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Cynthia Sugars

Teaching/Reading Native Writing

“Outsiders” and “Insiders”: Teaching Native/Canadian Literature as Meeting Place

Laurie Kruk

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  • 1 The “Postcolonialism and Pedagogy: Canadian Literatures in the Classroom” symposium, was held 3–5 (...)

1Is native literature also Canadian literature? Or is that a “simple” question, posed at the “Postcolonialism and Pedagogy” symposium, May 2002?1 In 1999, I, the resident Canadianist at my small undergraduate institution, was asked to put together a new course in Native Literature in English, to be cross-listed with our developing Native Studies program. I had incorporated Native-authored literature within my Canadian survey, by the addition of a token text—either Tomson Highway’s The Rez Sisters or Dry Lips Oughta Move to Kapuskasing, perennial favourites—but this new program initiative meant putting the “insider” into the “outsider” position. My institution shares the Ojibway/Anishinaabe name of the region’s dominant body of water and an avowed commitment, as a “university in a Northern Ontario community,... to reflect and respond to the region” (“Mission Statement”). However, there is a stronger Native presence and population at our sister institution, Canadore College, to which many Northern Cree travel, coming down “south” from James Bay in Northern Quebec, often for the first time. As part of the approval process, I consulted with our Native Studies program coordinator and also presented my course outline to the Aboriginal Council on Education, comprising representatives from the Native community as well as interested parties from the university.

  • 2 With reference to Andy Belyea and Lia Marie Talia’s dramatic presentation at the “Postcolonialism (...)

2My reading list was, I felt proudly, an ambitious one—the teacher as over-achiever dies hard—and included four novels, one play, one entire volume of poetry (a departure from the anthologized/marginalized experience of teaching poetry), plus numerous selections from a new standard in this emerging area, the Moses/Goldie Anthology of Canadian Native Literature in English (2nd edition), published by an institutional mainstay and “symbol of Empire” in itself, as Goldie points out (xxix), Oxford University Press. The novels were Thomas King’s Green Grass, Running Water, Tomson Highway’s controversial Kiss of the Fur Queen; Beatrice Culleton Mosionier’s In Search of April Raintree; and Ian McCulloch's thoughtful exploration of Native identity via road trip/vision quest, Childforever. I hoped King’s playful postmodernism would provide a counterbalance to three very serious, society-indicting narratives, which incorporate as central to the experiences of their Native or Métis protagonists, alcoholism, sexual abuse, rape, and suicide. And though utilizing very different writing styles and strategies, each invokes the life history/biography as framework, suggesting a documentary intent. Putting The Book of Jessica on the list meant students read more than a play, of course; they also immersed themselves in the fascinating record (edited by Linda Griffiths) of a painful and perilous collaboration that became a virtual war of words, and of world views.2 And I took literally the encouragement from the Native Studies coordinator to question that border, which is so important to a Canadianist, yet so abstract or arbitrary to many Native (North) Americans, and included New Mexico Muscogee poet/saxophonist Joy Harjo’s jazz-inflected poetry collection, The Woman Who Fell from the Sky, alongside the anthologized writing of poets Pauline Johnson, Lee Maracle, Armand Garnet Ruffo, and Lenore Keeshig-Tobias. My course outline was accepted, and I was approved to teach it—although the hope was expressed that a qualified instructor of Native background might be available in the future, as I was visibly a “paleface” of Anglo-European descent. Later, a member of the committee (self-identifying as Native) confided to me that he didn’t feel an instructor had to be Native to teach Native literature, making the analogy of a professor offering a course in Greek literature.

  • 3 I’m thinking of, for instance, Rohinton Mistry’s Such a Long Journey, Michael Ondaatje’s Running i (...)
  • 4 See Frye, “Conclusion to The Literary History of Canada”; Atwood, Survival; and Gaile McGregor, Th (...)
  • 5 This spring, Morningside’s replacement, This Morning (host Shelagh Rogers), ran a panel of celebri (...)
  • 6 Perception may be at times stronger than reality; I acknowledge Carole Gerson’s careful work on th (...)

3Such a process may be familiar to many Canadianists: it is part of our newly self-conscious stance, in the late twentieth/early twenty-first century, as instructors who are also the inheritors of a political, intellectual, and cultural privilege won at the expense of other people and their perspectives. For Canadian literature to exist, there had to be an imperialist project called “Canada,” which put down borders and boundaries—most notably the 49th parallel—in the interests of creating an alternative (better, many of us thought) to “the American dream.” Yet these boundaries have always been permeable, not just politically, in letting alleged terrorists across them, in post-September 11th accounts, but also, intellectually, since they are redrawn daily as we rethink what Canada is and can be within a global economy that can be both liberating and alienating. Whose voices best represent Canada today? For instance, is the acclaimed darkly lyrical novel celebrating Newfoundland, The Shipping News, by American E. Annie Proulx (who also lives in Newfoundland), a good candidate for a “CanLit” reading list? Other books by Canadian citizens may now be as readily set in Bombay, Sri Lanka, or Poland, Greece, and Toronto in turn—are these also appropriate for a Canadian literature survey?3 Where is the famous “Canadian” component—does it lie in textual origin or setting, or in the citizenship or residency of the author, or in something more nebulous, like the “garrison mentality,” “survival,” or even the “Wacousta Syndrome”?4 A national vision that has frequently been suggested is the very multiplicity of voices or “community of communities”—exemplified by the virtual community created by CBC’s Morningside, some might say, under its late host Peter Gzowski—that CanLit, we are often fond of saying, encompasses.5 For example, many of us point out to our students that, relative to their American sisters, Canadian women writers have been prominent since the colonial period, and continue to be in the forefront of our best-selling, critically-acclaimed literature today.6 Many of us agree with Linda Hutcheon that “Canada often speaks with a doubled voice, with the forked tongue of irony.... [w]hich allows speakers to address and at the same time slyly confront an ‘official’ discourse: that is, to work within a dominant tradition but also to challenge it—without being utterly co-opted by it” (1–2). So it is tempting to see Native literature as representing merely another “difference” we can easily encompass within our polyphonous, pluralistic national discourse.

4However, anyone who has wrestled with the disturbing allure of the “Indian poems” of D.C. Scott, administrator of government policy “to take care of the Indians until, in Scott’s words, they ‘disappear as a separate and distinct people’” (Dragland 7), realizes that a bureaucratic burial of this particular difference has been the imperialist/nationalist aim of our Canadian government and its institutional practices of cultural and linguistic extinction. We cannot so easily impose Canadian citizenship on works by those who identify as Native, not Canadian, thank you very much—at least, not before we spend some time questioning where we stand, as non-Native, especially White, teachers, critics, writers, and readers, in relation to these works and writers who have been so long held in the shadows by racism, poverty, and/or sexism. Maria Campbell trenchantly reveals the reality of many Native (including Métis) people’s attitude towards the issue of citizenship: “[I] guess I’m a Canadian because that’s who the conqueror happens to be today” (Griffiths and Campbell 98). So much for our community of communities. We can’t simply see difference outside ourselves—as in a one-way reflecting mirror—and teaching Native literature involves more than raising the question, difficult as it is, of “Who is a Native writer?” Instead, we must pause and look around the “Native Lit” classroom and ask, “Who is reading it, and for what purposes?” Is the purpose to engage honestly and fully with its differences or difficulties? Or, to seek out a reflection of our own needs, questions, concerns? Both impulses are probably at work for students and teachers, and it is worth raising this tension at the start of our work, even if only to acknowledge that we routinely read seeking reflections of ourselves. Such a discussion of motives goes beyond merely the fashionable use of identity politics to monitor the staffing of Native literature courses. Yet too much social self-consciousness is not helpful either: overemphasizing the social and political context behind the texts may cause us, in a simplistic essentializing broadbrush, to overlook the genuine variety, tonal range, and explosive intensity of the individual works and writers themselves, and to betray their particular voices.

  • 7 Of course, part of her personal/professional disclosure, and likely a factor in Hoy’s special inte (...)

5Nobody has more eloquently captured this complex dialogue of Self and Other than Helen Hoy, author of How Should I Read These? Native Women Writers in Canada (2001). This book articulates in passionate detail the pitfalls and paradoxes of teaching Native Canadian literature as an “outsider,” using postcolonial theory to illuminate the power politics implicit in this enterprise. I won’t replay her lengthy, considered introduction to teaching Native literature here. Hoy writes with admirable candour, weaving into her discussion anecdotes that are self-implicating, in order to illustrate even more dramatically, because personally, the dance of silence/silencing lived by a sensitive, committed instructor, approaching these texts as an “Other.”7 She is highly aware of the risk that we may simply “recolonize” the work by eliding or ignoring its challenge to our ideas of what literature is. Beth Brant is a Native woman writer who argues for a different audience, intent, and objective, one that may conflict with the objectives of the academy and English programs in Canada: “I believe that the writing being created by First Nations women is writing done with a community consciousness. Individuality is a concept and philosophy that has little meaning for us” (“Good Red Road” 19). This declaration—by one writer, of course, bringing into imaginative being “First Nations women” as a community, as we ourselves are often called upon to speak for non-Native readers and critics—also forces us to reconsider our selection criteria in choosing texts, or our dismissive reactions (“It’s bad writing”) to Beatrice Culleton Mosionier’s In Search of April Raintree, for instance. The critical edition of this much-taught novel, edited by Cheryl Suzack, was just being put together when I started planning my course (in fact, as proof of its rising status the publishers sought my input on a student-friendly cover price). It puts nine critical essays, including one by Hoy (plus a piece by the author), in dialogue with a novel that at first appears overwhelmed by such attention. Hoy candidly turns her critical eye back on her own initial position on the novel: “My concern about formulaic characterization and plotting, wooden dialogue, flat, recapitulative narration, sensationalizing, and stylistic blandness (in most of which I echo the reviewers I have critiqued) draws on the norms of high (bourgeois) realism, with its focus on the individualizing of experience, refinements of self-understanding, aptness of detail, originality of language” (“‘Nothing’” 287). Standards of art that we protect as somehow sacred in an agnostic university may indeed have cultural roots which, if uncovered, leave we English instructors subsumed under the category of White feeling particularly exposed.

6Hoy’s self-critique makes me return to Brant’s insistence on a “community consciousness” behind Native women’s writing, although as Renée Hulan reminds us, the community/individual opposition is too simplistic, like all such starting positions, including, I hope to show, insider and outsider. For the challenge, if we are open to truly learning from teaching Native literature, Hulan reveals, is both to our aesthetic and our epistemological perspectives: not just, is this “good writing,” but what makes writing “good,” and why do we value it the way we do, in the form we do? Are there other possible models of narrative presentation or creation? Hulan points out that “the continued influence of modernist aesthetics—even by those who espouse postmodernism—ensures that the focus remains on judging the quality of writing when most critics do not have sufficient knowledge of the hybridized forms that Native writers produce to judge” (223). If storytelling, the oral tradition that predates literacy, survives in Native culture because it is viewed still as a healing art, does that help explain the critical disagreement over In Search of April Raintree? Its appeal to our students is precisely its accessibility of language, storyline, character motivation, and the metonymic association of the sisters Cheryl and April with a suppressed, silenced Métis culture. Yet for those of us invested in “literariness,” and the range of interpretations that we may draw from it, such a text, pointed and powerful in its most indelible conclusions, creates discomfort. Is this because it gives the students a sense of readerly authority over a text and its most persuasive interpretation, for a change? Their unexpectedly intense identification with the book and its characters threatens our own demonstrated mastery over the works we analyze and praise for their complexity, ambiguity, irony—and individuality. The objective that is implicit in Culleton Mosionier’s text—healing the fractured Métis community—verges on the educational, if not the didactic, which immediately alarms and perturbs many of us, as we were taught to distrust such writing. If we accept this therapeutic thrust of the novel, the individual author and her vision are somehow made less prominent, less relevant to discussion, and we are thrown back into (re)inventing Native cultural community—which means inhabiting the learner position.

7So, where does our authority in teaching Native literature come from? Who is best qualified to teach it? Is it a matter of having the identity of Native, however that is determined: By bloodline? Status card? Matrilineage? Self-declaration? Ian McCulloch comes from mixed European and Cree parentage, and claims “his Native heritage has always been a source of great pride. Many social factors in his life and in the lives of his ancestors, however, made his a somewhat abstract inheritance (backcover, my italics). When the inheritance is “somewhat abstract,” the temptation is to return to “noble savage” romanticizing, a hunger for millennial spiritual renewal replayed today through popular curiosity about powows, sweatlodge ceremonies, shamanism. Making too quick an identification with the powerful messages of psychic and spiritual healing embedded in these historic practices, we may turn away from the evidence of social, political, economic, and, yes, spiritual impoverishment in Native communities today, and their silencing in the very recent past. We may be silencing Native voices again in the name of achieving a monolithic (and illusory) Canadian, spiritual identity.

8Should we instead put the emphasis on literature, and an appreciation of “literariness,” as the defining criterion for teaching Native literature? Again, who fills the classroom? Is it Native students, or as is still more likely, non-Natives with the curiosity, and opportunity, of the privileged outsider, to take our courses, with varying degrees of both interest in and experience with Native culture, falsely totalized though it may be? Despite our institution’s name, and our Mission Statement’s commitment to reflecting our Northern Ontario region, Native students, especially Anishinaabe from the area, are still a rarity in my classes. Given the historical emphasis on orature, storytelling, and the fluidly defined community consciousness maintained by many Native writers, we may even pause to question our need for literariness as well as literacy, for texts with the self-evident (to us) merits that echo, reinforce, and justify our education. We want to study the Other, but we want to be able to recognize it, in our terms, in our language, bell hooks summarizes this ongoing problem for minority writers: “The over-riding fear is that cultural, ethnic, and racial differences will be continually commodified and offered up as new dishes to enhance the white palate—that the Other will be eaten, consumed, and forgotten” (qtd. in Hoy 3). In other words, there will be no real challenge made to our intellectual nourishment, only a diverting night out dining on “ethnic food.”

  • 8 See John Milloy, “A National Crime: The Canadian Government and the Residential School System, 18 (...)

9Perhaps this is where we must return to the idea of identity, and authority, and how they are related, with finer discrimination. If we allow ourselves to play a dichotomous game of insider/outsider, whereby the authority swings completely to one side of the equation—the Native student has the authority in Native Lit class, the non-Native student has the authority outside—then we will struggle, exhausted and frustrated, to create a dialogue rather than a series of rants from either side, entrenching attitudes of resentment and resistance. Beth Brant provokes us, for instance, when she turns the tables, saying, “As a Mohawk, I am very much inside my own world-view, my own Nation, and I am looking at you—the descendants of the European fathers who colonized that world” (“From the Inside” 49). The provocation is proper, but we don’t want to target an Other, at least, not one outside of ourselves. As critically-aware teachers, we need to encourage students (and ourselves) to question their insouciant, post-adolescent belief in “free will.” We must challenge the illusion of a self-maintained, singular identity, such as “Native” or “non-Native” or even “Canadian.” Identity, that fascinating word for our students, needs to be complicated inasmuch as our own self slides between what is given, what is (unconsciously) constructed, and what is self-created. So it is with approaching the issue of Native identity. Whether we are insiders or outsiders, we realize that we are tangled in a web of cultural stereotypes, positive and negative, and gaps in knowledge of the Other that we struggle to evade. Speaking from her own extensive experience as teacher and outsider in this area, Renée Hulan writes, “Distinguishing between ‘knowing’ and ‘appropriating’ requires understanding that there is always a close relationship between ‘speaking for’ and ‘speaking about’ others” (220). She reminds us of the sobering fact that there remains a link between appropriation and education, a fact made starkly evident when we consider the recent history, still being compiled, of a century of residential schools forced upon Native youth in Canada, and the abuse they fostered.8 The different experiences of exploitation suffered by the Okimasis brothers at the hands of the monstrous Catholic priest, Father Lafleur, in Kiss of the Fur Queen, is a searing indictment of this self-righteously blind objectification of the Native outsider.

10Teaching Native literature as a non-Native means wrestling fully with this historicized understanding of difference between insiders and outsiders. For if the course is to go beyond a superficial thematic survey that simply creates different categories from familiar oppositions, it is necessary to question the categories Native and non-Native, to revisit this historical interdependence and ask what makes them possible, and positive, terms today. We must acknowledge, first, that we are each subjects, occupying many different relational postures and attitudes during a single class, not just a single day. Yet as Paul Smith formulates it, “the human being, caught within the trammels of subjection or given over to the social formations which he/she inhabits, is never entirely a ‘subject.’” He helpfully suggests the term agent as the “place from which resistance to the ideological is produced or played out” (xxxiv-xxxv). Therefore, identity encompasses all three potentials—subject, individual, and agent—and returns us to the struggle between what is given, what is constructed, what is self-created. I support this triangulation as a way out of the rhetoric of victimization, on the one hand, or the paralysis of liberal White guilt on the other, as we interrogate any overly-simple, absolute, and unchanging political identification. Daniel David Moses insightfully describes this guilt as a “wound you don’t want to heal.... In romanticism, you’re dancing around a wound” (xxiv). Hulan shares the opinion of Native elders that “instead of raiding the spiritual and cultural material of First Nations, in effect ‘going Native,’ Euro-Canadians should look to their own traditions before joining the circle to listen to and learn about First Nations” (215). This is advice Maria Campbell also gave Linda Griffiths, when she said, “I couldn’t understand why you didn’t know your own history.... the history of your pain and all the things that happened to your people [Scots] was exactly the same as our history” (Griffiths and Campbell 35). She puts her hope, she says, in a healing conversation based on a shared knowledge of historical common ground that would create a “meeting place” for Native and non-Native today (35).

11The potential for such a meeting place, through individual and collective agency, despite multiple ideological pressures, is still there. Agency is possible in each reader’s response, student or teacher, to texts that, simply by arousing the debate and disagreement that they do, prove that categories like Native writer or Native woman writer are inevitably reductive. We are never merely “White” or “Native,” for obviously, we are also invested in other alliances and loyalties that may be in opposition to these categories of privilege, when we are the “in group,” or impoverishment, when we are “out.” As an instructor, I thus am prepared to question identity politics at its most simplistic—“You must be part of the in group to understand or identify with our view”—while never denying or rewriting the historical fact of cultural heritage and the loss of community values that many Native writers insist on. Thomas King, for instance, who is identified as Cherokee-Greek by Hoy, offers a definition that, while acknowledging community consciousness, suggests a certain amount of postmodernist free play: “For Native people, identity comes from community, and it varies from community to community. I wouldn’t define myself as an Indian in the same way that someone living on a reserve would. That whole idea of ‘Indian’ becomes in part, a construct. It’s fluid.... We identify ourselves... and that’s what counts” (“Coyote Lives” 90–91). I think we agree, as teachers, critics, writers, and academics, that identity is multi-faceted, but we need to acknowledge also that there are formative experiences that particularly shape our combination of voices, that provide a grounding for our impulses towards greater agency, and that these are largely cultural differences. Here, culture may be defined in ways both broad and visible (Euro-Canadian, Anishinaabe) and localized, invisible, or idiosyncratic (the culture of academia, the culture of the reserve, the culture of Stephen King fans, etc.).

12So when I first put together my Native literature course, entitled Studies in the Native Literatures of North America, it was with an unusual degree of excitement and also a sense of responsibility—not just to the institution, but to my own Northern, read Native, community. I taught it to a very select group of six female students, including one identified as Anishinaabe. I am teaching this course again, fall 2002, to a full class (35 students), and from this vantage point, I would like to review where I was then, my subject position as instructor to my imagined audience, and consider my own continuing learning process. I begin with my original course description, taken from my outline:

Studies in the Native Literatures of North America
Fittingly, we end the 20th century by looking back and “revisioning our history as North Americans. This new course is an historical and self-reflexive exploration of Native North American Literature written in English (with some early work in translation) and its meaning for us, whether Native or non-Native. Aside from grounding discussions of Native mythology aud its “orature” (mediated through print), we will be focusing on works created in the last two centuries, with an emphasis on the Modern and Contemporary periods. We will attempt to break down a “Eurocentric” hierarchical model of learning by inviting guest speakers and active student participation in the form of presentations, research questions, “debatable discussions” or position papers, and journal reflections. A field trip to a Native community centre (i.e. Indian Friendship Centre) will be investigated in order to facilitate cultural sharing.

13When I re-read this now, I am struck by my millennialist enthusiasm—the “revisioning” of North American history, before September 2001, seemed to be both much more possible and positive. I am also aware of my unabashed privileging of the literature aspect of the course, the de-emphasizing of the oral and the translated, treated in quick, preliminary gestures before the clean break with the past, in this attractively “new” course. I register the bias towards those (early) modern and contemporary writers, from Pauline Johnson to Daniel David Moses to Thomas King, who are “double agents” in their eloquent ability to use the language of the enemy (as some would see it) and invoke their declared subject position as Natives as the source of their carefully crafted reflections. Their work seems to depend upon deployment of the “Irony Oppositional” in Hutcheon’s classification: “the subversive doubling within and against the dominant that can be seen especially in the work of those artists concerned with issues of class, race, gender, sexual orientation, and post-colonial identity” (8). The angry writers—the activists first, writers second (or the community-builders?)—were less likely to get on the course. I emphasized that the course was not just for Native students, but in fact, the composition of my first class was predominantly Euro/Anglo-Canadian. While I introduced the term Eurocentric to signal a decentering of cultural authority (if not mine as professor), it is questionable whether guest speakers and even a field trip to a pre-determined Native community centre are really enough to achieve this. I think now that these moments are more artificial than I realized, akin to the popular participation, mentioned earlier, in Native cultural ceremonies often marketed alongside, or even within, Canadian tourism. In fact, the gathering at the Indian Friendship Centre was an awkward, if earnest, evening where my non-Native students and I tried to “fit in,” and became more concerned with how we “consumed” the event—who was dancing? was it the right way? did we choose the moose as well as the pickerel? “how should I eat these?” (Hoy 3)—than with connecting beyond the evening to the lives and issues of our hosts, most of whom lived and worked right around us in North Bay. The evening offered the possibility of a cross-cultural “meeting place,” to borrow Campbell’s hopeful paradigm, but we didn’t seem to have a vocabulary or an understanding for sharing otherness, theirs and ours. Perhaps next time we should take our cue from Thomas King’s astute point—also exemplified by Drew Hayden Taylor’s essays in Funny, You Don’t Look Like One—that comedy, if used thoughtfully, can work strategically to open otherwise closed minds, including our own (King, “Coyote Lives” 97), and reveal an important element of shared human experience. If we can take the initial social risk of admitting our own awkward unease as outsiders to the literature and cultural events we have committed ourselves to honestly engaging with, we may well find that the oppositional walls dividing out from in melt away. Sharing our own discomfort, honestly and without blame-placing, allows humour to creep back in—and humour, especially when self-directed, tends to keep us humble, putting our often clumsy feet, non-Natives and Natives alike, back on common ground.

14The course material I presented was organized through a number of guiding topics, and the one we spent the most time on was what I dubbed “Identity Puzzles.” This was designed both to disarm any perceived criticism of my authority to teach the course—my initial anxiety, which appeared unfounded—and to encourage the students to consider their own complex of subject positions in ways that made them open to the possibility of a Native identity as something more than another “special interest group,” in the resentful language of the national climate (again, so much for the Canadian community of communities). The course was aimed at second-year students, and my impression of (typical, not socalled “mature”) students at this stage is that they are still laying down their core markers of identity by means of frequent bursts of enthusiasm and disgust, and impatient with the idea of limits or checks channelling that energy, whether imposed by society, the economy, or me, as instructor. I think in a way I was protecting both the students and myself from the full exploration of these questions of identity. Allowing more time, and outlets, for this exploration might have led to franker discussions of the meaning of “Native identity” and, perhaps, its particular cultural difference, gleaned gradually from our reading, talking, and listening—and, perhaps, from the reflected-upon experience of Native students or guest speakers among us. That is, I may have given in to the temptation—as do so many of us as teachers—to emphasize relevance at the expense of difference. I was nervous about a rejection of the courses preliminary thesis—that there is a difference, growing up Native in Canada, that we, as sympathetic outsiders, may still not have access to—and so, probably politely downplayed it. Instructor discomfort with texts like In Search of April Raintree and its perceived aesthetic weaknesses may also stem from our resistance to content that frightens as it implicates us. The inevitable movement, in teaching Native literature, towards teaching cultural studies, which emphasizes “radical contextualism,” as one proponent puts it, at the expense of artistic absolutes, also invites us to think about the challenge of shifting more consciously in the direction of what Henry Giroux has famously termed “critical pedagogy,” where the teacher “simply” aspires to be a “model of thoughtfulness” (qtd. in Grossberg 19). We may see this shift as a loss of one kind of authority, the authority many of us once saw embodied in a reified professor-ideal. But we may also see it as a liberating embrace of our true “impurity,” our genuine hybridity in language, culture, identity. Ultimately, I feel, this will allow for greater honesty as we begin to share, if not shed, our pretences as teachers and students—pretences to objectivity, to mastery, to complete honesty, for a start.

15As an example of how I would like to embrace the “impurity” of teaching Native literature as a non-Native in an academic setting, I return to another cultural event I organized for the class that had unexpected effects. Eager to start the year off with “Native voices,” I invited the White Tail Singers, a local group of Natives who performed traditional drumming and “singing” in their native tongue (more like crying or wailing to my untrained ears) and which has been revived as a healing art. The intent was to have them perform outside, on the hill beside our pond, where we could remind ourselves of the ecological emphasis of Native spirituality and commune with nature at the same time. However, rain put an end to that plan, and in the absence of an appropriate space—the classroom was too small they decided; the gym, even if appropriate, already booked—the Singers set up in the large, open foyer beside the cafeteria. This meant that we had a captive audience, around 9:50 a.m., of a lineup of bleary-eyed students, teachers, and employees, all craving their Tim Horton’s coffee (franchised by our food services), and serenaded by the Singers. Some became intrigued, and we attracted a separate crowd for a little while, but I felt uncertain about the stares we got, and my discomfort grew as the singers continued with their program, creating a pounding rhythm that travelled through the halls, and the executive secretary to the Vice-President appeared to inform me that exams were being written nearby, and to please close as many doors between them and us as possible. We should, of course, also ask permission for such a performance, next time. I was vividly reminded of the scene at the conclusion of Kiss of the Fur Queen where the burning of sweetgrass by a medicine woman sets off smoke alarms in the hospital where Gabriel is dying and brings firefighters charging into the scene (304–05). We brought an “impure” effect into an otherwise routine, coffee-drinking day. The students and I discussed this mixed reaction afterwards, but probably with more embarrassment than we should have—and with less (self-directed, critical) humour than we could have brought to our interpretation of this collision of cultures.

16I think when I teach Native literature again, I will look more frequently to other voices, in the classroom—and I hope, other Native voices there—and the Native community that I may discover by making my own forays into the possibilities around us. Native people may then be found to speak from their perspective, which would sit against our abstract, inquisitive, literary outsider perspective. Ideally, I would like the cultural sharing to occur more loosely and spontaneously, through student ideas, curiosity, and community contacts... within and without the classroom and the text discussion. I would like to invite students to take responsibility, as part of their course mark, for making this happen. Allowing for this possible input and energy may mean the literature I have selected for discussion will be—temporarily—decentred at times. This may mean I will more often occupy the listener position: not an easy one for many of us. My authority may come mostly as a facilitator, perhaps a mediator, and a resource person for literary studies. Naturally, I remain in the end the ajudicator of marks and assignments, and so my institutional authority is unchanged. But perhaps the different perspectives we invoke, in text and discussion but also in more careful sharing and listening, if taken seriously enough by all, may make it clear that, especially in this teaching/learning experience, gaining an A, B, or C is not the most important achievement of this course. Nor is my own need to cram as many texts into a year, and the students, as possible. Perhaps, instead, a better sense both of humour and of honesty will be our mutual gain.

  • 9 Maria Campbell is probably best known as the author of the disturbing memoir, Halfbreed.

17To return to the literature, will I teach the same books again? Mostly, yes—and time permitting—partly for my greater learning the second time around, and partly for their own obvious educational challenges to me and the students. I have already intimated my own mixed feelings about In Search of April Raintree. This highly accessible novel was a powerful one—especially the controversial rape scene, with its explicit racist and misogynist overtones—and I found that my most reticent student was inspired to speak up, unprompted, to comment on its deeply-felt effect on her. Should such a scene, loaded with implications, be presented in a more subtle, understated manner? My own intellectual distance—jaded? or sophisticated?—felt inadequate in the face of stories of students being moved to tears in empathetic identification with the two sisters. Kiss of the Fur Queen was easily the most disturbing work, given its explicit detailing of sexual abuse of boys by priests in a residential school. This content was made more challenging for many of us as it was framed by the gay lifestyles of the two adult brothers, and the complex interplay between moments of sexual exploitation and moments of presumably willing initiation. For instance, the molesting priest’s prominent crucifix, and the naked body of Christ, becomes an eroticized icon in memory, then fantasy. Highway’s outrageous trickster-as-drag-queen fantasies jostle against horrific victimization scenes in a tragicomic manner, making Green Grass, Running Water’s biblical parodies seem mild by comparison. I felt that Highway’s sudden shifts of tone, mood, and mode of writing—realism to fantasy to satire to black humour—violated cherished views about unity and structural integrity. Again, was this my own limitation, or the text’s? McCulloch’s novel appealed with its quest pattern, poetic “Coyote” passages, and attention to the unrecorded tragedies still occurring on reserves today. The Book of Jessica, play and dialogue, was a good way to get students to question their own attitudes coming into the course—do they identify more with Linda or Maria in their conflicted collaboration, and why? Discussing it, we were able to take a step back, and survey our own liberal White guilt, or the “wound” as Moses describes it, in the comfort of observing another’s mistakes and misunderstandings on the way to the qualified triumph that is the play. Inspired by Maria, performed by Linda, created by both, it is truly a half-breed child.9

18The poetry was received with mixed interest, as poetry often is, though the students responded well to the narrative, or storytelling, poems, and quickly identified the “irony oppositional” operating in many. The (First) Preface to the Moses/Goldie anthology, “Two Voices,” written in the form of a conversation between the editors, was also a helpful way to introduce the material, and its many issues, modelling the dialogical mode I hoped to achieve in class on a regular basis. Of course, like many of our teaching goals, this was achieved partially and imperfectly... I need to inhabit the listener position more often. I hope, with my second attempt, and more voices to counterbalance mine, to revisit this discourse more frequently.

19In her discussion of the problems of teaching Native literature, Hoy draws on postcolonial critics for their strategies for resolving insider/outsider impasses. She observes the tendency towards a “retreat response,” when differences are felt intensely and there is a retreat from anger s danger into a more passive, or apathetic, silence masked as politeness:

In the classroom, Chandra Mohanty suggests, this can produce “a comfortable set of oppositions: people of color as the central voices and bearers of all knowledge in class, and white people as ‘observers,’ with no responsibility to contribute and/or with nothing valuable to contribute” (194).
What this simple divide misses, Mohanty suggests, is the necessary acknowledgment of “co-implication,” awareness of asymmetrical but mutually constitutive histories, relationships, and responsibilities, (qtd. in Hoy 17)

20This reminder of “co-implication” in history, in time, and in space, whether the space of Canada or the space of the classroom, is a good corrective to either silencing or silence. Reading the classroom for such dynamics is key for a White instructor who needs to shift between listener/learner and resource person/discussion leader. Keeping the dialogue alive and in the present is our best strategy and guarantee of interpretive authority, Margery Fee feels, “Without a conversation with living First Nations people about what they think and feel about their writing, their culture and their lives, the likelihood that we will have produced bad interpretation arises, as we make ourselves the experts, and them into the mute subjects of monologic expertise” (7). Hence the need for the “meeting place,” where the equal right to speak and to listen is assured, through the tactics of honest sharing and doses of critical humour.

21“Silence is also / a two-edged sword,” observes Joy Kogawa, acclaimed author of Obasan, which won redress for the Japanese Canadians affected by internment during World War Two (“Jericho Road” 71). Power, too, cuts both ways—sometimes deep cuts, sometimes minor nicks: the power of the teacher to grade students, the power of the students to shape the class positively or negatively, the power of educational privilege, the power of lived, embodied knowledge. Kogawa has also said, “Every certainty must be surrounded by doubt (“Every Certainty” C1). Can a non-Native, White instructor teach Native literature, and teach it well? It is a continually negotiated tension, for me, between acknowledging the experiential authority of cultural otherness, and making my own contribution to the passionate curiosity about unique voices and artful narratives of all kinds, times, and peoples that provides the initial—and Canadian?—ground, I hope, for our meeting place. If we recognize that we are always both outsiders and insiders to each other, but joined by our human need to make meaning out of our experiences, then we may learn the “methodological humility” that careful critics like Hoy advocate. We may even realize the agency that may come with the “simple” wisdom found through humility and maintained through a (self)-critical sense of humour.



Atwood, Margaret. The Handmaid's Tale. Toronto: Seal, 1985.

——. Survival: A Thematic Guide to Canadian Literature. Toronto: Anansi, 1972.

Belyea, Andy, and Lia Marie Talia. “Classroom Encounters with The Book of Jessica.” Presented at the “Postcolonialism and Pedagogy: Canadian Literatures in the Classroom” symposium. University of Ottawa. 3–5 May 2002.

Brant, Beth. “From the Inside.” Writing as Witness: Essay and Talk. Toronto: Women’s Press, 1994. 49–54.

——. “The Good Red Road.” Writing as Witness 5–21.

Brown, Russell, Donna Bennett, and Nathalie Cooke, eds. An Anthology of Canadian Literature in English. Rev. and abridged ed. Toronto: Oxford UP, 1990.

Campbell, Maria. Halfbreed. Toronto: McClelland, 1973.

Clarke, George Elliott. Whylah Falls. Vancouver: Polestar, 2000.

Culleton Mosionier, Beatrice. In Search of April Raintree. Critical edition. Ed. Cheryl Suzack. Winnipeg: Portage and Main, 1999.

Dragland, Stan. Floating Voice: Duncan Campbell Scott and the Literature of Treaty 9. Concord, ON: Anansi, 1994.

Fee, Margery. “Reading Aboriginal Lives.” Canadian Literature 167 (Winter 2000): 5–7.

Frye, Northrop. “Conclusion to A Literary History of Canada. The Bush Garden: Essays on the Canadian Imagination. Toronto: Anansi, 1971. 213–51.

Gerson, Carole. “Anthologies and the Canon of Early Canadian Women Writers.” Re(dis)covering Our Foremothers: Nineteenth-Century Canadian Women Writers. Ed. and introd. Lorraine McMullen. Ottawa: U of Ottawa P, 1990. 55–76.

Griffiths, Linda, and Maria Campbell. The Book of Jessica: A Theatrical Transformation. Toronto: Playwrights Canada, 1989.

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Highway, Tomson. Dry Lips Oughta Move to Kapuskasing. Saskatoon: Fifth House, 1989.

——. Kiss of the Fur Queen. Toronto: Doubleday, 1998.

——. The Rez Sisters. Saskatoon: Fifth House, 1988.

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——. “‘Nothing But the Truth': Discursive Transparency in Beatrice Culleton.” Culleton 273–93.

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——. Green Grass, Running Water. Toronto: HarperCollins, 1994.

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——. Running in the Family. Toronto: McClelland, 1982.

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1 The “Postcolonialism and Pedagogy: Canadian Literatures in the Classroom” symposium, was held 3–5 May 2002 at the University of Ottawa. This paper was presented in the session “Teaching First Nations Literature” (my italics), reminding me, by these initial differences in naming this emerging area of study— Aboriginal, First Nations, Indigenous, Native are its varying descriptors—how provisional and self-reflective our critical responses must be.

2 With reference to Andy Belyea and Lia Marie Talia’s dramatic presentation at the “Postcolonialism and Pedagogy” symposium, “Classroom Encounters with The Book ofJessica.”

3 I’m thinking of, for instance, Rohinton Mistry’s Such a Long Journey, Michael Ondaatje’s Running in the Family, and Anne Michaels’s Fugitive Pieces, to name a few random examples.

4 See Frye, “Conclusion to The Literary History of Canada”; Atwood, Survival; and Gaile McGregor, The Wacousta Syndrome.

5 This spring, Morningside’s replacement, This Morning (host Shelagh Rogers), ran a panel of celebrities and writers on the “Battle of the Books,” which aimed to discover the one book “all Canadians should read.” Contenders were Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, Mistry’s Such a Long Journey, Clarke’s Whylah Falls, Laurence’s The Stone Angel, and Ondaatje’s In the Skin of a Lion (the winner).

6 Perception may be at times stronger than reality; I acknowledge Carole Gerson’s careful work on the actual numbers of women represented in Canadian literature anthologies, although I see evidence in the newer teaching anthologies (often highlighting the modern and contemporary periods, it’s true) of more gender-sensitive editorial and selection principles. For instance, in the revised and abridged edition of Art Anthology of Canadian Literature in English, edited by Russell Brown, Donna Bennett, and Nathalie Cooke, there are 72 authors included, and 31—very close to half—are women.

7 Of course, part of her personal/professional disclosure, and likely a factor in Hoy’s special interest in this area, is her well-known partnership with Cherokee-Greek writer Thomas King, and their family life together. It is only fair to note that I, too, have a “special interest” now, being married to Cree-Scottish writer Ian McCulloch, whose novel I have chosen to put on my course, for its teachability, excellence, and relevance.

8 See John Milloy, “A National Crime: The Canadian Government and the Residential School System, 1879 to 1986.

9 Maria Campbell is probably best known as the author of the disturbing memoir, Halfbreed.


Assistant Professor in English Studies at Nipissing University, where she specializes in Canadian literature. She is the author of The Voice Is the Story: Conversations with Canadian Writers of Short Fiction (Mosaic, 2003). A new interview with Neil Bissoondath is coming out in Canadian Literature (2004)

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