the “high language” of the Lil’wat7úl and manipulated English grammar more cleverly than Kennedy and Bouchard initially realized. Working with Kennedy and Bouchard until shortly before his death, Charlie Mack was the indigenous ethnographer of the Lil’wat7úl.
Sharron Proulx-Turner’s poetic volume she walks for days inside a thousand eyes requires a great deal of thoughtful effort because it refuses to bend to the gender divisions embedded in the English language. Although Proulx-Turner touches on the term “lesbian,” two-spiritedness is a state of multiplicity that can only be partially communicated in the English language as similar to what is commonly called transgendered or described as embracing the spectrum of sexual orientation and identity. Proulx-Turner’s poetry twists and hammers words until a lesson at the heart of two-spiritedness emerges: the value of seeing from more than one distinct perspective lies in embracing apparent contradictions in order to become a conduit for reconciling divergent worlds. Proulx-Turner tells the mystical tale of a group of two-spirited women who concede to marriage out of respect for their parents and grandparents yet resist the attentions of their husbands by using onions to make themselves odious. Together, the women pray for a way to escape marriage and become powerfully aware that “the two-spirits / are meant to be together / to be singers, seers, interpreters of dreams / mediators, healers / to see / as she / as he / to be / as he / as she.” While Proulx-Turner reveals the historical and cultural status of “these gifted ones” in indigenous communities, the pain of living as a two-spirited First Nations person in contemporary Canada is starkly evident in the crow’s most optimistic promise that “better times are ahead.”
Perhaps Proulx-Turner’s bold declaration that “in indigenous cultures, we don’t do things alone” is the key to these expressive books. It is evident throughout Skin Like Mine, The Lil’wat World of Charlie Mack, and she walks for days that fostering forthrightness and inclusivity enables First Nations people to see multiple sides of issues and supersede barriers. In this way, First Nations across Canada foster the resilience and creativity that is essential to the endurance of their communities and the flourishing of poetic arts.
- Lyric Distances by Susan Holbrook
Books reviewed: Her Festival Clothes by Mavis Jones, Rehearsing the Miracle by Linda Rogers, and A Geography of Souls by Kathleen McCracken
- Quelques décalages by Nicole Nolette
Books reviewed: Carpe Diem: anthologie canadienne du haïku/Canadian Anthology of Haiku by Terry Ann Carter, Francine Chicoine, and Marco Fraticelli, Roc & rail: trains fantômes by Mansel Robinson, Le Groupe des huit: Huit Poètes Anglo-Québécois by Judith-Louise Thibault, and Décalage by Patrice Desbiens
- Flights of Verse by Ian Rae
Books reviewed: Bolder Flights: Essays on the Canadian Long Poem by Angela Robbeson and Frank M. Tierney and Autobiography of Red by Anne Carson
- Long-Lost Worlds by Dermot McCarthy
Books reviewed: Collected Poems of Raymond Souster: Volume Eight 1991-1993 by Raymond Souster, No Sad Songs Wanted Here by Raymond Souster, and Close to Home by Raymond Souster
- Collaborative Research by Dee Horne
Books reviewed: 'Pictures Bring Us Messages' /Sinaakssiiksi aohtsimaahpihkookiyaawa: Photographs and Histories from the Kainai Nation by Alison K. Brown, Kainai Nation, and Laura Peers
MLA: Jacobs, Madelaine. Vocations: First Nations Voices. canlit.ca. Canadian Literature, 8 Dec. 2011. Web. 22 May 2013.
This review originally appeared in Canadian Literature #208 (Spring 2011), Prison Writing. (pg. 160 - 162)
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