Wednesday, November 16, 2005
In the Six Nations newspaper, Turtle Island News on November 9, 2005 reports of the same living conditions that have created a whole community up North to be evacuated are happening just an hour away. ONE HOUR, our neighbor's are living with 80% of their well water supply being contaminated with Ecoli or coliform bacteria, 312 homes are without running water, sodium levels are five times higher than the standards set by the environment ministry (Turtle News, p.2). This water study was done on March 4, 2004 and yet NOTHING has been done.
Turtle Island News reported that Councilor Dave Hill wants to see a lobby effort launched. The Six Nation water treatment plant is over 20 years old and MUST be replaced. Do we have to evacuate all reservations before we start supporting our First Nation communities? There is no excuse for our Provincial and Federal government to let this situation remain in our country. Band-aid solutions do not fix the problem; they only let the contamination fester.
Charity begins at home, and having clean drinking water should not be considered by any means a luxury. This problem will not go away unless we all take an active role in ensuring that the government provides the necessary funds to change the reservation water situation. Writing our MPP and MP is only a start but it is a powerful start.
Sunday, November 06, 2005
Canada is identified as a nation without a unified history. Our nation’s social and historical conflicts have affected cultural groups’ value placement and interaction with other cultures. Most Canadians have acknowledged the historical contribution of the English and French in developing Canada. However, I would suggest there is a third group, the Aboriginal culture, which has significantly shaped our social landscape. Canadian scholars seeking to define Canada’s cultural identity should examine the value system that ignores the Native culture and locks Aboriginal people into a state of invisibility.
The purpose of this paper is to discuss how Canada’s social network reinforces stereotypes that compound the isolation of Aboriginal communities. I will discuss how western literary standards misrepresent First Nation people and illustrate how social institutions, such as our education institutions, reinforce the devaluing practices that render Native people invisible. In addition, I will use Aboriginal women’s poetry to illustrate communities experiencing the decolonization process, yet are struggling to move out of the mourning stage. As we examine the power of poetry on both writer and reader, a common ground might begin to bridge the communication gaps between Native and non-Native Canadians. Canadians are seeking to define their self as a nation, and learning to appreciate Canadian Indigenous cultures might expand non-Natives’ perceptions by exposing us to alternative world-views.
Literary Standards and Theories
Throughout Canada’s history, European standards have influenced our production of literature and how various cultures are represented, as well as who is acknowledged as good writers. I have several concerns with using western European standards and theories to analyzing Aboriginal literature. One concern I have is how the concept of good dictates the style of writing acceptable for publication. Another issue I have with western standards assigning value and meaning to images of Aboriginal people and their cultural practices. The dominant control over literature reflects a socially dysfunctional system that brands Canadian First Nations insignificant.
Furthermore, literary theories that promote a standardized form of “good” Native authors argue are too restrictive. “Native writers have been creating new genres in Canadian English literature, but this fact has been largely missed by readers and critics” (LaRocque, 1990, p. xviii). Native literature is locked into a separate genre, which diminishes the value assigned to it. Hoy (2001), Grant (1990) and LaRocque (1990) explain western standards reject Native writers because their literature does not adhere to the dominant culture’s images and perceptions, rejection slips from publishers would: “read, ‘Not Indian enough” (LaRocque, 1990, xix)!
In western literature, King, Calver, and Hoy (1985) explains that the unstable, yet fused relationship between the Natives and the Non-natives symbolically represents the early image of the Native in the European style of writing. The need for contemporary writers to depict the Native characters in a realistic presentation only emphasized the egocentric mentality of the Europeans. “Oral traditions have been dismissed as savage or primitive folklore. Such dismissal has been based on the self-serving colonial cultural myth that Europeans … were/ are more developed… “(Perrault and Vance, 1990, p. xvi). The practice to devalue, dismiss, and even render the oral tradition as being inferior to written text continues to be a serious problem for most Aboriginal people.
However when using the deconstruction model to analyze oral traditions, we experience Native influences on European folk lore. Although there are some notable influences on European style literature by Aboriginal culture, the practice to marginalize Native people remains consistent. Western symbolism validates casting Native culture into the “Other” and outside the white dominant society.
Another issue that Aboriginal writers have to contend with is the romanticization of their culture by the dominant society. The practice of assigning derogatory meaning onto Aboriginal communities restricts their ability to express their true self. Once again, “we [Aboriginal] were … rendered voiceless no matter how articulate we were” (Perreault and Vance, 1991, p. xvi). First Nation writers are forced to express their self in the European style, anything less is viewed as substandard. Regardless of how hard Native authors attempt to express their self, the dominant literary standards maintain polarized concepts such as good and bad, intellectual and illiterate, civilized and wild, the negative images are assigned to the Native people, especially throughout literature.
For centuries, First Nation communities have struggled to move out of the oppressive social position, yet have great difficulty with changing their social status because of the dismissive treatment from the rest of Canadians. La Rocque explains that: Aboriginal social issues are not fully understood or accepted into the mainstream categories because: “in Canada, their [Native] words were literally and politically negated” (Perreault & Vance, 1991, p. i). Literature has significant political power and illustrates Canada’s power structure that continues to devalue Native literature and linguistics. Literature transcends every discipline and social system that affects how Canada’s cultural identity is crystallized.
However, I have found some postmodern theories that begin the process of being inclusive and challenges the social stereotypes found in literature. For example, Feminist theories such as Elaine Showalter’s “feminist Critique” focus on women readers and writers. Although Showalter does not address cultural issues, the focus of her theory is directed to a group that has been oppressed by the dominant male culture. As Showalter explains the “feminist critique” is “like other kinds of critique it is historically grounded inquiry probes the ideological assumption of literary phenomena” (Showalter, 1992, 382). The primary objective in feminist theories is to expose the negative images and stereotypes that depict women as inferior and maintains men’s superior position. For the female author, the feminist critique examines the women author’s creativity and potential role in literature as well as the rest of Canada’s social systems.
In addition, Barnett, Gilbert, and Cain (2004) discuss some postcolonial literary critiques that challenge standards and assumptions, which also shape literature and society.
Works written by women are seen by some feminist critics as embodying
the experiences of the minority culture – or groups marginalized by
the dominant male culture. … Today FEMINIST CRITICISM influences every other
kind of criticism and has fundamentally altered the way we look at ourselves and
therefore our art (Barnett, Gilbert, & Cain, 2004, 115-16).
Literature is one of our socially approved art forms that cross social and cultural barriers. Aboriginal writers are demanding to be a part of the literary discipline and social networks on their own terms.
Universities and Publishing Companies Shirking Responsibility
Social institutions such as Universities are in a powerful position to invoke change in the literary discipline and eventually change the social structure to become more inclusive. The reality is that our education system has promoted Aboriginal voicelessness. If universities actively examine Native literature, a process of change might ensue, which would include challenging mainstream stereotypes. Perreault and Vance (1991) argue that our education system has promoted the voicelessness of the Aboriginal people “due to the unconscionable failure of the Canadian education system to impart to Native youth basic reading and writing skills” (vixi). Universities and other social institutions need to, as King, Calver, and Hoy (1985) suggest break down “the traditional assumption of the Natives found in literature and illustrate how the Natives have influenced the white culture” (13). Universities have the political power to address the invisibility status that Aboriginal people have had to contend with throughout Canada’s history.
In Ontario, there are twenty-one publicly funded universities that I called on October 11, 2005, to find out, which universities provide academic examination of Native culture. The following results illustrate the trend to omit Native studies as a viable discipline:
Trent University in Peterborough provides degrees in Native studies at the undergraduate, Master’s, and Doctrine levels.
- There are four other universities that provide students the opportunity to obtain an undergraduate degree in Native studies, they include Lakehead, Nipissing, Laurentian, and McMaster has a partial program with humanities and or Canadian Studies.
There are no other university providing Master’s programs or Doctrine programs in Native studies
- There are five universities that have some courses; they are Queens, Brock, Guelph, Waterloo, and Wilfred Laurier.
The majority of universities include Ottawa, Dominican, Carleton, Royal Military College, Ontario Art & Design, Ryerson, University of Toronto, York, Institution of Technology, Western, and Windsor do not provide any Native studies courses.
With this in mind the question should be expressed; why haven’t the universities exercised their responsibility to both the Aboriginal communities and the Non-Aboriginal communities to eradicate the discrimination and invisibility status?
Also, publishers promote social stereotypes that perpetuate the invisibility status that affects Aboriginal culture. Hoy (2001) and Grant (1990) discuss that publishers’ focus on creating text that promotes stereotypes and maintains the capitalistic standards that focus on consumerism. Native writers have argues that the European standard reinforces the social practice of segregating minority groups. Grant (1990) argues that publishers and the discipline of literature has: “effectively precluded members of other culture groups from holding literary positions and also ensures a continuation of existing criteria” (p. 124). Canada’s literature is a reflection of Canada’s social system and visa versa.
In reality Aboriginal culture might provide non-Native Canadians with alternative ways of perceiving their society and ultimately helps define Canada’s cultural identity. Publishers have the opportunity to bridge one of the oldest cultural gaps through the promotion of Aboriginal literature, non-Native citizens are challenged to re-think their understanding of their connection to Canada’s past, present, and future. “Native wisdom and points of view familiar to other Natives, reveals the beauty of the Native world, beauty rarely recognized by non-Native writers”(Grant, 1990, p. 125). Until the dominant group starts examining Aboriginal writers as producing “good” literature then the misconceptions that Aboriginal people need protecting and they do not have anything to give to the nation will continue to negatively affect Canada’s cultural identity.
Moreover, publishers who promote alternative cultures might be in the position to dispel misconception that maintains the dominant group’s ignorance of the “Other” culture, which continues to shape Canada’s society. Grant (1990) contends that the literary field has a rigid tradition that segregates various ethnic, class, and gender groups. “This written tradition often overlooks Natives because Natives are not generally considered a living, contributing factor in all facets of Canadian society” (Grant, 1990, p.125). Embracing Aboriginal traditions and literature would provide Canadians with the opportunity to view their nation and the world through a different perspective.
Decolonization through Grieving
The decolonization process provides Native communities with the opportunity to deconstruct social roles and expectations that are projected onto them by the dominant cultural groups. Poka Laenui (2005) explains in Process of Decolonization that the deconstruction process is more than reclaiming cultural identity; it is a political movement that affects the whole community by challenging stereotypes and gain self control. The decolonization process includes stages such as:
1) Rediscovery and Recovery, 2) Mourning, 3) Dreaming, 4) Commitment, and 5)
Action. Each phase can be experienced at the same time or in various
combinations. Like the steps of colonization, these phases of decolonization do
not have clear demarcations between each other (Laenui, 205, p. 2).
The decolonization process can only be realized when the negative and subversive images are deconstructed and all phases have been worked through.
Moreover, multicultural counseling literature has helped illustrate the devastating effects of the grieving process that affects both Native individuals and communities. Due to the practice of repressing Aboriginal worldview, religious belief systems, and language differences by the dominant group: “many suffer for many years” (Olson, 2003, p. 109). In the mourning process, I felt it necessary to identify the various stages. Dayton (2004) in Heartland explains that the mourning process has stages which are: “1) Numbness, 2) yearning and searching, 3) disorganization, anger, and despair, 4) reorganization or integration” (p. 2). These stages are similar to the decolonization process because there is no specific order in which they occur.
The numbness stage of mourning: “is a period of emotional numbness … [The Survivor] may try and deny the extent of the impact of the loss in an effort to make it feel less threatening and more manageable” (Dayton, 2005, p. 1). In Molly Chisaakay’s (1990) poem “Existing beyond Fear” illustrates emotional numbness being used on a personal level. The narrator cries out: “Reach for me as I lay numb/ thoughtless, / heartless, faceless/ the cries, silences, dry tears, I am a Tomb” (Chisaakay, 1990, p. 28). The use of the word tomb enables the reader to “feel” the personal isolation that the narrator experiences on a daily basis.
Also, the emotional numbness is felt at the community level. Chisaakay’s poem “Waiting” illustrates how numbness has affected the Native community.
She never asked what it is / that makes systems inconsistent /
Or who is to
blame, where does justice begin or end? /…
Poverty permeates every area of
the system /
Where there is no economic, social, political infusion, or is
it intrusion? /
The poverty reigns, and the waiting is /
What they all
talk about. /
It becomes a long wait (Chisaakay, 1990, p. 29)
Again the isolation felt is depicted by the word waiting that illustrates the Aboriginal communities’ isolation from being fully accepted into Canada’s social network.
Another stage of mourning is called the yearning and searching stage, which: “is marked by a yearning for the lost object (person, situation, and searching for it in other people, place” (Dayton, 2004, p. 2). Chisaakay’s (1990) “The Elder’s Drum” depicts the yearning of Aboriginal traditions in:
The smoke rises from the sacrificial fire.
The circle is getting bigger, and
many share hope
… My love for the people in the circle exuberates,
many other times I have shared these rituals (p. 27).
The situation that Chisaakay illustrates in her poem is the yearning to reconnect to a past time and re-connect with her heritage, the rituals, and her Native people.
The disorganization, anger, and despair phase is a highly volatile stage of the mourning process. Dayton (2004) warns that: “when someone is stuck in unresolved anger, it can seriously undermine intimate and professional relationships” (p. 3). Heighten acts of violence created by the feelings of disillusionment, as well as the self destructive behaviour associated with this stage might be a common theme.
Again, Poet, Emma La Rocque (1990) illustrates a sense of despair in her poem “Loneliness” that has been identified as a part of the inner-self. The narrator proclaims: “Ah Loneliness, / How would I know/ who I am/ without you?” (p. 148). The isolation that has turned to despair is recognized as a part of the self that brings a sense of hollowness and is a part of a person’s self-identity. There is a sense of disconnection, which the person or community may experiences as they attempt to connect to objects or a time period. Another poet, Alice Lee (1990) illustrates the emotional displacency in “Child’s Play”. In the lines: “the child sits on the toy shelf / watching the sleeping doll on the bed”, this line emphasizes the disconnection experienced by the people (p. 159). The inner child that: “sits on the toy shelf / watching” (p. 159) illustrates the sense of being put on display.
One more stage of mourning is known as the reorganization and integration process, Dayton explains that this process will affect how people: “accept feelings of disruption, sadness, yearning, and fear as part of the loss” (5). This stage is a process of identifying, re-evaluating, and implementing experiences and traditions that are either positive or negative. Aboriginal communities have been attempting to work through this stage by re-connecting to their Native traditions and enhance their sense of self. Ultimately this re-evaluating stage might help bridge the gaps between Native and non-Native people, which could improve Canada’s identity.
Dayton (2004) identifies that a person or community working through the re-organization and integration stage changes their thinking about their life and their environment. “They come to terms with their powerlessness over the situation and restore their emotional equilibrium” (Dayton, 2004, p. 6). The emotional equilibrium found in Aboriginal poems illustrates a turning back to the ancestral beliefs, which connect the people to nature. Although they may be powerless in some situations, the Aboriginal people accept they are not powerless in every situation.
Aboriginal Women’s Power through Poetry
Poetry has many properties that empower both the woman as poet and as reader, thus affecting self-perceptions, as well as removing stereotypes. For example, the act of writing as Marilyn Dumont states, “I write for my own sanity, not for the art’s sake” (41). Dumont illustrates the self-determination that provides an example of empowering qualities found in writing. Emma La Rocque explains that:
Writing is the art of bringing to birth the human condition in thought form …
[La Rocque feels] In fact, I see no necessary disconnection between being a
scholar and a poetic writer, or a poet. … The words of poetry are closet/
closeted to one’s inner being” (143).
The ability to express and connect with the inner-self empowers women to feel whole, because they can acknowledge events and experiences.
Native and non-Native women connect through the common “self-fulfilling prophecy” that affects how their self-confidence is developed. Aboriginal women poets reach out to other Natives and non-Native women, expressing what it means to be a woman. SkyBlue Mary Morin:
Since finding her Native roots as that of Cree ancestry, she has begun to use
her Indian name with pride. She walks a spiritual path in life and gives thanks
to the many blessings from the Creator, her writing being one of them (213).
Morin (1990) reconnects to her internal power by acknowledging her native roots and sharing her personal power with her readers. The way Aboriginal women associate with their environment, understand their social roles, and express their experiences helps remove the veil of silence, which helps bridge the communication gaps. Poetry is a powerful medium that continues to help non-Native and Native women unite as they learn to understand each other’s roles in society.
To conclude this paper, I would strongly recommend that Canadian Scholars re-examine the value they place on system that maintains the dominant culture’s control over Aboriginal communities. Canadian social institutions like universities should take an active roll in promoting alternative cultures and challenge social misconceptions that have devalued native culture. Scholars have an obligation to society to deconstruct oppressive practices that segregate Canadian Native communities. Since western societies value written text and literature has the ability to transcend time, disciplines, and social systems then literature has an enormous power in shaping social categories that keeps Aboriginal people silent. Native and non-Native Intellectuals must move past the practice of ghettoization of Native literature and embrace the humanizing qualities expressed in the various literary pieced written by the good Canadian and Native authors.
Barnett S., G. Reid & Cain W. (2004) Writing about Literature, Toronto: Person
Chisaakay M., The Elders Drum. In Perreault J. & Vance S. (ed) (1990) Writing the
Circle (pp. 27-28) Alberta: NeWest Publishers Ltd.
Chisaakay M., Existing Beyond Fear. In Perreault J. & Vance S. (ed) (1990) Writing the
Circle, (p. 28) Alberta: NeWest Publishers Ltd.
Chisaakay M., Waiting. In Perreault J. & Vance S. (1990) Writing the Circle (p.29)
Alberta: NeWest Publishers Ltd.
Daly M., The Looking Glass Society. In Loades A.(ed)(1990), Feminist Theology
(pp.189-194) Kentucky: Westminster.
Dayton T. (2004) The Four Stages of Grief and Mourning. In Heartland, website:
http://home/.Datawest.net/esn-recovery/dee/grief/stages.htm, received: March 3, (p.7).
Dumont M., Spring Breathing. In Perreault J. & Vance S. (ed)(1990), Writing the Circle:
Native Women of Western Canada (p. 41) Alberta: NeWest Publishers Ltd.
Grant A., Contemporary native Women’s Voices in Literature In New W., (ed)(1990),
Native Writers and Canadian Writing, (pp. 124-132) Vancouver: UBC press.
Hoy H. (2001), How could I read these?, Toronto: University of Toronto press.
King T., C. Calver, and H. Hoy, (ed) (1985) The Native in Literature, Lethbridge:
University of Lethbridge.
Laenui P.(2004), Processes of Decolonization, website:
http:// twm.co.nz.coldecol_Laemui.html. received March 1, 2005, p.8.
La Rocque E., “Loneliness,” In Perreault J. & Vance S. (ed) (1990), Writing the Circle:
Native Women of Western Canada, (p.148) Alberta: NeWest Publishers Ltd.
Lee A., Child’s Play. In Perreault J. & Vance S. (ed)(1990), Writing the Circle:
Native Women of Western Canada, (p. 159) Alberta: NeWest Publishers Ltd.
Morin, S. “Ahow, Holy Woman,” In Perreault J. & Vance S. (ed) (1990), Writing the
Circle: Native Women of Western Canada, (p.213) Alberta: NeWest Publishers Ltd.
Perreault and Vance, (ed) (1991) Writing the Circle: Native Women of Western Canada,
Alberta: NeWest Publication.
Showalter E.(1979), Towards a Feminist Poetics. In M. Humm (ed.)(1992), Modern
Feminisms, (pp. 381-284) New York: Columbia University press..