Indigenous Histories

  • Isabelle St-Amand
    Stories of Oka: Land, Film, and Literature. University of Manitoba Press (purchase at Amazon.ca)
  • Kim Anderson (Editor), Maria Campbell (Editor) and Christi Belcourt (Editor)
    Keetsahnak / Our Missing and Murdered Indigenous Sisters. University of Alberta Press (purchase at Amazon.ca)
  • Fiona Polack (Editor)
    Tracing Ochre: Changing Perspectives on the Beothuk. University of Toronto Press (purchase at Amazon.ca)
Reviewed by Margery Fee

Keetsahnak will be a staple resource in future research on violence against Indigenous women and girls. All but two of the contributors are Indigenous women from an array of nations and backgrounds; many have deep and close experience with the violence they analyze. The book is divided into four sections, “All Our Relations,” “The Violence of History,” “Challenges,” and “Action, Always.” In the epilogue, some of the contributors discuss what this edited collection lacks—a feature that would be a useful addition for all books in this genre, which generally try to hide the gaps rather than expose them. A central point made by the participants is that we need to be brave enough to speak up when we suffer or witness an injustice. Another is something academics tend to forget—writing books (and life stories and poems and songs) is only a small part of the difficult task of creating social environments that mitigate violence.

The book arose from one such environment that travelled the globe, Walking with Our Sisters, a community-driven and funded exhibition of beaded moccasin vamps (see www.walkingwithoursisters.ca). The book demonstrates how a rigid heteropatriarchal gender binary works to damage people of all genders and sexualities, including queer and trans people and Indigenous men. Although the main focus is, as it should be, on colonial and decolonial issues, the book also takes up issues of violence, both physical and emotional, within Indigenous families. The contributors resist both mainstream misrepresentations of the violence as well as the commonplace fear of giving ammunition to racist outsiders who want to portray all Indigenous people and communities as intrinsically savage. They deal with such extremely touchy questions of violence within Indigenous communities with care and respect, including questions about cultural renewal. For example, can traditional stories sometimes normalize violence against women? How do some ceremonies—or some ways of conducting ceremonies—work to reinforce the gender binary? One particularly compelling story is about living between the states of missing and murdered—not at all missed by an uncaring family. The phrase “throwaway people” is repeated several times: mainstream society marks some people as better off dead, and some people internalize this perspective. One participant tells of meeting a healer after attempting suicide: his response was “Okay, you’re done. You’re dead. Give your life to the community. That’s all you need to do. You don’t want to live your life for yourself—fine. Live it for the community.” Her words remind us of the many desperate children and adolescents who did not make it and to be thankful for those who did.

The mournful story of the “last of the Beothuks” still resonates as part of Newfoundland history. The fourteen authors in the wide-ranging collection Tracing Ochre assess this story’s impact and credibility, including accounts from archaeologists, literary critics, and historians. Ingeborg Marshall’s strong position, based on her authoritative A History and Ethnography of the Beothuk (1996), that nothing of Beothuk heritage or culture persists is here rethought in a context that includes Indigenous memory and historical ways of life. Fiona Polack’s introduction, “De-islanding the Beothuk,” looks at how the notion of islands as discrete and inviolable allows for a European fantasy of total control in Newfoundland, Tasmania, and other “empty” island sites of supposed colonial extermination. When Newfoundland joined Confederation in 1949, no provision was made for Indigenous residents, although Mi’kmaw had lived there since time immemorial. This decision was partly based on the idea that the Beothuk were gone and the Mi’kmaw assimilated. When long years of activism forced the Canadian government to allow people to apply for membership in the Qualipu Mi’kmaq First Nation, a new landless band, thousands of applications were received. The continuing process of deciding who qualifies can charitably be described as a mess. In this collection, Chief Mi’sel Joe of the Miawpukek First Nation talks about the connections between the Mi’kmaw and the Beothuk in Newfoundland dating from before contact. Patrick Brantlinger examines the “myth of prior invasion,” which asserts that the Mi’kmaw were the perpetrators of the Beothuk genocide. Maura Hanrahan looks at the related stereotype of “good Beothuk” and “bad Mi’kmaq.” These stories combine to let British settlers off the hook. Cynthia Sugars looks at novels involving the Beothuk by Michael Crummey and Bernice Morgan. Bonita Lawrence sets the Beothuk story into a broader history of settler genocide, as she considers how recognition by a colonial government under the Indian Act simultaneously renders those Indigenous people who are not so recognized legally invisible, their land up for grabs.

Stories of Oka is a translated and updated version of La Crise d’Oka en récits (Presses de l’Université Laval, 2015), which in turn developed from a PhD thesis (Université du Québec à Montréal, 2012). The cover by Martin Akwiranoron Loft, the foreword by Katsitsén:hawe Linda David Cree, the blurb by Audra Simpson, as well as St-Amand’s acknowledgements, particularly those noting her access to the archives at Kanehsatake and Kahnewake, make clear that her work was closely connected to these two Mohawk communities and supported by several individuals who were active during the crisis. She conducted interviews with those on both sides of the barricades. Although she states that “this book does not reveal new information about Oka,” it certainly provides an important synthesis and overview almost thirty years on for those—like the author herself—too young to remember an event that galvanized the country and led to a shift in Indigenous-Canada relations. Because of the length of time that has passed since 1990, St-Amand is able to include information that did not appear (although some of it should have) until long after the event. She is also able to comment on more recent events such as Idle No More and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Further, as this is an interdisciplinary work, rather than solely a history, her analysis of representations of the event by Indigenous and non-Indigenous filmmakers, poets, and novelists adds an important dimension. Finally, her bibliography of English- and French-language resources provides others interested in Oka with a comprehensive resource. Future historians and critics studying Indigenous resistance, both at the barricades and through artistic production, will want this book on their shelves.



This review “Indigenous Histories” originally appeared in Canadian Literature, 12 Jul. 2019. Web.

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