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Image et Récit

Héliane Ventura
Simone Vauthier
Jean-Michel Lacroix

II. L'image-récit

Philip Kreiner's Contact Prints and the Problematics of Colonial Representation

Arnold E. Davidson


Les revendications des Autochtones quant à la propriété de leurs textes et les théories coloniales relatives à la construction de l'“Autre” ont fait prendre conscience aux auteurs canadiens que la représentation des indigènes relevait d'un véritable vol culturel. C'est ce que met brillamment en évidence Philip Kreiner dans Contact Prints.

Texte intégral

1Philip Kreiner’s title foregrounds a key question: With contact, who pictures who and who determines just what those portraits signify? In any contact situation power is expressed through asymmetrical representational rights. Confronting the mirror of the other, which group will retain its own version of its own identity, will cast the "other" accordingly and continue to find the reality it prefers in an interplay of reflections? Can, moreover, the reality of the "other" ever be represented or is it always a projection of the self, an exercise in dominant reading rights?

2To illustrate - and question - such asymmetrical reading and writing rights, a coalition of Native writers, The Committee to Re-establish the Trickster, recently presented to the Premier of Ontario a one-sided treaty written in Cree and claiming the Provincial Parliament Buildings because of the greater good those buildings would serve if taken over to house the homeless as compared to the scant and dubious value of their previous utilization. That treaty is hardly comparable in its force and effect to similar treaties forced onto Native tribes, which is precisely the point that the Native writers wished to make and a point probably better made through their Cree treaty than in an English novel about the injustice of treaties. Such a novel, The Temptations of Big Bear, had already been written, and no treaties were renegotiated in its aftermath.

3This is not to say that novels of Native life are to be left to sympathetic non-Native authors such as Rudy Wiebe. The Native case for exclusive rights to their own stories, and to their own representation of themselves, has been powerfully argued by Lenore Keeshig-Tobias, an Ojibway poet, storyteller, and a founding member of the Committee to Re-establish the Trickster. "Stories," she insists, "are not just entertainment," they "are power" and "they reflect the deepest, and most intimate perceptions, relationships, and attitudes of a people," so much so "that, in native culture, one storyteller cannot tell another's story without permission" (A7). Whites, she also points out, have a long history of taking without permission. "The missionaries stole our religion and the politicians stole our land and the residential schools stole our language," while "archaeologists used to rob our graves for museums" (A7). Any belated white attempt to relate a more honest story of the Indian, so far as Keeshig-Tobias is concerned, only extends this history of dispossession; it does not at all redeem it.

4For the most part, non-Native writers have responded to Native charges of "cultural theft” with countercharges of censorship, such as the following:

"I reject the idea of cultural appropriation completely," says Neil Bisoondath, a Trinidadian-born writer of fiction living in Montreal. "I reject anything that limits the imagination. No one has the right to tell me who I should or should not write about, and telling me that amounts to censorship. I don't believe anyone can steal the culture of another" (Godfrey 05).

5For Bisoondath, "fiction is an exploration of the other, and the only thing that matters is whether you do it badly or well, not whether you collaborate or ask for any kind of permission" (Godfrey 05). Yet this ringing declaration of literary independence suppresses completely the pertinent question of just who-you or the other-gets to decide whether that "exploration of the other" was done "badly or well."

6Still more suspect is the response of W.P. Kinsella, perhaps because his fiction is rather suspect too. Starting with Dance Me Outside, published in 1977, this writer has set a number of short story collections, narrated by Silas Ermineskin and collectively titled the Ermineskin Taies, on the Hobbema Reserve in Alberta, where the actual Cree Ermineskin band lives. A partial founding in fact — and Kinsella regularly uses real names — is particularly offensive considering how much this fiction also depends on standard derogatory stereotypes. The title story of The Miss Hobbema Pageant, for example, describes how Frank Fencepost enters the Miss Hobbema Beauty Pageant and then goes on to win the Miss Indian America title as well. In this tale that, at its best, is a send up of beauty contests, Frank insists his moustache is no handicap because "half the girls in Hobbema got mustaches, and those are the good-looking ones" (58). Sharing a dressing room is no problem either: "'Hey, nobody should be shy,' says Frank, 'I been to bed with all but two of the contestants anyway. We got no secrets from each other'" (58). Or, for the talent competition he "could show how I stuff five-finger bargains down the front of my jeans and boogie out of a store" (62-63). As Gerald Vizenor, a Chippewa author and critic, observes: "Ermineskin is a fictional narrator, but imagination does not absolve racialism; humor is no excuse to exploit negative preconceptions about tribal people. The author plays Indian for a white audience" (6). Ruby Wiebe even more specifically condemns Kinsella for his "reprehensible" and repetitive use of "the stereotypes of the Indian as uncomprehending child, the Indian as total non-achiever in white society, the Indian as chronic liar, the Indian as buffoon" — stereotypes that serve "to fictionally deface a particular race of aboriginal Canadians" (C3).

7Kinsella, in his own defense, has maintained that "if minorities were doing an adequate job of (telling their stories), they wouldn't need to complain [but] they don't have the skill or experience to tell their stories well. Indian writers tend to retell myths and legends. And that, to me, is boring and repetitive" ("Kinsella 'ripping off'" A15). Not only does the white author here daim, in the name of his greater experience as a writer, the right to tell the Native's story, he also daims the right to determine just what that story should entail (none of those boring myths and legends, thank you).Moreover, although his greater experience as a writer is very much at issue, the question of his experience as a Native is apparently so immaterial that he readily admits he has, for all practical purposes, none. He "knows only one Indian personally and has never visited the reserve" ("Kinsella 'ripping off'" A15). Yet Kinsella elsewhere insists that the "reality on the Hobbema Reserve" and particularly "the general meanness and viciousness of life," which is "mostly due to alcohol," is much worse than anything he depicts, and thereby concludes: "If there's anything wrong with showing a drunken Indian, I fail to see it because it is reality; and yet, as I've said, I hardly touch that aspect of life" (Murray 9). He knows the "reality" of the Reserve without ever being there; he remains blissfully oblivious of how much that "reality," much less his perception of it, is socially constructed; he totally overlooks how his literary work serves to demean Natives and to consign them to a marginal status; yet he still congratulates himself, in the name of that same "reality," on both his honesty and his restraint. The man just doesn't get it.

8Not all Canadian institutions and writers remain so invincibly ignorant. The Canada Council, the major government agency for funding in the arts, is "moving slowly towards a position that collaboration with minority groups must be increasingly recognized if those voices are to be effectively used" (Godfrey 05). Joyce Zemans, the Director of the Council, maintains that collaboration and consultation "is a more appropriate way to work" and is also "one way of avoiding the stereotyping that has existed" (Godfrey 05). Anne Cameron has agreed "to stop using Native culture and sacred stories in her books and to move over and make room for Native writers who are writing out of their own experiences and traditions" (Marlatt 16). Other non-Native writers are also increasingly recognizing that there are real questions regarding the propriety of cultural appropriation and are incorporating that awareness into their fictions of white/Native interactions.

9Particularly germane in this respect is Philip Kreiner's Contact Prints, a novel that partly records a white attempt to appropriate Native otherness and turn it into art. Iris Bickle, a long-time art teacher at a small Indian community school on James Bay, achieves signal success with her primitive masks only after she begins marketing them as products of an "authentic" Cree princess. As she insists to the at first indignant narrator, a young white male teacher newly arrived at the same school:

I was making masks while you were in diapers, and do you think I ever made a buck?... Not one. Not one lousy buck. Not fifty cents. Not one penny until I became Winnie Beaver. Now I'm in some of the best private collections in the country. They even know me in Germany. They're crazy for Indian art over there. What does it matter who I am? My work is good and it sells now. It has integrity. It possesses truth, and it deserves to be seen, even if I have to lie (46).

10As even this brief quote suggests, representation, art, ethnicity, and imposture oddly conflate throughout the whole work.

11Indeed, the comic highpoint of the novel occurs when two German reporters from Stern come to do an article on the artist, and Iris has to hire a local Indian woman whom she dresses up in warpaint, a duck-feather headdress, a fortune in furs, and "enough beadwork to supply the Montreal tourist trade with a year's worth of Indian jewelry" (147). Interviewed, the "Princess," speaking in Cree, tells one of the blondly handsome reporters "what she would like to do with him in bed," all of which Iris "translates" into a disquisition on how the artist finds it "problematic" that her masks "hang in galleries all over the world, contributing to the white man's aesthetic discourse" (149). The whole show is as self-servingly inauthentic as Iris's translation and presently concludes with an assemblage of girls from the school doing a "faithful imitation of an Indian dance performed by Puerto Rican actors in an old movie recently screened in the parish hall" (154). Nevertheless, devolved from her "basic collage principle," what might well be termed The Masque of the Red Princess is one of Iris's more impressive pieces and soon brings the narrator to admit that he had previously "undervalued her talent" (147).

12Iris's art and anti-colonial rhetoric hardly reverse the usual direction of the colonizing process. Neither does her subsequent career. The "price of fame" — i.e. the German interview — is still more media attention. A Canadian film crew is coming to do another feature on Winnie Beaver, and, Iris suspects, they might be harder to fool than were the Germans. She flees to Mexico where she soon begins to "market authentic Mayan silkscreen prints and batiks" (214). A different culture and locale but the same old enterprise of ripping off the Natives in the name of "authenticity" but with an art which emphatically isn't.

13The title of the novel, Contact Prints, puns on Iris's art, both "Cree" and "Mayan," which pretends to facilitate some contact with Native epistemenes while totally failing to do so. But it is also a punning reference to the photographic record of first contact, the attempt to fix and appropriate the image of the indigene. The narrator of the novel, Joe, a young man on the loose who has come north to teach because that was the first job that presented itself to him after he came back to Canada broke from Jamaica, photographically documents his own belated first encounter with Natives who "weren’t what [he'd] expected" (2). Of course his innumerable photos do not show him who these people are either; they only attest to how he wishes to see them. The title of the novel, too, explicitly alludes to the manipulation and the "mistakes" of any photographic rendering: "those failed shots, the ones spoiled by a dog running through or by the subject moving, or worse yet, the shots that captured some nasty quirk best left in the dark, I never bothered to blow up. I left them in the contact print stage" (14). In this sense, contact prints attest to the agenda of the objectifying eye and thus demonstrate that the photographic record exists as a contrived white artifact, not as a rendering of natural Native facts. So Joe's photographs parallel Iris's masks as another dubious white appropriation of Native life, Native culture.

14The parallels and variations on contact prints worked out in the novel also subsume the novel, which, after all, presents itself as a print depiction of various contacts (most of which prove abortive) across a doubly divided dividing line, not just white/Native but also French/English on the white side and Indian/Inuit on the Native — two further divisions that seem, incidentally, as difficult to negotiate as the larger one that contains them. The novel thus breaks down, even as it asserts, the governing polarity of Native versus white. But it also reaffirms that polarity by incorporating into a work portraying cross-cultural contacts two failed white attempts (both Iris's and Joe's) to cross a cultural dividing line in order to portray Native culture in ostensibly unmediated form, all of which is to say that Kreiner both metafictionalizes and undermines his fiction.

15As Iris herself regularly acknowledges, her art is premised on imposture. The novel, for example, ends with a post-script, a letter from Iris offering Joe a partnership in her new venture, "Under The Volcano: Artesanías Indígenas Mexicanas," and reminding him that she is now Maria del Flores, not Iris Bickle, and that he is to bring the right kinds of commercial dyes and wax when he comes for a visit. A postscript to that postscript letter also tells him he is to say, if asked, that he is her brother. Deceit on every level, starting with the fact that silkscreening and batiking are hardly indigenous forms of Mayan art, just as mask-making was not a Cree tradition either. The point is that something generically primitive sells, and that point is particularly emphasized in Iris's concluding letter which itself concludes by emphasizing how much Joe can make if he agrees to help her on a regular basis: "I've always told you, if you stick with me I’ll make you rich. That's spelt B-I-G M-O-N-E-Y, and you'll never have to teach school again" (243). But the narrator himself is hardly less dubious. Iris early observes that "with [his] damn pictures" he is "just like" her (45). The reader regularly sees him using his photographs to achieve distance and control and missing much of what goes on around him in his effort to catch it on film. His retrospective realization, "I didn't see," is almost a refrain running through the novel. Two such portraits of the artist as a dishonest and/or duped recorder must call into question the larger portrait provided by the text itself.

16The white artist, in Kreiner's novel, does not stand in for the Native artist but, rather, leaves the Native artist no place to stand. Winnie Beaver's success preempts the field and establishes what "Cree art" should be--not Cree but Western. It is in this sense that Winnie Beaver herself is Iris’s "best creation" (141) and makes possible the creation of the masks by defining the context of those artifacts as a white concept of Native, not any Native expression of anything. Thus even the Cree students, when they play their minor role in Iris's Winnie Beaver show, are cast as Hollywood Indians. Similarly, when the Governor General comes, after Iris has left, to visit the tribe, he is presented with "a grande folie indienne so similar to [Iris's] Winnie Beaver tableau” that both must have originated from "the same newsreels and movies" (232) or — a more likely explanation — from the same white construct of the Indian, from the same "Indianism" ("Indianism" here used parallel to Edward Said's "Orientalism"). To break out at least in part from the constraints of that "Indianism," Kreiner problematizes his novel by questioning its ontological status and by portraying more the process of misportraying across a cultural divide instead of pretending to present an accurate rendering of another way of life.

17We can also note that, in Contact Prints, Cree land, like Cree art, is subject to appropriation and transmogrification. The setting is a James Bay river valley that is itself the site of a massive hydroelectric development. When the narrator reluctantly visits the company town and the amenities of civilization (a shopping mall the hydro company has situated in the north), he specifically notes the sudden transition when he passes through the company gate to a "world... reduced to rubble, albeit rubble arranged neatly in rows" (82). The gate is significant too. Access is restricted. Officially, restriction is denied; nevertheless, "a 'whites only' town [occupies] land which had been Indian since the end of the last Ice Age," and to do business there, Joe observes, "would be like shopping in South Africa" (74). This assessment does not prevent him from doing business, although he does refuse to go in on his second trip when the Indians with him are crudely and insultingly refused admission.

18Appropriation and transmogrification, loss and its consequences, extend outwards from the company town. Back in the Native community, Fort Henrietta Maria, the narrator's relationship with his Cree "friend," Simon Blueboy, founders on the fiasco of the aborted shopping trip:

"You white men," [Simon] said, applying pressure to my neck. "You come here and you take our land and then you tell us we can't go on it.... What do you have to say for your people?"...
"It wasn’t me. I didn't do it, I'm just a teacher," I found the strength to reply, the words tearing out of my throat like fishhooks.
"Nice try, white man, but that won't do," he said, again dropping his hand to the base of my neck. This time he squeezed hard, making me wince. "I could kill you, you know. Right now. It would be so easy," he whispered, putting his mouth to my ear and blowing lightly just before he released me (226-27).

19Neither does the Native village, although down river from the dam, survive that new development. The flow of the river has been altered; the large island on which Fort Henrietta Maria was situated is being washed away; the community must be relocated. During that relocation, the narrator's other Native friend is killed at the novel's conclusion. To record the removal of the village, Joe bribes Pauloosie, the outcast Inuk who lives on the edge of the Cree settlement, to take him out onto the river, and once more not seeing what is happening even as he photographs it, Joe directs Pauloosie to bring their boat doser to the barge carrying the first building being relocated, the church. The barge tips; the building collapses. Caught in the wreckage, Pauloosie drowns. Another parable of progress?

20Although Contact Prints denies Indian art any public place and status, it nevertheless acknowledges the existence of such art. For example, at one point Simon invites Joe to come along on a Blueboy family hunting excursion into the bush. The first night out, Simon's father tells a traditional Cree story of how once, in "the old days," when all forms of existence had special capabilities, "the shit in one camp... was tired of always being left behind when the people moved" and so formed itself into a particularly handsome man who "walked to the new camp and went in" to impress all the girls. But then it entered a teepee to sit before the fire where it soon began to smell as it started to melt back into shit. Fleeing this disgrace (and unmasking?), pursued by the young girls, it drops one of its gloves, which one of the girls finds and also finds "full of shit." Running after the young man again, his female admirers round a corner to find only "a pile of shit" (193). Joe can recognize in the "lulling singsong quality" of the narration that it had "obviously" been intended as a kind of lullaby, and that is precisely its effect (192-93). The children are all soon asleep. But he also suspects a personal reference, for, earlier in the day, suffering from a particularly explosive case of "bush fever," he had relieved himself in the nearest clump of bushes, rather doser to the camp than his hosts consider proper. The story bothers him, so much so that he cannot sleep and presently he wakes one of Simon's brothers (Simon has not yet joined the hunting trip and has turned Joe over to this brother) to ask what it means. "It's just a story," he is told, "It doesn’t mean anything. Stop thinking like a white man" (194).

21Of course the Cree narrative can sustain a number of interpretations. One obvious possibility, suggested by the fact that the women of the Blueboy family have found Joe attractive, is the need to watch out for that which is full of shit. But the main point here is that Joe would place himself as totally outside the hermeneutic of the story and cannot even voice to himself the probable source of his unease, the possibility that he has been cast as the shitman. Insisting on being the viewing subject and never the subject viewed, he marginalizes Native life and Native art as much as does Iris or, for that matter, the hydroelectric company.

22Kreiner portrays how whites claim privileged status, perspective — or allow it to be claimed for them — yet he also shows Joe's partially redeeming sense of bad faith as this protagonist plays his white man's part. But Contact Prints does not suggest how the disjunctions on which it turns might ever be bridged. In this sense, the novel harks back to E. M. Forster's Passage to India. Even the setting of an attempt to connect between different peoples (and especially as that setting is itself being obliterated by the dam and the rising water of the hydroelectric company) is still proclaiming, "No, not yet," while the title, with its oxymoronic juxtaposition of contact and print (the othering implicit in any portrayal of an "other") avers, more darkly, "No, not ever."


Works Cited

Godfrey, Stephen. "Canada Council asks whose voice is it any-way?" Globe and Mail [Toronto] 21 March 1992: C1 and 15.

Keeshig-Tobias, Lenore. "Stop stealing native stories", Globe and Mail [Toronto] 26 Jan. 1990: A7.

"Kinsella 'ripping off' Indians", Globe and Mail [Toronto] 8 Dec. 1989: A15.

Kinsella, W. P. The Miss Hobbema Pageant. Toronto: Harper Collins, 1989.

Kreiner, Philip. Contact Prints. Toronto: Doubleday, 1987.

Marlatt, Daphne. "Introduction," in Telling It: Women and Language Across Cultures, ed. The Telling It Book Collective [Sky Lee et. al.]. Vancouver: Press Gang, 1990.

Murray, Don. The Fiction of VJ. P. Kinsella: Tall Taies in Varions Voices. Fredericton, N.B. : York, 1987.

Vizenor, Gerald. "Trickster Discourse" The Wicazo Sa Review: A Journal of Indian Studies 5, 1 (1989): 2-7.

Wiebe, Rudy. "Proud Cree nation deserves much more than 'funny' stories" Globe and Mail [Toronto] 17 Feb. 1990: C3.


Duke University, Durham, North Carolina.

© Presses Sorbonne Nouvelle, 1993

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