Discovery Passages

  • Garry Thomas Morse (Author)
    Discovery Passages. Talonbooks
Reviewed by Lorraine Weir

From the arrival of Captain George Vancouver and the RMS Discovery in Kwakwaka’wakw territory in 1792 to the settler naming of the body of water between the mainland of Vancouver Island and Quadra Island as Discovery Passage several decades later, this part of what was to be named “British Columbia” has been the object of relentless colonial intervention. Decimated by epidemics which reduced the population from a pre-contact estimate of 19,000 to roughly 1000 by 1921, and subjected to multiple depredations of language, culture, identity, land, and resources, the Kwakwaka’wakw also found themselves construed by colonial politicians and bureaucrats, ethnographers and collectors as “the absolute other of Europe” as Christopher Bracken writes in The Potlatch Papers. Bracken notes also that for Franz Boas, the Kwakwaka’wakw were among the very few Indigenous peoples on the coast to be “uncontaminated by European influence” and therefore a compelling location for decades of ethnographic research.

Of particular interest to Boas as well as to missionaries and Indian agents was what was referred to as the “potlatch,” a Chinook word meaning “gift” and a term not used in Kwak’wala. The prohibition of this “gift” is spelled out in Section 114 of the Indian Act (1886) which, like other provisions of the Act, specifies a rigorous distinction between “Indians” and “persons,” a strategy which strips “Indians” of the rights accorded “persons,” and legitimates not only the prosecution of the “potlatch” but the extinguishment of property rights and of self-determination. What was “discovered” was theft and dispossession, the confiscation and sale of potlatch regalia and other objects, and their efficient relocation from the Indian Agent’s woodshed to museums in Ottawa, Toronto, and New York where George Heye, founder of the Museum of the American Indian, happily received them. And so to the great museums of Europe, which cultivated an interest in the property of the Kwakwaka’wakw while Boas collected “Kwakiutl” stories and Edward Curtis staged photographs and made a film, In the Land of the Head Hunters, recently refurbished and a subject of much current contention.

This is the briefest of summaries of some of the contextual information which Garry Thomas Morse draws on in Discovery Passages, a long poem (as I read it; others have seen it as a linked series of poems) of extraordinary stylistic virtuosity and power which ought soon to find itself among the canonic texts of contemporary Indigenous and Canadian writing. Inheritor of Modernism’s reinscription of the European classical epic, Morse brings Joyce and Olson, Sappho and Heraclitus, Homer and Dante, but also Ginsberg and Marlatt, and Bowering and Blaser (among many others) to this haunted journey to his mother’s ancestral territory. What are the protocols of entry in such circumstances? To discover is, as both colonial history and etymology indicate, to re/invent. But coming, as Morse writes, from the far side of “white/wash,” the English language, “the myth of being clean,” and the “long clean lines” of Modernism’s epic conventions, how enter? Remembering the Kwakwaka’wakw practice of cedar plank removal with “Tree left, alive,” how write a beginning at all in the language of assimilation, imposed by residential school, and associated with settler technologies of “silviculture” and fish farms, and the concomitant destruction of the environment?

The journey begins with shadows which might be islands, safe places which might be chimaeras, and moves to a visit to Alert Bay, walking the boardwalk after arriving on the night ferry and discovering the ’Namgis graveyard, with its sign in English warning pedestrians to stay clear of its fenced area. “Keep off the Grass,” writes Morse with characteristic irony, reminding us of the Indian Act’s prohibition of “noxious weeds” on reserves as well as of the settler history of this part of the ‘Namgis town, known as ‘Yalis. Here, Hudson and Spencer established a salmon cannery in 1870, employing Kwakwaka’wakw people in factory labour where they had long practiced their own salmon fishery, and beginning the process of economic transformation which is represented later in Discovery Passages with a photograph of the Canadian five dollar bill and its image of the salmon seiner owned by Morse’s great-uncle, Harry Assu, from the old days of wild, not farmed, salmon and of copious harvests whose gradual undoing both seiners and canneries precipitated.

The journey proceeds via an “Envoy” which, like “’makola” before it, sounds its passage first in Kwak’wala. “P’alxala,” fog, “has come to the coast” and the poet cautions us, “no longer advise / me how to handle / my / own / particulars”, whether those particulars be “kerfed box,” soulcatcher, or carved argillite and perhaps whether, as in “Potlatch,” “you” have forgotten all this and forgotten that “This too / is a / gift” and that “I am other.” Anticipating the great central sequence of erasure poems derived from the letters of colonial officials and those accused of potlatching, “Potlatch” pushes angrily back at the racist assumptions of those who expect to find variously, as Bracken writes, the “Kwahkewlth” or “Kwawkewlth” or even the “Kwakiool.” Other others are encountered in “Conversations with Remarkable Elders,” not the noble sources of Boas’ stories, but their descendants in contemporary Alert Bay whose bitchy, colloquial narratives of drugs, arson, and eagle slaughter contrast the supposed utopia of Sointula a short ferry ride away.

Balancing on a “Contra/punctus” redolent of Joyce and Zukofsky, the poet begins a threefold closure of this section of Discovery Passages with its evocation of the effects of colonization, by creating an entry through dream to his ancestral home in Cape Mudge as a Hamat’sa dancer who knows the traditional protocol of introduction: “Name, rank, & kin.” Language remains an issue, highlighted in “Tongue” via the beginning Kwak’wala student’s delight in a loan word from English, “abals,” followed by the tongue and lip-twisting challenges of “Xwalkw, k’ikw, kw’ikw, xwak’wana” (village site that was the original home of the ‘Namgis, totem, eagle, canoe). Finally, “Copper” invokes that traditional symbol of wealth, rank, and lineage in Kwakwaka’wakw society, and the poet calls on his copper to “bear / witness / to every name” and memory while “The / Document” is read.

What is read in “No Comment,” this second section of Morse’s long poem, functions as a record of the period of attempted potlatch suppression, an honour song fashioned out of the words of Indian Agent William Halliday, Sergeant Angermann, Superintendent General Duncan Campbell Scott, and John A. Macdonald (among others) with the responses of several of the Kwakwaka’wakw accused. As one form of erasure meets another, Morse’s flawless orchestration works a minimalist masterpiece, an auto-exegesis of attempted genocide which concludes with Halliday’s 1923 directive to cease prosecution of the potlatch.

In the next section of Discovery Passages, Morse turns to operetta, following the silent culmination of “No Comment” with the raucous, Gilbert and Sullivan tones of “The Indian Picture Opera,” a redaction of Edward Curtis’ travelling slide show made to promote his book of photographs but equally an acid commentary on the recent reissue of Curtis’ film, In the Land of the Head-Hunters, which Morse deftly places among the “Rom coms” and counterbalances in later poems with sometimes comic versions of traditional stories of Bak’was and Dzunuk’wa, followed by an erotic version of his great grandfather’s traditional story of Wiwek’am, a creation story accounting for the coming of eulachon (candlefish) grease and fertility to the Ligwilda’x. Contrasting this poem is “Hot Blooded: A Love Poem for Duncan Campbell Scott,” in which the colonial agent of assimilation and residential schools is addressed as a sexual predator whose sanctimonious “Onondaga Madonna” reveals his violent sexual fetishes and fantasies. In a bravado conclusion, the poet takes his “shit back” and performs a defiant Hamat’sa dance in the face of the monster. In “Wak’es,” the poet is in a similar mood though leavened with wry humour as he calls on the Lenape on whose traditional territory New York stands, invoking their assistance with the return of Harry Assu’s carved frog, now in the National Museum of the American Indian, whose ownership of Assu’s property is ironically attested by the photograph of wak’es in their possession.

Morse is a master of tonal balance, a virtuoso composer with an ear for epic contrast, and a poet of complexly binary intertexts for whom an envoi leads to no single destination. Discovery Passages closes with two contrasting poems, each breathtaking in its force. “Interpretative Dance–for Franz Boas” crosscuts a version of the traditional story “Weka’yi” from T’sakwa’lutan (Cape Mudge) with a narrative of salmon canning and the arrival in 1906 of the butchering machine which came to be known as the “Iron Chink.” Both are narratives of the interpenetrating worlds of land and water, and both tell of trickery though with different consequences. Out of trickery comes healing in “Weka’yi,” and the young man who descends to the undersea world becomes Kate’nats, a great healer and forefather of his people and an augury of the time “when our relations / will no longer / leave blanks / in our writings.” Contrasting this origin story is a story of theft, whether of salmon or land or way of life or language, a theft which extends to the intellectual property rights owned by specific Kwakwaka’wakw families in relation to specific dances including that represented in the archival photograph of Franz Boas posing in mid-Hamat’sa leap through a hoop, alias a “loop- / hole in / intellectual / properties.” Like the theft of wak’es, the theft of a dance is called into the context of the responsibility of the witness to give an accurate account of what they have seen and heard, a responsibility which extends to those who conducted the anti-potlatch campaign and to those responsible for the pedagogical practices and ethical violations of residential school. Since the ecology of salmon and cedar is, from a Kwakwaka’wakw perspective, inseparable from the ecology of family and community, each in balance with the other, the violation of one is a violation of the whole. Thus, multicultural Canada operates within the “loop-hole” of language theft and the “500 lines” which constitute the final poem in Discovery Passages stand as testimony to that violation and its impact on all Kwakwaka’wakw people: “I will not speak Kwak’wala,” the residential school punishment which proliferates across the last pages of the book and which is defied by all of Discovery Passages.

In the end, we are promised “another / story.” Perhaps it begins with the poem’s final lines:
K’i. K’isan kwak’wala.”
(Do you speak Kwak’wala? No. I don’t speak Kwak’wala)—Morse’s affirmation of the work of resistance of which this book is a consummate example.

This review “Discovery Passages” originally appeared in Canadian Literature 214 (Autumn 2012): 178-81.

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