At the Same Table

Reviewed by June Scudeler

Robert Innes’ and Sam McKegney’s books are path clearing, situating Indigenous ways of knowing at the centre of their methodologies. The personal qualities of both books—the centrality of stories—push the reader, particularly the Indigenous reader, to really think about their place in the world and the responsibilities we carry to others.

Plains Cree scholar Robert Innes ably demonstrates how his reserve, the Cowessess First Nation in Saskatchewan, honours kinship ties outside of academic and governmental strictures. Although Innes did not grow up at Cowessess because of sexist Indian Act provisions, he received his Indian status in 1989 and was welcomed back into his community. Innes’ welcoming back into his community highlights how these kinship ties are still in place at Cowessess First Nation. He uses Elder Brother or wîsahkêcâhk stories to highlight how the Cowessess First Nation honours the historical and cultural ties between the Plains Cree, Saulteaux, Assiniboine, and Métis, or the Iron Alliance, by not viewing them as discrete units but as kin. A Cowessess story about wîsahkêcâhk being adopted by wolves and assuming the accepted kinship roles, stresses the importance of wâhkôhtowin or good relationship/kinship to Plains Cree and other Indigenous people. As Innes notes, although wîsahkêcâhk is a not a wolf, wîsahkêcâhk is accepted by the wolves as kin because of his positive and helpful behaviour.

Kinship is also extended to those with whom First Nations signed treaties, but this is an obligation the Crown ignores. Moreover, Innes stresses the importance of kinship and group formation at the band level in contrast with the usual scholarly emphasis on the national or tribal level, which obscures relationships amongst the Iron Alliance. For example, nineteenth-century Plains Cree were not a discrete unit as many of the chiefs had mixed ancestry. Little Pine’s mother was Blackfoot and his father was Plains Cree, thus they belonged to two peoples who are traditional enemies. Innes argues that for members of the Cowessess First Nation, a person’s family name is a more important way of situating oneself than one’s perceived national identity. Innes points out the false separation between the Métis and prairie First Nations because scholars tend not to see the kinship ties between them, but rather see Métis in racial rather than in cultural terms.

Masculinity or manhood is a little-theorised area of Indigenous studies. Sam McKegney coined the term masculindians to highlight the constructedness of popular cultural representations of Indigenous men, particular the settler propensity to view Indigenous men as hyper-masculine stereotypes like the stoic warrior or newer incarnations like the ecological medicine man or the drunken absentee. McKegney conducted twenty-three interviews between October 2010 and August 2013 with Indigenous men and women from North America and Aotearoa, collecting a healthy and much-needed variety of dialogues on the topic. Masculindians does not shy away from foregrounding how complex Indigenous manhood can be, which is not detrimental to the book, but rather mirrors most Indigenous understandings of personal autonomy. People can sit together at the same table but still have differing viewpoints. McKegney notes that the emerging field of Indigenous masculinities can be braided together with feminist and queer/Two-Spirit analysis to create healthy individuals and communities. Tomson Highway (Woods Cree) situates himself as biologically between men and women, and states that his role is to “take care of the spirit of the community, where all the artists are from.” On the other hand, Mohawk scholar Taiaiake Alfred takes Indigenous artists to task for not being subversive enough, which shows a decided lack of understanding of works by Indigenous artists.

While McKegney knows or is close friends with many of the interviewees, his questions and his ability to fade into he background during interviews allows the interviewees to be vulnerable. Daniel Heath Justice (Cherokee) shares early discomfiture with being an Indian and with how his parents were supportive in his coming out even while they worried for him. Justice believes the male body is seen as only capable of and a source of violence and encourages men to “fight against shame through love,” another story of situating responsibility in Indigenous contexts. McKegney’s inclusion of interviews with Indigenous women is much appreciated. As Bonita Lawrence (Mi’kmaw) points out: “empowerment for women means . . . we need to talk about empowering our men.” Jessica Danforth (Mohawk) of the Native Youth Sexual Health Network emphasises the importance of Indigenous sexuality to larger Indigenous issues: “to place sexual health over here and land rights over there is very colonial. Environmental justice is over here, reproductive justice is over there.” Danforth demonstrates in her interview how reproductive rights, and women’s and Two-Spirit rights are fundamental to Indigenous decolonisation. Tlicho writer Richard Van Camp’s assertion that “what we’re not talking about [is] killing us” shows the importance of stories, whether of wîsahkêcâhk’s importance to kinship on the Cowessess First Nation or of Indigenous masculinity. These books invite us to the kitchen table to sip tea and to hear such stories.

This review “At the Same Table” originally appeared in Agency & Affect. Spec. issue of Canadian Literature 223 (Winter 2014): 160-61.

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