AUTHENTICATING THE SUBJECT: ROLE-PLAYING AND THE SELF.
Inside Out: An Autobiography of a Native Canadian, by James Tyman (Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, Fifth House Publishers, 1989).
(Excerpt from a Ph.D. Thesis.)
James Tyman’s 1989 autobiography brings us to the present and details the contemporary conditions of a number of Native lives. We are given Tyman’s assertion in a brief note, inserted presumably by an editor in the back pages, that Inside Out “was not written to seek pity nor was it done to ask forgiveness. I wrote this book to simply ask for understanding and acceptance for myself and all Native people.” This statement suggests the “synecdochic mode” of identity discussed earlier, in relation to Maria Campbell’s Halfbreed. James Tyman writes for himself and for “all Native people,” structuring his search for identity within the larger quest for an understanding of what it means to be Indian. His autobiography differs from Maria Campbell’s in the degree to which it concerns itself explicitly with racism, but in both Campbell’s and Tyman’s cases, the authenticity of the self is a preoccupation. Both Campbell and Tyman present their textual selves as role players who enact a conventional Indian identity. Tyman’s fictional self is a paradox, a character whose quest for authenticity renders him precisely the “typical Indian” he is determined not to become. The effort of the autobiography is toward an “Indianness” beyond white ideology, and therefore makes explicit the classism, sexism, and racism which are inherent in the presentation of Indian subjectivity. Tyman’s text discloses the ideological ground on which the contemporary Indian is founded. His protagonist’s quest for authenticity is therefore also a critique of culturally-determined modes of self-understanding, and understanding of others.
Inside Out is divided into 3 sections: Racism, Crime, and Recovery. Appendages to the text proper include a brief epilogue, added for the 1995 Fifth House edition, and a note “About the Author and the Book,” into which has been inserted a quotation from the author. The principal function of the notes, apparently added by an editor, assure the reader that despite “incredible odds,” there is cause to be optimistic: James Tyman has “taken on the job of rebuilding his life.” The book itself ends positively, with the protagonists assertion that his “gut feelings” tell him he is going to “make it” (226). Given the overwhelming evidence of the text, this conclusion seems unlikely; it is arguable the structure of the narrative, rooted in textual convention, gives rise to this outcome. It is principally to the structural character of Tyman’s narrative that I will turn, in order to substantiate the claim that specific narrative conventions guide both the telling of the story and the tale. In conducting the investigation in this manner, I hope to demonstrate that the text enacts, at the structural level, the very logic which at the level of narrative it attempts to dispel.
The observations thus far, regarding the “optimism” of the narrative’s conclusion, are not offered in order to suggest that there is no grounds for them whatsoever. Nor are narrative conventions invoked as evidence of “false consciousness” or disingenuity on the part of the author. These initial comments are given to suggest that textual presentations of the self can be, and are, informed by textual concerns. Among these “textual concerns” are the literary conventions with which every author must come to terms, as well as the less-commonly considered concerns of the audience: particularly, the white audience. In any consideration of “Indian Autobiography” it is of use as well to reflect upon the politics of textual production and consumption. Books “about” Indians have a social function which cannot fully be understood without reference to the media industry in particular, and state capitalism in general. A textualized James Tyman is, among other things, a commodity inseparable from the social, political, and cultural conditions of the marketplace. Textual conventions are informed by these conditions, as well as by more strictly “literary” concerns.
What I shall call the book’s market-oriented “machinery” clarifies the matter of the conditions of the marketplace. Our attention having been caught by the bold design of the book’s spine (or the bold design of the cover, if the publisher has arranged the all-important frontal display), we open the cover to find a series of quotations from the media. The assertion of quotation after quotation is that Inside Out is a “book for all Canadians” (Toronto Star) that provides “an opportunity for white society to look at the larger issue of the place of Native people in Canada” (The Daily News). Having established this assertion in the opening quotations, the following series drive home the point that Tyman’s narrative is “violent,” “raw,” “graphically detailed,” “gritty, sharp and quick” (Maclean’s and Vancouver Sun) There are less sensational accounts, but it is perhaps significant that these appear on the folio’s obverse face. Only after these initial impressions have been registered do we learn that Tyman’s story is “an engaging narrative by an intelligent, sensitive young man” (Books in Canada). The closing series of quotations present to the potential consumer a book which is “thought-provoking, especially for anyone willing to suspend old prejudices and listen with an open mind to a young Native” (The Edmonton Journal). Some comments and qualifications of my argument are in order.
It is not my contention that an industry conspiracy is at work in the deployment of these quotations. I am merely advancing a claim that books exist as commodities, and that this status produces significant observable results. One observable result is the choice of the publisher to exhibit the sensational character of the commodity, making it appear at once violent, disturbing, exotic (“Inside Out is a clear and dramatic account of what it’s like to be raised in an alien culture” – TheDaily News), and “a book for all Canadians.” (“Exotic” is defined by Chamber’s dictionary as follows “introduced from a foreign country: alien.” The Greek root is exotikos – exo, outside) It is relevant to note the logic of several quotations, which associate drama, violence, and crisis with the lives of Native Canadians, while arrogating to “mainstream Canada” the “disturbing question” about the place of Natives. (Not all the quotations function in this manner, and some are very far from sensationalism. However, the more sensational quotations are more prominently exhibited.) In the words of one reviewer, Tyman’s autobiography is an “opportunity for white society to look at the larger issue of the place of Native people in Canada.” The precise meaning of this last statement is unclear. From a marketplace point of view it is clearly preferable that a book appeal to “mainstream” Canada (whatever this might be). From the point of view of race ideology, however, the quotation is ambiguous. Does it assert that it is (or should be) up to “white people” to settle the issue of the place of Native people in Canada? Does it, on the other hand, propose that the social utility of the book lies in its opportune appearance – as an occasion for whites at last to see and understand the “larger issue” of the oppression and exploitation of Native people in Canada? Either interpretation is plausible; evidence for a conclusion of any sort is lacking. What matters in the present argument is the intertextuality constituted by the quotations. They provide a useful and appropriate counterpart to the text proper, raising the very issues of race that are the primary concern of Tyman’s narrative.
Tyman’s narrative is arranged into 3 sections, “Racism,” “Crime,” and “Recovery.” The logic of this structure is readily apparent, and is made explicit throughout the text. Racism is the foundation of the narrative; furthermore, within the concept of “racism” lies the interpretive tools we will need to understand Tyman’s fictional self and the incidents of plot. “Crime” and “Recovery” succeed racism, both chronologically and logically. As we will see, racism also informs the pressing concern of “authenticity” which the autobiography exhibits, for race ideology imposes an inauthentic identity upon the self. This “inauthentic identity” however becomes ironically authentic. Tyman internalizes ideology so effectively that his identity is paradoxical, in the manner of an authentic forgery. The roles assumed by Tyman’s protagonist are racism’s self-fulfilling prophecies, a fact which does not escape the self-awareness of the protagonist himself. Indeed, this very self-consciousness constitutes much of the autobiography’s complexity and interest.
The distance between the author and protagonist, on the one hand, and the protagonist and the reader on the other, is carefully managed and shifts throughout the text. The narrative begins in the second person, addressing a “you” who is simultaneously the reader, the protagonist and the impersonal “you,” as in the French on. An effect of immediacy is sought in the use of point of view. The first paragraph of Inside Out is written in the second person, the second paragraph in the third, and the third in the first. Tyman does not immediately address his fictional self as “I,” and indeed does not at first address himself at all. He first addresses the reader (“But if you had lived there”), and in so doing disrupts the inside/outside relationship upon which autobiographical narrative point of view depends. The reader of autobiography is posited outside the narrative, whereas the protagonist, narrator, and author are “inside” the narrative, identifiable by the first person “I.” However, the reader’s presence inside the narrative is momentarily and subjunctively posited. The reader confronts the “smell of spilled wine, whisky, beer and unwashed bodies.” This smell is contrasted to the “odor of frying bacon [common] to thousands of other households across Canada.” In these phrases the opening paragraph both establishes and complicates the inside/outside dichotomy on which autobiography rests. The inside perspective of Tyman’s autobiography rests not upon ontological grounds, but upon habituation and circumstance. The reader is forced for a moment to regard the outside from inside: “But if you had lived there long enough the smell was natural.” The inside, we are reminded, is an outside we have come to no longer recognize as such.
In a narrative concerned with race, adoption and identity, the disruption of an inside/outside structure lies at the heart of the protagonist’s condition. Alienation is an apt description of the protagonist’s plight. Tyman first refers to his fictional self in the third person: “He threw the boy to the couch, pressing one knee on his chest.” The use of a proper name fails to clarify matters, for there is yet no firmly established relation of author, narrator and protagonist (in an autobiography, these three share the same identity). “Kenny” does not identify James Tyman, though they refer to the same person. Only at the end of the second paragraph does the narrator place himself inside the text by adopting, as it were, a first-person perspective: “But my father was too drunk to realize I was still unconscious.” This abrupt shift of perspective establishes the generic textual conditions we recognize as autobiography (i.e. the textual convergence of author, narrator and protagonist in the pronoun “I”). However, it is the textual complexities of the two opening paragraphs which establish the thematic concerns of the book. The shifting narrative perspective and the destabilization of the inside/outside dichotomy assert that we cannot take for granted the linguistic conventions which underlie the narrative presentation of an identity. What can be said of identity in Inside Out, given that “James Tyman” makes his autobiographical appearance in the third person, in the guise of an unconscious boy named “Kenny”? This question emerges from the opening scene of the book and informs the use of narrative conventions which follows.
According to Tyman, “the story really begins” the day he arrives at his new home in Fort Qu’Appelle, Saskatchewan (8). The details of the autobiography’s opening section are reconstructed from an account given by Tyman’s mother in a downtown bar. Tyman himself, we are told, has no memories of the beatings and abuse. The first paragraphs, then, are not personal recollections, as Tyman himself reports: “I imagined this scene countless times as I tried to picture what horrible things had happened to cause my mother to let the Saskatchewan Social Services Department take me away.” The logic of autobiography dictates that one start at the beginning, but Tyman’s autobiography recalls Philipe Lejeune’s observation that the beginning is inaccesible. One cannot recollect from memory the circumstances of one’s birth and infancy. Beyond this observation there is the further point that the beginning of James Tyman’s life does not correspond to the beginning of the narrative. The fictional self of the opening pages, represented by the name Kenny Howard Martin, is of a dubious status, for it lies beyond the memory of the author. The “real” beginning comes when the protagonist is adopted into a white family and is given his new identity. The heading for the autobiography’s beginning proper is “September 1967” and the first paragraph of this beginning ironically concerns endings:
Who is this woman? Where is she taking me? Am I going to die? Somebody said I would do the world a favour if I died. Death is where you go to sleep and have peace forever. It sounds inviting. It’s got to be better than what I feel.
These are perhaps atypical thoughts of a four year old, but they are appropriate thematically. James Tyman’s beginning can be characterized as the obliviation of the Indian identity which is invested in the name Kenny Howard Martin and in the intersubjectivity of Martin and his family. Of course, racial characteristics obtain across the sea change of this reconstituted self. Kenny Martin does not die without leaving behind evidence that he has lived.
The young Martin arrives at his adoptive home without name, family or history. He finds a photo album and looks inside for his family, but it occurs to him that he doesn’t know who he is looking for (10). He is called “Jimmy,” eliciting the following unspoken response: “My name isn’t Jimmy. I want to tell her my name is…I don’t know”(8). Having arrived at the Tyman house, Martin’s identity is suspended in a confusing and disruptive introduction as well as over the confusing relation of himself to the others: “I’m standing in the porch. The huge brown table is full of white people. They look different. They stare at me like I’m different.” The difference represented by white people is not grasped in racial terms, but merely in the literal terms of a four year-old’s sensibility. The people are “white” in the same, literal sense that the table is brown. Since the protagonist is “brown” also, the physical details of the paragraph emphasize the boy’s objectification. He has more in common with the brown table than with the white people. He is an object of their gaze and speech, and he interprets their comments about him in instrumental terms. A “nice-looking lady” says, “he’ll do fine,” in response to which the boy concludes, “I think she means I’m okay. What am I okay for?” The attention of the narrative turns to the boy’s objectified body, which we are told “feels sick and lonely, and awfully scared”(9). We know the boy has been an object of physical abuse, and it comes as little surprise when the primary source of this fear is identified: “I’m afraid of these men.” Tyman begins his autobiographical journey as an objectified Indian without a place of belonging.
Indians inhabit the fringes of the narrative. Tyman first mentions them on page 10:
I noticed other Indian kids on these excursions. We’d stare at each other in fascination – I the nicely dressed young native with this white woman, and they with their stringy hair and worn clothes. Their parents looked just the same. Some of the men were loud and obnoxious. I studied them closely. There was something there I could almost remember.
He stares at the Indians in “fascination,” in the manner of an anthropologist. The difference between himself and them is immediately clear, for he is now a “nicely dressed young native,” adopted into the ways of white people. The Indians are dirty, loud, and obnoxious. There is however something almost remembered in the abusiveness of the men, and Tyman begins “to understand what [he is]” (10) from his encounters with these Indians: “They were dark skinned, and so was I.” The whites all around him do not fail to notice the difference. They ask, “You’re Indian, aren’t you?” The young Tyman answers “Yeah,” though his understanding of what it means to be Indian is confused. With his friend, Anita, he jokes about “the stupid Indians with their dirty clothes and hair, sleeping in the tall weeds behind the hotel on Main Street” (11). His dark skin reminds him he is in some sense Indian, but the meaning of this eludes him.
James does not fail however to gather the meaning of the “white man’s Indian.” While at school in Lebret, James’s outlook toward Indians is “molded” by the conversations of white children. The white children show by their statements that they have learned Indians are stupid, lazy, and dirty, and that Indians are thieves as well (12). James sees “only a few” Indians in church, and deduces from his understanding of religious dogma that, since only good people go to church, Indians are bad people who are going to hell. As strange as it is, this logic nicely complements and justifies the social conditions which James encounters. Racism becomes common sense when the badness of Indians is disclosed: “No wonder my friends didn’t like [Indians]. They were going to hell!”(13). This logic is apparently supported by church propaganda given to the children for the purposes of religious indoctrination:
We were given books about the biblical days. I would turn the brightly illustrated pages in fascination. Jesus could fly! Not only that, but anyone who died could fly. They floated around up in the clouds. Some were playing harps. They were always dressed in white. Another fascinating thing was that there were no Indians floating around in the clouds. In fact, there were no Indians at all in these books! Yes sirree, Indians were evil. (13)
Inside Out arrived some years after the priestly debate over the question Do Indians have souls? was concluded. Nevertheless, the observation that the blessed souls “were always dressed in white” discloses in symbolic terms racism’s gospel. The function of “the biblical days” is less moral and didactic than authoritarian, “biblical days” signifying a mythical past when God directly spoke His will to men. The social vision of narratives “about the biblical days” is, of course, a vision prescribed by contemporary authors. The past is a fiction in which the present forever reconstitutes itself. There are no blessed Indians in the heaven of biblical days because there shall be none today. (“Authoritarian” is best understood in the multiple sense of “auctoritee,” a term used throughout Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. The Wife of Bath plays with the term “auctoritee” to convey the relation of authority, authors, and authorization. Her memorable question “Who painted the lion?” draws upon an Aesop fable to make the point that representations differ according to the interests of the one who makes the representation. She argues that women are best suited to write about women, and that the monopolization of authorship must be attacked head-on.)
If Indians do not belong in heaven, neither do they belong in polite white society. Tyman writes often of “belonging” and comments that his mother frequented a downtown bar “because it was where she was accepted for what she was – an Indian, like most of the other patrons”(8). To be accepted within the dominant culture “for what he is – an Indian” appears to be impossible for James. He feels he does not “belong.” Racism alienates James from both himself and others; he learns to hate Indians, to hate himself, and to hate whites. Through crime and violence he attempts to find community and an identity, though ironically his acts of violence are undertaken to gain the respect of the respectable (i.e. whites). The respectable however cannot tolerate difference, and as a result of his need to assimilate, neither can James. His efforts, whether violent or not, are directed toward the futile task of becoming white. He laughs along with others at Indian jokes, reminds his peers that his family is white, and scrubs his hands, “hoping to wash the darkness off” (15). He learns of Indians from whites, in the schoolyard, in books, and from television. These Indians are the blood-thirsty savages of myth, and when they do not accord with the image of Indians he sees around town, James is left wondering, “I knew I was an Indian, but according to my friends I didn’t act like other Indians. What was an Indian supposed to act like?” The answer to this is implicit in the question. Indians act as whites say that they do.
The dominant white culture controls the means of representation and thereby sets the limits and terms of discourse. James’s friends exchange ideological dogma in the forms of jokes, legends, and rumours. James’s options are to participate, resist, or be silent; he is not however able to seize the means of representation, and hence to alter the terms of discourse. Discourse thus comprises James’s strategic response to racism – crime – a response which reinforces racist assumptions and which is therefore self-defeating. James attempts through crime to earn the respect of whites. Although it is ultimately self-defeating, the choice to undertake a life of crime is driven by a need for authenticity. The ideological Indian of James’s white peers is presented as the authentic Indian, but an authentic Indian identity must by definition seek an alternative grounding. The search for this “alternative grounding” constitutes one of the principal challenges of the Indian autobiography, for as already mentioned, representation of the Indian has long been controlled by the dominant white culture.
Racism engenders hate, and James comes to hate the white man’s Indian that he apparently is and the whites who inflict this hate upon him. James attempts to assimilate to white culture but finds assimilation to be an impossible goal, and instead flirts with the idea of suicide. This pattern of behaviour has been described well in Jeannette Armstrong’s Slash, in which the Indian protagonist’s dilemma is either “to assimilate or get lost.” (See also Noel Elizabeth Currie’s article, “Jeannette Armstrong & the Colonial Legacy”). These options, determined by the logic of racism, are articulated again and again in the autobiography:
I hate these people, I thought. They’re all wrong about me. I’m just like them. I think like them. I eat like them. I have feelings like them. I can’t help being who I am. I want to die. It came back to me: dying is where you go and have peace forever. (19)
This passage recapitulates the themes and language of the opening pages, in which difference is foregrounded and identity is rendered ambiguous. With this recapitulation however there is a transformation, for hate has entered the narrative. The protagonist asserts his social membership only to underscore his difference from others (“I’m just like them … I can’t help being who I am”). The recognition of difference no longer derives solely from appearances, but from the hateful logic of racism. The recourse of the alienated self is once again death, but death is now invested with further meanings. Death is the place “where you go and have peace forever,” but also a capitulation to racism’s demand, “assimilate or get lost.” In accordance with his tough-guy role, James must make his death look like an accident. His school mates must not know “they’d won” (20), although the demand to “get lost” would have been fully met.
At the centre of Inside Out is a quest for authenticity. James comments that his adoptive family “seemed artificial, it wasn’t real” (19); he does not know his “real name” or his real parents (21). James finds the adoption papers, which refer to him as “the subject,” and his response is alienation and “a mixture of love and hate” (25). Tyman represents the discovery of his birth name and has his protagonist respond, “That was it! Now I know who I am.” (25). He has come however from Ile-à-la-Crosse, “the end of civilization”(25) and is further alienated from the Tymans and “their relatives,” as he puts it. James is called an “apple” by Indians (a term designating an assimilated Indian, i.e. red on the outside and white on the inside), and yet he is alienated from white society as well as from Indians. Tyman multiplies the ironies and contradictions of this confused identity. In a refrain reminiscent of Edward Ahenekew’s Old Keyam, James asserts, “No one cares about me! … So I don’t care about anyone!” (26). “Who cares” is a phrase that captures the attitude of James’s “tough guy” role (18), but it serves only to alienate James further from his conflicting emotions, which “[eat] him up like a cancer” (27). Cancer introduces death and its associated theme alienation of the self into the narrative, but the “real name” functions in contrast as a focal point for the countermovement of the self, toward authenticity and life. James’s authenticity quest embodies itself as a search for his past and is initiated by the discovery of his real name, for the name is a vestige of the past which will take him eventually to the “end of civilization,” where his unremembered, subliminal self awaits recollection.
James’s recollection of his forgotten past is only one-half of the narrative’s concern. The other half addresses racism’s effective distortion of the present, and the self-loathing and self-alienation which results. The reserve Indians disclose the profound ignorance and racism of James, and the ideologically-determined manner in which he conceives Indian identity:
“You Indians scalp anyone on the reserve lately!”
He knew I was joking, but he was visibly upset by it. “We don’t scalp
people. How do you think we learned to scalp?”
“Skinning beavers and gophers,” I shot back.
“You don’t know much, do you?”
Not only is James ignorant, but the means of production of his “knowledge” of Indians differ decisively from those of the reserve Indian. The reserve Indian alludes to the historical record (“How do you think we learned to scalp?”), thereby exposing the fundamental flaw in James’s conception of Indians. The discussion between James and the reserve Indian continues,
I quit smiling. “What do you mean?”
“I mean, you’re no Indian. You grew up with whiteys all your life. They taught you that we scalped people, right?”
“Well, that’s the truth … isn’t it?”
He snickered lightly. “Pile of bullshit. Get some Indian bros. Quit hanging around with honkies. Maybe you’ll see what the truth really is.” (27)
The reserve Indian equates “being Indian” with knowing the truth, thus underscoring the narrative’s logic that the lies of racism distort the self and lead potentially to alienation, violence, and destruction. Authenticity of the self demands a truthful account of history and social and racial relations. Thus, a good part of the burden of Tyman’s autobiography is to restore authenticity of the self by presenting a truthful account. Racism serves the double function of keeping James from true knowledge of Indians as well as from the knowledge that he does not know. Truth, in the view of the reserve Indian, issues from solidarity with one’s own; history issues from group identity.
The matter of identity is further complicated by the introduction of the term Metis, which Lorne must explain to an ignorant James: “A Métis is a half-breed, half Indian and half French”(28). The term properly refers to a distinct cultural (and not merely racial) identity, a fact Lorne acknowledges in his historical grounding of Metis identity:
“…You heard of Riel?”
“Riel was a honky,” I exclaimed.
“He looked like a honky, but he was the same as you. You’re just the darker
“Darker version, hey.” I felt a sense of relief then, not because I was actually sitting down talking to an Indian, but because I realized I was half white. (28)
Lorne makes the essential point, that the Metis are best understood in relation to Riel and the historical context in which he was situated; he is however wrong that Riel is the same as James. James’s understanding of Riel (“Riel was a honky”) discloses the ahistorical sensibility which is the psychological condition not only of the protagonist, but of his society. Deprived of a history, James is forced to reproduce his cultural and personal identity through the medium of a racist ideology’s anti-history. Riel is thus an ironic presence in this context, the symbol of a Metis identity which has been obliviated.
James is compelled by a racist society to assume roles. Lorne puts the matter this way: “You act like a clown, entertaining your honky friends all day. That’s not really you. You’re just acting that way to get their approval” (28). Racism dictates to the Indian that he must “assimilate or get lost,” and consequently two common themes of Native autobiographies are suicide and the role-playing Indians are compelled to undertake in their quest for acceptance. The principal thematic tension of many Native autobiographies is constituted by the competing psychological demands for acceptance and authenticity. This psychological condition, referred to by Wilfred Pelletier as a “double life” is a nearly universal feature of Indian autobiography, at the core of which is typically a critique of the dominant modes of social relations and the ideological and institutional instruments by which they are formed. Thus, Wilfred Pelletier’s collaborative No Foreign Land is a critique of, among other things, capitalism; Maria Campbell’s Halfbreed is especially concerned with welfare ideology; and Eleanor Brass critiques the logic of the Indian Acts. In each case, there is a keen awareness of the double lives of Native peoples, and of the historical, ideological, and institutional conditions from which these double lives issue.
Assimilation is presented as a choice between being a “good Indian” and a “bad Indian.” James, to his pleasure, is seen by some as belonging to the former category (34). He infers from the court briefs of the newspaper that there are “a lot” of bad Indians, and decides he does not want others to think he is one of them. In the next paragraph, however, we see James planning his first of many crimes, at the instigation of two Indian friends who share his rage (34). The implication is that James is in fact “one of them,” a conclusion against which he directs considerable psychological and physical efforts:
I was working hard all right, trying to show everyone that I wasn’t like those “lazy Indians” who littered the town, drunk and crude, every time they got their welfare checks. I was a hard-working white man: that was what I was trying to prove to my family, my friends, and anyone else who saw me. I was fighting myself (37).
The “lazy Indian” is a long-standing figure of ethnography and a sharp contrast to the hard¬working white man of the Protestant work ethic. The battle between the two rival identities is a matter of personal psychology, James having internalized the assumptions which inform them. “Inevitably,” Tyman writes, his “two lives crashed together”(37). He is unable to sustain the illusion, and enters fully into the category of “bad Indian”:
All my work to show my white friends that I was a “good Indian” had gone wrong. All my inner turmoil to show myself that I wasn’t like the rest of the Indian race who drank, fought, and went to jail had gone wrong. (47)
James’s “new notoriety” as a burglar confirms his identity. Despite his efforts to the contrary, he becomes racism’s “typical Indian.” As has always been the case in Canada, institutions are in place to manage the bad Indian. Indeed, most of the autobiography depicts James’s serial encounters with these institutions.
We have seen already the omnipresence of institutions in Native lives. In the earliest phases of colonial rule, the Indian department and the treaty systems constituted the primary instruments of cultural, social, and economic domination. These instruments were deeply embedded in the institutions of British empire, and derived their self-justification from ethnology’s evolutionary model of racial development (See the discussion of Lewis Henry Morgan in Chapter 2). Inside Out occupies a historical period during which the court system has become a preponderant instrument of law and order. Within the court system, James reaps “pity and scorn” (66), and he finds that the so-called correctional institutions worsen his condition: “Now I was on probation for two years and my outlook on life was distorted. I had no identity. My experiences with the court system just added fuel to my anger (67). As his friend Carl points out, the good Indian disappears, whether through assimilation, the reservation system, the correctional system, or by occupying the margins of society: “…if you stay on welfare, stay on the reserve, or stay in poverty in the city, then you’ll be treated better. But as soon as you start making noise about being discriminated against, they’ll turn it back in your face. They’ll call you the bigot. They’ll say you’re not appreciative of what the whitey is doing for us”(68). James construes his life of crime as a means to achieve”respect and fear” (66) and to avoid being “a token” (69). Assimilation is compelling, but increasingly James comes to see his condition in the historical and political terms of his “tutor” Lorne and his friend Carl. Tyman introduces contemporary land-rights court cases as a contrast to the self-defeating encounters of James with the court system (69). Ironically however James is fighting in his own manner the battle which is going on in the culture at large. The criminal sub-culture offers James an illusory community, identity, and respect, offerings which appeal to James’s generalized longing for an alternative to “work, honkies, and authority” – that is, to the dominant institutions of economic, social, and political hegemony (70). Yet in the absence of a coherent and compelling strategy, rooted in history and a collective identity, James’s efforts are doomed to failure.
When seen from the outside, the life of crime appears to be glamorous. However, the outer is inauthentic. James experiences the notoriety of crime which he has previously only witnessed, and comes to understand from the inside the irony of criminal “success.” His growing notoriety makes him feel “like a celebrity” (79) and gains him a place among local Indians. Terry sums up James’s public identity: “You’re a bad influence. You have a bad attitude, and you’re rowdy, rank, motherfuckin’ Indian who’s selling drugs to school kids. That’s how the cops will portray you in court.” James achieves his objective; he is no longer an object of pity, but rather a pariah. Tyman however undermines the achievement in a brief passage which exposes the contradiction of the inner and outer: “I sat handcuffed with a police officer on either side of me. I had watched men sitting like this. I thought they were murderers, or criminal masterminds. I felt stupid getting all this attention for a $24 window”(84). The chapter “Racism” concludes having acknowledged James’s failed efforts:
I decided to move to the city when I got out of jail. “Who knows, I might get rich,” I told myself. I used to have dreams of getting rich, just to show everyone that I wasn’t a typical Indian, content to stay in the shadows and collect welfare when he realizes white society doesn’t want him. I wasn’t going to let them do that to me. I would make them want me. I would make them notice me, and respect me. They would know who I was. But now it all seemed worthless. I was going to jail. I was just another typical Indian. (89)
James’s efforts are informed by culturally determined roles. He becomes a clichéd “bad Indian” and “tough guy,” while dreaming of his public transformation into a rich man. All the while the “typical Indian” lurks in the background as the negation of all that has worth. Inside Out documents the paradoxical effort to present to the world a simulation of authenticity. This is not however a mere intellectual game, but rather an acknowledgement of the economic and social power invested in the marketplace of identities. For James, success in every sense of the term depends upon satisfying the demands of the social market.
Chapter 2, “Crime,” recapitulates the autobiography’s opening paragraphs. James awakes on the floor of his friend Dale’s house, among a group of passed-out friends who clutch “half-full bottles or burnt-out cigarettes”(99). This is the life Kenny Martin had known, but which has now been forgotten. Tyman however recalls the culture of the “undesirables” in which the Tyman’s lived, and employs it as the setting for the opening paragraph of chapter 2. The tripartite structure of the autobiography proper (there is a concluding note about the author and the book, as well as an epilogue) suggests that the principal themes will be introduced in the first section, and that a transition will occur in the middle section, leading to the resolutions of the final chapter, “Recovery.” Indeed, this is the case. “Crime” depicts the culture of the undesirables and the racism of which this culture is an outcome. The recapitulation of the autobiography’s opening imagery lends thematic integrity to the narrative and underscores the social reproduction of crime and violence which are racism’s legacy.
The Regina Correctional Institute is the setting for the novel’s first turning point, which comes precisely at the centre of the autobiography (page 109 of 219 pages). Here we encounter the following passage, which concerns James’s friendship with an Indian fellow-prisoner, Herbie:
My first impression was that he was a hardcore racist, but after talking to him for a while I learned that I was the one who really was not informed. It was like meeting Lorne all over again, the Indian back at Bert Fox Composite High School who’d told me to get some Indian bros and quit hanging around with honkies. “Maybe you’ll see what the truth really is,” Lorne had said, and now, finally, I was ready to hear it. I had learned about Indians from white people. I hadn’t bothered to question their analysis because I was afraid of rejection. After talking to Herbie about Indian people and their beliefs, I found that I was myself a hardcore racist. I felt disgusted with myself, remembering all the snide remarks I had made over the years about Indian people. They weren’t a bunch of bloodthirsty savages. They were my own people. I hated my own people. My own people hated white people. I didn’t know who I was or where I was going. (109).
Much can be said of this passage. First, Tyman structures the representation of his personal development through thematic and character repetition. Just as James occupies roles throughout the narrative, so too do his acquaintances. Herbie fulfils the function first presented through Lorne. Herbie’s success in his tutorial role depends upon the institutional context, which itself fulfils a role not unlike what Bahktin termed a “carnival.” The prison culture not only represents the broader culture from which the prisoners have been drawn, it inverts it, with interesting results. In the prison, “the honkies are the oppressed minority” (103), and as such they occupy “the bottom of the social ladder”(103). Racism is blatant inside the prison but differs qualitatively from the racism of the outside world, a result of the inverted relations of power in prison society. Tyman employs the theme of inside versus outside in a series of inversions which culminate in James’s realization that he is himself a hardcore racist who hates his own people. Inside Out, having indicted the racism of the “outer” world, climaxes in the revelation that James is himself a racist. Herbie is quick to point out that James is an “apple,” an observation which corroborates the narrative’s increasing interest in the internalization of ideology. James’s insight that white “analysis” of Indians has obliviated their subjectivity (or “beliefs,” as Tyman writes) is an outcome of his immersion in an Indian-dominated prison culture. Inside the prison James learns about Indians “from the inside,” as it were. (See the chapter on E. Brass. It has been noted by a number of commentators that white institutions designed to subdue and assimilate Indians, such as residential schools, often have the paradoxical effect of politicizing them. Brought together into large groups within white institutions, Indians learned of their culture from other Indians even as whites attempted to assimilate them.)
The mention of “apple” prompts James to speculate about the Martins and his lost self: “I thought that could be what I was looking for – the past I couldn’t recall, a sense of identity, of who I really was. You can’t take someone’s past away and expect him not to miss it, not to look for it.” (109-110). This wording conflates the personal and collective past. James is in search not only of himself, but of a narrative of Indian identity not integrated into the economic, social, and political interests of the dominant (white) elite. The setting of this chapter, a prison, should remind us that it is not an identity which James lacks, but rather the control over the terms in which that identity is constituted. James is literally imprisoned in and by social constructs. The inmates, composed of individuals drawn from specific class and race categories, play the ideologically-prescribed and culturally-mediated roles of the con. They are, as Tyman notes, “role playing inmates,” in accordance with the class and race ideology of their captors (120). James too plays the role by setting himself in oppositional terms against the “straight johns.” “I’m not like you guys,” he says, “I’m a con” (117). In his con role, James is a “phony” who participates fully in race and class ideology. The question “Who are you,” the concern proper of autobiography, illicits competing and contradictory narrative “answers.” Who James “is” depends largely upon who has set the terms of discourse. The autobiography presents two contradictory positions. James may form his identity around an inauthentic core (and thus become an apple), or he may seek an authentic identity through a reconstitution of his “lost self.” James’s search for the Martin family derives from the latter option. The Martin family serves a function akin to Metis history in Maria Campbell’s Halfbreed, for it is posited as a lost but authentic history from which the “real” self may emerge.
James’s enactment of a “con” identity constitutes an oppositional mode of the self. He is set apart from the “straight arrows” (128) of society and is relegated to the criminal culture of violence. Violence is directed not only toward others but toward the self, a fact disclosed in numerous references to self-mutilation. James attempts both to explain and legitimize his relegation to a criminal culture through the authorizing discourses of individualism which are at the core of autobiographical discourse itself. The dominant culture thus affords him ample opportunities to engage in what Marx has termed “false consciousness.” James asserts that his entry into the criminal culture is both “natural,” because it is innate (“I was born a criminal, I guess” 129) and willed, because it is an assertion of his autonomy (“I’m just going to be me. No one holds me. No one controls me. If someone gets in my way, chances are one of us is going to die.” 128). The “false authenticity” of these assertions, rooted as they are in class-based ideologies, is a manifestation of the narrative structure’s implicit logic. False authenticity is the paradoxical outcome of racism and the precursor of the “recovery” of the self. (Thus the division of the narrative into Racism, Crime, and Recovery.) Tyman, in other words, posits racism as an “autopoetic” ideology from which an autobiographical outcome (the “con” identity) follows. Inside Out displays the assumptions of autobiographical discourses they intersect among ideologies of race and class. The intersection of these ideologies discloses the relationship of identity, power, class, and consciousness. False consciousness serves to legitimize contemporary domestic imperialism by narrating the self merely in the ideological terms of autobiography. James’s specious assertions of volitional and genetic self-determination displace the appropriate considerations of class, race, and history which underlie the conditions of his life. According to the logic of false consciousness, James is a “born criminal”; neither history nor ideology are matters of concern. The abstracted “con” identity therefore is an autobiographical fiction in which dominant interests have an enormous stake. False consciousness is a contemporary concomitant of the historical evolution of colonization. So long as James is a mere born criminal, more plainly ideological matters need not be raised. It is the competing models of the self, one based on an autobiographical critique and the other on a historical-ideological critique, which contest one another throughout Inside Out. The former concerns itself with depicting the events of a life with reference principally to the self, whereas the latter considers the relation of the self to history and ideology, as well as to a collective identity (Arnold Krupat’s “synecdochic self”).
The reclamation of a collective historical and cultural “Indian” identity is complicated however by a number of conditions. “Indian” is an ideologically loaded abstraction. There is no universal “Indian” identity, excepting perhaps the white man’s Indian. There are common historical experiences, but in an autobiography such as Inside Out, it is precisely the historical dimension of Indian identity which has been rendered inaccessible. Urban Natives typically suffer from a form of amnesia, unaware as they are of the historical conditions which inform Indian identities. Tyman illustrates this cultural amnesia throughout the narrative and displays the dysfunctional forms of solidarity to which it is prone:
“Hey, bro, tansi,” a smiling Indian said from three stools down.
“Sorry pal, I don’t speak Indian. But how the fuck are you?” The rye
was already making me feel good.
“You’re not Sioux?”
“Well, bonjour monsieur.” His laughter sounded like cackling.
“Ah, oui monsieur.” I laughed along with him.
“What’s your name, brother?”
“Well hello, Jimmy Tyman. My name is Ivan Blackfeather.”
“I’d be more pleased to meet you if you bought me another rye and
Coke. But if you want my undivided attention, buy me a double.” (126).
The ironies of this passage are several. James, misidentified as a Sioux, presents himself as a “Métis” (this spelling, a textualized case of misidentification, is yet another irony) and is thereafter addressed in again foreign language. The rhetorical solidarity of this passage, conveyed in the terms “bro” and “brother,” is undermined by language itself. For James and Ivan, there is no language within which to speak of Indian identity and a cultural solidarity; there are only the familiar languages of the dominant culture and the alien language of the Indian. This passage reveals the respective limitations of languages and the problems for identity which these limitations imply. Ivan Blackfeather attempts through a speech act to assert brotherhood, receiving the vulgar and comical English response, “how the fuck are you.” The tone of the passage is debased: James exploits a “cackling” Ivan, who is seen merely as an opportunity for personal gain. They speak of “politics, religion, white people, black people, Indian people, all types of people and things” (126), but the encounter ends pathetically when James is invited to Ivan’s house, where a family composed of a “lost-looking” woman, huddled children, and a debilitated auntie drink Lysol. James’s encounter with Ivan Blackfeather succinctly represents a range of conditions which militate against a number of Canada’s Native people.
The now-familiar themes of violence, racism, alcoholism, drug abuse, and Indian identity surface often throughout the Crime chapter. New themes are introduced and woven into the emerging patterns. One additional theme is James’s ignorance of the living conditions endured by a large number of Native people. James begins to meet and associate with Natives and is provided as a result with a more accurate understanding of reserve life. Devonne, a prostitute and drug-addict, explains the meaning of the word “tansi” and tells James that many reserve Native children are starving “because the rest of the family is drunk” (133). Donna Nighttraveller, James’s eventual partner, portrays the “filth and disease” of reserve life. Tyman recalls her testimony: “There was no running water in most [reserve] households. That shocked me. Didn’t every household in Canada have running water?” (160). James’s, like many white Canadians, is as ignorant of contemporary Native life as he is of Native history. Colonization, through its attendant ideological self-justification, racism, has rendered James a self-loathing “apple.” Tyman alternatively pieces together encounters with Native people and thereby weaves a narrative that is both historically and culturally critical of colonization.
James’s relationships with Devonne and Donna are of special significance. In his relationship to Devonne, James contradicts the racism and sexism which underlie the culture of crime and violence, and which ultimately are employed to justify economic and cultural dominance. A conversation with a white ex-con (referred to only as Joey Longfeather) presents the thematic relationship of domination and ideology:
“You going to get a bitch working for you?”
“I don’t know. If they want.”
”No, Tyman. Grab the bitch and make her work. That’s the way you
I thought of Devonne. “You figure that’s the way to handle them? Beat
them and dominate them?”
His voice rose with excitement. “Yeah! Beat, beat, beat them into a new
understanding of the way it is!”
“That’s not the way it is, pal.” (138)
The racial ambiguity of Joey Longfeather, a white portrayed throughout the narrative as an Indian, serves to blur racial distinctions. His attitudes are transcultural, being rooted, as he says, in “the way that it is” (138). Calvin, a Native acquaintance, puts the matter in more eloquent terms: “It’s the society we live in that makes [whites] that way. They have a lack of understanding toward Indian people and their ways” (148). One may further conclude that the systemically-derived ignorance of whites could extend to Native peoples also. Indeed, Calvin himself draws this very conclusion: “But I think you know what I mean, eh apple?” In passages such as these, Tyman presents the need to move beyond a racially-based analysis of crime, violence, and identity, and toward a more “systemic” crtique. Racism in itself is an inadequate explanation of social reality; a more perceptive mode of analysis becomes necessary. In his relation to Devonne and Donna, James begins to ask a differing set of questions, which correspond to his emerging understanding of the dynamics of the criminal culture and of its resulting false consciousness. Tyman employs dramatic irony to foreshadow the displacement of false consciousness:
I sighed. “Wherever I lay my head is home for the day.”
“Me too. Great life, isn’t it?”
“Yeah, it’s freedom. I heard Tony got stabbed in Vancouver.” (138).
The non-sequitur of the ultimate line is jarring, but implicit in the grammatical disjunction of the line is a profound insight: this life of “freedom” is an illusion which can at any moment come to a violent and abrupt ending. Freedom in this context is defined according to the “con” ethic articulated by James on page 128: “I’m just going to be me. No one holds me. No one controls me. If someone gets in my way, chances are one of us is going to die.” This is what Joey Longfeather designates “the way it is.” Devoid of any notion of democracy, community, or responsibility, this conception of freedom is informed instead by an ethic of power and domination. Only by entering consciously into a caring human relationship does James’s begin to comprehend the severe distortions (that is, racism and sexism) of this ethic.
The terms of a narrative resolution are suggested on page 142. The false consciousness of the Crime chapter begins to give way to a consciousness of an alternative set of human circumstances:
Cons always talked about other cities and the romping good times they’d had there. I wanted some of that, but I was also looking for a sense of security like Devonne had. She had a nicely furnished place, the bills were paid, there was food in the house. I wanted that stability. My sleeping friend reminded me of the cons who wanted to go like gangbusters till they got caught or killed. I didn’t want that. (142)
Despite this development, James continues to look for stability and community within the con culture and to adhere to its notion of “coolness” (147).The con culture is a coherent and ordered set of social arrangements in which every individual occupies his or her station. Considering Tyman’s representation of the con culture, one is struck neither by a chaotic or dysfunctional absence of community so much as by a cultural space which is highly organized and which serves a number of important functions. Cons perform prescribed roles and act as economic agents within a criminal economy. Tyman takes great care to explain the system of etiquette by which con culture is regulated. Con culture is hierarchical, mirroring and at times parodying the behavioural regimes which inform the middle class’s professional culture. Indeed, con culture complements professional culture, both in its convenient absorption of dominant society’s “undesirables” and in structuring of underclass violence in a mostly self-directed form. James’s longing for “security” discloses the limitations of his convict persona and the false ideological articulation of freedom in which it is invested. The autobiography’s dramatic irony (constituted by the contradiction between James’s acts and dialogue and his inner thoughts) thus offers an implicit critique of the model of selfhood with which James has affiliated himself. An alternative set of interests, oriented in relation to “security and stability,” foreshadows the eventual narrative terms of resolution according to which James may extricate himself from his violent conditions of life in order to redefine his subjectivity.
At Donna’s suggestion, James pursues his past by phoning a government social service department and asking for information. He is told that his family background is “privileged government information,” yet another case of both literal and figurative state appropriation. James decries the rules made by governments “to frustrate you,” asking “why can’t they show you the way once in a while, instead of always trying to divert you?” (191). Though the question is ostensibly rhetorical, the autobiography itself is an implicit reply: James’s life has indeed been a “diversion” in which the state-maintained privileges of the dominant classes are deeply interested. The state, as we have witnessed in relation to the work of both Brass and Campbell, figures prominently in the constitution and regulation of Indian subjects, as well as subjectivities. State-sponsored colonialism in the service of dominant economic interests is at the core of modern and contemporary Native reality, a fact to which Native autobiographies themselves give ample historical testimony. Inside Out up-dates the Native autobiographical genre, representing the colonial Indian subjectivity of the late twentieth-century. The autobiography’s rhetorical resources and textual strategies however differ from those of Brass and Campbell, as I have tried to demonstrate. In other words, the “autopoetics” of Tyman’s text involves a differing set of strategies than that of other authors, according to the differing social, cultural, historical, and economic conditions under which the text were produced.
Tyman does however share with Campbell and Brass a concern for occluded histories – for the Indians’ past which has been distorted, hidden, reconstituted, or appropriated on behalf of the interests of social, cultural, and economic domination. Thus, James’s “real beginning” is always on his mind (152). This beginning is represented to James by the Martins, his “real” family and thus the putative source of a subjective authenticity. James begins to pursue his origins in earnest, illiciting from Randy Crow an accounting of the Ile-ˆ-la-Crosse Martins, with whom Crow is acquainted (153). Having left Crow for the downtown bars, James meets his future partner, Donna Nighttraveller, thus introducing the final element in the autobiography’s denouement. The search for James’s “real” parents and his search for “stability and security” are established as principal motive forces of the narrative, in relation to which the reader witnesses the vicissitudes of James’s life, informed as it is by persistent manifestations of colonization and racism. Authenticity is pitted against all that is “phony,” as James comes to structure his subjectivity in relation to the claims of intersubjectivity (that is, his relation to his birth family and his desire for intimacy with Donna) as well as in relation to the inauthentic individualism of the criminal culture. Authenticity and phoniness are the autobiography’s moral antipodes and the touchstones which guide Tyman’s highly self-conscious autopoetics, as is manifested in the narrative’s ironic interrelation of the protagonist’s “real” identity (Kenny Martin) and the identities he “in reality” lives. Both mimetic and constitutive, Inside Out questions the autobiographical foundation upon which its generic identity is based. James’s “real beginning was always on [his] mind.” What does this statement mean, coming as it does at page 152 of an autobiography? The reader may infer that this is a literary device, deployed to arouse suspenseful anticipation of the “real beginning.” There is however a further inference to be drawn. The concern with the “real” – that is, with authenticity – derives from an implicit distinction between the autos and the bios of autobiography, and a consideration of the manners in which the two, life and self, interrelate. As the narrative’s theatrical metaphors disclose, much of James’s life consists in the appropriation of roles. Thus the content of the life calls into question the status of the self rather than confirming it. The claims of authenticity and the search for a “real beginning” push the autobiography toward consideration of the fundamental matter of selfhood.
The third element of autobiography, the graphos or representation, both mediates and structures the other two elements. The autobiographical mode of representation enables Tyman to construe his life as a challenge to colonialism’s appropriation of the discursive production of Indian subjectivities. Tyman recollects the roles of his life (“I’d been a good Indian, a scummy Indian, and apple, and now a racist Indian” ) within a generic mode that implicitly re-appropriates the means of production of one’s subjectivity. The closing section of the autobiography, “Recovery,” constitutes both at the structural and narrative levels this re¬appropriation:
I was aware now of who was really my real mom: Cecile Tyman, the one who raised me, fed me, and loved me. It was wrong to think Alice [Martin] was going to take over. I’d been lost all my life, but finding my biological mother wasn’t going to change the way I lived. (221)
Tyman names his real mother and thus grounds the autobiography in a hitherto missing authenticity. The closing fragment, “Christmas 1986,” is introduced by a recapitulation; once more James’s childhood is invoked, this time mediated by a cultural narrative whose thematic elements are birth, redemption, and hope. Tyman recalls his childhood Christmases and thereby structurally integrates the thematics of the nativity with his own autopoetic thematics of recovery and re-invention. The appropriative gesture inherent in this integration discloses the subtle shift of the narrative, from a passive and reactionary mode of representation to one that is active and self-determining. James meets his “real” mother but discovers “it wasn’t the meeting it was supposed to be” (220). The functional psychological utility of the Martin family evaporates with James’s discovery of his “forgotten past” (221) and his effort to learn how to live with himself (221).
The narrative closes with James imprisoned for a crime he did not commit. The irony of the closing-page phrase “Justice has been done” (226) re-affirms the ironic consciousness at the heart of the autobiography and discloses the perhaps greatest irony of all – the ironic distance between appearance and reality, articulated also as “phoniness” versus “authenticity.” James has undertaken a personal transformation, but his social role (at least in relation to the criminal system) obtains. This irony should come as no surprise, for the structural demands of autobiography are not easily resolved with the conditions of social life. In acknowledgement of this, Tyman foregrounds narrative ironies while affirming a nonetheless genuine personal transfiguration:
The jail is the same: skinners and stool pigeons are given VIP status, hardcore inmates are shunned and ignored. I have a new attitude this time, though. The hatred is gone. The shame of being Indian is not there. The thought of living by crime once I get out isn’t there. I make contact with the Tymans more often. Donna is glad for me. She can see the difference on our visits. Instead of me talking about stabbing and robbing people, I talk about schools and careers.
Tyman reiterates the inside/outside dichotomy; “the jail is the same,” but he himself has changed. The structural logic and cultural ideology of autobiography constitute the functional basis of this dichotomy. James’s “gut feelings” tell him he is going to re-invent himself, an assertion well legitimized by the generic conditions of autobiography. The autobiographical mode of representation, “writing the life of the self,” conveys a great deal of social-cultural authority. Autobiographical representation derives its cultural authority from the dominant Western ideologies of individualism and authenticity, and Tyman co-opts this cultural authority to contest the colonial appropriation of the means of production of Indian subjects/subjectivity. Inside Out is thus a double-edged sword of a sort, for it both participates in and contests cultural modes of oppression and dominance from which it must inevitably borrow for its own purposes. The narrative discloses in a highly self-consciousness manner both the presence and character of this struggle, thereby achieving a good degree of thematic complexity. Doubtless such complexity is a characteristic feature of Native writing in general, derived as it invariably is from the social, cultural, and ideological dynamics of colonialism.