Out of the Silence

  • Edmund Metatawabin and Alexandra Shimo
    Up Ghost River: A Chief's Journey Through the Turbulent Waters of Native History. Knopf Canada (purchase at Amazon.ca)
  • Rick Monture
    We Share Our Matters: Two Centuries of Writing and Resistance at Six Nations of the Grand River. University of Manitoba Press (purchase at Amazon.ca)
Reviewed by Suzanne James

Revisiting, re-envisioning, and revising the histories of Canada’s First Nations peoples is both a personal and a politically-charged act for Edmund Metatawabin, Cree writer and former Chief of the Fort Albany First Nation, and Mohawk academic Rick Monture.

Co-written with journalist Alexandra Shimo, Edmund Metatawabin’s memoir, Up Ghost River: A Chief’s Journey through the Turbulent Waters of Native History, effectively conveys the alienation and intimidation of a childhood lost to a notoriously harsh Residential School in the 1950s and early 1960s, followed by more than a decade of alcohol abuse. The outrage in Metatawabin’s account is poignant, yet tempered, as he recounts horrific experiences which—even after the revelations of Canada’s 2010-2015 Truth and Reconciliation Commission—both surprise and disturb. His “silence began in 1955” and became (as it did for so many of his people) “an ever-present companion.” Breaking this silence and recovering his lost voice as he relates his private, and now published/public memories, proves both advantageous and therapeutic for Metatawabin, his family, and his community.

Nevertheless, the story of Metatawabin’s decline is sadly familiar as “[w]ith an addict’s rage” he starts to “destroy all that . . . [he] had built: home, family and career.” His recovery is attributed to traditional Indigenous teachings and practices which enable him to recover his Cree identity, though interestingly—especially from a Western perspective—this identity is presented as a collective: in Metatawabin’s words, “My identity is other people.” He initially struggles with a rehabilitation program which insists he come to terms with his identity in isolation, yet finds support in a Cree healer who contextualizes the alcoholism of disenfranchised First Nations men and women such as himself.

For Metatawabin, the Idle No More movement embodies a (perhaps) idealized collectivity and affirmation of Native identity, and he closes this memoir by challenging readers with a series of concrete suggestions for change: abolish the Indian Act, support Native sovereignty, advocate for political change, help youth in education, target youth suicide, and support native artists.

In contrast to Metatawabin’s very personal narrative, Rick Monture’s academic text, We Share Our Matter: Two Centuries of Writing and Resistance at Six Nations of the Grand River, explores First Nations perspectives and issues of identity through a revisionist historical account of the Haudenosaunee, commonly referred to as the Iroquois or Six Nations. As Monture notes, the Haudenosaunee have been extensively studied in Western anthropological, historical, political, environmental and linguistic accounts, yet—until very recently—never critically analyzed from anything other than an outsider perspective. Focusing on letters, speeches, poems, and songs produced by members of the Six Nations as well as select accounts by colonial writers purporting to convey Haudenosaunee perspectives, this work explores the complex ways in which prominent members of the community negotiated with European culture and the colonial government, represented traditional beliefs and Indigenous philosophy, and attempted to assert the sovereignty of their community. The latter is particularly interesting as colonial discourse so often negates any form of First Nations nationalism or sovereignty, or subsumes it within the framework of Canadian nation building, as Emily Pauline Johnson (one of the focal points of Monture’s study) does here in “Brant: A Memorial Ode”:


The Six Red Nations have their Canada

And rest we here, no cause for us to rise

To seek protection under other skies

Monture explores the tension in works such as this memorial poem, interrogating the often contested loyalties expressed by the Haudenosaunee writers he discusses, all of whom were the products of a formal Western education.

Monture opens his text with an overview of Haudenosaunee history and a discussion of their traditional worldview. This is followed by an analysis of the speeches, letters and biographical accounts of the nineteenth-century Mohawk chief, Joseph Brant (Thayendanegea), and a discussion of the often-contentious poetry of Emily Pauline Johnson (as exemplified in the previous paragraph). Monture then shifts outside of the community, providing a critique of Duncan Campbell Scott’s highly influential accounts of Haudenosaunee issues at the turn of the twentieth century.

A discussion of the speeches, essays, and poems of Dawendine/Bernice Loft (1902-1997) takes the reader into more unfamiliar territory, as does the music of Jaime Robbie Robertson, who wrote for, and performed with, Bob Dylan and the Band in the 1960s. This is followed by a series of engaging accounts of Haudenosaunee writers leading up to the films and works of multimedia artist Shelly Nero.

Monture closes by reminding us that “[t]his is a book that will always be ‘in progress’” as, for the Haudenosaunee “the world is continually, unfolding, changing and developing.” As well as providing a fascinating account of a people’s philosophy, culture, and history so often misrepresented or unrepresented, We Share Our Matters exemplifies the ways in which the field of First Nations studies has the potential to challenge and enrich traditional Western academic culture. The many voices in this text now speak out of what has too often been a place of silence, resonating as does the voice of Edwin Metatawabin in Up Ghost River.

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