Mennonite Poetry Home | Elmer Wiens

 

 

First Nations Studies — Adaptations to Reality

A society's religious beliefs, culture, and traditions condition a person's conduct and behaviour. Upon their arrival in the Americas, Europeans upset most aspects of the lifestyle of its indigenous people. The Christian missionary proselytizers interrupted the strong religious convictions of the aboriginal people acquired and passed on over the millennia. Spanish priests destroyed the Aztec library at Tenochtitlán. European traders disturbed established trade patterns among tribes, with gold, silver, coins, and currency replacing Indian trade commodities. White hunters and fishers decimated the native food stocks of buffalo and salmon. Government laws constrained Indians to reserves whose natural resources were a small fraction of their traditional habitation. Colonial authority and the dictates of urban and European markets supplanted aboriginals' symbiotic relationship with nature. Leaders chosen by imposed rules replaced the tribes' traditional leaders. Government and Church schools repressed native languages and knowledge, shattering families and communities. Disease and alcohol ravaged the bodies, minds, and spirits of generations. The colonizing governments disrupted aboriginal cultures by suppressing native customs such as the potlatch, which were naming ceremonies during which publicly incurred debts and credits unified tribes. The aboriginal way of life was destroyed, and the conduct and behaviour of natives disintegrated from their ancient, steady, stable patterns (Wells 20).

These impacts on First Nations people reverberate in the prose and poetry of contemporary aboriginal writers, whose discourses root in their wounds (Derrida "Jabès" 64). Their writing connects the heritage of diverse nations. The aboriginal authors' experiences are foremost the subjects of their books. By writing, they create their history (65). Struggling with the language of their oppressors, constrained by the imperatives of imposed culture and religion, they write their present, conditioning their future. By situating their presence in their work, do the authors open or close options? Is their effect neutral? How do their signifiers alter the subjects of yet to come aboriginal authors? Are "native writers creating a Native universe" (King Truth 108)?

In from Sand Creek, Simon Ortiz pins his fractured poems of trauma together with short passages of prose on each opposing page. At Sand Creek on November 29, 1864, the U.S. cavalry massacred a group of Cheyenne and Arapahoe Indians, committing acts of atrocity and sexual torture. Their attack on the Indians took place following a public declaration of peace by the Indian leader, Black Kettle. Today, the U.S. military sacrifices American young men and women to achieve the U.S.A.'s imperialistic objectives. Soldiers with "shallow eyes" return to their mothers from wars that make ambitious and greedy politicians possible. "Grief" and "throbbing aches" haunt the halls of the Veterans Hospitals. The "humble hard-working folk," who escaped the limitations of Europe, discarded the freedom available in America when they arrived, and swept aside the attainable "generous and magnificent and genius" dreams. Ortiz appeals for "honest and healthy anger" which will raise "our blood and breath," freeing "our muscles, minds, and spirits." Rather than seeking revenge, Ortiz dreams of an America "wealthy with love and compassion and knowledge." He yearns for an America where Indians live "the value and integrity of their human cultural existence," after reclaiming with interest "their compassion, their anger." Ortiz desires a visible, unrestricted role for Indians as "members of world human cultural society."

In the prose and poetry of I am Woman, Lee Maracle feels erased as an aboriginal. Natives, rendered invisible by the brutality of the colonizers, are kept invisible by "an organized force of occupation" legalized by European laws. Racism endures within Canada's embedded colonial society. Nonetheless, Maracle believes that one last battle remains, a fight that will be decisive for Natives' status and rights. Knowing the stakes of this confrontation, the governments of Canada offer Natives mollifying pay-offs and conciliatory legislation. The meagre recompense for the ills they have endured goads Natives to resist and fight each other. Consequently, the success of Natives in the impending conflict flounders on the contempt Natives have for themselves and for each other. Maracle connects with the communities of Natives and Mètis in an aggressive yet personal way. Her strident strategy's success depends on how Natives, Mètis, and Europeans react. Maracle claims that while "racism is recent, patriarchy is old," and the anti-female attitudes of Native males are "reserved for Native women." Maracle connects with men by claiming they scorn love. She connects with women by claiming they are "vessels of the biological release for men." Forcefully, Maracle declaims the circumstances of women and Natives, presenting herself as a feminist, a member of the Stah:lo Nation of British Columbia, a radical intellectual, a rebel, a lover, and a writer and poet. She articulates the wounds Europeans inflicted on Indians over centuries while subjugating the Americas, and the psychological and physical slights, shunning, cuts, bruises, and beatings Natives undergo daily. Madness is the consequence of colonialism and patriarchal domination. Maracle predicts sanity will blossom, and the winter insanity of Native life will end.

Native and feminist writers challenge the tyranny of presence—the status quo—colonial and patriarchal domination. In A Really Good Brown Girl, Marilyn Dumont describes becoming invisible on her first day at school. She survives by watching and following other students. After years of adapting, Dumont is designated the most improved student in grade five. Stung by the epithet squaw, she decides as a young woman to become so "respectable that white people would feel slovenly" in her presence. Dumont condemns the "open season on Native women" left unprotected by Canada's police and system of justice. In the beating and murder of Helen Betty Osborne, the RCMP and Crown Attorneys took sixteen years to bring the white men to trial. The status quo of racism persists within Canada's legal system. The words of Dumont's poems fight back against the choking strictures of racism and language. In her poems she says that breathing a person enters life. Not breathing, a person gains freedom from an oppressed life. Since her first day of school, the hand of coercion over Dumont's mouth has stifled her breathing, muffling the Cree "syllables that echo" in her mind. Consequently, she has lost her trust in the signification of the words of her Cree mother tongue, losing the reality of her Native heritage. The reality of language in Canada is the Sovereign's language with its "picket fence sentences and manicured paragraphs," not "the small single words of brown women."

Can Native writers overcome their aphasia rooted in the pain of colonialism and violence? What factors determine the dynamics of the literature of First Nations writers? Can these factors be reduced, distinctly, to need and passion as Derrida maintains in "The Originary Metaphor" (274)? Can the dynamics of their literature be summarized in the interplay of need and passion? By articulating their needs and passions through "language, knowledge and work, and the anxious research of learning" (280), can Native writers dislocate the status quo to achieve a presence with jouissance?

In "Coyote Trail," Annharte imagines her Native writer as a predatory, urban coyote using her senses of smell, touch, sight, and sound to track her prey. Coyotes have amazing skills of survival, opportunistically hunting and scavenging for food. Both shy and aggressive as need and circumstances determine, coyotes live almost undetected in many cities, competing with other needy predators for limited resources. In contrast, Thomas King's writer in "The One About the Coyote Going West" is a trickster working at the early stages of the genre of Native literature. The young "Coyote going west" to see Raven induces the narrator Coyote to tell the story in which "Coyote going west" discovers Indians. In the story, while trying to fix and straighten up the world, "Coyote going west" inadvertently creates options—or chaos—instead of order. "Coyote going west" creates, makes mistakes, gets flattened, learns and recovers, and creates again. In each cycle, the grandparent narrator was the young "Coyote going west" in the story of second previous cycle, relating the narrator's knowledge and experiences going west to the young "Coyote going west." To a degree, King reveals the limitations of the Native oral tradition. Each young "Coyote going west" relies on the grandparent narrator's memory for knowledge neither innate nor provided by parents to the young Coyote. He also alludes to writers who keep discovering or re-inventing "the Indian." In these cycles, however, King sees the plenitude in the creative Native writer's circumstances—a potential for learning with writing—while still valuing the natural wisdom of oral literature (King Truth 100).

Annharte's narrator in "Coyote Columbus Cafe" is also a trickster survivor, picking up guys in bars, interacting with wannabe Indians, taking Native Studies courses, finding an "authentic Indian colonizer," or collecting welfare. Coping with events as they come about, she transcends need by means of the passion of writing (Derrida "Originary" 274). Annharte is the cynosure of her poem, a coyote girl trying to get her "tale outta her mouth." How can a writer express need and passion? Need generates the language of gesture or action; passion lodges in discourse as metaphor (Derrida 273). Gesture can be used to punctuate spoken discourse to signify emotion. Lacking adequate verbal fluidity, how does a writer articulate fear-induced catatonia? Encourage empathy from the audience? In "Exercises in Lip Pointing," Annharte locates the intersection of need and passion in one's pair of lips, whose natural gestures signify the feelings of the "totality of a person." One's "lips don't betray" the affect in the words one's lips speak. Lips reveal passion "literally"; words express passion metaphorically or indirectly. Reading poetry, ones' lips empathize with the poet's lips speaking the subject of the poem.

In the opening poems of Native Canadiana, Gregory Scofield describes how he struggled as a fledgling, Native writer. At first "English was trouble" as his "lazy tongue flopped involuntarily, a white fish grasping fresh lake water." After he remembers his grandmother's Cree language of "buffalo tongues" and "piss-moon talkers," he invites us to listen to his autobiographical poetry. The memories of an abusive and deprived childhood spill into Scofield's poems. He reflects on the many places he lived under his mother's care, haunted by the spectre of a white father he never knew. The effects of his mother's depression and abuse from his stepfather lead him to drug and alcohol dependence at an early age. These personal injuries are compounded by the dispossession of Metis from lands granted his Metis ancestors under the Manitoba Act of 1870, by the Canadian Government under Sir John A. Macdonald in 1885. In a 1999 interview, Gregory Scofield says he wants his writing to be honest and reflective, to touch people. Power and healing comes from the "medicine via the words." He wants to make good medicine, even if necessary out of something bad (Richards).

How does Scofield live with his experiences, and the person he has become? How does he learn to live (Derrida "Exordium")? How does he play out his "mixed breed act," and sing his songs the way his "spirit remembers"? His yahkww's songs celebrate his male lovers in the presence of the phantoms of ostracism and death from aids and violence. Scofield rejoices his freedom of speech, and his freedom to live his sexual identity, stalking bucks in bars and buff boys in baths. While mourning the lovers who "got away," he lingers in the memories of kisses "in soft folds of flesh, where desire lingers." After Scofield articulates his poems of passion, he encounters the needy, hard street life of Metis and Indians in his streetwise "Urban Rez" poems.

Surroundings and mental states can trap people in a cycle of drug and alcohol addiction, with adverse effects on memory and cognition that reinforce the cycle. Users may resort to violence or potentially self-destructive activities to support their habits. Moreover, the incidence of suicide, domestic and other interpersonal violence increases with the use of alcohol and drugs. Beginning with the poem, "Tough Times on Moccasin Boulevard," Scofield's poems signify the tough, but inarticulate, "rez dog" victims of addiction, who "hover around the needle van shrieking obscure dialect." The temporary, chemical passion attained from drugs and alcohol succumbs to the acute needs of reality. Struggling to exist at the meeting point of civil and feral society, the rez denizens encountered take part in incest, prostitution, theft, welfare fraud, murder, suicide, and clashes with the police. Scofield's poems personalize these characters, from the aids-stricken street kid who "jumped or was pushed out the hotel window" to the drug-addicted prostitute whose "body was discovered by the railroad tracks."

Ortiz, Maracle, Dumont, Annharte, King, and Scofield exemplify "survivance" (Vizenor), the active combination of survival and resistance to racism, sexism, and colonialism. Non-Natives must adapt, disengage their colonialism and listen to the reality contained in Scofield's striking, realistic images of mutilated lives. Similarly, straight people must accept and get used to the sensuality of gay people. Otherwise, any "cohesive future together is pissed away already."

Annharte and King make use of the trickster strategies and tactics of the coyote to counter-act racial lethargy to new methods of acquiring knowledge. With paradoxes such as "mistake can see that that's right," King stymies notions of the superiority of European knowledge. In the meantime, Annharte recommends writing about white people "from a distance" and keeping "them outside," while alluding to European epics with "inner Trojan fears." Their trickster hermeneutics draws Annharte and King's readers to experience through empathy the authors' unique circumstances.

Dumont counterbalances her passionate, autobiographical poems of adjustment with her poems of joy. Survivance exists in the spirit of resistance of Native and Metis leaders like Big Bear and Louis Riel, thwarting centuries of colonial assimilation. Survivance exists in the "horse-fly blue sky" poking through her curtains, in her lovers "endless eyes" that "forgive again and again and again," and in accepting the "sweet tissue unfolding" of "shrimp-coloured gladioli." Maracle perceives a critical stage in the struggles of women and people of the First Nations of the Americas against patriarchal and colonial domination. She puts forward an aggressive strategy of resistance and attack against all structures of colonialism. Native women must unite strategically with women of colour against racism among women, with all women against oppression of women, and with Native men against European colonialism. At the same time, Natives must unite with all people of colour against racial discrimination and intolerance.

The massacre in 1864 of the Cheyenne and Arapahoe Indians at Sand Creek confirms that survival may not be possible against a superior, depraved force determined enough to achieve its goals. Survivance may never be assured, notwithstanding the form of resistance. Marginalized people have few resources for survival. Moreover, a colonial force can take any signs of resistance as acts of aggression, and retaliate by gratuitous means. For First Nations people, survivance is more than continuance of Indian culture and blood in future generations. Survivance involves overcoming the European "ethnocentric view of Indians that novelists and historians had created" (King Truth 102). King points out that American natives frequently used pictographic systems to record events and stories. Furthermore, the Aztec library at Tenochtitlán contained a large number of texts (98). While there can be "no history without the gravity and labour of literality" (Derrida "Jabès" 64), even a written history does not guarantee survivance.

Works Cited and Consulted

Annharte. "Coyote Trail," "Coyote Columbus Café," "Exercises in Lip Pointing," and "How to Write About White People." An Anthology of Canadian Native Literature in English. Eds. Daniel David Moses and Terry Goldie. Don Mills, Ont.: Oxford UP, 2005: 178-179, 182-186, 189-191, 192.

Archives of the West. "Documents on the Sand Creek Massacre." 20 Nov 2005. http://www.pbs.org/weta/thewest/resources/archives/four/sandcrk.htm.

British Columbia Teachers' Federation. To potlatch or not to potlatch: an in-depth study of culture-conflict between the B.C. coastal Indian and the white man. Vancouver: The Federation, 1973.

Derrida, Jacques. "The Originary Metaphor." Of Grammatology. Trans. Gayatri Spivak. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1976: 270-280.

- - -. "Edmund Jabès and the Question of the Book." Writing and Difference. Trans. Alan Bass. Chicago: U of Chicago P., 1978: 64-78.

- - -. "Exordium." Specters of Marx: the state of the debt, the work of mourning, and the new international. Trans. Peggy Kamuf. New York: Routledge, 1994: xvii-xx.

Duff, Wilson. The Upper Stalo Indians of the Fraser Valley, British Columbia. Victoria, B.C.: B.C. Provincial Museum, 1972.

Dumont, Marilyn. A Really Good Brown Girl. London, Ont.: Brick, 1996.

Lévi-Strauss, Claude. Tristes Tropiques. Trans. John and Doreen Weightman. New York: Atheneum, 1984.

King, Thomas. The Truth About Stories: A Native Narrative Toronto: Anansi, 2003.

- - -. "The One About the Coyote Going West." An Anthology of Canadian Native Literature in English. Eds. Daniel David Moses and Terry Goldie. Don Mills, Ont.: Oxford UP, 2005: 197-204.

Maracle, Lee. I am Woman: A Native Perspective On Sociology and Feminism. Vancouver: Press Gang, 1996.

National Institute on Drug Abuse. 15 Nov 2005. http://www.nida.nih.gov/PODAT/PODATindex.html.

Ortiz, Simon J. from Sand Creek. Tucson: U of Arizona P., 1981.

Richards, Linda. "Interview: Gregory Scofield." January Magazine. September 1999. 12 Nov 2005. http://www.januarymagazine.com/profiles/scofield.htm.

Scofield, Gregory. Native Canadiana: Songs From the Urban Rez. Vancouver: Polestar, 1996.

Sepass, Chief K'HHalserten. Sepass Tales: The Songs of Y-Ail-Mihth. Rec. Eloise Street. Chilliwack, B.C.: Sepass Trust, 1963.

Vizenor, Gerald. "From Manifest Manners: Postindian Warriors of Survivance." The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. Ed. Vincent B. Leitch. New York: Norton, 2001: 1977-1986.

Wells, Oliver N. The Chilliwacks and Their Neighbors. Vancouver: Talon, 1987.

Wiebe, Rudy and Yvonne Johnson. Stolen Life: The Journey of a Cree Woman. Toronto: Vintage, 1998.

Sean Wanukw (Whonnock), Artist

© Elmer Wiens

 

 

   

      Copyright © Elmer G. Wiens:   EgwaldTM Web Services       All Rights Reserved.    Inquiries