Envisioning Resurgence

  • Rita Leistner and Marie Clements
    The Edward Curtis Project: A Modern Picture Story. Talonbooks
  • Jennifer Andrews
    In the Belly of a Laughing God: Humour and Irony in Native Women’s Poetry. University of Toronto Press
Reviewed by Dory Nason

Jennifer Andrews’ study of North American Indigenous women’s poetry focuses on uses of irony and humour as devices through which Native women represent both the joy and pain of the contemporary Native experience as well as channel political critique and assert transformative agency in their work. Andrews argues that in addition to the unique deployment of these discursive strategies, Native women trouble and expand generic categories, reworking poems into song, songs back into poems, inserting Native chants and rhythms onto the printed page, and expanding into the visual art through the addition of photography or artwork in their written collections.

Andrews focuses her readings by tracing these writers’ transformational aims, in which irony and humour sometimes play a part. And though these two concepts sometimes prove inconsistent in application and relevance, the insight, care, and quality of her close readings bring an important focus to the gendered critiques of colonialism’s impacts that Native women’s poetry and performance convey to a contemporary audience. For example, her first chapter, “Spiritual Transformations,” takes as its focus the poetry of Diane Glancy and Louise Bernice Halfe, two writers who write against Christian imperialism and patriarchy by creating sacred texts about powerful women. Another significant chapter focuses on Jeannette Armstrong and Joy Harjo’s “Generic Transformations” as they merge their written work with musical performance—an aspect of their work that has long been overlooked. While I found some applications of humour and irony forced, Andrews’ readings are a welcome engagement with the aesthetic brilliance of works by women such as Marilyn Dumont, Wendy Rose, Kimberly Blaeser, and Marie Annharte Baker.

Andrews’ framework does not preclude a discussion of the more overt political aspects of these poems; indeed, it leads to it. However, sometimes the weight and force of the poems’ critiques is almost masked by the playfulness that these concepts seem to suggest. Andrews is careful to draw out the critical and defiant “I” of Native women’s poetry when appropriate as they take aim at legacies of residential school and other colonial traumas. At the same time, she highlights the creative capacity of these poets to remap Indigenous spaces and recall ancestral bonds, affirming contemporary Indigenous women’s varied identities. In the end, this study’s significance will stand, filling an important gap in the criticism of Native women’s poetry, written and performed.

Photography, Andrews writes, pushes beyond poetry’s limitations, invoking “ghosts” and links to a non-physical world. At the same time, she notes that when Native poets place photography in their text, they often do so to underscore the audacity of survival in spite of the genocidal forces of colonialism. These candid family photos work against the hegemonic romanticized image of the “Vanishing Indian” celebrated in nineteenth-century American portraiture by photographers such as Edward Curtis. This leads me to the next text under review, Marie Clements and Rita Leistner’s The Edward Curtis Project: A Modern Picture Story. A collaborative text, the first half is taken up by Clements’ play, followed by Leistner’s photography. While Andrews focuses on Native women’s uses of family photographs to connect to family and community, Clements and Leistner take up this subject to reflect on the burden of representation that Curtis’ narrative and images of the “Vanishing Indian” lay on the shoulders of Native cultural producers today.

In a provocative and beautifully written play, Clements portrays one woman’s struggle with witnessing and writing about the tragic deaths of three young children, whose father, in an alcohol-induced haze, leads them to die in the snow. This story is partly based on the tragic deaths of two young girls in Saskatchewan in 2008, and it is one that haunts and horrifies anyone once they know of it. In Clements’ play, the protagonist Angeline is a Dene/Russian journalist and the volunteer searcher who finds the young girls’ bodies. Burdened with this horrific story and these images, the play opens with Angeline frozen between taking her own life and finding the hope to live. Her journey in the play is facilitated by the ghost of Edward Curtis, who haunts Angeline in order to force a reckoning and reflection on the convergence of colonialism’s need to “eliminate the Native” and a Native woman’s need to create affirming narratives of survival in the face of such crushing tragedy.

Angeline’s boyfriend Yiska is Curtis’ foil in the play that works to bring her back from the depths of despair into the world of the living. In one scene, he tries to lift her burden by reminding her that as a journalist, she is simply to write the “facts.” Angeline’s response reveals her pain: “I should have written that the father of those children was so young, so poor . . . living in a house that was so contaminated . . . with no food, no clean water, . . . Do you think
it was all his fault? Or maybe we all should own a little piece of it?” Obviously, this question is one for everyone to consider as it reminds us that images like Curtis’ or a news story about a child’s death or a community’s appalling lack of adequate housing can never really carry enough context and history to fully represent the past and present consequences of settler colonialism. Indeed, such limitations remind us of our responsibilities not only to deconstruct such damaging representations, but also to address the material conditions they reflect.

The play ends with a note to project on the walls of the stage images that Rita Leistner photographed in the summer of 27. These images are full colour vibrant photos of contemporary Indigenous communities and the people Leistner and Clements met as they visited the places Curtis once tried to document as vanishing. These images construct a new narrative of resurgence that echoes the opening statement by Clements: “I saw what I always knew to be true—there is no Vanishing Indian, never was, but for a convenient thought. . . . We are everywhere and it is beautiful.”

This review “Envisioning Resurgence” originally appeared in Indigenous Focus. Spec. issue of Canadian Literature 215 (Winter 2012): 141-42.

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