Indigenous Literature and Its Political Exigencies

  • Armand Garnet Ruffo and Heather Macfarlane (Editor)
    Introduction to Indigenous Literary Criticism in Canada. Broadview Press (purchase at
  • John Borrows
    Freedom and Indigenous Constitutionalism. University of Toronto Press (purchase at
Reviewed by Jeff Fedoruk

The publication of Introduction to Indigenous Literary Criticism in Canada is incredibly timely, with academic and public institutions across Canada implementing the recommendations of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s 2015 Final Report concurrently with debates concerning mandatory Indigenous studies courses for undergraduate programs and a growing awareness of the need for decolonization and unsettling beyond reconciliation. The year 2015 also importantly saw the inaugural meeting of the Indigenous Literary Studies Association, which generated a new platform for discussions about the relationship between Indigenous studies and Indigenous literature and increased awareness of these discussions both on ancestral territories and at international academic conferences. Clearly, Heather Macfarlane and Armand Garnet Ruffo’s edited collection of twenty-six influential essays has a wide relevance and thus a wide range of applications, not only for teachers and readers of Indigenous literature and Indigenous studies, but also for teachers and readers of Canadian literature and the humanities more broadly.

In their introduction, Macfarlane and Ruffo discuss how Indigenous literature in English and its surrounding criticism have developed almost in tandem, and how the literature itself has always been inherently critical and political. Their desire in publishing a comprehensive collection of Indigenous literary criticism, then, is in part to draw attention to the contexts and issues that have informed Indigenous literary production. Furthermore, the editors want to highlight and celebrate works that demonstrate Indigenous creativity, history, and self-reflexivity in the face of the colonizing impetus of traditional English literary programs. In this light, Canadian readers and teachers of English might turn to this collection for ideas of how to approach literary concepts of decolonization in traditional English courses. Anishinaabe writer Basil Johnston’s “One Generation from Extinction,” for example, stresses the significance of tribal specificity in Indigenous literatures in maintaining and cultivating the knowledges of each tribe (his term). And Métis scholar Jo-Ann Episkenew echoes these sentiments for a wider audience in “Socially Responsible Criticism: Aboriginal Literature, Ideology, and the Literary Canon,” arguing that “if one examines the text of works of Aboriginal literature without examining the context from which it was written, Aboriginal people become abstractions, metaphors that signify whatever the critic is able to prove they signify.” From beginning to end, this collection has an uncannily logical flow and dialectical thrust, almost seamlessly connecting discussions of traditional knowledge, history, ideology, appropriation, orality, diaspora, gender and sexuality, and residential schools, among other issues. The book stems from consultations with Macfarlane’s and Ruffo’s colleagues throughout Turtle Island, and a variety of perspectives are featured, with several non-Indigenous voices amongst the primarily Indigenous contributions. Undoubtedly there are many other essays that could have been included, and were indeed considered, but those that appear here reflect a crucial dialogue and are—especially in the cases of the recently lost and sadly missed Johnston, Episkenew, and settler scholar Renate Eigenbrod—a testament to generous knowledge.

If Macfarlane and Ruffo’s collection demonstrates the shared energies between Indigenous literary production and Indigenous literary criticism, then John Borrows’ Freedom and Indigenous Constitutionalism speaks to the narrative precedent in Indigenous governance and traditional knowledge. Like Macfarlane and Ruffo, Borrows stresses the importance of always understanding context when learning about Indigenous cultural issues, and his latest book traces broad historical trajectories of Indigenous governance and Indigenous-settler relations to develop comprehensive contexts in both the Canadian and the American examples. Central to his analysis are his own Anishinaabe traditions: he identifies two principles throughout, utilizing the Anishinaabemowin terms mino-bimaadiziwin and dibenindizowin to understand how “the good life” and “freedom” factor into Indigenous governance. I have very much simplified these translations; much of the framing in each of Borrows’ chapters adds to the complexity and richness of his central terms. Ultimately, he seems to be arguing that Indigenous constitutionalism is most productive when it foregrounds context, remains malleable, and is publicly interactive.

Much of the contextual ground that Borrows covers will be familiar to those who have followed developments in Indigenous governance and Indigenous-settler politics in Canada, but his level of detail enables a new synthesis between context and critique. An initially important point asserts the need for bodily and philosophical mobility (or what he calls a “physical philosophy”) in Indigenous history and self-governance, which leads to his critique of the Canadian Constitution’s failure to extend its “living tree” principle to Section 35(1)—the section regarding Indigenous rights in Canada. Borrows argues that, instead of making the Constitution interpretive and adaptable to developments in Indigenous rights and community self-governance, as it has with other aspects of Canadian law, the Canadian state has treated Indigenous modes of self-governance and sovereignty as historically stagnant. In relation to Indigenous-settler treaties, Borrows also states that “[m]any non-Indigenous leaders believe that treaties are about concluding old, unfinished business. They do not generally see treaties as creating structures for present and future Indigenous growth and interaction with the nation state.” Other Indigenous governance scholars in Canada, such as Taiaiake Alfred or Glen Coulthard, are much more critical of the Canadian nation-state as a structural entity, but Borrows is pragmatic from a legal standpoint, and his analysis still operates to empower Indigenous communities. Overall, he astutely addresses present complexities in Indigenous-settler politics that are placing immense strains both within and outside Indigenous communities. Indeed, some of his most incisive examples are in his examinations of currently unmitigated factors: he makes a vital call to action, for example, when he claims that “[a]cting to address violence against women should not be an either/or choice.” Effectively linking current events with historical struggles and constitutional shortcomings, Borrows provides readers with many jumping-off points from which to engage other works of criticism or critical narratives.

This review “Indigenous Literature and Its Political Exigencies” originally appeared in Indigenous Literature and the Arts of Comunity. Spec. issue of Canadian Literature 230-231 (Autumn/Winter 2016): 258-260.

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