Land, Identity, Community

  • Bruce Granville Miller
    Oral History on Trial: Recognizing Aboriginal Narratives in the Courts. University of British Columbia Press (purchase at Amazon.ca)
  • Priscilla Settee
    The Strength of Women: Âhkamêyimowak. University of British Columbia Press (purchase at Amazon.ca)
  • Pamela D. Palmater
    Beyond Blood: Rethinking Indigenous Indigeneity. University of British Columbia Press (purchase at Amazon.ca)
Reviewed by Jasmine Johnston

These three books, published in 2011, offer three distinctive yet complementary approaches to questions of land, identity, and community for Indigenous peoples of Canada. I have chosen to review them in alphabetical order by the author’s last name, but this order also happens to suggest a progression from large concerns to personal ones: Bruce Granville Miller assesses issues of oral narratives in relation to Canadian law and Indigenous land claims, Pamela D. Palmater assesses issues of familial and tribal status in relation to Canadian law and Indigenous communities with a special focus on the status of Indigenous women, and Priscilla Settee collects and reflects upon Indigenous women’s personal narratives about their community roles and life experiences. The contemporaneous publication of these books also suggests that the main issues addressed in each—land, identity, community—are issues that are historically and currently crucial matters of debate in Canada. These authors address all three issues in ways that sometimes overlap—by examining the legal, personal, and social implications—but also, at times, diverge in their methods. Miller provides an anthropological perspective, Palmater focuses on self-determination, and Settee frames an array of voices by topic—beginnings, art, work, spirit, community.

Bruce Granville Miller, Professor of Comparative Anthropology of Indigenous Peoples at the University of British Columbia, prefaces Oral History on Trial: Recognizing Aboriginal Narratives in the Courts by stating that he has spent twenty years participating in discussions about the conditions under which oral narratives can be entered as evidence in Canadian courts. These discussions have involved the Indigenous Bar Association (IBA), panels of elders who come from across Canada, and federal bodies. In writing this book, he seeks to use sometimes opposing points of view in order to try to arrive at responsible resolutions to the debate. The main focus of his analysis are land claims such as Delgamuukw vs. British Columbia, a precedent-setting case where the oral testimonies of Gitxsan and the Wet’suwet’en Nation elders led to a ruling that oral narratives ought to be permitted as legal testimony. As Miller points out, though, protocols for using oral testimonies have yet to be fully determined.

Chapter 1, Issues in Law and Social Science, focuses on disciplinary engagement with oral narratives, considering how to define and categorize orature of various kinds and functions. Chapter 2, The Social Life of Oral Narratives, analyzes the transformations that oral narratives undergo as they are textualized, archived, and utilized for legal proceedings, sometimes in ways that integrate elders’ perspectives, but sometimes in ways that fragment the total message of each narrative. Chapter 3, Aboriginal and Other Perspectives, compares Indigenous perspectives to ways to revolutionize Canadian law, ways that contamination (the fear that elders will incorporate written cultural information into their oral testimonies) may actually occur not in records of narratives, but in scholars’ misinterpretations of them, and ways that elders’ oral narratives have been used in legal jurisdictions other than Canada. Chapter 4, Court and Crown, assesses court perspectives on oral narratives, including implicitly ethnocentric attitudes towards personal witnessing. Miller assesses a key background report on oral narratives prepared for the Department of Justice and a Crown expert report, both of which have informed many trials, and he concludes that these reports often misinterpret scholarly perspectives on oral narratives. In chapter 5, The Way Forward? An Anthropological View, Miller offers an ethnographic assessment of the concept of evidence as it is defined by Canadian law practitioners. He suggests that the contexts within which oral narratives are delivered should be included in legal proceedings, and that doing so would address the problem of hearsay (reported knowledge without direct experience) that often undermines court use of oral testimony. Miller concludes chapter 5 by citing seven proposed protocols for using oral testimony. These protocols were drafted for the IBA in 2008 and include provisions for elders to choose their own cultural interpreters, requirements that narratives be videotaped, and the option to move to significant locations for the delivery of elders’ oral testimonies.

Miller’s book is well structured. Each chapter is organized under topical subheadings that allow the reader to navigate the many perspectives that Miller assesses, while a list of references and legal decisions cited plus a detailed index allow readers to investigate Miller’s academic, legal, and traditional sources further. Conclusions, the final chapter, is cautiously visionary. Miller proposes that elders’ testimonies are not merely repetitions of long-preserved facts but are, rather, the result of cultural experts work[ing] through intellectual problems regarding the past and present of their communities. Elders are thus expert witnesses and courts ought to listen for and to elders’ narratives to engage the Aboriginal world directly in the Canadian experience.

Pamela D. Palmater is a Mi’kmaq lawyer from the Eel River Bar First Nation and Associate Professor and Chair of Indigenous Governance at Ryerson University, who often appears as an expert witness regarding legislation affecting Indigenous peoples. She prefaces Beyond Blood: Rethinking Indigenous Indigeneity by dedicating her book to her father, who always fought for his identity, and her sons, for whom she fights for acceptance. To this, she adds forewords from four Indigenous leaders, each of whom comments on the ongoing fight for self-determination and calls for the end of narrow legal definitions of Indigenous identity, such as the blood quantum rules. Palmater then relates some of her personal and family history, assessing some of the ways that the Indian Act has shaped the experiences of her grandparents, parents, herself, and her children. She writes this book in order to critique current legal definitions of Indigenous status in Canada that have at times curtailed her access to learning the Mi’kmaq language, practising traditional medicines, and participating in her community’s cultural activities—and that similarly limit many Non-status Indigenous peoples across Canada. Palmater asks the most direct and incisive of questions: since Canadians would not allow the re-institution of residential schools to assimilate Indigenous peoples, how can they allow the continued assimilation of Indigenous peoples through the registration and membership provisions of the Indian Act?

Chapter 1, Legislated Identity: Control, Division, and Assimilation, analyzes the development of increasingly restrictive legal definitions of Indigenous identity in order to serve the Canadian government’s desire to reduce band funding. The chapter concludes with a call for First Nations to define citizenship in ways that honour the rights of individual members to participate in sovereign and cultural practices. Chapter 2, The Right to Determine Citizenship, carries this call forward by addressing the question of nations within a nation, and suggests that the protection and promotion of unique Indigenous identities both collective and individual are vital to the continuing well-being of First Peoples in liberal yet still colonial democracies. In particular, Palmater assesses the ways that the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms has been and ought to be interpreted in relation to Indigenous rights. In chapter 3, The Right to Belong: Charter Inequality for Indigenous Peoples, Palmater contrasts the Charter with the Indian Act, showing how women’s rights in particular are caught between these conflicting documents. Chapter 4, Band Membership vs. Self-Government Citizenship, reviews problems with the Indian Act that are not resolved by Bill C-31 and are in part re-inscribed in Bill C-3 in conjunction with a series of precedent-setting legal cases pertaining to Indigenous status. The chapter concludes with a call to inclusive citizenship: the more Indigenous citizens that First Nations have, the more powerful and dynamic these Nations can be as they seek to protect their lands, resources, and treaty rights for future Indigenous citizens.

Palmater concludes her book by proposing short-term and medium-term solutions to the discrimination legislated by the Indian Act, since land claims and self-government agreements can take many decades to resolve, while individuals excluded from legal recognition of their Indigenous status continue to suffer. She suggests that connections by family, traditional territory, commitment to Indigenous nations citizenry, and a desire to learn and grow should help to determine Indigenous identity as more flexible categories that not only look to histories of First Nations but also to their future well-being. Palmater’s cogent reflections on these highly complex legal questions are, as with Miller’s book, well-organized by chapter subheadings, an appendix with a chart illustrating gendered differences in legal status for Palmater’s family, substantial endnotes, and a detailed index.

Priscilla Settee, a writer, activist, and Associate Professor in the Department of Native Studies at the University of Saskatchewan, prefaces The Strength of Women: Âhkamêyimowak by introducing the fourteen Indigenous women whose highly personal stories comprise this volume. These stories, including memories of childhood, thoughts on family and community, reflections on professional life, and statements about creative and intellectual convictions, illustrate the Cree concept of âhkamêyimowak, which is translated into English by Settee as persistence and the strength for women to carry on in the face of extreme adversity. Settee suggests that âhkamêyimowak helps to support the Cree concept of miyo-wichihtowin, or having good relations. She suggests that institutional forms of oppression of Indigenous women must be counteracted by good relations between human and animal communities and the environment in order to enact another important Cree concept, wakohtowin, translated as natural laws for the betterment of all our relations. Each of the women whose stories are included in this collection shares visions of hope for herself, her relations, and the world. Settee’s introduction concludes with a call to apply documents such as the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples to First Nations communities in order to right the historical wrongs by draw[ing] on the strength and wisdom of ancient values, wisdom and knowledge to create strong and vibrant communities.

The stories in this collection are organized by topic. Beginnings includes childhood stories that often concern abuse and residential schools. However, access to language, learning traditional ways of living on the land, and gratitude for family, elders, leaders, and teachers who provide love and guidance also come up. Work continues the stories of some of the women introduced in the first chapter and also incorporates new voices. A wide array of callings are reflected upon, including hip hop, counselling, language revitalization, oral histories, leadership, and trapping and hunting. The next section, Art, includes stories about traditional and contemporary creative practices, always with a strong emphasis on the continuity and vitality of Indigenous creative traditions. Spirit is an even more personal section, with stories that focus on the ways elders, Indigenous languages, and the natural world can bring healing and hope despite the oppressive forces of colonization. The final section, Community, returns to the central concept of âhkamêyimowak. In this section, the stories are trenchant manifestos for the future based upon well-informed perspectives on the challenges currently facing Indigenous communities.

These stories contain devastating accounts of rape, murder, suicide, substance addictions, systemic racism, overwhelming work and family demands, and detailed information about pollution targeted at traditional territories. They are challenging to read. However, they also express a great deal of tenderness, respect, affection, hope, and joy, as well as a fierce determination to continue to provide leadership and support within Indigenous communities. Settee’s collection offers personally inflected yet globally relevant visions of justice for all First Peoples, and, read in conjunction with Miller’s and Palmater’s books, the relevance and urgency of Indigenous governance of land, identity, and community are made very clear. While this book does not contain an index or a description of how the stories were collected and prepared for publication, Settee’s thoughtful profiles of the contributors at the very beginning of her book provide a holistic framework for the stories based upon the individual women who have chosen to share their experiences and wisdom. As well, story titles are drawn from key phrases within the narratives themselves, emphasizing the eloquence of the participants. Settee states that she and the contributors have long been in community. Thus, this collection instantiates the values of miyo-wichihtowin and wakohtowin through âhkamêyimowak.



This review “Land, Identity, Community” originally appeared in Of Borders and Bioregions. Spec. issue of Canadian Literature 218 (Autumn 2013): 174-77.

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