Placing Through Poems, Play, and Stories

Reviewed by Michael Minor

Despite the range in genre spanned by these books, they remain remarkably coherent as they examine familiar endings and fresh beginnings for Indigenous worlds. Van Camp’s fifth collection of stories returns readers to the world of the Denendeh. Readers are immediately plunged into an unlikely nexus of humour and horror when they read the dedication to the “Fort Smith ‘smoking tree’” and an epigraph giving top-notch fist-fighting tips from the author’s mother. These are indeed stories that pull no punches or, for that matter, illegal wrestling moves.

Van Camp unapologetically shifts between sci-fi, romance, rez politics, nostalgia, medicine power, and horror. Yet, the stories remain grounded in a deep love for the people of Fort Smith. Whether facing the threat of aliens, wheetago, corrupt politicians, or “track pant-and hoodie-wearing Bong Generation scruffians,” Van Camp shows that the world his characters inhabit can and must be saved. The hilarity along the way serves to temper the all-too-real consequences of ignoring ecological catastrophes like the tar sands. Once again, Van Camp has enlisted the terrifying presence of the flesh-eating wheetago to warn us that the earth can only take so much destruction before an uncontrollable embodiment of greedy consumption is released.

At first blush, Cottagers and Indians may appear to be somewhat parochial. Its depiction of the ongoing struggles over planting manoomin (wild rice) in the cottage country of Kawartha Lakes may seem barely related to the quite obviously Indigenous places that Van Camp writes about. But, the play and the stories share a humorous tone as the authors both outline end of the world scenarios. In the play, Maureen, a cottager from the GTA, squares off against Indigenous manoomin keeper Arthur over the wild rice that cottagers claim is lowering property values. Throughout the two-character play, Arthur demonstrates that manoomin is at the very center of his Anishinaabe world. What’s more, the disappearance of the manoomin has marked an ending for this world. Arthur has been replanting manoomin so that his family can once again draw sustenance from a lake that cottagers have claimed and settled with “muskoka chairs, hot tubs, fondues, golf courses.” While these familiar symbols of cottage country certainly exist in a different register than Van Camp’s Terminator-esque “Wheetago Wars,” they reveal an equally sharp distinction between Indigenous and settler worldviews. Reinforced by including Leanne Betasamosake Simpson’s article “Land & Reconciliation: Having the Right Conversations” as an Afterword, Hayden Taylor’s play provides a powerful argument that relations between Canada and Indigenous people can become a life-giving force. However, the terms of this relationship must be based on Indigenous sovereignty over land. It is only through a sober reckoning that the damage done by colonization can be repaired.

Armond Garnet Ruffo’s timely fifth book of poetry, Treaty #, offers an unflinching focus on the disingenuous motivations that the crown brought to creating treaties. Meanwhile, he dedicates his book in part to “those ancestors who signed treaty in good faith.” He highlights these dramatically different motivations in the poems that title each of the book’s three sections. These are excerpted directly from Treaties Nine, One, and Five, with the majority of the text written in reverse. One small, but particularly telling, example of the results of this method is the word “wonk” in “Treaty No. 9,” which was once the word “know” in the original treaty text. The primary exception to the reversal of the treaty text is the names. Helpfully, readers of these poems will have no trouble understanding who to hold responsible for these backwards treaties, even if Ruffo has made reading the rest of the text even more inhospitable by reversing the words.

Treaty # is not only about the end of the world that the treaties represent for Indigenous peoples. It also leaves the powerful impression that a return to Indigenous teachings of “Minobimaadizwin, The Good Life” is humanity’s last best chance to avoid “the inevitable reckoning.” Through distinct and powerful rhetoric, each of these books reveals and reckons with the crises that this place, our home, is in. They place responsibility on government and corporate greed. Moreover, they offer hope for returning to relational, reciprocal connectedness with the land. Who better than Indigenous peoples, who have already lived through the end of the world, to guide us through the many crises the world now faces?

This review “Placing Through Poems, Play, and Stories” originally appeared in Canadian Literature, 19 Feb. 2020. Web.

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