Indigenous Identities

  • Paula Anca Farca
    Identity in Place: Contemporary Indigenous Fiction by Women Writers in the United States, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand. Peter Lang Publishing Group

Identity in Place focuses on the relationship between place and identity in novels by eight contemporary Indigenous women writers: Louise Erdrich (Chippewa) and Linda Hogan (Chickasaw) from the United States; Lee Maracle (Stó:lo) and Jeannette Armstrong (Okanagan) from Canada; Alexis Wright (Waanji) and Doris Pilkington (Martu) from Australia; and Patricia Grace (Ngāti Toa, Ngāti Raukawa and Te Āti Awa) and Keri Hulme (Kāi Tahu) from New Zealand. In these former colonies of the British Empire, Indigenous peoples have been displaced from their lands and identities. Paula Anca Farca argues that Indigenous women’s fiction responds to and resists these losses, modelling how individuals can reconnect with their lands and identities, even if some may not have a homeland or home to return to. Places are not only geographical locations, she argues, but territories of the mind, rooted in memory and imagination and central to the creation—and re-creation—of Indigenous identities. Identity in Place highlights how places both shape and are shaped by the experiences, traditions, and stories of Indigenous peoples.

The volume analyzes well-established novels alongside those in need of further study, with each chapter devoted to a single author and novel. Farca could better explain the rationale behind her text selection
and chronology, and her argument would benefit from a more complex synthesis of the chapters. Still, she provides useful and detailed readings, pointing to how each novel maps a unique approach to reclaiming place and identity, through journeys both real and imagined. In some novels, Farca observes, going home marks a return to Indigenous identity, as in Hogan’s Solar Storms (1995), where after a childhood in foster care, the protagonist returns to her people and discovers herself through the land and its stories. In other texts, such as Wright’s Plains of Promise (1997), Pilkington’s Caprice: A Stockman’s Daughter (1991), and Maracle’s Daughters are Forever (2002), violent pasts or traumatic separations make homecoming difficult or impossible. In these cases, Farca argues, memory and imagination facilitate healing through psychic return. In Caprice, for example, an Aboriginal Australian woman visits her ancestral territory and imagines the history and people from which she was removed as a child, while in Maracle’s novel, a Salish woman finds healing by revisiting memories of her violent past. In her concluding chapter, Farca turns to an analysis of place and reconciliation. Her discussion of Keri Hulme’s The Bone People (1985) shows how Māori and European characters come together to create new places where they can coexist, mirroring the challenge of the postcolonial nation.

While previous studies of homecoming literature have, for the most part, been focused on the plight of male protagonists, Farca’s work highlights the importance of women’s texts and female protagonists. Unfortunately, the author herself does not sketch this critical context, nor does she seem aware of distinctions made in the fields of postcolonial and Indigenous studies. She uses the term “postcolonial” uncritically, overlooking the shared settler colonial history—and current conditions—of the four countries under discussion. This oversight extends to the book’s theoretical approach, which collapses postcolonial and Indigenous theories and, surprisingly, lacks any significant consideration of Indigenous theories of place (outside those articulated through the novels). Farca includes Indigenous literary nationalists like Craig Womack and Jace Weaver in her discussion, but a deeper understanding of Indigenous sovereignty and the nationalist position, as well as debates in the field more generally, would have helped circumvent not only the book’s elision of Indigenous scholarship on place/land, but also its inconsistent attention to tribal specificities and particular historical/cultural contexts.

This review “Indigenous Identities” originally appeared in Contested Migrations. Spec. issue of Canadian Literature 219 (Winter 2013): 159-60.

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