Languages of Change

Reviewed by Sylvie Vranckx

Highway’s Tale of Monstrous Extravagance and Ruffo’s Man Changing into Thunderbird can both be regarded as Aboriginal Canadian life-writing. Although vastly different from each other and seminal works like Halfbreed, Highway’s part-autobiographical lecture and Ruffo’s Anishinaabe biography of the late Norval Morrisseau share an acknowledgement of specific landscapes, of the shaping influence of lineage and community(/ies), and of the history of the authors’ respective Cree and Anishnaabe Nations both before and after colonization. As founding figures of Aboriginal Renaissance movements (Indigenous Canadian theatre and the Woodland School of painting) from closely related Nations, Highway and Morrisseau can both be viewed as preoccupied with bridge-building and cultural revitalization, integrating traditional arts and an array of Western influences to convey and transform the realities of present-day Native communities, with their interpenetrating patterns of continuity and discontinuity.

With typical verve and wit, Highway’s contribution to the Henry Kreisel lecture series praises multilingualism in the broad sense, including the “universal language” of music. Basing himself on his own journey from his birth on a north-western Manitoba snow bank to his international career, he honours the many people who have influenced his life and works, from his part-Dene and part-Inuit relatives to a variety of modernist composers to his friends in the various places he has lived in or travelled to. He argues that speaking several languages provides access to a multiplicity of perspectives, cultures, and worldviews and describes linguistic skills as a cerebral muscle that gains particular strength if trained early. He exemplifies this by his upbringing as the third generation of a line of musicians and as one of “the privileged children of three Native languages [Cree, Dene, and Inuktituk] as distinct one from the other as English is from Arabic and Korean.” He compares speaking only one language to living in a house with one window, always wearing the same grey coat and talking endlessly about oneself over dinner, and he demonstrates this through many examples as well as passages in Cree and French with some untranslated information. Conversely, he argues that “forcing your own one language down someone’s throat is not entirely unlike breaking into his house and stealing his spirit.” Since Highway regards learning someone else’s language as an act of respect, admiration, and love, he describes unilingualism as harmful to relationships while speaking several languages can help bridge divides—starting with Canada’s relationship with its original peoples and Québec. The titular “monstrous extravagance” stems from the fact that Highway was able to learn several Aboriginal and European languages despite the apparent disadvantage of being born in a remote area in Dene territory, “so far north that Cree, rightly speaking, didn’t even belong there.” In didactic passages reminiscent of Comparing Mythologies (whose companion piece it could be considered as), he characterizes Dene as an Earth-like language and Cree as inhabited by Weesageechak’s laughter, then opposes the phallic, hierarchical worldview of European languages and religions to the yonic, circular values of Aboriginal ones. This leads him to further essentialisms about the latter group’s gender fluidity and its embodiment in the Trickster—generalizations criticized recently in the collection of essays Troubling Tricksters—although they could be viewed as strategic to his celebration of Two-Spiritedness and denunciation of violence against Aboriginal women. However, his relationship to Christianity is nuanced, as he surprisingly describes his experience in a residential school as positive and remembers with nostalgia chanting in the first European language he learned, Latin.

Norval Morrisseau (Copper Thunderbird), however, seems to have experienced Christian encroachment on Northern Ontario as a significant source of conflict, turmoil, and loss, as evidenced by Ruffo’s account of his life. Drawing on the experience of his own mother, who was born in the 1930s like Morrisseau, Ruffo describes the painter’s life as representative of a time of profound upheaval in Native Canadian societies. As an Anishinaabe poet and playwright, Ruffo eschews the ‘standard’, Eurocentric biography to write a creative re-imagining of Morrisseau’s life (in a similar vein as his poetic retelling of the life of Archie Belaney a.k.a. Grey Owl), encompassing the “mythic worldview” of Anishinaabe epistemology. Grounded in oral history and written with the painter’s “shamanistic blessing,” Man Changing into Thunderbird “tell[s] a story about Norval Morrisseau’s life that is indelibly tied to his art” in a style vividly influenced by the painter’s aesthetics. Accordingly, Ruffo’s multilayered book abounds with literary devices and Anishinaabe metaphors, and he has also written a collection of ekphrastic poems based on Morrisseau’s paintings (The Thunderbird Poems). Structured into four parts numbered in Anishinaabemowin, the biography contains poems about different phases of Morrisseau’s personal and artistic development: it often reads like a Künstlerroman with transformation as its core image, reflecting both the Anishinaabe belief in transitoriness and Morrisseau’s constant evolution as a self-taught artist. Thus, the book is titled after one of Morrisseau’s masterpieces, a series of six panels based on the legend of a man who changed into a thunderbird. Indeed, Ruffo presents Morrisseau’s life journey through the lens of several Anishinaabe teachings and the influence of his spirit helpers, the bear and the thunderbird. Morrisseau believed that he was a born artist fated to revive the past glories of the Great Ojibways, and he developed his art as a language conveying his grandfather’s stories. Innovative, sophisticated, and always reinventing himself, he challenged primitivistic stereotypes. However, Ruffo—whom Morrisseau asked “not to leave out anything”—does not gloss over the callous, opportunistic way in which he often treated his patrons as perceived instruments of his destiny; two of them, Seldwyn Dewdney and Jack Pollock, are included in the dedication along with Morrisseau himself. Ruffo’s tribute also navigates the ironies, paradoxes, and controversies of a shaman-artist striving to heal his community and capable of great generosity, yet often letting his family starve while drinking their money away. For Ruffo, Morrisseau was a haunted man whose individual growth zigzagged between spectacular highs and lows, and his ‘Bildung’ in the book could be seen as a quest for balance and belonging after a lifetime of excess. Accordingly, it contains many dream-like introspective passages investigating the sources of Morrisseau’s creativity, power, and spiritual revelations; it is also framed as a reflection of an elderly Morrisseau on his life. Ultimately, Ruffo accomplished a daunting, monumental task with Man Changing into Thunderbird, which is certainly worth several readings.

All in all, both books are sophisticated and eloquent, as expected from such respected authors as Highway and Ruffo. Beyond their rootedness in specific Cree/Dene and Anishinaabe realities, they are powerful evocations of different aspects of the artistic process and of the idioms of, respectively, the musical and visual arts. Moreover, they are testaments to the resilience of many Aboriginal cultures and artists, as they both analyze the far-reaching damages caused by the imposition of one language and worldview over a number of others. They illustrate in a hopeful and non-Manichean way the particular challenges of being cosmopolitan Aboriginal artists in contemporary Canadian society, with its all-pervasive contradictions between multiculturalism and neo-colonialism. In a nutshell, they are essential readings for anyone interested in topics such as Native literatures, Native and Canadian studies, and the mapping out of artistic vocabularies.

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