Saturday, June 28, 2008

June 28 - Value Village

I've slowed my book-buying considerably in recent weeks. No clear reason for it, or no single reason, but it won't last. Today, for example, I bought a book in spite of my best intentions.

It was only a quick trip into the Village for used shorts, since I refuse to pay good money for clothing I don't need to look good in - actually I have a hard time spending money on clothes period, but that's perhaps a story best left for another time - with a deliberate decision NOT to scour the book zone. And yet there on the till, when I went to pay for my grandpa-style Gap tweedy shorts, rather oversized, was Wilson Duff's 1964 classic The Indian History of British Columbia: Volume 1, The Impact of the White Man. The then-Provincial Museum of BC (now the Royal BCM) published it in its memoir series "Anthropology in British Columbia," and it's remained important since. It's been on my radar for a while, but I hadn't bumped into it yet.

Why important? Early in the introduction, for example, Duff pointedly and powerfully challenges the whole foundation of colonialism, the claim that the First Nations had no "ownership" to set against the ownership proposed by Europeans:
It is not correct to say that the Indians did not "own" the land but only roamed over the face of it and "used" it. The patterns of ownership and utilization which they imposed on the lands and waters were different from those recognized by our system of law, but were nonetheless clearly defined and mutually respected. (p.8)
And yet the Supreme Court of Canada has once again had to rule on this matter in relation to fisheries in British Columbia. The justices have once again insisted that it's fully within the Constitution to have a native-only fishery, that such a thing doesn't reduce the rights of other Canadians, and good for them, but 44 years ago, an anthropologist thought it a resolved enough matter than it needed only a mention in the book's intro, rather than a dedicated chapter. Duff's basic assumptions, while still somewhat dated, represent a significant move forward from the previous narratives of decline and debates about authenticity. And Duff's own story is itself complicated indeed.

If I'd seen this book on the shelves, I'd have taken it home no matter the cost, but waiting for me on the till for only ninety-nine cents? Karma, I guess, though I certainly haven't done anything to deserve it.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Nancy Langston, Forest Dreams, Forest Nightmares

Nancy Langston's 1995 Forest Dreams, Forest Nightmares: The Paradox of Old Growth in the Inland West is just old enough that I'm left wondering what's happened since then, but she's such an exceptional researcher that I don't dare try it myself.

Langston's book is about forestry in the Blue Mountains, a collection of ranges and National Forests around the intersection of Washington, Oregon, and Idaho. In the 19th century large sections of the Blues were dominated by huge ponderosa pines, ideal both for aesthetics and for timber, and the first scientific foresters in the Forest Service instituted woods practices that they expected would promote the expansion and strengthening of ponderosa ecosystems. Instead there are no ponderosa forests left in the area. All that's left are variously weak forests of species the Service didn't want, many of them suffering badly from insect infestations, most of them at risk of catastrophic fire so hot it might destroy the upper layers of soil and prevent trees from regenerating for quite some time.

(Why yes, in many ways it does indeed sound like what's happened in the BC interior. Thanks for pointing that out.)

What happened? Well, in a nutshell, we had lots of good science, and we applied it more or less properly. We just didn't realize that applying science would add an additional layer of complexity to the wildly complex reality of these dryland forests, making our science inadequate to the job. Early foresters weren't dumb or greedy or manipulated by The Man (though there's certainly some room to blame The Man here, as with most catastrophes). They were let down by their science.

It's a fascinating story, well told, but a painful one:
"when people talk about wildlife, they give a list of what was once present, and then they tell a tale of bewildering loss. There is never any resolution to these stories, never any explanation for the loss of nature--just greed, idiocy, progress, our distance from childhood, our distance from Eden and from wild nature" (pp.245-246).
Langston comes down in the end on the side of finding a way to exist within nature, suggesting that our two approaches to date--managing nature for maximum production, as larder or storehouse, and isolating nature as unpersonned wilderness--have both failed in the Blue Mountains to produce a form of nature we can live with. Of course it's possible to argue that there should be places we don't go, and lots of people do make that argument with real force, but our actions affect places we don't go: acid rain, aquifer depletion, downstream flooding, global warming.... Whether we're physically there or not, our shadows are busy.

If we're going to live in the world, and I for one hope we continue to do that, then we need to find a way to get along with those parts of the world that ain't us. Nancy Langston's Forest Dreams, Forest Nightmares shows us some of the ways we might succeed in what's turning out to be a more difficult thing to imagine than we ever expected.

Monday, June 16, 2008

Father's Day self-gifts

I went a-shopping yesterday. Grafton Books in Oak Bay always has some good stuff, but this was a targeted trip for Bus Griffiths' graphic novel (reviewed here) Now You're Logging, which I'd noticed on was there in hardcover for more than I wanted to spend. With Father's Day, it was time to drop the card on this volume - but when I got there, I found not just an immaculate 1979 hardcover with dustjacket, but an autographed 1990 paperback as well! Curses.

So I spent a half-hour trying not to buy both of them. In the end, I bought the hardcover for a cool hundred bucks, plus Candace Savage's collection Curious by Nature, which ate up a little more than the amount by which the bookseller discounted the Griffiths due to its time spent on the shelf.

Later on I browsed through Bolen's briefly, and found Harold Rhenisch's WInging Home: A Palette of Birds. I'd been looking casually for it since I'd first noticed the title on his home page, so I'd have bought it at full price, but for some reason it was discounted to $7.98. I've started reading it, and it's beautiful stuff.

Update: Plus, today I went to Munro's to buy our next Mook Club selection, Jeffrey Sachs' The End of Poverty ($6.99), but I also couldn't help grabbing Rita Wong's Livesay-winning poetry collection forage ($16.95). I do loves the books....

Friday, June 13, 2008

More thoughts on Natives & Academics (ed. Mihesuah)

It's been an important little while for American Indian Studies (US) and academic work related to First Nations (Can.).

The death of Paula Gunn Allen of lung cancer is enormously significant, since it's safe to say that at 68 she had a great deal still to contribute, even taking into account her path-breaking work as a writer, editor, and teacher of Indigenous literature. More locally for me, the university announced this week the hiring of Dr. Waziyatawin (Angela Cavender WIlson) as Canada Research Chair in Indigenous Peoples, to commence on July 1 this year. I'd heard she was coming, and I was delighted by the news.

Both these women contributed essays to Mihesuah's edited collection Natives and Academics I just reviewed here, and Waziyatawin co-edited and contributed essays to Mihesuah's subsequent volume, Indigenizing the Academy, that I reviewed some time ago. It's my hope that Waziyatawin will find her new institutional home to be a welcoming one, but even if she doesn't (and based on the essays I've been reading in these two volumes, I'm unsure of most things connected to the place of Indigenous studies in the academy), I'm confident that she'll find committed supporters here - certainly not just me, though I'll be one of them.

Anyway, a few more thoughts have come to mind in relation to Natives and Academics in the last few days, during which I've been too busy to read and too busy to mark or adequately prep classes (sorry, kids).

First, I'm increasingly convinced that Paula Gunn Allen's essay is essential reading for anyone teaching anything connected to First Nations tradition. As she put it in the title, there are "Special Problems in Teaching Leslie Marmon Silko's Ceremony," one of the most celebrated works of American Indian literature, in Silko's case Pueblo literature. Allen suggests that Silko goes too far and shares too much of her own people's sacred, ceremonial stories, so much so that she herself feels dizzy, even physically ill, at having to teach the novel. She recognizes in herself the desire to to be transparent, to honour the (alleged) transcendence of truth which we academics value so strongly, but she also knows - more intimately, and more powerfully- that her allegiance to her own people has to come first, and so she could never share her own people's sacred stories, or the stories of another people, even if they had already appeared in print, unless the people themselves authorized such sharing.

As a teacher of literature, I'm now in the position of having to think about - and being able to think about - this paradox of competing truth claims in relation to accessing Indigenous tradition through story. There have been, as the essays in these two volumes make abundantly clear, writers who've shared so much private material that the people whose knowledge it was have repudiated the efforts as disrespectful at best: an insult, a betrayal, theft. I can go read these books and catch glimpses of additional layers of meaning in Indigenous literature, or in white literature about Indigenous people or places, and my allegiance to transcendent academia means that I'm supposed to do exactly that. On the other hand, my evolving allegiance to First Nations independence, and to decolonization, means that I need to refuse these books, to turn my students away from them. I need to earn the right to such knowledge first, and then share it only with others who've earned such a right.

This makes it more complicated to teach the really terrific poetry of Philip Kevin Paul, for example, which I hope I'll be doing in the spring (if the federal government decides it likes me - long story). I'm pleased to be figuring out this far ahead of time, and in this much detail, just how complicated it needs to be. I'll be a better teacher as a result of stumbling across Paula Gunn Allen's essay on this subject.

Second, I'm increasingly taken with Elizabeth Cook-White's ruminations on mixed-blood writers who are perceived by white audiences as Indigenous (whether or not they choose to speak as or for Indigenous people). Like Allen, she sees an important divide in American Indian literature: not between Indian and non-Indian, as with Allen, but between Indian and mixed-blood. As she sees it, the standard American story is one of self-discovery. Whether in fiction or life-writing, it's about the growth of the self. Mixed-blood writers fit this criteria really well, for the most part, with writers like Thomas King coming in for some fairly harsh criticism for writing literature that focuses on the self rather than on the community. (King's individuals, to me, tend to feel reasonably well embedded in their local communities, but I take Cook-White's general point.)

Her great fear is that if these mixed-blood writers are taken to be the authentic voices of American Indian experience, and as leading American Indian intellectuals, then the result will be an inaccurate view from outside of both. In the end, no one will be viewed as an American Indian intellectual by both Indigenous peoples and by whites, because the criteria fulfilled by the mixed-blood writers will make them seem to a white audience the representatives of AI intellectualism, whereas to an AI audience, they'll be indistinguishable from white intellectuals.

"Can't we all just get along?", I can hear you asking. Yes. Of course. But not if we only follow the terms set down by white literary, literate, and intellectual culture, because as Allen, Cook-White, Mihesuah, Waziyatawin, and others argue, those terms are profoundly inappropriate for Indigenous literary, literate, and intellectual cultures. One focuses on the self (maybe on the self within community); the other focuses on community. A bridge is not easily built here, not one that's stable enough for all of us to unproblematically get along - not just yet, anyway.

Saturday, June 07, 2008

ed. Devon Mihesuah, Natives and Academics

It's the wrong order, but these things happen for omnivorous readers. I've now finished the collection of essays edited by Devon Mihesuah, Natives and Academics: Researching and Writing about American Indians, which is the first volume before her collection co-edited with Angela Cavender Wilson, Indigenizing the Academy: Transforming Scholarship and Empowering Communities (reviewed here). I remain perplexed and awed, but I'm starting to feel more competent to think things through.

Mind you, there's more I don't get well enough to write about, than that which I do get well enough.

An example, though, of what's at stake, and why I feel so compelled to learn more and more and more. Laurie Anne Whitt's terrific essay "Cultural Imperialism and the Marketing of Native America" includes a clear and trenchant discussion of just how cultural imperialism works in relation to intellectual property rights. Basically, intellectual property rights (IPR) are individual; there's no provision generally for collective property rights in how the legal system works, and in Whitt's terms, American Indian knowledge is collective rather than individual. As a result, a non-Indian finds it easier to write about Indian matters than an Indian does, and the consequence is that the non-Indian acquires copyright and IPR over matters integrally related to Indian culture. She sees this operating most obviously (and mostly mercenarily) in New Age spirituality, some of whose practitioners are doing seriously well financially even though the sum total of their knowledge is a hazy grasp of the bare outlines of one or more tribal groups' practices. The rest of the essay moves into plant knowledge, human genetics, religion, and so on, and if you're comfortable with your own (or my!) distaste for New Age stuff, rest assured that your distaste will be extended into all kinds of other areas.

The challenge, really, is what I can do as a non-Indian to support the aims embodied in this book. I'm not going to do fieldwork so I can write about local First Nations groups; I'm not going to teach First Nations courses; I'm not going to become an expert in First Nations literature. These are things that First Nations people should do - I'd want to help, and I'll do whatever I can to reduce the gatekeeping that sustains the systemic oppression of First Nations members, but it's not my place.

So, I'll keep finding a place from which to lay the ground. These things just take time.