Fathoming First Visions

Reviewed by Madelaine Jacobs

Language cannot exist in isolation. An Indigenous language embodies a context, as it does a culture, and it lives in a people. Susan Marshall and Emily Masty have chosen an apt title for Mind’s Eye as the mind must be attuned to the life of a people in order to learn a language. Mitiarjuk Nappaaluk’s novel is named for its protagonist, Sanaaq, a remarkable character who offers insight into Inuit culture. Both works prove to be thoughtful resources created to educate through the powerful medium of stories. They are tools for honing the mind’s eye of the storytellers’ own communities and of anyone who is fortunate enough to turn their entertaining and edifying pages. It should come as no surprise that Indigenous storytellers are adept at communicating wisdom in this manner. Storytelling is the mechanism of Indigenous education through the transmission of oral knowledge. Stories are key to survival. The great challenge met by these skillful works is the collision between well-honed oral tradition, situated in communities with systems for maintaining its life and integrity, and the mores of the printed page.

The need to preserve and pass on Indigenous knowledge motivated the writing of Mind’s Eye and Sanaaq. Emily Masty opens Mind’s Eye with a rationale that encourages receptivity. Masty postulates that Bible “stories must have seemed quite astounding” when first shared with the Îyiyiu Cree of Northern Québec; however, astonishing actions were also taken in the stories of their own tradition. For Masty, just as the Red Sea was parted for Moses by the power of God, the “same idea is at play when powerful Îyiyiu had spirit helpers through whom they worked their powers.” Christian precepts were not necessarily at odds with the lifeways of many of the Cree in what became known as James Bay. Storyteller Agnes Kawapit explains that the land was her father’s life. He taught her that an attitude of positive determination is key to survival and instructed, “when you have no strength to go on—to always look ahead and remember that your Father in heaven is watching over you, that he knows what you need even before you ask.” Kawapit’s father did not hate the “whiteman” even though he fought against the destructive development of hydro-electric power on the land. Masty began recording stories out of concern that vocabulary and expressions specific to life on the land were being lost to younger generations who had become more centred in village life and classroom education. The activism and agreements resulting from hydro development in James Bay and Northern Québec impelled the development of culturally relevant curriculum in a Cree School Board for whom Masty collected stories for educational purposes.

Most of the nineteen storytellers represented in Mind’s Eye were deceased by the time their stories were published in the complete work of first-person narrative, cultural knowledge, and historical-geographical explanation. The first section of Mind’s Eye explores the significance of supernatural power to survival on the land. The second expands this theme to dealing with potential enemies. European contact is included in this section. The stories contained in the third section are autobiographical. Spanning the latter nineteenth century to the mid-twentieth century, this section examines personal and community hardships experienced as game became scarce and Christianity spread amongst the Îyiyiu. Some of the stories contained in Mind’s Eye are appalling. They are not straightforward proscriptions for the pristine life of a mythical noble savage. Rather, stories are a sophisticated means of social control in a complex cultural context that included conflicts as well as cooperation. While interactions between Inuit and Îyiyiu people are one of the cultural clashes recounted in Mind’s Eye, they are part of a fuller body of resonant stories.

Nappaaluk’s Inuit novel Sanaaq is a sympathetic pairing to Mind’s Eye. Within Canada, cultural difference exists alongside shared experience as diverse Indigenous peoples have often been inappropriately treated as homogenous by settler governments. Although it employs fiction to convey cultural meaning, Sanaaq also came about through efforts to understand and preserve language. When Catholic missionaries sought Nappaaluk’s help in formulating a dictionary and writing commonly used phrases, Nappaaluk was not content to just write sentences. Rather, the character of Sanaaq was imagined in order to tell stories that convey deeper Inuit cultural principles of everyday life. As a person of the “third sex” educated in traditional female and male roles, Nappaaluk occupied the position of a mediator between many facets of Inuit culture. It is, therefore, apposite that Nappaaluk’s novel was written in the Inuit syllabics taught by missionaries in what has become known as Nunavik, translated into French, and then translated into English.

Nappaaluk’s mediating force is as tender in its accounts of love between mother and child as it is brusque in its portrayal of the realities of interpersonal violence and hardship on the land. All of Nappaaluk’s stories clearly teach a useful lesson even as they entertain and provoke. Surely, a wonderful education can be entered into and remembered because of its great stories. More tales of Sanaaq may be forthcoming as Nappaaluk provided Bernard Saladin d’Anglure with a thousand additional pages of syllabics before passing away in 2007.

Neither Sanaaq nor Mind’s Eye should be misconstrued as contributing to the death of Indigenous oral tradition. Rather, they communicate an important value: Indigenous peoples turn the tools and materials available to them to their own purposes in order to strengthen and perpetuate their communities. Innovation is part of Indigenous tradition. The publication of Sannaq and Mind’s Eye provides a constructive opening to those reliant on the written word into worlds of wisdom and wonder which would otherwise be much less accessible to people who, unlike the nomadic Îyiyiu who “carried their knowledge where it was most accessible—in their heads,” are more familiar with storing knowledge in technologies that they can carry in their pockets.

This review “Fathoming First Visions” originally appeared in Queer Frontiers. Spec. issue of Canadian Literature 224 (Spring 2015): 131-33.

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