How to Be Here

  • Don Gayton (Author)
    Man Facing West.
  • Frances W. Kaye (Author)
    Goodlands: A Meditation and History on the Great Plains. Athabasca University Press
Reviewed by Alison Calder

Frances W. Kaye’s Goodlands: A Meditation and a History on the Great Plains could be retitled Good Ideas: How They Were Systematically Ignored on the Great Plains. In her wide-ranging book, Kaye argues convincingly that Euro-American culture, from settler times onward, has overwhelmingly defined the Great Plains region as deficient, and that this definition continues to inform cultural policy and economic practice. The belief in regional deficiency, expressed time and again in “improvement” projects aimed at the region and its inhabitants, has led to a political rhetoric of reclamation and repair, where a belief in the failings of both Aboriginal people and landscape is built into the political system at the ground level. These improvement plans, however, which are carried out at tremendous cost to both the Great Plains landscape and the Indigenous people who had been very successfully inhabiting it, are not only doomed to failure because of the false premise on which they were based, but they also create and then exacerbate social and environmental problems. The result, Kaye writes, is a “region that has neither a sustainable economy nor an aesthetic that will produce a sustainable economy or a humanly satisfying way of living.”

Kaye points out that the commonly accepted equation of prairie/plains with hinterland is a recent phenomenon: “Full of sacred sites as well as both faunal and vegetal abundance, linked to trading routes that provided any wants that the Prairie did not produce, this region was no hinterland until it was encountered by Europeans.” Her study details various ways in which the economic and social hardships that the region now experiences are the product of specific economic and political policies, and not the “natural” outcome of living in a particular place. For example, the institution of the arbitrary grid system to facilitate homesteading failed to accommodate local knowledge about the suitability of particular places for farming, and especially alienated groups such as the Métis, who already had a sophisticated farm structure in place. However, with both Métis and landscape judged deficient by those in power, the Canadian government pursued policies that not only evicted Métis farmers in the short term, but in the long term have failed to produce agricultural stability and regional wealth. Yet government policies continue to be formulated within the same context, and thus produce no change.

Kaye counters the deficiency model with ideas of sufficiency grounded in Aboriginal concepts of justice. This turn to Indigenous knowledge suggests a five-point approach: solutions must be “(1) land-based; (2) restorative; (3) community-centred; (4) decentralized; (5) holistic.” By keeping these principles in mind, Kaye suggests, we can generate new ideas about how to live meaningfully in this place. She offers no specific solutions, as her purpose is to propose an experiment: begin with a new philosophy of place, and see where those thoughts take you. Such an approach is suggestive, and the evidence Kaye provides from both sides of the Canadian/American border shows that new ideas are badly needed.

Don Gayton has done important work as a writer and activist concerned with ecology, culture, and the fraught coexistence of the two in the North American West. Growing up in a conservative American family, Gayton early discovered that he did not fit in with the kind of culture his father represented. A stint in the Peace Corp, followed by opposition to the Vietnam War and eventually a move to Canada, cemented these differences. In Man Facing West, he brings together autobiographical sketches with short historical fiction and fantasy pieces to critique Western ideas of environmental domination and social hierarchy.

While Gayton’s autobiographical sketches provide a brief but important look at how political differences can affect family relationships, Man Facing West does not overcome its fundamental structural problem. The short, disconnected chapters, interspersed occasionally (and seemingly at random) with heavy-handed fictional sections, rob the narrative of momentum. Gayton’s life of political commitment has led him into conflicts of all kinds, with family, politicians, and the conservative general public, but too often the book shies away from actually depicting the crux of those encounters. For a book framed as a memoir, it is curiously without introspection. Gayton tells us there is conflict, but we never see it. So, when he ultimately tells us that he and his father have reconciled their differences, the reader remains unmoved. Man Facing West raises many crucial questions about how we are to live in North America, but the text ultimately feels like it is avoiding the heart of the matter.

This review “How to Be Here” originally appeared in Canadian Literature 214 (Autumn 2012): 168-69.

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