June Fourth Thoughts

I confess that on this particular June 4th I’m pleased to see Tony Hayward having quite an unpleasant time of it. If only somehow we could spread the malaise more broadly, across the globe’s Unaccountables. We know too well however, from historical memory, that he’ll one day “have his life back.” Like the clichéd African dictator who retires afterward to the French countryside – with only the Swiss bank accounts to remind him of home – Mr. Hayward will do fine, whilst the masses will be left to the business of living in the dirty wake of the mess that enriched him. That’s how it is in our age of Winner Take All.

Africa comes to mind for two reasons. One: it is this continent, and not the North American, which may lay claim to the world’s worst disasters of the crude variety. As Anene Ejikeme points out in today’s New York Times, “Experts estimate that some 13 million barrels of oil have been spilt in the Niger Delta since oil exploration began in 1958. This is the equivalent of one Exxon Valdez every year for 50 years.” Two: Africa is quietly being re-colonized and “re-Apartheided” (if I may coin an awkward term) by a dictatorship which on June 4 is recollected around the world for its Tiananmen massacre.

Neither examples one or two has received the attention in the West that British Petroleum now receives, but they are more useful indications than the Macondo spill of perils our species will face in the future. China has shown beyond any doubt that it has no regard for human life, that it cares nothing for the environment, and that it intends to flood territories it finds useful, from Tibet to Zimbabwe, with Han Chinese. As its appetite and boldness for acquiring both greater Lebensraum and resources increases, China (the world’s leading exporter of goods, the possessor of the largest foreign currency reserves, and the country with the most severe wealth polarization) will export ever more weapons, and it will back more and worse dictators throughout the world. In short it will export its totalitarian version of market socialism, its racism, and its contempt generally for human life.

In any war zone or dictatorship into which one may have looked in recent years, whether Sudan, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Zimbabwe, or Nigeria, the participation of China can be discerned. In Darfur, the Janjaweed militia kill with China-supplied AK-47 rifles and grenade launchers. In Equatorial Guinea, the Chinese government lavished a new capital upon long-standing dictator Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo, whose regime competes with Robert Mugabe’s for the title of Africa’s most corrupt. In Zimbabwe, it is Chi­na’s weapons and military equipment which have enabled Mugabe to crush his opponents.

True, you may say. But what about the Russian and British and American weapons? Well, we rightly denounce these and look with indignation upon the history of colonialism. How depressing it is, then, to contemplate the very likely prospect of a vigorous expansion of this project in the present century. The country best poised to dominate our planet for the foreseeable future is backward and wicked in every respect. Reactionary, barbaric, and obstinate on every issue of present concern, China is the land of vetoes, denials, obfuscations, and crackdowns, and so its approaching global rule promises disaster for the causes of human rights and social progress — as indeed it does for the very notion of progress itself.

Authenticating the Subject: Inside Out, An Autobiography of a Native Canadian, by James Tyman

[This is an extract from my 1998 doctoral thesis. You can also read my thesis chapters on Maria Campbell and Eleanor Brass. The introductory, “Autopoetics,” chapter is here.]

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?”
“I’m Métis.”
“Well, bonjour monsieur.” His laughter sounded like cackling.
“Ah, oui monsieur.” I laughed along with him.
“What’s your name, brother?”
“James Tyman.”
“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
do it.”
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” [177]) 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.

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The Potter’s Field of Form, Part Two

[Part one of this essay was printed in ASH Volume 2, Number 2, Spring 1995]

Having attempted (at the end of part one) to provoke the reader, I’ll now return to my principal subject: poems. We’ve three more writers to consider—Matt Santateresa, Ibi Kaslik and Jason Heroux—each of which exhibits a style differing significantly from that of the others. I’ve decided, for convenience’s sake, that our first poet writes “meditative” lines, our second “anthemic,” and our third “intuitive.”

Matt Santateresa writes curious poems; I should begin by pointing out I’m often unsure what he’s getting at. There’s a line from his poem “Aluminum” (Perhaps? no. 2) that sums up his work quite well, at least how I see it: “caught in time, a study in images/the widening angles imagination holds.” Poems that reach back across centuries, that employ unusual groupings of images, that are ambitious enough to attempt grand temporal and spatial syncretism (see “Evensong Ruminations” to see what I mean)—this is what I encounter. I’ve approached the works by noticing first themes and images (always a safe approach). I nominate his work “meditative” because of the tone, its subjective, impressionistic nature. Here the titles are a clue: “In the Empire of Moonlight” and “Evensong Ruminations (A prose/poem),” for example, both from Arachne number one. These are poems of dream and impression, informed though they are by historical themes (the Holocaust, war in Rwanda, an Indiana vision of the Virgin Mary, Dante’s Inferno, etc., etc., etc….). The poems I’m (very briefly) discussing, “For This Country” (The Fiddlehead No. 177) and “Ferryer” (Perhaps? no. 2) fit less nicely into this description, but the description is nonetheless useful, and so I’ve kept it.

“The Ferryer” is based loosely on the Greek myth of Charon, who you’ll recall was responsible for the transportation of the souls of the dead over the river Styx. Here, Santateresa takes a religious theme (the afterlife) as a point of departure:

Detritus floats; feathers from
worn birds, aerofolied seeds wind-drawn.

Light dazzles, a reticulum on wavelets
connects as if hung out to dry. Motor

is thick-boned, a chug that shoulders
the deadest water aside under a broad

hull. Our engines have stopped, inarticulate
they take us nowhere….

[“The Ferryer” 1-8]

There is a number of things to notice here. First, I mention Santateresa’s diction, which I find quite good and almost never inappropriate (the use of terms, for instance, “reticulum” and “obsidian hair”—see “In the Empire of Moonlight,” line 11). Second, I draw the reader’s attention to the conflation of human beings and machines, in the line “Motor/is thick-boned.” This is a good indication of the thoroughly materialist bent of the poem, associating as it does the mechanical and the human. But even more interesting is the line “our engines have stopped, inarticulate/they take us nowhere”(7-8), drawing together language and power, just as does pretty much every other Santateresa poem. What becomes apparent after reading a number of Santateresa’s poems is that they constitute an ongoing meditation not only upon death but also on the role of language in the shaping, course and destiny of our lives—hence the significance in this case of the Charon myth, myth being the place for these themes explicitly to appear. These, then, are recurrent themes: death, religion, language, power, the effects of time, the incongruence of the ideal (as represented in religious systems) and the “real.”

“For This Country” is populated by reticent personae. It is a narrative of a girl who has undergone devastating sexual abuse. She withdraws somewhat from the world, her powerlessness revealed in an inability to use language to transform the realities of her life:

Deny, think elsewhere but here
memory stores the grunts of laughter, faster
and faster

repeat a prayer. Our Father who

tongue touches the eyelids
empty interior of mouth
each syllable unbelievable.


Some of Santateresa’s more ambitious poems consider the violence of people against one another, violence across both space (i.e. throughout our world) and time (i.e. throughout history). The result could be described a vast panorama of waste and futility, hopelessly unmitigated by religion or by literature (though “Evensong Ruminations,” having rehearsed some of history’s darkest moments, does end “Agnes dei./Amen.”). The reader will have to decide. With this I leave Santateresa so that I might proceed into territory in which I feel more confident.

Ibolya (Ibi) Kaslik’s poems have been featured in Perhaps? no. 2 and Arachne no. 1 (both are Montreal publications). She produced a chapbook in 1994, and the introductory inscription is a pretty good indication of what to expect of her work. It reads: “I was born to hustle roses/down the avenues of the dead” —Charles Bukowski. Had I known nothing else I’d have concluded that Kaslik’s would be a Bohemian, flamboyantly wanton and even vulgar (vulgaris) poetry. No surprise there. And anthemic—what else would you term this, from the first (and untitled) poem of her collection Catch Me Darling…?

and we made it somehow
here we all are
thru long summer afternoons of masturbating in our brother’s bed
thru “Happy Days”
thru anorexic years
thru that first French Kiss apocalypse
and somehow healed and unhealed
and somehow never thought we could be so tall
such grown up words
such grown up clothes
we toast god or someone for letting us live
for letting those broken bones & hearts mend
only so we can break them again.

Whereas Santateresa’s poems are at times obscure, Kaslik’s are joyfully in-your-face; she (one might say, like Bukowski) wants you to GET IT. Self-consciously “generational” and sloganeering, favouring the vernacular, and adopting an unapologetically brash persona, Kaslik, often in keeping with the counter-cultural Beat posture (note: is a counter-culture still a possibility?) eschews the poetical. Not for her, the iambic pentameter. Her lines are intuitively broken and tend to be short and minimalistic, that is, rarely qualified or punctuated:

what is your body
made from anyway?
nipples & hair &
dark but really
marrow and the possibility
of alabaster fabric
fine moles kissed
with down your clothes
are liars
I want to scrape them
with my teeth the way
you fill them
makes me lonely
your neck a bridge
I have travelled
to get there

[“Anatomy II) flesh”]

The poem is mostly prose, but I’m fond of the line “your neck a bridge/I have travelled to get there” (I’m not certain where “there” is. That’s another matter). I like also the phrase “your clothes/are liars”; I suspect that there’s an essential point in this, a disclosure of a need for intimacy and a distrust of appearances, of the clothed (i.e. made up) self we present to the world. The touching thing about Kaslik’s poetry, and what is able to save it from being mere narcissism, is the unindulged vulnerability it at times displays. Kaslik is a young poet, the youngest of the six poets with which this essay is concerned—young enough that self-indulgence is to be forgiven, even expected. And the same is to be said about the overwhelming Bukowski influence, influence being perfectly understandable (also healthy) in an emerging poet.

If Charles Bukowski is the ideal version of Kaslik, Jason Heroux’s ideal version can be found in Pablo Neruda (I realise these comparisons are silly, but I need a shorthand). Only Heroux’s earliest work however lends itself to this notion, for he’s already departed somewhat from the techniques found in the poems he published in 1993-4. At that time, Heroux employed something not unlike the Chilean Neruda’s “deep image,” a concept which produced astonishing poems, for instance, “Melancholy in Families.” (If you haven’t read any Neruda, do so). Here is one of Heroux’s first published works, “Hunger” (The Fiddlehead no. 178):

They have grown around the heart,
knuckling like a rib cage,

Hours, hours
imagining the pick-up truck
stacked with corn.
We hear bats clapping

through damp air, voices
broken by a hair
in the throat.

The sky is wafer-thin,
the smooth chest of a child, nude
and holding breath.

The bell rings.
In the sink
our hands jump, whip

like salmon sheathed in stream.

The poem works, I think, for many reasons. First, there’s the tactile quality of the language: the repetition of affricates and alveolar nasals in the first two verse paragraphs (knuckling like a rib cage/reaching) and the consonance throughout. Second, there’s the minimalistic use of images with little or no narrative, which achieves (in my opinion, at least) an uncanny evocation of mood. The diction, principally through its employment of palatal and labial phonemes, achieves a compelling richness and warmth, and forces the reader to go slowly. As a result, the mood is sombre and suspenseful. In every line, the texture of the language complements both the tone and the meaning—and the language is simple throughout, as is the technique, relying as it does upon simile and image to convey an overall impression.

In later poems, Heroux relies too much on simile. The techniques that work so well in “Hunger” feel formulaic in later work, the prose poem “Nine Novels About Vicki,” for instance (published in ASH vol. 2 no. 1). One senses the approach of the simile, much to the work’s detriment. Of mixed success also are the poems published in Perhaps? no. 2, “Lemons,” “Aviary,” and “Orang-outang” (sic). Despite some fine lines, “Lemons” doesn’t quite add up as a poem (that is, as a co-ordinated verbal performance) the way “Hunger” certainly does. The similes are too contrived and plain, the language mostly unremarkable (except for its excesses):

They are no longer
the exotic fruit they once were;
lemons look like slightly bent elbows,
anybody’s elbows.
You bought a dozen
and let them sit on the table,
swelling, like tumours
between our conversations.

[“Lemons” 1-8]

“Aviary” is more of the same, only this time the literary precedent seems (superficially) to be Wallace Stevens’s “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird”:


a blackbird, ravelled
upon the pillow like smoke
frayed from a harlequin flame


a seagull is a staircase
with a broken first step,
it is one hand
rummaging through a dark drawer


pigeons are like handkerchiefs
that old men cough into,
evicted from trees
scattered in bridges and attics
they pick at the anatomy
of clocks…

“Orang-outang” however marks a departure for Heroux; it is one of his better poems, and it has a promising narrative element (whereas, as I’ve shown, Heroux previously discarded narrative). It reminds me a bit of Earle Birney’s “Bear on a Delhi Road,” if only because of its treatment of the relation of human beings to the rest of the animal world. The poem implies that cruelty inevitably dehumanises its perpetrator, and it nicely exposes human pretension through the use of irony. As for technique, notice the decreased reliance on simile and the use of plosives in the sixth verse paragraph:

Caught in a brothel
in Borneo, amidst squeals of humiliation;
he was shuffled into the salted tobacco sleeves

of every shirt the sailor owned,
corridors which both approached and abandoned
the heart.

His owner locked him in the black
behind mirrors, behind the eyelids of closets.
He could always hear the barbed nurseries

of speaking mouths somewhere beside him.
He longed to be human and spent days
pacing a plank of wood, back and forth,

until splinters cropped in his heels.
The habits of his master fit a keyhole:
a shave, combing his hair, gestures of vanity.

Sometimes the wagoner’s whip snapped
like a tongue sheathed in gossip or desire,
and he was forced to mock himself with lather

and cologne, a barber’s razor in his hand.
The sailor had wanted to sell the animal
to a zoo, but then began to imitate him.

They started shaving each other with patient loathing.
On the streets of Paris they waltzed up
lightning rods and spoke a dozen foreign languages.

Some of the line breaks are questionable, but that’s nearly always the case with intuitive line division, subjective as it is. This poem shows that Heroux is flexible, that he’s willing to try differing approaches to writing. It shows also that Heroux’s language is economical, that he is able to capture an idea in precise language (“The habits of his master fit a keyhole”). In my estimation, Jason Heroux has already written one very good poem (“Hunger”) and one good (“Orang-outang”); even if he’s written a number of ordinary ones, this is still a notable accomplishment—especially for someone who is not yet 25 years of age.

The Potter’s Field of Form: Catherine Kidd, Sylvie Bourassa, Janet Madsen, Matt Santateresa, Ibi Kaslik and Jason Heroux —Six Montreal Poets (Part One)

Note: This article originally appeared in ASH Magazine, issue Number 2 Volume 2 (Spring 1995).

I’m asked by the curious if I’ve discovered the next ——— yet: you can fill in the space with whatever “great” poet you prefer. The assumption is, as an editor I’ve got access to privileged knowledge. I haven’t of course; the poets I’ve chosen for this article are reasonably accessible, and the only knowledge you’ll need is the location of a bookstore. I anticipate complaints that this study has been too “selective,” and indeed that’s a fair evaluation. I’ve been less inclusive than I might have been—for practical reasons I won’t get into. The choice of poets that I’ve arrived at is based on the following formulation: public but not “established.” That means that you’ve got a fair shot at finding work by most of these poets in a good bookstore, i.e. one that carries literary journals and chapbooks—but these writers aren’t “household names,” and none of them, to my knowledge, has published a nationally distributed book (or a book, period). So, these are what are commonly termed “emerging writers.” Their literary reputations are not writ in stone (though Catherine Kidd has a local reputation, I’m led to believe). This puts me in an enviable but dangerous position as a critic. I’m exploring uncharted territory (that’s enviable), but my limited knowledge of these people and of their work means I could end up in regions of fire and dragons (not enviable). Unlike, say, the late F.R. Scott (a former “McGill poet” with a publicly available life), Ibi Kaslik’s life is not readily available to me as data—nor as anything else for that matter. A writer myself, I’d never attempt to take that dignity away from her. Alas, this paucity of knowledge then will translate into judgements that I recommend be taken as at best tentative. Caveat lector, let the reader beware. And I hope also that none of these poets decide to punch me in the face for my efforts, another fear that critics don’t face when dealing with the canonised Dead Englishman. But before I go forward, one final note. This essay is an informal consideration of contemporary poetry only as it applies to a specific geography, Montreal. That means that I’m not aiming at anything so grand as “Canadian poetry today,” but rather at writers who’ve spent a significant portion of their time in Montreal. Jason Heroux and Janet Madsen are now in Kingston (Janet works at Quarry; Jason studies at Queen’s) but both have connections with Montreal, having studied there (Janet) or having been raised there (Jason). The other four are living in Montreal at this time, or were when I did my research. The living, I’m thankful, defeat absolute categorisation.

Catherine Kidd came to Montreal from Vancouver in order to study Creative Writing at Concordia. It was at Concordia that she distinguished herself by winning the 1993 Irving Layton Award For Poetry (Ibi Kaslik won it last year). At U.B.C. she won a prize for an essay, demonstrating ability in prose as well as in poetry composition. I can say also from direct experience that she’s a fine performer of her work, using tone, inflection and facial expression to keep the interest of her audience. She projects a confidence that is rare in young performers, and thus isn’t tempted to theatrics and hyperbole (often gimmicks of the insecure)—or if she is, she does not succumb. In fact, she’s remarkably subtle both in print and in performance.

Kidd’s poetry depends upon the careful development of situations and environments; she relies on indirection and suggestion, dispensing with narrative in favour of an image-based style. Her landscapes are sometimes “exotic,” set in foreign countries (“Nagoa Beach” ostensibly takes place in Germany; “Matrika: The Lady Vanishes” has an Indian setting and refers to Benares). Other poems, “the red horse is female,” “with mountains in my eyes” or “The Visitation” are less geographically specific, but still rely heavily upon the evocation of place:

in a subtle boat of tree-bone, she and i
dismiss all our learning
let it sink sponge-heavy to the lake bottom
where goddesses of clay
dissolve to straw, then toss themselves on shore
to be eaten by cows

(“with mountains in my eyes” 5-10)

Kidd presents situations or landscapes in bare imagist terms, followed by an economical subjective response. I get the sense often of a narrator who is looking back at a childhood “event,” noticing lurking dangers. In fact, wrapping and unwrapping are common motifs for her work, leading me to speculate that her poetry, at this stage at least, is concerned with the “unpacking” of dangerous and painful pasts in order to disclose secrets and thus seek understanding and healing (a process made explicit in the poem “Matrika,” a word derived from matrix—the womb, the cavity in which anything is formed). The subtlety of Kidd’s evocations of pain and entrapment makes it hard to turn her poems into “stories,” but it is safe to say that her plots deal with personae who have sharp and cautious minds tuned to latent danger:

i can not imagine this
old man
could not want her to tremble, like the thin yellow flowers
when he carries them, sets them down
on the table before her plate. he says
he knows a German painter
who paints girls that look like her,
the many girls who look like her,
as though the painter were himself
seeing her without her clothes.

(“Nagoa Beach” 36-45)

This verse paragraph, which concludes the poem (it is not a traditional stanza: Kidd rarely even capitalises initial words of sentences), is an accomplished exercise in understatement and evocation of mood. The sinister repetition in “the many girls who look like her” underscores the magnitude of the abuse that is only indirectly conveyed throughout the poem. Her work is thus sensitive and subtle.

Kidd writes often of her father, and one of the most touching of her poems is “The Visitation”:

beneath the wooden lid of the box
my father’s hands like raw pastry, while
above, unseen
the chapel’s shingled roof,
the workman’s hands are
hot and brown, with hammers and saws
to fix the hole where the light streams in
to Dan Devlin’s Funeral Home.

(“The Visitation” 1-9)

The funeral home, in which the protagonist feels caught “Between/life and death,” becomes an emblem for the claustrophobia of a life dominated by “conspicuous absence” and “ubiquitous presence”:

And did I know the deceased?
did I know this man well?
not well—he was
my father
once, he
was my god
and the unmanifest hands
spread over my life
like the black plastic tarpaulin
of vaulted heaven,
without even a hole to let in
light or rain or
to allow a soul’s ascent.

(“The Visitation” 15-28)

Kidd’s poetry is not morbid, despite its focus upon violence and victims (victims are often animals: a toad killed by a snake in “the red horse is female”; a wasp crushed underfoot in “Wasp”; “in a butcher shop window:/a split lamb with the wool still on”—”Feeling For A Pulse” line 21). Hers is a world of lurking danger, of “friction, attrition and contention” (“My New Pair Of Eyeglasses”), but one always has the sense of a cunning consciousness that is keeping a careful distance. A bleak consolation perhaps, but one that makes for powerful and, one hopes, potentially transforming insights.

Reading Sylvie Bourassa, we are in a world entirely differing from Kidd’s, at least, stylistically speaking. Sylvie is a Concordia student (this is going to be the case with most of the writers I am investigating) and a recent arrival on the scene, having first published her poems in 1994 (synchronously in Grain and Perhaps?). She differs in personality from Catherine Kidd almost as extremely as one could, and her work shows it. Sylvie writes predominately narrative poetry that relies less on imagery than on word-play and traditional rhetorical figures. Hearing her read, I get the sense that she conceives of her work as a character performance, as opposed to Kidd’s focus on the poem as a verbal construct, a linguistic exercise. This isn’t a neat binary opposition, merely a way of coming to terms with what are after all two distinct reading styles. Bourassa’s stage presence gets mixed reviews because of its uniqueness; she’s comfortable with an audience, like Kidd, but she projects an “innocent” persona in a lilting, “sing-song” tone of voice. Cynical sophisticates are likely to find her public readings “endearing,” but in small doses only. However, I’ll point out also that many admire her reading technique—and anyway, reading technique has little bearing upon how her work stands on the page.

“Seven Days in Jersey” is the opening poem of Corridors: A Concordia Anthology (1994). Despite this honour, it isn’t the strongest poem of the anthology—not even Bourassa’s strongest work. It’s witty, a sort of anatomy of the number seven, and it showcases a sanguine disposition:

An odd number, Seven Eleven
a pit stop on the boardwalk in Asbury
Park where Seven Up sipping teenagers flip
through Seventeen Magazine, looking
for answers they don’t need.

(“Seven Days in Jersey” 6-10)

But before you conclude I’m going to contrast Bourassa to Kidd (so-called Happy-Go-Lucky vs. Cunning Intellect), consider the poems “Danaë and the Gold” and “The Baker.” The first is a treatment of the myth of Danaë, who you’ll recall was impregnated by Zeus—he came to her in a shower of gold. (Danaë was imprisoned by her father, because it was foretold that she would give birth to a son who would kill—you guessed it—her father. The plan to keep her safely away from courtiers failed, as such plans always do…). Bourassa examines the myth in relation both to the inspirational and the mundane. The narrator wonders, somewhere near the middle,

did [Danaë]
bloom into rapture and know the sublime
agony of surrender, gold dust
flung in her eyes, fingerprints
smeared on her belly, a thousand
tiny flames bobbing in her
veins? Or did she awake awashed
in the pale cast of artificial light
remembering the sun?

(“Danaë and the Gold” 17-25)

The question assumes a healthy scepticism, and anticipates the sort of disappointments with which life is fraught. As we shall presently see, Bourassa returns to this theme (disappointment) in another poem, “The Baker.”

“Danaë and the Gold” is organised through the use of assonance, consonance and alliteration, all traditional rhetorical figures:

Blasted light splashed the brazen
chamber, casting its haloed glow. No
earthly source springs such caressing
shower, a seducing god’s gold.

Also commonly found in Bourassa’s poetry are internal rhymes and repetitions of phrases. But of prime interest now, as we turn to “The Baker,” is the subject ‘life’s disappointments.’ For “The Baker” is another narrative poem about frustration, this time the frustration of a man who loses his livelihood following a horrible accident:

My grandfather baked bread
by trade he made dough triple
…….before the slicer chewed
half his right hand, two fingers and a thumb
missing, gone within seconds

(“The Baker” 1-16)

It’s difficult to read these lines in this context (note also, I’ve severely abridged the poem), and not note the absence of the subtlety I’ve mentioned in relation to Kidd. But to be fair, I don’t think this is the same sort of a story that Kidd’s poems “tell,” and I don’t know how I would have handled it were I called upon to do so. The poem works, not flawlessly though: its mood is one of pathos and nearly melodrama. And an attuned ear can’t help but notice the heavy (and inappropriate) alliteration of the close:

For years he mourned
his palate numbed by nitro pills,
his honey-trained tongue
tamed by tar. He grieved until
the pale glow of his Baking King’s hands
yellowed with the nicotine
of three packs a day Export “A”
until smoke cloaked his bloated body…

The last line is a good instance of assonance (smoke, cloaked, bloated) and conveys “cloyment” or “surfeit.” The old man is literally and metaphorically fed up. However, careful craftsmen and craftswomen will note that alliteration, especially when overused, is a potentially subversive rhetorical figure; it risks a provocation of laughter, not at all Bourassa’s intention. The internal rhyming of “day” and “Export A” is also too playful, too contrived. The lovely whimsy of such techniques is used appropriately by Bourassa elsewhere, but in this case I think she blunders. It’s a judgement I leave to the reader. For now, I will turn to the whimsical side of Bourassa once more, and look at a poem called “A Day at the All Saints’ Café.”

“A Day at the All Saints’ Café” is as playful as any Bourassa poem I’ve seen, and it’s perhaps her best. It has some nice metrical passages, and some notable rhetorical figures: internal rhyme, alliteration, puns, syntactical repetition and epiphora (repetition of a phrase in which a word is modified or changed) being among them. The poem also plays on the idea of a “dog eat dog world,” for there is much eating and being eaten:

Ambition eats
often at the All Saints’ Café.
you chew your pen while the Big Man
chews you piecemeal. He chooses
to savor the taste of your
downcast eyes, your acquiescing smile.

(“A Day at the All Saints’ Café” 1-27)

Like “The Baker,” this poem considers failure, frustration and human limitations. But this poem is stronger because the playful language confirms and complements the content; the characters who inhabit the café are not tragic, but rather folks like you and I, folks whose fantasies are the half-pathetic half-comic stuff of ordinary life:

You want to
sit in the brass section: he makes
you sweep the smoking section.

Bourassa finds the right tone in this poem, the one that seems to me to best suit her personality. True, the poem is excessive, but the excess in this case works:

You want to
tell him you’re only waiting
for promises of Paradise, a pair of wings,
the rhythm of swing, waiting
for the Big Break, the Big
Take, the chance to play
bebop at the top, hepcat
with the cool cats, whose ninth lives
upped and gone.

The poem ends in a dull world not much different from Danaë’s prison cell. It is a world of the “daily grind/of coffee grounds”(44-45), a world where inspirational moments or flights of fancy are at best questionable, at worst absurd. The poem seems to parody the kind of poetic ambition that perhaps Bourassa brought to its composition (a reassuring and hopeful thought: my observation is that we writers take ourselves far too seriously these days). But perhaps I’m getting too sophisticated at this point?

At the ripe old age of 30, Janet Madsen (born 1965) is among the older of the poets here studied—perhaps even the oldest. (I think Catherine Kidd is older; I know for a fact Sylvie Bourassa is younger. Jason Heroux is in his early twenties, and Ibi Kaslik is indeed a greenhorn—still in her teens). Madsen offers some interesting parallels with Catherine Kidd: both came east from Vancouver to study Creative Writing at Concordia (whether or not Kidd and Madsen ever met in Montreal, or even know of one another, I am unable to say—it seems unlikely that they have never at least heard of one another—but I know Madsen spent 1985-1992 in Montreal, making a meeting improbable); both Kidd and Madsen explore a child’s relationship to a father; both are able to write with subtlety (in differing manners albeit) and both are concerned with the danger involved in imposing one’s will on another. To demonstrate this, I’ll look at Madsen’s poems, “A Potter’s Field of Forms” and “Every Skin of Brightness” (the latter reminiscent of Kidd’s “the red horse is female”).

Madsen’s public career begins with the publication of “A Potter’s Field Of Forms” (a title recalling an Old Testament trope for God: “Like clay in the hand of the potter, so are you in my hand, O house of Israel” Jeremiah 18:6). This poem appeared in Poetry Canada Review, volume 12 number 1, 1991. Two years later, The Fiddlehead published a poem, “Every Skin of Brightness,” and it’s this one that I’d like to examine first.

“Every Skin Of Brightness” is a carefully organised poem that depends upon the patterned opposition of terms, especially of light and dark. “Light” and “dark” are of literal significance because the poem tells of a father’s photographing his children (his daughter especially). But metaphorically too, light and dark designate that which is constructed for public viewing and that which is feared, mistrusted and rejected, respectively. In plain English, Madsen portrays a father’s inability to come to terms with his daughter’s sexual awakening (in this respect, he’s not unlike the culture which has produced him). The father’s response to this awakening is denial; he comforts himself by “framing” his daughter within the fictions that his photographs bring into being:

he imagines he sees
as the child sees and loves
as the child learns to love, alone. For years
I’m his images of me
framed on the edge of water.
I learn to glide into
every skin of brightness
so the camera might uncover me
and hold me in his light.

The poem is uncanny in its economical use of basic yet richly evocative images: light, dark, flame, owl, angel. This list appropriately invokes the simple yet deadly logic that motivates the father’s appropriation of his daughter’s identity:

When the image is developed, my father
perceives a shape in the flame,
an owl or angel
flares behind me.
He removes me from the family
to create a striking portrait
plucked from a chemical bath:
girl and angel, black and white.

Madsen links image and imagination. Through the medium of the photograph, the father has learned to translate his private will (imagination) into a public fact (an image), and thus to define his daughter according to his narrow preconceptions of proper (“angelic”) femininity. The daughter’s/ narrator’s identity is thus shaped by the “simple” act of portraiture; but the will of the daughter persists:

Later, when in darkness,
I discover the colours of love
and men and women become
to my lips the brightest flames;
when to touch I emerge
wild red and orange,
the purest quiver of green
he doesn’t want to see
the woman who has surfaced.

The poem ends with an “escape,” but one still determined by the binary logic of the “black and white” “light and dark” “angel vs. owl” logic of the father’s photographic enterprise:

As I slip from his eye into darkness
I become an owl, lifting wing
over lake and island looking down on
a brighter land than I remember.

“Every Skin Of Brightness” is a good balance of narrative and imagery, and its logic is well thought-out. Madsen shows a sensitivity to diction in her work and almost never lapses into the obscurity or awkwardness committed by the typical young poet, and her writing demonstrates the discipline needed to avoid a counter-productive overstatement.

“A Potter’s Field Of Forms” is an earlier poem, and it shows. Like the other poems published at this time (“Deep From The Belly Of Sunday,” “An Impression Of It”), it lacks the grace of the later poetry’s finer lines. And there’s little subtlety, which doubtless you’ll by now have recognised as my cardinal virtue:

Dark, & cool within the shed
made studio for summer.
I work in a room bare but for the naked
forms kept wet in thick towels,
bodies half-emerged from clay.

(“A Potter’s Field Of Forms” 1-5)

Here then is the dramatic context. The poem is about a sculptor, a prototype of the patriarchal photographer of “Every Skin Of Brightness.” As this “false teleology” suggests, I do feel that the earlier poem is only rehearsing a theme that will be realised technically at a later date. It’s interesting to see a poet trying to work something out in prosaic fashion when you’ve already read the later, more accomplished version.

But to return: the sculptor is at first horrified to discover the sculpture is not conforming to his or her inner vision of what it ought to be. The artist “thumps,” “pulls” and “prods” the clay (the alliterative use of plosives suggests violence), but the figure who emerges seems “a grotesquerie, a mocking face/frame in a wild muck hair,/a face full of its own drooping eyes”(28-30). The poem reminds me of the Pygmalion story, but with a twist. Rather than imposing an idealised vision onto the sculpture (as Pygmalion does), Madsen’s protagonist allows the sculpture to will itself into existence; the result is a figure that seems grotesque at first, because of course it is not the ideal—or the “angelic” to borrow loosely from “Every Skin Of Brightness.” This sculpture must be addressed on its own terms, the way any child emerging into adulthood and thus independence must be. Gradually, the artist recognises this, and there is the following transformation of intention at lines 31-39:

I soften the clay with water, run my hands
over the slick neck, begin again,
but the eyes always emerge,
this one wants its own.
I give in, & follow the lines
of the eyes sloping into face, neck,
shoulders and breasts. I give her
the flesh arms & curved belly
she calls for.

The poem ends with a Joycean affirmation, put into the mouth of the sculpture:

[the sculpture is]
all wrong somehow, all saddened or defiant,
or reclusive,
but all
having somehow said through my hands,


It’s a good ending, emotionally complex and affirmative without falling into mere sentimentality. Still, “A Potter’s Field Of Forms” isn’t as strong a poem as “Every Skin Of Brightness”; it’s prosaic, which is to say, there’s little to distinguish it from prose—other than the fact that the lines don’t go to the end of the column. And there’s the use of the “&” (of which I’ve become suspicious), which Madsen has discarded by 1993, but which appears in early works:

Your hands touch all the furniture,
& doorframes & walls. You pace,
& the apartment wears your touch
like tattoos. I wish
I was a wall, strong & holding
your hands on me.

(“Deep From The Belly Of Sunday” 1-6)

Whether this is a permanent change of heart or a momentary passion I’m unsure, but I suspect it indicates a deliberate choice. The & is an easy and cheap gimmick, a visually striking way to signify this is poetry. True, Blake used the &; but it isn’t until the establishment of modern free-verse that we find the vacuum created after the abandonment of traditional forms and metres being filled by what Paul Fussell terms “just-folks idiosyncracy”: random spacing between words, slashes, intuitive line breaks, pointless indentation, avoidance of the upper case (especially with “i”) and so on. Undeniable, such idiosyncrasies can convey a tone and a mood. Here is Ottawa poet Rob McClennan’s “Victoria Day” (ASH readers will recognise this: it appeared in the fall 1994 issue):

under a strawyellow hat, ron
dances his way into the warm summer sun.
arms & legs waving, silly grin
pasted to his face like new life.
tossing natasha, 2 1/2
in & out of his long twig legs,
laughing in trampled fields, leaves
& grass in her sandy hair.
& fingers in the clouds, she screams,
ballon! howls
& echoes…

I think the gentle, whimsical tone of the poem—its portrayal of “childlikeness”—is complemented by the idiosyncrasies listed above. But used unthinkingly, these become shamelessly affected techniques which symbolise a major weakness of contemporary poetry, a weakness that endorses pretension and favours superfice over substance. That’s a fault of our television culture overall, a culture slick and glittery (sophisticated when it comes to surface management), but intellectually and spiritually empty; and it’s one poets at least ought to try to transcend, if their claims of being artists are to have any credibility at all. A question I will offer to the reader as an interlude (this is a two-part discussion) is What is left for poetry when craft is dismissed as old-fashioned? (—i.e., use of metre, form and traditional poetic techniques). It’s a question poets need to consider.

No doubt you’ll conclude I’ve left much out; there’s more to say, or better things to say. I don’t deny the first accusation, and the second I’ll give grateful attention, if it’s intelligently substantiated. In my defence I’ll say only that I’ve tried to give accurate overviews of poets that I think have a shot at writing some decent poetry in the years to come. I’ve tried to hold certain trends up to praise, others to censure. The job of a critic isn’t only to say “I like this”—not even principally to say this—but to articulate a cogent argument for what works and what doesn’t. And the humble critic (this ought to be redundant: a shame it isn’t) recognises that it’s a hell of a lot easier to pick away at a poem’s weaknesses than it is to write strong poetry. In my own poems I’ve realised all of the errors I’ve listed here, and yet not all of the positive accomplishments. Poetry, I conclude, is difficult.

Food Crimes

It was not long ago that bread came from the local bakery, milk could be had from the dairy, and the idea of a grocery store was new. Most meals were prepared in the house, there being few restaurants and the notion of “eating out” in any case having an exotic character. Were those better days? Probably not — but they were different from this day, in ways we may not fully understand.

It occurred to me some years ago that there is enough toxin in a modern grocery store to kill an adult human. The food one ate as a child has been engineered into a tinned simulacrum of the same, a chemistry project of sorts in which generally unknown and unpronounceable substances constitute the smoke-and-mirror foundation of contemporary food industry. Or, better yet, there emerge from the laboratory “foods” with no correspondence in the natural world: pizza pockets, chicken nuggets, pop tarts, Irish Egg Rolls, or a whole rotisserie chicken in a can. Just as it would be impossible to successfully mass-produce and distribute worldwide the five-ingredient spaghetti sauce you ate as a child, so too is it impossible for the ordinary individual to cook the twenty-five ingredient version you will find in a grocery store. What, for instance, would you make of a recipe calling for:

phenethyl alcohol, amyl acetate, heliotropin, cinnamyl isobutyrate, methyl heptine carbonate, phenethyl alcohol, dipropyl ketone, ethyl methylphenylglycidate, hydroxyphenyl-2-butanone, g-undecalactone, maltol, 4-methylacetophenone, anethol, butyric acid, and solvent.

These of course are all substances commonly put into things sold as food. The topics of food engineering and its related concerns have been ably written and spoken upon by many, among them Eric Schlosser and Michael Pollan. There is neither need nor occasion to rehearse their theses and arguments here. I merely wish to reflect upon the many cases of food crime as I encounter them in the day-to-day world. Consider this a personal list prepared in advance of a citizen’s arrest. Here then are the crimes, with cursory gloss as required.

The chief food crime today is the “serving of fries.” Whatever you order, and wherever you order it, there will attend this greasy helping of empty calories and carcinogens. Near effortless and highly profitable, the mound of chips is edible cynicism. It is how a restaurant indicates that they really don’t give a shit about you or your food. Eat and get out, already.

High-fructose corn syrup – also called glucose-fructose — a highly processed form of sugar, added to everything from “soft drinks” to bread, salad dressing, and soups. In this case the crime is the responsibility of a single crooked corporation, Archer Daniels Midland, who used political manoeuvering to make high-fructose corn syrup a staple of the American diet. Soda, a highly profitable sector of the glucose-fructose market, is another ubiquitous empty calorie staple of the modern meal. But in every category, food is being engineered to suit the tastes of those who demand everything be sickly sweet.

Sodium, added in superabundance to everything, for the principal reason that processed food is without flavour. Salt, and indeed all food additives, are perhaps less a crime than an indication of the crime.

Deep frying. It seems everything has to be deep-fried nowadays, even when there are better-tasting food preparation alternatives, such as baking, pan frying, poaching, grilling, or smoking. Looking back over the list thus far, it is depressing how many meals consist of deep-fried something-or-other with a soda and plate of fries.

Complicated food. Here the principle is to substitute for a simple food of a few ingredients a complicated multi-ingredient version. Less raw vegetables and fruits, more cooked food with chemical additives. It is much harder to find a banana than it is a bag of chips.

I am not suggesting that there is no place in this world for french fries or soft drinks. They serve well, for instance, at children’s birthday parties. But please note that they are not food. The propaganda campaigns of Archer Daniels Midland and so on to convince us otherwise are as nefarious as the campaigns to convince millions cigarettes taste good and that Richard Nixon will make a fine President. All around us, every day, crimes of food are being committed. The only beneficiaries are the companies who put dollars before every other concern. Not only do we allow it to happen: we are spending our good money on these cheaply manufactured scams — Pretend Food which is poisoning our children here while elsewhere destroying rivers, forests, and indigenous cultures.

The Adult And The Child

It happens now and then that one hears something praised for its childlikeness, perhaps a book or movie or some other supposedly enchanting object. Childhood is something through which all pass. Subsequent attitudes toward it persist, but with perhaps inadequate critical thought toward their meaning. What is the character of this childlike outlook, and how does it compare with what may be called an adult outlook upon human affairs?

What are generally valued in the constitution of the child are the following: innocence, honesty, wonder, naïveté, simplicity, joy, youthfulness, credibility, vulnerability, and curiosity. The child comes into the world without pre-existing notions, at least so far as the world of ideas are concerned. Of course there are established biological impulses, intuitions, and so forth. But the human child is at the mercy of the world, and must take the surface appearance of things as given, having no previous experiences from which to draw. Most of what is praised or otherwise valued in the child’s disposition comes down to this: ignorance. Considered in its negative aspect, an absence of knowledge for example constitutes a great disadvantage to the individual. But there is a positive aspect as well, for knowledge of the world in almost every instance brings with it unpleasant emotions such as distress, disappointment, and sorrow. The list of child attributes is characterized mostly by absence. Innocence is the absence of experience, honesty is the absence of an ability to dissemble, and credibility is the absence of an acquired mental power of skepticism.

There are however other child qualities which are less readily reducible to the absence of later, adult acquisitions. Among these are joy, youthfulness, wonder, and curiosity. It is easy both to explain and to grasp why these are positive things. Joy is not the mere absence of pain, but may indeed coexist with, and even be informed by, unpleasantness. Youthfulness is not identical with youth, and we have all observed the differing manners in which individual persons age. Note also that an adult may be joyful, and may confront the world with an attitude of both curiosity and wonder. While these states may be inherent in the conventional view of childhood — though not commonly found among actual children, especially outside the so-called rich countries — they may be found in adults as well, even if not widely. It appears to be the qualities determined by absence which characterize the essence of the child outlook, and once they have been filled in by experience, they are quite forever gone.

Thus far the consideration has been rather abstract. But we know that our attitudes toward the child are informed by our relationship to the material world of objects, and in this world one encounters on the one hand toys and on the other jobs, bills, mortgages, and problems with teeth and organs and so on. The life of the child looks to the adult like a life of freedom from responsibility, specifically the responsibility of responding to and altering material conditions. And the reason of course that children are generally in this era of human civilization free from such responsibility is that they are considered to lack as a class of person the required mental, emotional, and physical resources.

It interests me to note that what is praised or valued in the child is despised in the adult. Imagine an adult who believes all that he is told, who takes the appearance of things as the truth of the matter, and who is honest in all of his interactions. In art this is a comic state of affairs, and in life it is contemptible. The exception seems to be in the province of religion, where one encounters in society the general approbation of faith — that is, childlike credulousness. Outside of this, the irresponsible adult who behaves like a child by not “pulling his weight” is regarded with hostility. Nor is it possible to use the term childish as a compliment. The habits and dispositions of the child are not appropriate to the adult, and the reverse is the case also. But what may be said of these qualities in and of themselves?

Consider for example innocence, naïveté, and credibility. They are perhaps charming, but are they good? This question invites a subjective answer. To my tastes the skeptical disposition of mind offers something vastly preferable to innocence and credibility. Indeed, as I reflect upon the list of child qualities I discover that I prefer in almost every instance the adult alternative, even when this alternative is bound up with the unpleasant facts of human affairs.

Some years ago I engaged in an experiment with an evangelist who had come to my door. He was keen to convince me of the merits of salvation, as he understood them, and principally the merit of gaining one’s entry into heaven. I offered him the following challenge: to present me with a compelling description of this state called Paradise. He undertook his task by rehearsing a list of unpleasant facts one would not encounter in the Beyond: sickness, loneliness, misery, death. In other words, absences. Here one may think of the innocence we have considered in relation to the child outlook. On the surface of them, both the Christian Heaven and childhood seem marvellous places. But what I have found in both cases is that more deeply considered they are not so. I am rather fond of doubt, and while innocence may be a pleasant state I feel experience is far more rich and rewarding, as well as painful. I cannot ignore and will not resist the gut feeling that an eternity of pleasantness would be a terrible thing. Indeed, when I consider all that I cherish in this world, I am aware that these things are inextricably connected to others such as loss, pain, conflict, doubt, impermanence, and mortality. In other words, the full range of the adult human condition. There is no getting around it, either by recourse to an afterlife or to the one we have already had.

The consideration of the child and the adult is an indirect way of considering the messy world in which we live and the possibility of its improvement. While I believe in the idea of human progress and am committed to forging a future in which conflict is resolved by peaceful means, I would not wish for instance to abolish conflict, even if that were possible. I do not look with regret upon the lost innocence of childhood. Irony suits me well. I don’t care for pain and disappointment, but they seem to me the cost of going out of doors in pursuit of the good. I am against the certainty of faith and cling to the positive value of skepticism, which I consider essential to the survival of human civilization. Give me the hard lessons of experience, and keep me far from naïveté. Above all, save me from the sweet music of Heaven’s eternal choir, and give me the discordant strain of the human chorus. And if you please a decent single malt and a pen.

The Irrelevance of the Vatican

It is recorded in Barbara Coloroso’s 2007 book, “Extraordinary Evil: A Brief History of Genocide,” that

In April 2004, at a ceremony in Kagali, Rwanda, marking the ten-year anniversary of the genocide, one speaker assured all those who had asked for forgiveness for their crimes in the genocide that they would be forgiven and would “sit at the right hand of God.” Those who refused to forgive the genocidaires for killing their children in front of them, butchering their kin, for hunting them like animals, would find themselves “burning in Hell” for refusing to forgive.

Coloroso does not provide the identity of the speaker of these sentiments, but I would wager my money on the suspicion that this individual’s bread is buttered on the wages of a religious profession. One might note further the self-interest and even conflict of interest when persons of religious office pontificate concerning the themes of getting right with God and repairing the injuries to faith constituted by crimes against humanity. These concerns precisely you will discover in this past weekend’s Pastoral Letter to the Catholics of Ireland regarding the abuse of children, issued by Joe Ratzinger, who these days goes by the corporate title Benedict XVI.

If the opening quotation seems to you gratuitous or overly harsh, perhaps it is worth rehearsing the list of crimes for which the Vatican has been called to account in past years, or which in some cases remain to be addressed. The list includes, as we well know, the sexual and physical abuse of children worldwide, active complicity in genocides in Germany, Poland, the former Yugoslavia, Rwanda, and the Americas, religious crusades, Inquisitions, the hindrance of medical research and scientific progress, and the role of the Church in brutal colonialist enterprises throughout history. That is a partial list only, but you get the flavour of the beverage, which comes in a very very tall glass indeed.

Despite all of this, Mr. Ratzinger manages to compose a Letter dwelling inordinately upon the modern historic tribulations of the Roman Church in Ireland, beginning with the 1681 martyrdom of Oliver Plunkett, the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Armagh in the late 1600s. A cruel, barbaric death, to be sure (and largely accomplished through the personal efforts of the 1st Earl of Shaftesbury) — but hardly relevant to the subject of institutional child sexual abuse. Plunkett’s death occurred within the context of religious rivalry among adults, and Ratzinger’s inability to see how out of place this history is reminds us of a more recent Ireland, and more recent sacrifices of children to the same sordid political cause. That this Pope manages to employ the example of Ireland as foil to his attempted dignification of the Faith, and to do so without an apparent sense of irony, is a marvel.

In my own limited but close-up experience of Catholic officials who are tasked with the issue of predatory sexual abuse within their ranks, I have noted a keen-ness to get right to the matters of “reconciliation” and “renewal.” The officials I have been in meetings with have come armed with lawyers and speaking points to these ends. Pope Benedict XVI is in this regard no different. If you doubt me, read the Letter for yourself and you will see how the entire performance circles obsessively around one central idea: renewal of the Church. This is hardly surprising, given the fact that today the Catholic Church is a withering artifact living parasitically off of its better, colonialist days. Ratzinger can hardly stray from this concern, obsessed as he seems to be with the unfortunate secular drift of things and another “scandal” (elsewhere referred to as a “grievous wound”) to further empty the pews and coffers.

If the Canadian experience is any indication, Irish citizens should expect little from the Catholic Church. If there is any meaningful action, it will be the secular authorities which provide the spur. In Canada, Catholic entities operated 70% of the Indian residential schools and were responsible for most of the abuses, including the cover-ups. But because “The Catholic Church” is not a legal entity in Canada, these groups have so far evaded responsibility and the Vatican has cultivated to great effect its safe distance and legal immunity. (Sometimes secularization is convenient, particularly when the Higher Law rather pinches the foot.) The Presbyterian Church in Canada, which operated only two of the one hundred and thirty schools, has been a far more active participant in reparations, even setting up a healing fund.

It’s fine and good that the Pope managed a letter from his Vatican enclave in his Vatican City, paid for with the sale of Papal indulgences and the loot of Empire. No doubt his lawyers and ambassadors will continue to save his ass for a little while longer. A while, but not forever. Like everything else, the Vatican will one day end up in the dustbin of history. But even now, most of the survivors don’t want and don’t need anything the Pope is likely to offer. They can heal and move on, because it’s not about the bishop or the Pope or the Vatican. Healing is about the survivors, and it is for themselves and themselves only that they should and shall have it.

This is the Gospel for the abused: they can overcome and be whole, and they can do so without any help from a fantasy-based crime operation, whose claims to being the sole path to healing and truth in this life are hollow, false, and self-serving. Amen.

Eleanor Brass: I Walk In Two Worlds

[This is an extract from my 1998 doctoral thesis. You can also read my thesis chapters on Maria Campbell and James Tyman. The introductory, “Autopoetics,” chapter is here.]

The Interested Subject: Irony in Eleanor Brass’s “I Walk In Two Worlds” (Calgary, Alberta: Glenbow-Alberta Institute, 1987).

Eleanor Brass begins her 1987 autobiography, I Walk in Two Worlds, with a foreword that briefly rehearses the stages of her life. Her life spans a historical period which begins with the homestead policy and matures during the years of renewed organised Indian political activity. During Brass’s “early years” (as the first chapter is titled), the Canadian government aggressively pursued the surrender of Indian reserve lands while officially promoting segregation and agriculture as solutions to the “Indian problem.” The File Hills Colony (Brass’s title for the second chapter) was an internationally-recognized Indian farm. Like many Native people of her generation, Brass attended an Indian boarding school; “Boarding School Days” recounts her experiences during this period. The chapters “Early Married Years,” “Colony Life,” and “Integration” recount a period of cultural alienation during which Brass walks between the “two worlds” of white and Native. As I hope to show in this chapter, the text discloses a number of ironies regarding, among other things, the narrative’s Indian subject (that is, Brass’s life as an “Indian”). Here the two world metaphor is instructive. The text works explicitly toward integration (of the Indian and white worlds), a goal made difficult by historical conditions well-articulated elsewhere, in the biography of John Tootoosis:

…when an Indian comes out of these places [i.e. Indian schools] it is like being put between two walls in a room and left hanging in the middle. On one side are all the things he learned from his people and their way of life that was being wiped out, and on the other side are the whiteman’s ways which he could never fully understand since he never had the right amount of education and could not be part of it. There he is, hanging in the middle of two cultures and he is not a whiteman and he is not an Indian (Goodwill and Sluman 106)

Here the Indian, to borrow from Brass, walks between two worlds. While Brass employs an inclusive preposition, her text discloses the alienation identified in the Tootoosis text. This should come as no surprise, given the general circumstances of Native lives for Brass’s generation. Pat Deiter-McArthur has reproduced these circumstances in her article “Saskatchewan’s Indian People — Five Generations”:

The laws which served to oppress the second generation [1867-1910: the absolute rule of an Indian agent; denial of political, religious and personal rights through the Indian Act; the pass and permit systems, which regulated personal movement and agriculture; residential school system] were in place until the early 1950s. The Third Generation (1910-1945) was greatly affected by these laws and schooling. This generation can be described as the lost generation. These people were psychologically oppressed. They rejected their Indianness but found that because of the laws for treaty Indians they could not enjoy the privileges accorded to whites. This third generation was our grandfather’s generation. Many Indians at this time could speak their language but would not because of shame of their Indianness. They were still required by law to send their children to residential schools, to send their sick to Indian hospitals, and to abide by the Indian agent. They rarely had a sense of control over their own lives. This generation was considered wards of the government and denied citizenship. (Writing the Circle 32-34).

In this chapter I will consider Brass’s text, I Walk in Two Worlds, in relation to the conditions presented above. I shall maintain that Brass, writing in the late-1980s, contends with the early-to-mid-century ideological and social circumstances which have informed her notions of Indian subjects. The two worlds go largely unresolved, though Brass does posit the means by which intergration is theoretically possible. The subjective conditions articulated in the Tootoosis text are disclosed by Brass in the form of apparently unintended ironies. In short, I Walk in Two Worlds offers insight into the character of a “two world” Indian subject as well as the efforts of a Native agent to syncretise cultures.

“Syncretic” well describes the character of Plains cultures at the time of first contact between Europeans and Natives. Metis culture, in particular, is syncretic. It is a blend of European and Native elements, from which evolved unique Metis customs. Syncretism denotes the active appropriation of cultural elements and is to be distinguished from cultural imperialism, the latter designating an imposition of socio-cultural practices and ideologies on a dominated people. This of course is an analytical distinction between co-existing material phenomena; the cultures of actually-existing colonised peoples are both syncretic and colonial. By this I mean their socio-cultural arrangements are organised according to the conflicting agendas of the internal population and the imperial centre. Our interest here is principally with conflicts concerning the production and organisation of “subjects” and “subjectivity.” Brass’s autobiography undertakes syncretism yet draws upon the ideological resources of imperialist discourse. The result is an ironic text which discloses the ambiguous relation of Native agents to the project of “civilisation.”

“Protection, civilization, and assimilation have always been the goals of Canada’s Indian policy,” as John Tobias has pointed out. (“Protection, Civilization, Assimilation: An Outline History of Canada’s Indian Policy” in J.R. Miller’s Sweet Promises) These priorities are explicit in the Qu’Appelle Treaty, to which Brass refers in the opening chapter of her autobiography. “Protection, civilization, and assimilation” were pursued in a sometimes formal, sometimes informal co-ordination of school, church and state. These three instruments (school, church, and state) achieved their unified expression in the residential school, which “typified the totalitarian and assimilative spirit of Canada’s Indian policy in the later Victorian era and the first half of the twentieth century” (J.R. Miller “Owen Glendower, Hotspur, and Canadian Indian Policy” 332) The File Hills Colony served as an extension of the residential school system; it provided a destination point for the graduate, one that could be as carefully regulated by a white overseer as the schools themselves were. The rules that applied to the residential school applied to the colony as well. A steady engagement in the industrial arts was encouraged, while any manifestation of Indian culture was forbidden. In general, the Indian agent arrogated to himself the authority of a residential school principal, and the Indians themselves were supervised in a manner befitting residential school children. The continuity of residential school and colony life is noted by Edward Ahenekew, in his 1923 book Voices of the Plains Cree. Ahenakew’s fictional elder, Old Keyam, puts the matter this way:

I’ve read about the colony at File Hills, made up of graduates from boarding school. They are said to be doing well. I have boasted about them myself when I had nothing better to do. But they are under the guidance of an official who has more authority than most, and he is an able man whose authority these young people accept in the way to which they become accustomed in boarding school. He is the ‘crank’ that makes the machine start and go. (131)

The ambivalence of this passage is noteworthy, for it approaches not only the tone but the diction of a number of Brass’s evaluations of state institutions. Brass asserts that “according to reports…progress was rapid,” a statement which resembles the articulation, “I’ve read about the colony…they are said to be doing well.” Both Brass and Old Keyam, a figure to whom I shall return in a later chapter, furthermore note the continuity of boarding school and colony. What Old Keyam conveys in the metaphor of an engine, Brass conveys in the term “initiative.” It is the rules of the colony, according to Brass, which hinder agency. The rules do not allow women “to visit with one another very frequently” (11), and they forbid the exercise of Native culture: fiddle dances, pow-wows and tribal ceremonies are forbidden. Brass adds that “Mr. Graham [the Indian agent] considered them a hindrance to progress,” a statement which lays bare the contradiction of state-dictated and -enforced personal development, or agency. At the heart of the Indian subject, and the formal arrangments of “civilisation” which summon it forth, is precisely this contradiction. The Native autobiography, concerned as it is with the subject, is invariably involved in the contradictions of the dominant socio-cultural rules that seek to govern the subject.

These rules are embedded in material institutions and social arrangements. In the case of Brass, the File Hills colony experiment constituted the social context of her encounter with the ideology of the subject. Sarah Carter has described the ideological assumptions underlying the colony in this way:

Agriculture was seen as the solution to the at-best peculiar and at-worst deplorable characteristics and idiosyncrasies which the Indian tenaciously and perversely cherished. The Indian had to be taught to make a living from the soil. No other occupation could so assuredly dispossess the Indian of his nomadic habits and the uncertainties of the chase, and fix upon him the values of a permanent abode and the security of a margin of surplus. Agriculture would teach an appreciation of private property and impart a will to own and master nature. (Lost Harvests 18)

In addition to the contradiction that “the will to master” should be imparted via the paternalistic structures of the regulated Indian farming colony, there is much to be drawn from this observation. One conclusion to be drawn is that the colony constituted a profound re-engineering of Indian life, a re-engineering which eroded traditional, tribal values and substituted in their place the bourgeois ideology of Victorian Canada. An Indian woman would become a wife and mistress of her home, judged by her domestic abilities: cleaning, cooking, and the raising of children. Significantly, “she was an immaculate housekeeper” is Brass’s repeated epithet of approval (5, 10, 60). An Indian man would become the head of a household, judged according to the cardinal bourgeois virtues: sobriety, self-mastery and deferral of gratification. The assimilated Indian would embrace two essential concepts of the capitalist notion of civilization; he would be a believer in the gospel of private property and individualism.

As a result of colonisation, Native peoples increasingly came to see themselves in relation to the ideological subject “Indian.” This point is substantiated by the testimony of Native peoples themselves, in autobiographies written throughout the twentieth century. With the formalisation of colonial social relations, in the Indian treaties and in the schools and government institutions for which the treaties called, “Indian” came to be a signifier whose content was inseparable from state institutions. The Indian was an ongoing re-creation which reflected white interests. This argument however should not be misconstrued as a claim that Natives were passive victims. The claim being made is that the identity of individual Native persons became inextricable from the institutionally-mediated discourse of the Indian. This explains the key features of Brass’s autobiography: the structuring of the bios according to the institutional settings of the autos, and the ironic relation of the author to the designation “Indian.”

Eleanor Brass’s life in many ways reflects the historical developments of the prairies in the early part of the twentieth century. Her autobiography’s ambivalence furthermore reflects the complexities of that history. Ambivalence can be discerned throughout her work despite, or perhaps because of, her explicit commitment to the principles of (white) “civilisation” and progress. These could not have been mere abstractions for Brass, who, as a member of the File Hills band, was part of a unique historical experiment. File Hills was a showpiece of Indian farming, a “model farm to which visiting dignitaries, officials, journalists and just the curious were taken.” (Sarah Carter 239). By 1914 there were 33 farmers in the colony of 134 people, and 2,000 acres of wheat and oats were under cultivation. The colony was considered a successful experiment, designed to meet the primary end of all government policies in relation to the Indian: assimilation. The colonists were graduates of Indian industrial and residential schools, and as such were products of the instituted efforts toward assimilation constituted by the church and the state.

A good deal of ideological investment was involved in the File Hills experiment. Brass herself, writing long after the fact, advances the notion that the purpose of the experiment was the progress of the Indian. Indeed “progress” is a word Brass employs frequently, as she does for instance in this description of the Regina Industrial school: “According to reports, during the nineteen years it was an Indian school, progress was rapid and the larger percentage of its pupils were outstanding” (6). Precisely what constitutes “rapid progress” is left unspoken, a convenience perhaps indulged by the reports from which Brass draws her assurances. The dubious benefits of the school however may be inferred from this description: “…the Mounted Police were of great assistance to the school. They donated time to go out to drill the students, making them quite proficient in precision drilling” (8). Brass reports this judgment as a matter of fact, yet the irony of such mechanical and militarist exercises somehow yielding “many qualified graduates” (6), to say nothing of “rapid progress,” baffles. Here the ideological rationalisations of the schools stand uncomfortably beside the historical data.

Brass’s representation of history is also noteworthy. We shall see, in the case of Maria Campbell’s Halfbreed, the critical role into which representations of history may be pressed. Campbell’s text is unequivocally “Metis” in the sense that it undertakes a representation of history from a Metis point of view. Brass’s text however is not thus engaged with the “politics” of history and yields passages such as the following:

While father was going to school he was sent out each summer to work on a farm in the Wide Awake district near Indian Head. The farmer there got his start through buying up half-breed or Metis scrips for next to nothing. In this way he accumulated quite a few sections of good land. Dad learned a lot about farming and raising stock from this man. At graduation, the farmer wanted to adopt dad and start him out on a farm of his own, but dad preferred going back to the reserve to live among his own people. (7)

We may note the absence of identification with the Metis which as we shall see contrasts with Campbell’s narrative. The farmer’s scrips, purchased for “next to nothing,” are part of a harsh chapter of Metis history in which the halfbreeds were systematically exploited through the concerted actions of the federal government, settlers, and land speculators. Brass is evidently aware of the fact that the halfbreeds were duped. Nonetheless the history embedded in this passage is for Brass a mere series of events without moral implications for the present: it is history as wholly past. The phrase “he accumulated quite a few sections of good land” is particularly striking language and suggests a tacit admiration of and identification with the farmer. In a sense, he has been vindicated by history, as his success attests.

Brass relates a short description of the 1885 Saskatchewan rebellion. Her ancestors, we are told, “promised the queen they would not participate in any warfare and so they fled to Dakota to avoid being forced into a fight (6). When the rebellion was over they returned. This passage, like the above, is indicative of the allegiance which informs Brass’s narrative. Brass’s identity is deeply informed by the values and objectives of the white culture with which she identifies. One symptom of this identification is Brass’s reluctance to criticize and her general (but not invariable) posture of approval regarding the aims and practices of white authority. Consider her description of W.M. Graham, the Indian agent:

The File Hills Colony made rapid progress during its first twenty years. Its success may be attributed to the initiative of the colonists, who were allowed to conduct their own affairs, and to the constant encouragement by officials, missionaries, and other interested parties. … So keen was the desire for the success of this scheme that Mr. Graham made his own plans which were felt to be quite strict at times. (11)

The initiative of the colonists and the “constant encouragement by officials” were often at odds, a fact which was not generally conducive to “rapid progress.” Having affirmed the success of the colony and the encouragement of its officials, Brass goes on to describe the many rules imposed on the colonists by the paternalistic authorities —in the name of progress and self-reliance, as always. Brass’s reticence in relation to Graham is particularly remarkable. Consider her description on page 17, where she relates an agreement made between Graham and the colonists. Here is her account:

On or about 1911 an agreement was made between Mr. Graham and the colonists that they would allow, if necessary, a total of fifty graduates into the colony over a period of twenty years. From what we have observed, Mr. Graham assumed the right to select graduates from any Indian school, regardless of legal status or religion.

This is a generous description of what was in fact a heated conflict. Joe Ironquil led the Peepeekisis band’s opposition to Graham’s desire to admit the graduates. Brass omits unpleasant details which put white authority in an unpleasant light. She largely obfuscates the character of Graham himself, whose career, according to Daniel Francis, “was a clear indication that the way to succeed in the Indian service was to show initiative in subverting the rights of Indians” (Francis 208). Indeed, Graham eagerly pursued the surrender of Indian lands, as documented by Stewart Raby. (Note: “Indian Land Surrenders in Southern Saskatchewan.” The Canadian Geographer 17 no. 1 (1973): 36-52) Yet Brass’s only comment on the File Hills dispute over the use and development of Indian lands comes in the single line, “From what we have observed, Mr. Graham assumed the right to select graduates from any Indian school, regardless of legal status or religion” (17).

It would be incorrect to suggest that Brass simply identifies with something called “white culture” to the detriment of an implicit Indian identity. Her representation of events doubtless has several determinations which lie beyond this reductive formulation. The point I wish to establish and substantiate is that, in the formation of her subjectivity, Brass has drawn on complex ideological resources and that the arrangement of these resources into an integrated self are of paramount concern. Brass’s representations of whites —ambivalent, ironic, or otherwise— is symptomatic of a larger project itself concerned with representation of the self. I Walk in Two Worlds is unable to resolve fundamental issues introduced into the narrative by ideological assumptions. This inability, I am arguing, results in identifiable textual ironies and contradictions regarding the successes of white culture, the virtues of assimilation, and the progress of Indians.

We have already briefly considered the success of the Regina industrial school and the “rapid progress” of the File Hills Colony under W.M. Graham. In these instances Brass endorses the official appraisement of these institutions and reproduces commonplace attitudes regarding the upward development of white civilisation. The complement of these “evolutionary” attitudes consists in Brass’s representations of the Indian, which disclose the logic of ethnocentric anthropology:

It has never ceased to be interesting to be an Indian and to walk in two worlds, watching, learning, and trying to understand the many cultures and the thinking of the various races of people. While I know that my Indian culture is one of the noblest in the world, I feel that other cultures have affected my life in various ways. (14)

Brass’s interest in relation to the Indian, here as elsewhere, approaches exoticism, as her use of the term “noble” suggests. We should note also the implicit exclusion of the narrator in the phrase “watching, learning, and trying to understand the many cultures and the thinking of the various races of people,” among them Indians. Here we see the subtle ambivalent relation of Brass to her text, particularly to signifiers of belonging such as we and our, as well as categories like “Indian.” The workings of the two worlds have “never ceased to be interesting” to Brass largely because she herself is interested (inter est), suspended between the irresolvable conditions which her relation to the two worlds proposes.

“Our childhood days were interesting,” Brass writes, recalling her introduction into Indian culture:

Our parents took us to Indian feasts and sometimes to funerals. We liked the feasts but the funerals used to scare us. We didn’t understand the rituals where the women seemed to do a lot of wailing. After attending them I would get nightmares, so my parents stopped taking us. (13)

The young Brass’s apprehension of the Indian is mediated by fear and alienation as well as by fascination. Such appear to be the nuances of the bland term “interesting.” Brass does not however immediately recognise herself as an “Indian,” a fact we learn several lines later. How she does conceive of her affiliations is a complex matter, complicated by her references to race itself, such as in these two passages from pages 26 and 46 respectively:

One of the matrons said that the girls from the [File Hills] colony were the worst children in the school. They were always getting into things that the other children wouldn’t think of doing. I came to the conclusion that it was because of our European background. We must have inherited some aggressive characteristics which contributed to our curiosity and animation (26).

We must have inherited traits from our nomadic background that made us so adventuresome. We both wanted to get acquainted with the outside world and relate our findings to our own people. I know for myself, I was always curious; I always had to see what was around the next corner. (46)

Brass’s affiliations are informed by the dubious ethnographic assumptions popularised in the nineteenth century. As a result, her self-conception according to supposed “natural inherited traits” (a phrase Brass employs on page 26) is arbitrary and yields simultaneously untenable claims. Indians are described as “passive” but also as “adventuresome,” while “curiosity” is associated first with European aggression and later with the erstwhile “passive” Indian’s nomadism. Nor does any principle appear to guide these designations; rather, Brass’s relation to these ethnographic categories is fluid.

Another indication of the ironies at work in the narrative can be found on page 28. Here stereotypes of the Indian are both invoked and frustrated by the conditions of Brass’s life. Having arrived at the boarding school, Brass is asked by a fellow pupil, “Is it cold living in a tent in the winter time?” The boys see Brass sitting in a “shiny new Ford” and call out, “Get out of that car, you dirty Indian!” Brass notes the irony: “my father, who was a good farmer and did well financially well on the reserve, was one of the first people in the district to have a new Ford car.” The “poor” white people who look down on the comfortably middle-class Brass are her social inferiors. The mistaken assumptions of these Indian stereotypes are reiterated at page 36, in an exchange between Brass and an Indian agent:

“Sir,” I said. “I would like some of our money to buy groceries.”
“What’s the matter with that good for nothing husband of yours?” he answered. “Why doesn’t he get out and earn something, he’s so damn lazy.”
“Just a minute, sir,” I replied, “he’s busy working on his summer fallow and if it wasn’t done you’d be bawling us out, and furthermore, my husband is an honest man. He’d never think of stealing money from anyone and he’s never been in the penitentiary.”
You would think I had struck the Indian agent; he just sat down and held his head. His son was doing time in the penitentiary after being convicted of stealing funds from farmers… (36)

Indian subjects, in the agent’s stereotypical view, are lazy. Brass, doubtless familiar with the litany of supposed Indian failings, goes beyond the agent’s accusations and defends her husband against unspoken but anticipated charges. Her assertion that he is neither dishonest nor a thief exposes the appropriateness of the stereotype to the agent’s own son, who in a fitting inversion of the dramatic situation is imprisoned for stealing from farmers. In this scene, an instance of dramatic irony, the ideological script from which the agent reads is subverted and the roles are reversed.

Elsewhere however Brass reinforces stereotypes of the Indian. She imports into her narrative a passage from an article of hers entitled “Teepee Tidings,” in which she adopts the anachronistic persona of a “noble savage”:

It is interesting to watch from the sidelines, so to speak, the movements of the country, and its forms of government with the various political parties for legislation.
Watching from the wigwam door makes us wonder at all the complications our white brothers subject themselves to. We know the affairs of the country must be taken care of and many problems arise. But we feel it could be simpler if they would adopt from us the ceremony of smoking the pipe of peace together, and perhaps conclusions would be reached with better understanding.
We also look with amazement at the wonderful scientific discoveries in the medical field, of the new drugs with their marvellous results. The atomic energy, while used right is also wonderful so they tell us, but otherwise we prefer our bow and arrow (44).

I Walk in Two Worlds is, to its credit, not so crude as this. The affectations of this article are exceptional, and the question is begged how “better understanding” may result from writing so preponderant with Indianisms like “watching from the wigwam door makes us wonder.” In this small passage we find Indians associated with teepees, simplicity, peace pipes, wonder, and amazement at white scientific discoveries and technologies; it is here as if Native people had managed to live through the past 100 years without alteration. White people on the contrary are associated with complexity, social evolution (“the movements of the country”), discovery, science, medicine, drugs, and all manners of technology. Nor are these stereotypes restricted to this passage, which I have chosen only for its rhetoric excess. Elsewhere similar assumptions less overtly inform Brass’s conception of her Indianness.

One striking example of Brass’s cultural assumptions regarding the Indian lies in her assertion of the historical significance of her father’s life, an assertion informed by the notions of progress and civilization prevalent at the time:

My father and his schoolmate Ben Stonechild were among the first to start with the colony. When they turned over the first sod, little did they realize their efforts were opening up a new era, turning a page in the history of their people. No longer would they and their descendants be content to depend entirely on the bow an arrow and hunting knife for a living.

Brass’s over-simplification of Plains Indian culture to a dependence “entirely on the bow and arrow” accords well with the view that was doubtless expounded in the residential school and elsewhere at the turn of the century and later. This view itself derives from nineteenth-century evolutionary-based ethnography, which characterizes hunting-gathering cultures as “savage.” One influential proponent of Indian ethnography was the American Lewis Henry Morgan, whose 1877 study Ancient Society, or Researches in the Lines of Human Progress from Savagery through Barbarism to Civilization was widely read and constituted the basis for a number of influential nineteenth-century works. (Note: For a discussion of Morgan’s work, see Robert F. Berkhofer Jr., “The Scientific Image of the Indian, The White Man’s Indian) Consider for example this assertion, from Friedrich Engles’s The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State —a book indebted to Morgan’s views of culture: “The bow and arrow was for savagery what the iron sword was for barbarism and firearms for civilization — the decisive weapon”11 In any discussion of cultural history (Brass’s text is, at one level, a discussion of a cultural history) the phrase “bow and arrow” serves well as a shorthand invocation of a complex set of late-Victorian/early twentieth-century assumptions and arguments.

Foremost was the assumption that the Indian way of life was vanishing, as it inevitably must in order to make way for “civilization.” (Note: See Daniel Francis The Imaginary Indian, chapter 3, for a discussion of “the Vanishing Indian”) This assumption is evident at places in Brass’s text, and is ostensibly substantiated with empirical evidence. For instance, she writes that “thirteen sections of the [File Hills] colony were left unsurveyed for those ex-pupils who still desired to follow the old pursuits of hunting and trapping. Significantly, the inhabitants of this portion of the colony had had an equal education but did not seem to progress economically”(10). Coming immediately after Brass’s encomium on the “new era” of agricultural work (a phrase which itself derives from the evolutionary logic of contemporary ethnography), this comment implicitly renders the verdict that hunting and trapping represent “old pursuits” which are incompatible with progress. The qualification “significantly” here apparently denotes an observation of essence: hunting and trapping fail because of their ontological status; no external, contingent explanation for the failure is sought (climate, geography, local game populations), and presumably, none is needed.

Brass’s assumption of the “vanishing Indian” informs her conception of Indianness. The Indian occupies the past and harkens back to simpler times, a point underscored in the “Teepee Tidings” article quoted above. Indians sit on the “sidelines” and offer respite —and peace pipes— to those whites whose disenchantment with civilisation propels them to seek the unadulterated charms of nature. Even the manner in which the Brasses speak to one another makes this point apparent:

When we were travelling, my husband gave me a pep talk, saying, ‘Remember, Eleanor, we must leave our beads and feathers at home. We’re going to show the white people that we can meet their challenge and we have to show our own people that Indians can do it.’” (45)

The complexities and ironies of the Brass’ subject positions are reified by the language in which they are represented. The ironies I have been analysing cannot be adequately rendered in the simplified ideological categories on which Brass finds it necessary to rely. She is either a “beads and feathers” Indian or an aggressive European. In an irony Brass never ackowledges, “integration” entails going out into the “white world” and leaving behind her bow and arrow. It means working for whites in a money economy, submitting to monetarised human relations until the reserve “beckons,” the term used by Brass (46).

Integration is based on the principle of understanding. Brass decides to “get acquainted with the outside world and to relate [her] findings” to her people (48). This is primarily an intellectual effort which recalls an earlier statement: “it has never ceased to be interesting to be an Indian and to walk in two worlds, watching, learning and trying to understand the many cultures and the thinking of the various races of people” (14). The thesis of the autobiography is that knowledge humanises and fosters understanding of the Other, a proposition which may be termed “humanist.” Yet at the heart of Brass’s knowledge of the Indian are notions about progress which frustrate her explicit intellectual commitment. Brass’s knowledge is impeded by what she knows.

Brass’s knowledge is partly informed by cultural systems working at cross-purposes. For the dominant white culture, at the onset of the twentieth century as well as in the 1950s, the educational, administrative, and economic systems for dealing with the Indian were designed to meet the Indian problem, which was the stubborn refusal of Indians to vanish. Policies aimed at assimilation had the paradoxical effect of preserving Indian culture, an effect made apparent in Basil Johnston’s autobiography, Indian School Days. The reservation system is a good example of a policy which in practice contradicted its theoretical purpose. At File Hills, secretly-held traditional Indian feasts and Indian funeral ceremonies were a part of the local experience, as were the agricultural exhibitions and brass band performances which were the proscribed fare of colony life. The segregation of white settlements and reservations, together with the harsh economic realities of reserve life, forced many Natives to move among two segregated cultures, unable and/or unwilling ever to dwell fully in either. Appropriately, the “two worlds” metaphor figures often in the autobiographies and biographies of this generation, as we have seen in the case of John Tootoosis. Brass’s text likewise registers this perception, though the effort of the narrative is toward integration. Brass like her generation is thus caught between the “distinctive and highly developed civilization” of an earlier generation of Native peoples, and the civilization of the future, brought to the Indian through progress and assimilation.

The “two world” model of Indian experience is presented largely in symbolic terms, but we are reminded that the two-world segregation of Native and white is literal. The complications of identity enter into the text when Brass crosses the barrier between white and Native and is confronted as a cultural other:

As we grew older we often accompanied our parents to town. While they were doing their shopping we would sometimes wait for them outside on the street and watch the people go by. Some of them would stop and speak to us while others would just smile. Once some boys came by and called us “little squaws” but we didn’t realize then that we were Indians. We called back to them “little squaws yourselves.” This marked the first of many episodes both good and bad that were to influence the rest of my life. (13-14)

The young Brass’s reply, “little squaws yourselves,” is a comic mis-identification, but it also discloses a conceptual innocence regarding the cultural conditions articulated in the Tootoosis passage. The context of this episode suggests that the young Brass’s failure to construe a racial slur is a manifestation of cultural alienation: she does realize that she is an “Indian,” nor that the townspeople are not. The term “Indian” is as obscure to Brass as the traditional rituals which serve only to give her nightmares. Although the town episode is easily dismissed as the naiveté of a child, on the assumption that Brass later shall “know better,” the social and economic conditions of the period discouraged the knowledge of Native peoples concerning their culture. This is what Pat Deiter-McArthur identifies by her phrase “the lost generation.” “Lost” is another term for the suspension of knowledge of the self between two worlds, and the resulting social, economic and psychological hardships.

Brass learns about the white world and about the Indian in the same manner: by “watching, learning and trying to understand.” Her understanding of both worlds reflects its social and institutional settings, and, as I have suggested, generates ironies which may lead the reader toward epistemological skepticism. What Brass knows about Native people is largely informed by cultural assumptions about the Indian. Furthermore, how Brass responds to and interprets what she apprehends gives the reader reasons to be skeptical. She recalls that from friends she learned about “our Indian culture” while at the Presbyterian boarding school (25). In the sole documented response to this education, we find Brass “giggling” at a sacred dance, the understandable reaction of a child. The same ironic response to the sacred is recorded on page 16, where the missionary sent out “to look after our spiritual needs” unknowingly exposes his bum to young Eleanor. Brass’s reflections on spiritual matters are abruptly displaced by considerations of the body, particularly the male penis (17). Here the child’s failure to understand dominates the narrative and the ironies are taken for granted. This naïve point-of-view regarding religion is arguably a mere narrative technique designed to capture the experience of childhood, and yet it is consistent with Brass’s reluctance to write critically of Graham two paragraphs later. Brass’s ambivalence registers itself only subtly, in the ironies of which she often appears to be unaware.

The ironies with which we are principally concerned are those involving Indian identity. We have already considered Brass’s first encounter with racism, and her recollection that she did not realise she was an Indian. Here the irony is readily apparent, as it is in the case of the “white man’s Indian,” who lives in tents and indulges in scalpings. Brass exploits the humour of such absurdities, but beyond these absurd ironies are the troubling matters articulated in the biography of John Tootoosis, with which I introduced this chapter. The troubling matters to which I refer concern the Native person caught in a historical process of assimilation. Such a person, according to Tootoosis, “is not a whiteman and he is not an Indian.” This assertion contradicts Brass’s claims, yet it accounts for the ironies of the narrative as discreet moments of textualised aporia, in which self-alienation is exposed. The autobiography itself thus can be read as an exploration of the “two world” character of Brass’s identity. The autobiography constitutes the logic according to which the Indian and the white worlds can be integrated, and yet the ironies persist, contradicting the narrative’s logic

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Rasporich, A.W., ed. Western Canada Past and Present. Calgary, Alberta: McClelland and Stewart, 1975.

Richardson, Boyce. Strangers Devour the Land. Canada: Douglas & McIntyre, 1991.

Schmitt, Richard. Introduction to Marx and Engels: A Critical Reconstruction. Second Edition. [Dimensions of Philosophy Series.] Boulder, Colorado: Westview Press, 1997.

Scott, Duncan Campbell. The Administration of Indian Affairs in Canada. Ottawa: The Canadian Institute of International Affairs, 1931.

Sealey, D. Bruce and Antoine S. Lussier. The Métis: Canada’s Forgotten People. Winnipeg, Manitoba: Pemmican Publications, 1975.

Seton, Ernest Thompson. Two Little Savages, Being the Adventures of Two Boys Who Lived as Indians and What They Learned. New York: Grosset and Dunlap, 1903.

Slipperjack, Ruby. Honour the Sun. Winnipeg, Manitoba: Pemmican Press, 1987.

Shorten, Lynda, ed. Without Reserve: Stories from Urban Natives. Edmonton: NeWest Press, 1991.

Sluman, Norma and Jean Goodwill. John Tootoosis: Biography of a Cree Leader. Ottawa: Golden Dog Press, 1982.

Smith, Dan. The Seventh Fire: The Struggle for Aboriginal Government. Toronto: Key Porter Books Limited, 1993.

Smith, Derek G., ed. Canadian Indians and the Law: Selected Documents, 1663-1972. Ottawa: Carleton University Press, 1975.

Smith, Paul. Discerning the Subject Foreward by John Mowitt. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1988.

Smith, Sidonie. A Poetics of Women’s Autobiography: Marginality and the Fiction of Self-Representation. Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1987.

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Swann, Brian and Arnold Krupat. I Tell You Now: Autobiographical Essays by Native American Writers. Lincoln, Nebraska: University of Nebraska Press, 1987.

Taylor, John L. Canadian Indian Policy During the Inter-War Years, 1918-1939. Ottawa: Indian Affairs and Northern Development, 1984.

Thistle, Paul C. Indian-European Trade Relations in the Lower Saskatchewan River Region to 1840. Manitoba: University of Manitoba Press, 1986.

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York, Geoffrey. The Dispossessed: Life and Death in Native Canada. London, England: Vintage, 1990.

The Tea Party Rot

Today in Tupelo, a news agency reported the following words of Elizabeth Smith.

I’m so hurt about what’s going on in our country. It’s hurt my heart. I was so patriotic as a child. It makes me cry cause I have grandchildren coming up they’re not going to have what I had.

What Ms Smith has, and what she presumes her grandchildren will have not, is uniquely American: the world’s most expensive and most technologically advanced health care system — a system which bids millions of uninsured citizens Best of Luck (while still outspending all other countries per capita to get inferior outcomes) and which manages furthermore to bring into co-habitation the inefficiencies both of the public and private spheres, with few of either’s advantages.

Well, never mind that. Let’s cry with Ms Smith and her fellow Tea Party protesters over the forthcoming triumph of more efficient, universal, single-payer insurance. Let’s tear our garments and roll in the dust, our spirits broken by the diminished corpulence of the country’s 1,300 private insurers, whose profit hungry bureaucrats, CEOs, and investors devour thirty percent of every health care dollar.

I am able to respect a difference of opinion when it is informed by intelligence and principle. But concerning the health care debate, isn’t it rather time for the J’accuse which will dissect these Tea Party Neanderthals? No: worse even than that, for their tropes are not simply unintelligent or under-developed. They are plump with the malevolent blue veins of racist innuendo and other bigotry.

It takes a certain vileness of character, for example, to introduce into a health care debate the immoral cuteism “Obama-Bin-Lyin” or the birther charge that the President is a Kenyan Stalinist. Or to de-historicize the proper noun Nazi, as if it could ever be a respectable synonym for over-reaching government. The Tea Party protestors are not morally serious, but their fear and loathing of all that is foreign or in any way different are genuine. They appear to know nothing of the cultures, histories, or health care systems of the world beyond, nor to care to. Enough for them are ahistorical and closed-minded prejudices — that the Founding Fathers were a uniform cast of pious Christian evangelicals, that America has nothing to learn from the rest of the world, and that a wink toward the foreign pedigree of anything is sufficient to render it contemptible. This is the deeper rot beneath this xenophobic movement’s willful abuses of language, and those of us familiar with the Germany of the 20s and 30s know rot when we see it. For these are not the unfortunate mischaracterizations of ill-informed bumpkins. The people who level these charges know precisely what they mean to say, and their filth ought therefore to be given none of the benefits of doubt.

They are hateful people, and civilized folks everywhere ought to be saying so.

‘My Canada includes …’

The bumper sticker I often saw at the time of the 1995 Quebec referendum on sovereignty is still in circulation. It reads, ‘My Canada includes Quebec.’ A generous sentiment, I think, and likely destined to fail. The French and English alike are weary of the status quo, by which I mean protracted rounds of federal-provincial wrangling, followed by solutions that don’t solve anything. They may one day conclude that separation is perhaps after all for the best. Nothing personal: it’s just that the time has come to try something a bit different.

The problem with the bumper sticker is that, decent though its outlook is, it doesn’t really describe the Canada in which most Canadians live. In what manners precisely does Your Canada include Quebec? The bumper sticker does not represent the social experiences of millions of Canadians who cannot name a Quebecois singer (Sorry, Celine Dion does not count), a Francophone author, or a Quebec provincial holiday. Anglophone Canadians complain of having French ‘crammed down their throat’ in school. Then there’s the political Canada, a motley parliament fadged together by means of the federal election. I wrote an article for ASH magazine at the time of the 1997 election in which I wrote the following:

…after reviewing the research data, Lucien Bouchard’s claim that ‘Canada is not a real country’ was beginning to make some sense to me. I’d thought it a ridiculous statement at first, but my discoveries got me wondering. The first surprise was a 1994 Maclean’s/CTV poll suggesting that only about 1/3 of Newfoundlanders think of themselves as ‘Canadian.’ Even the Quebec referendum yielded a higher number: just over 50%. Anecdotal evidence suggests that the West considers itself a nation apart, and if one doesn’t trust anecdotal evidence, there’s the 1997 election to consider. This election carved the political landscape into competing regional chunks, leaving Ottawa to pursue one of the few policies for which there seems to be a national consensus: decentralization. As the next referendum approaches, I try to imagine appropriate regional slogans for the inevitable bumper stickers. Here’s one: My Canada includes Bay Street, Parliament Hill, and parts of Montreal, notwithstanding. Here a brief newspaper quotation, there a statistic: together considered, the data suggest less a nation recreating itself for the next century than a conflict over who should get what, and more important, who shouldn’t. The national mood, perhaps not fully explained by the term ‘regionalism,’ seems to be rooted in an understanding that, in a world of diminishing expectations, looking out for Number One is only a good idea.

I wrote that paragraph less than two years ago, and so it would be premature to conclude it’s withstood the test of time. I’ll say instead it has withstood my suspicion that I was perhaps too pessimistic. Years ago, in preparation for some articles on contemporary Canadian politics that I was writing, I read several dozen books, dozens of articles, and scores of government documents. I read the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), the Multilateral Agreement on Investment (MAI), and those glossy publications of the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund (IMF), and the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). I read the Prime Minister’s after-dinner speeches, and the reports issued following the blue-ribbon trade missions of which we heard so much. I read Fraser Institute and C.D. Howe books. I read United Nations reports, from UNICEF to a publication called Transnational Corporations. I went through Statistics Canada data. I even consulted Royal Commission documents, Commons debates, Hansard, and on and on and on and on. Now, I’m not boring you with this list to establish my expertise and thus to place what I’m about to say beyond question. I want only to assert that all of these folks, working for the IMF and the World Bank and so on, have a pretty clear idea about what Canada includes. It would perhaps fit on a bumper sticker, too: “My Canada includes underexploited health and education markets.” I was trying to answer a very precise question in my research, What is this thing called Globalization into which we are rushing? After two years of effort I got a well-documented answer, too. Your political and economic leaders regard Canada as an ‘economy’ which needs to be made more ‘efficient.’ Globalization is a new name for laissez-faire capitalism. Theirs is one view of Canada, and the bumper stickers pose another. The problem for the Unity folks is that the bumper-sticker crowd isn’t running the country, the people Up There are. Don’t bother reading books about that; consider your experience and judge for yourself whether or not it’s so.

Here is a description of My Canada from Ontario’s 905 region, infamous as the Heartland of the 1995 Common Sense Revolution. This is where Mike Harris’s Progressive Conservative party won a decisive victory on a platform which pretty much ignored Quebec altogether. It was probably a wise strategy, but in any case I’m not interested here in politics. Remember, I am describing Canada as it really is, not as the My Canada folks wish it to be, or think it to be.

I live on the outskirts of Fort Erie, Ontario where I work as a writer. I’m writing a collection of stories set in a town that doesn’t look too “Canadian,” because we’ve all learned there’s a small market for that sort of thing. Some would regard me as part of the Culture Industry. Let’s talk, then, about culture. In Kingston I used to watch Canadian television and listen to Canadian radio because, unless one paid for cable, Canadian is about all you got. (As a consequence, most of those who can pay for cable do.) In Fort Erie there is only American television, and American radio dominates. Cable is not available in the rural area in which I live. Furthermore, Fort Erie – a city of 27,000 – has no movie theatre and no bookstores. The nearest stores offering these goods are in Buffalo. On the Canadian side I can easily find Canadian papers, full of American content and American spelling, and American books, magazines, rental videos, and music. I once found Canadian movies in the ‘foreign’ section of Jumbo Video, but the foreign section was long ago sacrificed to make room for a sprawling Disney section. I doubt you’re surprised; this is how Canadians are routinely treated by their fellow citizens. In other fields, science and technology for instances, it’s much the same. Canadian taxpayers subsidize education, but the notion of keeping Canadians here with good jobs is quite beyond. America offers the work and reaps the ample rewards of an investment paid for here. Then Canadians buy back the products of that investment at a handsome price. Don’t be surprised; it’s a very old matter which goes by the term Empire. Did you know that two of the original three Hollywood studios were established by expatriate Canadians? Not only does Canada let the Americans manage ‘their’ culture for profit; they supply the managers, at Canada’s expense. Sociologists call this a Brain Drain, which if you pay attention to metaphors makes you think back to NAFTA and all the glorious talk about the free flow of information and goods. Glorious talk aside, most people in the Culture Industry are unable to make a living in Canada, so many look in the States. Or, like me, they find work of another sort. Fort Erie’s prime real estate is American-owned, and the maintenance of these summer ‘cottages’ – far bigger than the houses local Canadians own – involves the labour of several workers. I am one of those workers.

These are the basic facts of Canada as I encounter them daily. It is a US-dominated country in which the Americans own the resources but hire the locals to keep things looking spiffy. When you get home from work you can eat American food, wear American clothes, and watch American entertainment. As for Quebec food, clothes, and entertainment, most people here would ask What the hell are those? 905 Canada doesn’t really include Quebec at all; indeed, it hardly even includes Canada. In 1998 there’s less political and economic substance to Confederation than even a decade ago, and the trend seems to me to be gaining momentum. Conrad Black owns most Canadian newspapers and lives in New York city, the centre of his universe; yesterday I read in his National Post a discussion of Thomas Courchene’s proposal that we establish a North American currency, the US dollar. Well, why not? Courchene, a Queen’s University economist, has on his side the facts that 80% of Canada’s exports go to the US and that Canadian society has undergone a decade-long project of social and economic ‘harmonization‘ with the States. The Canadian nationalists have bumper stickers backed up by Good Vibrations. I am not mocking them. I am merely pointing out that the North American Free Trade Agreement formalized Canada’s status as a milch-cow. The principal function of the federal government today is not ‘unity’; it is to make sure nothing gets between the bucket and the teat. Free Trade is about noble-sounding matters like National Treatment, Most Favoured Nation, and the elimination of non-tariff trade barriers. The goal, largely accomplished, is to get rid of socialist, interventionist government, and replace it with something that makes for a more efficient milking. The IMF now scrutinizes budgets – ’surveillance,’ the IMF people call it – and makes its displeasure felt if the fed gets out of line. So far Finance Minister Paul Martin has been a willing subject, and punishment has therefore been unnecessary. In public, federal leaders belong to the ‘My Canada includes Quebec’ club, and they’ve certainly handed out the goodies, but in private they are more of the school which believes ‘My Canada includes privatization, downsizing, and competition.’ You have to admit, it has a nice practical sound to it. Furthermore, it has practical results.

Confederation, I can’t help but notice, has the word federation in it. A federation gives one a federal government. And what does federal mean? Here is the definition offered by Chamber’s 20th Century Dictionary: “pertaining to or consisting of a treaty or covenant.” It’s an interesting definition, I think. A covenant has a distinct feeling about it; one imagines God and Moses breaking bread, while the lion and lamb frolic together in the distance. Covenants are mutual agreements that place the participants’ needs and interests foremost. Treaties are something altogether else. The word makes me think either of the many broken promises of Canada in their relations with indigenous people, or else it brings to mind those horrendous documents produced by the victors at the conclusion of a war. Germany was humiliated not by its defeat in WWI, but rather by the peace established in the Treaty of Versailles. Indeed, to my mind the word treaty conjures the words ‘lies,’ and ‘deceit’. Someone invariably has, or achieves, a position of dominance where treaties are involved. Someone is usually screwed over. (Just ask Simon Reisman, the embittered Canadian negotiator of NAFTA who admitted Canada got screwed by the American government.) Where there are treaties and covenants, there must be people or agencies to keep them. This is one function of Canada’s federal government, to enforce agreements. I don’t know about you, but I myself have an opinion on whether Canada’s leaders are of the covenant-making or cynical treaty-making variety. The so-called New Economy arrived attended by the unmistakable feeling that Canada had lost a contest, and now must pay. The Federal government has downsized itself out of business and no longer does anything noticeable except hoard taxes and EI surpluses while telling citizens to pay more and learn to live with less. Public health care funding? Education? Social Welfare? Sorry, not anymore. It’s up to the provinces now, who in turn are dumping responsibilities and costs onto the municipalities, without giving them the resources. Perhaps by the time you read this, the municipalities will have entrusted health care ‘market’ to the efficient workings of American Health Maintenance Organizations, or HMOs. Government isn’t so inefficient after all. It’s Getting the Job Done.

My view, if you care to know and haven’t figured it out already, is that Canada is governed not by politicians, but by the lying makers of treaties. They screwed over the Indians, and now they’re busy screwing over Canadians. Behind it all are the financial markets, which in turn are governed by gamblers and robber barons. This form of governance goes on in the open and is sanctioned by the laws. There’s no need to introduce gnosticism, masonry, or a secret world conspiracy into the discussion. Anyone familiar with mercantilism will understand what the global economy is really all about. It’s about rigging the systems of trade and production and reaping the profits. There’s no place for east-west nation-building in a north-south trade regime. No one’s business interests are served by the break-up of Canada, but on the other hand the statist measures required by fiscal federalism (a term which covers federal-provincial cost- and tax-sharing arrangements) are out of fashion. Even if they weren’t, what more has the federal government left to offer Quebec? The answer, of course, is sovereignty. All of these – free trade, decentralization, downsizing, separatism – are centrifugal. They make a flight from the federal centre perhaps inevitable and certainly reasonable. As cynical as this sounds, confederation was a matter of expedience and self-interest. The provinces were in it for the goodies as much as for anything else. Well, Ottawa isn’t in the goodies business anymore. They have the international investor to please, and we know how the international investor loves austerity – not his own of course, but others’. The investors are doing nicely with the help of government, but the rest of us will have to take care of ourselves. The technical term for taking care of oneself, by the way, is independence.

Professor Courchene welcomes the new, decentralized, globally-competitive Canada. You could even say it was his idea. He’s a booster of the unimpeded free market and believes that the nation-state is, alas, obsolete. One man’s opinion, you may say, but Courchene is one of the most influential policy experts in Canada. He has literally written the book, at Ontario’s request, on intergovernmental relations. His approach to separatism is to render it redundant by turning Canada into a loosely-affiliated group of independent economies. The argument is, Make every province actually independent, both economically and politically, and you undercut the separatist cause of independence in law. That is the argument. It overlooks the fact that nationalism is at least as much about the symbols of nationhood as it is about the substance. Jacques Parizeau, I presume, wanted to be the Prime Minister of Quebec. Pomp and circumstance, Oui; Distinct Society, Non. The title ‘Premier of For-All-Intents-and-Purposes-Independent Quebec’ apparently did not interest him. Nonetheless, appeasement has a certain logic, and by a happy coincidence its decentralizing tendencies satisfied the conditions of the North American Free Trade Agreement as well. Under Courchene’s plan, which was adopted by Ottawa, the independent states of Canada would be governed by an agreement on internal trade (AIT). The unimpeded flow of goods, information, and capital would be the primary social and economic goals of Courchene’s, and Ottawa’s, Canada. This plan was published under the title Renewing the Federation.

Having endured a good lot of acronyms and barbarous phrases, are you ready for plain English? All the sound and fury about ‘renewing the federation’ arrives at this: empty the store, and maybe folks will stop trying to rob it. In other words, the only politically safe government in the 1990s – indeed the only good government – is thought to be no government at all. Ottawa will continue to collect incomes and to hand them over to bankers, bondholders, and Bombardier, but not much else will transpire directly between the feds and citizens. Most activists on the left have yet to grasp what this means for their infamous defence of an interventionist federal government. The fed is no longer in the business of social programs, but it is nonetheless busy. Ottawa’s Canada includes acronyms like the Non-Accelerating-Inflation Rate of Unemployment (NAIRU), the World Trade Organization (WTO), and the Multilateral Agreement on Investment (MAI). Or, in plain English, the private economic interests of investors. It makes me wonder are there any good reasons today not to separate?

Needless to say, each Canadian sees the country differently. For some – those who derive the bulk of their income from investments, for instance – a decentralized, American-styled, free-market, individualistic Canada is an exciting, opportunity-filled prospect. I have expressed my suspicions, but I acknowledge also the attractiveness for many of the competing views. I could be wrong about the political system and about the leaders. I could be wrong about globalization. Most of all, I could be wrong about the future of Canada and Quebec. Regarding my assertion that Canada is ‘US-dominated,’ one could hardly think this a novel claim. Much of what I have stated is old and obvious. Some of it, such as the relevance of the IMF to Canadian politics, wants clarification and substance. Do I believe that Canada is under attack from malignant outside forces? No, I believe rather that Canada is open for business. I do not think that Canada is unique in the world, that it is somehow special, set apart from the other nations. The Canadian way of life is not invulnerable, and yet the threats are domestic. If anything brings Canada down, it will be the notions that democracy is a spectator sport, that citizenship is a piece of paper, that ordinary people are powerless, and that in any case ‘Canadianess’ magically shields one from the disasters which descend upon lesser nations. It is possible, even probable, that Quebec will one day leave Canada. It is possible that Canada as you know it will cease to exist. Perhaps it already has. My Canada, you see, includes these possibilities. [-November 1998.]

Of Youth and Age

T.S. Eliot’s 1922 poem, The Waste Land, begins:

April is the cruellest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring
Dull roots with spring rain.

I first read these lines in my early 20s and thought I understood them. But as it is in so many instances of literature, this poem seems commensurate with a certain age, the way Proust is an author for one’s forties and J.D. Salinger for the early teens. The meaning of this strange admixture of memory and desire which indeed comes about suddenly in Spring is not fully appreciated until one reaches an age where the crucial bit, “cruellest,” is actively felt. The opening of The Waste Land finds us somewhere between the youthful outlook of the Pastoral mode and the poetic resignation of Ecclesiastes: “the almond tree shall flourish, and the grasshopper shall be a burden, and desire shall fail.” In that middle space desire persists, but memory indicates the direction in which you’re going, how far you’ve gone, and thus the inevitable matter of the diminishing return.

For me this late middle period, or if you prefer middle age, outlook is best illustrated not by allusion to Spring, but Fall. Here it is, the beginning of September, and it is a beautiful sunny day – Autumn is in the air – as the students return for another year of classes. I admit the whole thing makes me deeply nostalgic. But for what exactly? The facts of much of my years as a student were: tedious lectures, essays, term papers, exams, poverty. I know I do not miss any of these. And yet, when I walk alongside the residences and I get a glimpse inside, a part of me is absorbed into the scene and I want it all again. One month of actual student life, if not one day, would cure me of this, for I’m certain it would be an utterly depressing and irksome experience. But then, I am thirty-four years old and they are twenty. What I really want seems to be this: to be at a point in my life where discovery is a normal mode of experience, where everything is charged by a sort of blind, intense wonder.

A college student is ignorant and entirely at the mercy of hormones, or desire. That is the whole point of being young. But one does not think about that under the spell of nostalgia; one thinks how marvellous it is to have pals gathered about, rather than scattered to the corners of the earth, as they now are. And one ponders how wonderful it was to fall in love for the first time – all while harbouring the conviction that college romance is uninspiring and pedantic, and we’d be better off without it.

Nostalgia is pure sentiment. That is why you can never quite argue yourself out of it. A good lie deeply felt is more useful than an unpleasant fact arrived at through vigorous examination supported by evidence. And the principal lie about college, perhaps even about youth, is that you are freer than you will ever be later on. What you in fact are, for the most part, is confused, naïve, excited, drunk, anxious about the future, tired, and horny. Above all, if you are a young man, horny. All of these remind you that you are at the mercy of mysterious (so it seems at the time) forces, the forces of April. That is what it means to be young. And of course part of the habit of youth is abandoning oneself to these things, because the future, one suspects, consists of stability, boredom, and convention.

Your youth teaches you, if you are paying attention, that it is good to be alive, and it is also messy and inconvenient and painful and absurd. The young accept and even exploit this recognition, and the old perhaps wish desire would relent and leave one well enough alone. Somewhere in between these, life is overtaken by professional and personal aspirations, all of which are organised around making of one’s living a structured, comfortable, and secure affair. And for a time you almost believe it is so – that life has something like predictability about it. A comic idea, when you come to look at it. Nonetheless, a middle aged adult is typically a person who has long ago stopped believing – stopped feeling – that the future is a domain of great promise and newness, whether or not this was ever the case. One gets on with it, and is rewarded for a short time with the illusion that we are more or less on a manageable and rational voyage. The seasons go round, now and then stirring memory and desire, and this too passes. The business of life carries on. [- September 2000]

Indian Residential Schools

Residential School

Indian residential schools were “really detrimental to the development of the human being”

CANADA’S INDIAN RESIDENTIAL School System began officially in 1892 with an Order-in- Council, yet many features of the system are older than Canada itself. Indeed, the residential school’s origins reach as far back as the 1600s – to the early days of Christian missionary infiltrations into North America.

For over 300 years, Europeans and Aboriginal peoples regarded one another as distinct nations. In war, colonists and Indians formed alliances, and in trade each enjoyed the economic benefits of co-operation. By the mid-nineteenth century, however, European hunger for land had expanded dramatically, and the economic base of the colonies shifted from fur to agriculture. Alliances of the early colonial era gave way, during the period of settlement expansion and nation-building, to direct competition for land and resources. Settlers began to view Aboriginal people as a “problem.”

The so-called “Indian problem” was the mere fact that Indians existed. They were seen as an obstacle to the spread of “civilization” – that is to say, the spread of European, and later Canadian, economic, social, and political interests. Duncan Campbell Scott, Deputy Superintendent of Indian Affairs from 1913 to 1932, summed up the Government’s position when he said, in 1920, “I want to get rid of the Indian problem. […] Our objective is to continue until there is not a single Indian in Canada that has not been absorbed into the body politic and there is no Indian Question and no Indian Department.”

In 1842, the Bagot Commission produced one of the earliest official documents to recommend education as a means of ridding the Dominion of Indians. In this instance, the proposal concerned farm-based boarding schools placed far from parental influence. The document was followed, in immediate successive decades, by others of similar substance: the Gradual Civilization Act (1857), an Act for the Gradual Enfranchisement of the Indian (1869), and the Nicholas Flood Davin Report of 1879, which noted that “the industrial school is the principal feature of the policy known as that of ‘aggressive civilization.’” This policy dictated that

the Indians should, as far as practicable, be consolidated on few reservations, and provided with “permanent individual homes” ; that the tribal relation should be abolished ; that lands should be allotted in severalty and not in common ; that the Indian should speedily become a citizen […] enjoy the protection of the law, and be made amenable thereto ; that, finally, it was the duty of the Government to afford the Indians all reasonable aid in their preparation for citizenship by educating them in the industry and in the arts of civilization.

A product of the times, Davin disclosed in this report the assumptions of his era – that “Indian culture” was a contradiction in terms, Indians were uncivilized, and the aim of education must be to destroy the Indian. In 1879 he returned from his study of the United States’ handling of the Indian Problem with a recommendation to Canada’s Minister of the Interior – John A. Macdonald – of industrial boarding schools.

The assumptions, and their complementary policies, were convenient. Policy writers such as Davin believed that the Indian must soon vanish, for the Government had Industrial Age plans they could not advantageously resolve with Aboriginal cultures. The economic communism of Indians – that is to say, the Indians’ ignorance (from a European perspective) of individual property rights – was met with hostility by settlers eager for ownership of the land. Colonization required the conversion of Indians into individualistic economic agents who would submit themselves to British, and later, Canadian institutions and laws.

The federal government and the churches – Anglican, Roman Catholic, Methodist and Presbyterian – therefore applied to their “Indian Problem” the instrument of education, also known as the policy of aggressive civilization. The initial education model was the industrial school, which focused on the labour skills of an agriculture-based household economy.

From the beginning, the schools exhibited systemic problems. Per capita Government grants to Indian residential schools – an arrangement which prevailed from 1892 to 1957 and which represented only a fraction of the expenditures dedicated to non- Aboriginal education – were inadequate to the needs of the children. Broad occurrences of disease, hunger, and overcrowding were noted by Government officials as early as 1897. In 1907 Indian Affairs’ chief medical officer, P.H. Bryce, reported a death toll among the schools’ children ranging from 15-24% – and rising to 42% in Aboriginal homes, where sick children were sometimes sent to die. In some individual institutions, for example Old Sun’s school on the Blackfoot reserve, Bryce found death rates which were even higher.

F.H. Paget, an Indian Affairs accountant, reported that the school buildings themselves were often in disrepair, having been constructed and maintained (as Davin himself had recommended) in the cheapest fashion possible. Indian Affairs Superintendent Duncan Campbell Scott told Arthur Meighen in 1918 that the buildings were “undoubtedly chargeable with a very high death rate among the pupils.” But nothing was done, for reasons Scott himself had made clear eight years earlier, in a letter to British Columbia Indian Agent General-Major D. MacKay:

It is readily acknowledged that Indian children lose their natural resistance to illness by habituating so closely in the residential schools, and that they die at a much higher rate than in their villages. But this alone does not justify a change in the policy of this Department, which is geared towards a final solution of our Indian Problem.

As a consequence of under-funding, residential schools were typically places of physical, emotional and intellectual deprivation. The quality of education was quite low, when compared to non-Aboriginal schools. In 1930, for instance, only 3 of 100 Aboriginal students managed to advance past grade 6, and few found themselves prepared for life after school – either on the reserve or off. The effect of the schools for many students was to prevent the transmission of Aboriginal skills and cultures without putting in their place, as educators had proposed to do, a socially useful, Canadian alternative.

No matter how one regarded it – as a place for child-rearing or as an educational institution – the Indian residential school system fell well short even of contemporary standards, a fact recorded by successive inspectors. A letter to the Medical Director of Indian Affairs noted in 1953 that “children … are not being fed properly to the extent that they are garbaging around in the barns for food that should only be fed to the Barn occupants.” S.H. Blake, Q.C., argued in 1907 that the Department’s neglect of the schools’ problems brought it “within unpleasant nearness to the charge of manslaughter.” P.H. Bryce, whose efforts earned him the enmity of the Department (and an eventual dismissal), was so appalled – not only by the abuses themselves but by subsequent Government indifference as well – that he published his 1907 findings in a 1922 pamphlet entitled “A National Crime.” In the pamphlet, Bryce noted that

Recommendations made in this report followed the examinations of hundreds of children; but owing to the active opposition of Mr. D.C. Scott, and his advice to the then Deputy Minister, no action was taken by the Department to give effect to the recommendations made.

Bryce’s 1907 report received the attention of The Montreal Star and Saturday Night Magazine, the latter of which characterized residential schools “a situation disgraceful to the country.” These publications, and others like them, make it clear that the conditions of the schools were generally knowable and known, by officials of the church and government, and by the public-at-large.

Because contempt for Aboriginal languages and cultures, and for the children themselves, shaped Canada’s policies toward Indians, matters continued as before despite internal reports and published accounts of abuse. In 1883, General Milroy was quoted in a British Columbia petition for industrial boarding schools as saying that “Indian children can learn and absorb nothing from their ignorant parents but barbarism.” The residential school system, designed to produce in the Aboriginal child “a horror of Savages and their filth” (in the words of Jesuit missionary Fr. Paul LeJeune), was rationalized by this contemptuous belief.

Individual beliefs about Indians, which in any case varied, did not determine the character of the individual schools. Nor were the conditions identical in each institution: students today recall diverse memories of both good and bad experiences, as well as good and bad teachers. Nonetheless, the widespread occurrence of certain residential school features suggests that structural elements were in effect. The Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples (RCAP) concluded in 1996 that the schools themselves were, for readily identifiable and known reasons, “opportunistic sites of abuse”:

Isolated in distant establishments, divorced from opportunities for social intercourse, and placed in closed communities of co-workers with the potential for strained interpersonal relations heightened by inadequate privacy, the staff not only taught but supervised the children’s work, play and personal care. Their hours were long, the remuneration below that of other educational institutions, and the working conditions irksome.

In short, the schools constituted a closed institutional culture that made scrutiny difficult, if not impossible. For staff the result was, in the words of RCAP, a “struggle against children and their culture […] conducted in an atmosphere of considerable stress, fatigue and anxiety.” In such conditions, abuses were not unlikely – a fact to which the experts of the day attested.

Then there are the testimonies of hundreds of former students, whose list of abuses suffered includes kidnapping, sexual abuse, beatings, needles pushed through tongues as punishment for speaking Aboriginal languages, forced wearing of soiled underwear on the head or wet bedsheets on the body, faces rubbed in human excrement, forced eating of rotten and/or maggot infested food, being stripped naked and ridiculed in front of other students, forced to stand upright for several hours – on two feet and sometimes one – until collapsing, immersion in ice water, hair ripped from heads, use of students in eugenics and medical experiments, bondage and confinement in closets without food or water, application of electric shocks, forced to sleep outside – or to walk barefoot – in winter, forced labour, and on and on. Former students concluded in a 1965 Government consultation that the experiences of the residential school were “really detrimental to the development of the human being.”

This system of forced assimilation has had consequences which are with Aboriginal people today. Many of those who went through the schools were denied an opportunity to develop parenting skills. They struggled with the destruction of their identities as Aboriginal people, and with the destruction of their cultures and languages. Generations of Aboriginal people today recall memories of trauma, neglect, shame, and poverty. Thousands of former students have come forward to reveal that physical, emotional and sexual abuse were rampant in the system and that little was done to stop it, to punish the abusers, or to improve conditions. The residential school system is not alone responsible for the current conditions of Aboriginal lives, but it did play a role. Following the demise of the Indian residential school, the systemic policy known as “aggressive civilization” has continued in other forms.

Many of the abuses of the residential school system were, we should keep in mind, exercised in deliberate promotion of a “final solution of the Indian Problem,” in the words of Deputy Superintendent of Indian Affairs, Duncan Campbell Scott. If development of the healthy Aboriginal human being meant respect of Aboriginal cultures, then indeed the regimented culture of the schools was designed precisely to be detrimental. As noted in the 1991 Manitoba Justice Inquiry, the residential school “is where the alienation began” – alienation of Aboriginal children from family, community, and from themselves. Or to put the matter another way, the purpose of the schools was, like all forced assimilationist schemes, to kill the Indian in the Indian – an effort many survivors today describe as cultural genocide. [-May 2002.]


My Fall 2014 book “Residential Schools, With the Words and Images of Survivors, A National History,” is available from Goodminds. Order by phone, toll-free 1-877-862-8483.


Duncan Campbell Scott quotation from secondary source in the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples. Final Report, Volume One, Chapter 13, “Conclusions” section 1. Primary source: DCS 1920 HC Special Committee.

Quotations from primary source in Nicholas Flood Davin, “Report on Industrial Schools For Indians and Half-Breeds” (March 14, 1879).

Bryce on his tour of inspection of Indian Schools in Manitoba, Saskatchewan, and Alberta. RG 10, Indian Affairs, Volume 4037, Reel C-10177, File: 317021.

Duncan Campbell Scott to Arthur Meighen quoted from secondary source in the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples Final Report, Chapter 10. Primary source: NAC RG 10 VOL 6001 file 1-1-1- (1) MRC 8134. Memo for A. Meighen from DCS, Jan. 1918.

Duncan Campbell Scott to D. MacKay: DCS to BC Indian Agent Gen. Major D. MacKay. 12 Apr. 1910. DIA Archives RG 10 series.

Education attainment (“3 of 100 Aboriginal students”) quoted from the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples Final Report, Chapter 10.

Quotation from National Archives photo. See also David Napier, “Sins of the Fathers” in the Anglican Journal (May 2000).

S. Q. Blake quotation from secondary source in the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples Final Report, Chapter 10 note 168. Primary source: Anglican Church of Canada General Synod Archives. SH Blake File G. S. 75-103. “To the Honourable Frank Oliver, Minister of the Interior,” 27 Jan. 1907, quoted in “To the Members of the Board of Management of the Missionary of the Church of England,” 19 Feb 1907.

P. H. Bryce quotation from P.H. Bryce, “Report by Dr. P.H. Bryce on his tour of inspection of Indian Schools in Manitoba, Saskatchewan, and Alberta.” RG 10, Indian Affairs, Volume 4037, Reel C-10177, File: 317021.

Saturday Night quotation from secondary source in Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples Final Report, Chapter 10. See note 161 for primary source: NAC RG 10 Vol. 4037 file 317021 MRC 10177. Articles appeared in Montreal Star on 15 Nov. 1907 and in Saturday Night on 23 Nov. 1907.

General Milroy quotation from Tolmie, William Fraser, “On Utilization of the Indians of British Columbia,” (Victoria: Munroe Miller, 1885).

Fr. Paul LeJeune quotation from secondary source in McGillivray, Anne, “Therapies of Freedom: The Colonization of Aboriginal Childhood” in McGillivray, Anne, ed., Governing Childhood. (Aldershot: Dartmouth, 1997). See note 55 for primary source.

Quotation from Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples Final Report, Chapter 10.

Personal testimonies taken from the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples Final Report, and from Breaking the Silence: An Interpretive Study of Residential School Impact and Healing, as Illustrated by the Stories of First Nation Individuals. (Ottawa: Assembly of First Nations, 1994).

Government consultation quoted from secondary source in the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples Final Report, Chapter 10. See note 291 for primary source: INAC File 1/25-20-1 Volume 1. “To Miss …. From L. Jampolsky.” 16 Feb. 1966 and attached correspondence.

Kingston, Ontario, in the 1990s

One’s lasting impression is of the old-world feel of the place, ivy growing on limestone and so on. The city, especially its gentrified regions, has a distinct charm. Kingston is Loyalist and wants you to know it: even the garbage cans bear a slogan, pro rege, lege, et grege [for king, for law, and for the people]. Throw a rock and the plaque you’ll hit reads, In this house Sir John A. Macdonald (or perhaps his sister-in-law, or brother) once lived. Walking in Sydenham Ward, among the portes cochère and the gothic churches, the North American feels somehow to have been transported to the Old World, which partly discloses the appeal of the place. For whatever else the Old World may be, it at least is not the same old same old. It is an anachronism which offers both to the conservative and progressive imaginations an escape from the Here and Now. Living in Kingston one learns that architecture is full of metaphor and allusion. The Old World is a mental construct which points us somewhere. That somewhere is by definition an anachronism, and anachronism is itself the dominant Kingston motif. Go to a pub, the Wellington for instance, and you’ll discover Mississaugans drinking Guinness and singing nostalgic Irish songs (Irish songs always mourn that which is lost, for obvious historical reasons). A handful will boast an Irish grandparent, but in any case what you have is a gathering of misplaced souls, and a textbook instance of Freudian cathexis.

Kingston represents nearly everything which is anathema to the contemporary technocrat. This is its chief merit among the artistic. It is not efficient (until about 1 month ago, tall buildings were prohibited), but rather is set out roughly on a human scale and to a good degree with human needs, and not the needs of the automobile, foremost in mind. Business is not its chief legacy, but instead it is dominated by the public sector. Its historical figures are all first and foremost politicians. There are, I think, more parks than shopping malls. Prior to the triumph of the Open For Business agendas of Messrs Harris and Chrètien, the hospitals, schools, and military college were principal employers. Since the triumph, our many prisons have become a growth industry – a warden told me once that the bank granted without further questions his mortgage when told his occupation – but like other public functions the prisons are likely to be privatised, large profits being virtually guaranteed. Only tourism rivals the public sector as a source of economic activity, but it’s questionable whether tourism isn’t in many ways simply an extension of the public sector. I’ve noted, for instance, that the Japanese adore having themselves photographed before our city hall, and not before the Chamber of Commerce. They are fascinated by our squirrels. It is noteworthy that these simple human facts elude our economic experts, who talk as if technology and the modern corporation were the only things that matter. As for private enterprise, it exists, but mostly on the small scale we’re told simply won’t do in the global economy. Kingston business, that is, locally-owned Kingston business, is Mom-and-Pop in scale, which means politicians will praise it as the hope of our future while undermining it at every opportunity.

Everyone who lives in Kingston is a part of a clique. Hugh MacLennan might well have written a book about the place called Many Solitudes. To the north, in what is known as the Heights, you will find many of Kingston’s GWA recipients. The Fruit Belt, still to the north but much closer to downtown, is mostly proletarian ‘townies,’ but elements of the middle class have been moving in. Sydenham Ward is upper-middle, or perhaps lower-upper class, but here also you will find student apartments and some middle class professionals. Going north-west of the downtown you’ll encounter everything from shoebox bungalows, built between the wars, to middle class Tudor houses, neo-colonial mansions, and neighbourhoods where residents sit shirtless on their porches, dining straight from the pot. But these people of course are not mixed up together, and I assume prefer not to be. Class affiliations are too deeply ingrained. The divisions are, appropriately enough, determined by Division Street, which runs roughly north-south, and Princess Street, which runs east-west. The Ghetto, in the south-east, is nastiest of all for sheer aesthetic ugliness – but it’s only student housing, Put-On ugliness, like a Hallowe’en costume. The Ghetto houses are shabby and sordid Victorian monstrosities, at least eight persons to each, and their studied dilapidation is a matter of great pride. I’m unable to say how the name, The Ghetto, has come about, but it is in any case an instance of camp. The idea is to pay homage to the working man, as he’s conceived by the middle classes, until graduation into the Real World. This imitation underscores the essential fact of Kingston life, that the classes barely encounter one another except in the imagination. If you are a student, it means by definition you never socialize with the Fruit Belt proletariat, and vice versa. Perhaps your paths cross. You may both find yourselves at 3 in the morning eating poutine at Bubba’s, but that’s about it. The middle class student will at most learn from Judith Thompson’s play, The Crackwalker, that the lower classes of Kingston enjoy Hockey Night in Canada and hanging-out at Lino’s. The upper classes of Kingston are invisible, as they are everywhere. I have only one personal anecdote concerning them, from my days as a hospital employee, and it involves the annual Hotel Dieu Hospital food drive, a butler, and a can of sardines. As for the so-called lower classes, they will probably never see up-close either Queen’s student life or Old Money society, which they mistakenly conflate. Many BMWs pass within feet of the ‘Hub’ subculture, where Division and Princess intersect, with neither party coming within a million miles of the other.

These of course are largely abstract socio-economic groupings, but there are other sorts of cliques, or perhaps sub-cliques, as well. There are the teenagers who occupy downtown Princess Street doorways, smoking cigarettes and panhandling. There’s nothing distinctively Kingstonian about them, but they are almost a part of the local architecture, like body-pierced gargoyles, one feels. There’s a women’s community which, if you’re part of it, you know intimately. Literally everyone knows everyone else, or has at least heard something specific of her. The culture is organised around Take Back the Night marches, women’s dances, and women-centred agencies like the Sexual Assault Crisis Centre of Kingston and Kingston Interval House. There’s a gay and lesbian community centred on Club 477. If you wish to be seen as a member of long-standing, as they do in the commercials for American Express credit cards, you’ll refer to the club as Robert’s, its former name. There are more narrowly political groups, each with its own history and culture and favoured enemy. (A favoured enemy is essential to group cohesion.) And no list would be complete without Kingston’s itinerant, the many homeless who are well-known by sight. But don’t they form a socio-economic group? No, I suspect they live outside such categories. They aren’t even a clique, being necessarily of a mostly solitary nature. I have heard some of their life stories, which no doubt are embellished if not made-up entire, but the only thing that makes them a distinct group (besides their poverty) is that they all have fallen outside the system. A few of them are clearly mad and you’ll hear it said for that reason ‘they shouldn’t be on the street’ (as if others should), but most are entirely sane. My first year in Kingston, 1990-1991, I read all of Beckett’s novels; his characters’ predilection for bicycles struck me as uncanny, for such people were, and are, a common Kingston sight. Why, I wondered, the bicycle? Why not a yo-yo or a pet? Years later I bought a bicycle myself, and it occurred to me that a bicycle gives one a compelling sense of momentum, which must be a great comfort if you sense your existence is pointless. It’s easier to feel you’re going somewhere on a bicycle. Beckett nowhere makes this explicit, but I doubt the fact escaped him. I’m thinking of one Kingston indigent who I often saw travelling about in a grand arc, like Haley’s comet, taking in not only the city but much of its environs. He collected bits of refuse which he then affixed to his bike, using other bits of refuse. It would have seemed mad if not for the fact that his acquisitiveness simply reminded me of my own. We are all busily engaged in the accumulation of stuff, and whether or not it’s junk is a matter of opinion. This is not however to trivialize deprivation by putting all consumption on a par. The principle characteristic-in-common among the homeless, as I’ve said, is their poverty, for which they are treated as criminals and swept from public view. Their consumption is judged non-economic and hence is subject to treatments alien to the better-off. I dwell on these people (they are always ‘those people’) because they are a highly visible feature of Kingston. No tourist is encouraged to consider them – quite the opposite, in fact – but they exist and speak volumes of the sort of place Kingston is. As a group with an almost exclusively public existence, they constitute a unique category of person. The poor are in a sense always with us, and yet we understand them least of all. On the topic of social groupings I could go on and on (religious affiliations, men’s clubs, Chamber of Commerce, artists’ groups, etc.), but the point is always the same. The members of these cliques rarely if ever interrelate, even in cases where a clear overlapping of interests would lead us to expect them to. This is perhaps typical of any city, but it’s remarkable given Kingston’s geographically-determined physical intimacy. Nowhere are so many solitudes packed into so little real estate.

The solitudes make generalisation about the character of Kingstonians difficult. Nonetheless, at first glance Kingston does at present appear to be a ‘progressive’ community. Progressive here designates a promotion of cultural and political diversity. The positive feature of multiple solitudes, at least in principle, is its advancement of tolerance. You can be anything you wish, and folks will leave you alone. This impression derives from the sheer variety of culture and lifestyle on display, most of it but not all organised for tourist consumption. It’s true that Kingston is more progressive than most Ontario cities, if we’re careful about what this means: many kinds of ‘ethnic’ restaurants, and a diverse set of goods in the stores. This is of course banal, but it does make an impression. A disproportionately large number of writers settle here because it appears to them that Kingston is cosmopolitan and hence ‘civilized’ – that is, it supports Bohemianism. Since many Canadian writers come from small towns and are in flight from orthodoxy and parochialism, this logical error is understandable. In a more narrowly-political sense of diversity, there is plenty of theatre and art which characterises itself as a ‘celebration of alternative lifestyles,’ meaning gay and lesbian. So support for diversity does appear to be part of the local character.

Behind the scenes however one should note Kingston’s managerial monoculture, its solidly Open-for-Business political ideology. To some there’s a contradiction here, but since diversity sells well, the contradiction can be easily resolved. Everything is judged according to the market, including heresy. Window dressing aside, Kingston’s character may be inferred from its current municipal government, elected in 1997. 16 of its 17 members are white males, almost unanimously conservative and middle class, and the lone female was acclaimed. Debate the significance of this if you will, but at least it’s clear that the city is run by the same sort of persons who advise the provincial Harris Tories, and this as the result of a democratic election. [-June 1998]

Milton Rogovin


The great photographer immersed himself in the poetry of simplicity and came to the surface with the net full of clear fish and flowers of profundity —Pablo Neruda, “The Islands and Rogovin,” Windows That Open Inward.

People all over are beautiful if given half a chance. I feel that people should have an opportunity to work and live decently …. — Cheryl Brutvan, “An Interview with Milton Rogovin,” The Forgotten Ones.

Milton Rogovin was born the 30th of December 1909 in New York. His parents owned a small store and sold draperies and yardgoods. Like many, they lost everything in the Depression. Rogovin saw devastating poverty, and as a result became politically active. Another decade would pass however before he’d discover photography. In the meantime, he attended Columbia University, where he studied Optometry, as his brother had done before him. In 1938 he moved to Buffalo and opened an optometry clinic on Chippewa street. He had come to Buffalo to be near the trade union people, but he would eventually discover much more.

I visit Rogovin at his house. It is simple and dignified, like the man himself. Daumier prints cover the dining room walls; more prints are spread across the table, waiting to be framed. A Navaho rug lies across the livingroom floor. The shelves are well-stocked with books: Picasso, Goya, Van Gogh. At one point, he reads to me from the memoirs of Käthe Kollwitz (1867-1945), the artist for whom he has the greatest respect. “If you want to know what I think about something,” he remarks as he draws aside the cover, “just look in the back of my books.” I can see he’s made copious notes. Finding the passage which he has enclosed in a bold ink rectangle, he reads words that could well describe his own feelings about his photography:

I should like to say something about my reputation for being a “socialist” artist, which clung to me from then on. Unquestionably my work at this time, as a result of the attitudes of my father and brother and of the whole literature of the period, was in the direction of socialism. But my real motive for choosing my subjects almost exclusively from the life of the workers was that only such subjects gave me in a simple and unqualified way what I felt to be beautiful. For me the Königsberg longshoremen had beauty; the Polish jimkes on their grain ships had beauty; the broad freedom of movement in the gestures of the common people had beauty. Middle-class people held no appeal for me at all. Bourgeois life as a whole seemed to me pedantic. The proletariat, on the other hand, had a grandness of manner, a breadth to their lives. Much later on, when I became acquainted with the difficulties and tragedies underlying proletarian life, when I met the women who came to my husband for help and so, incidentally, came to me, I was gripped by the full force of the proletarian’s fate. Unsolved problems such as prostitution and unemployment grieved and tormented me, and contributed to my feeling that I must keep on with my studies of the lower classes. And portraying them again and again opened a safety-valve for me; it made life bearable.

Rogovin once told Cheryl Brutvan in an interview, “I never could warm up to the middle class in photography.” Among the working classes, among the poor, among those who live on the street, he finds not only suffering but also dignity and beauty. And as the title of his book, The Forgotten Ones, suggests, he finds potential that is never acknowledged, never given an opportunity to flourish. His task is to document this forgotten potential, dignity and beauty. Accordingly, he considers himself a “social documentary photographer” and not an “artist,” though he’d rather dispense with labels altogether and concentrate on his mission—to tell the truth about the human condition. This concern with documenting human lives guides everything he does. He is not institutionally trained; he does things an academically-minded photographer would consider incorrect. His techniques have been developed ad hoc, to accommodate the challenges of photographing in a mine, in a factory, in a living room, in a foreign country. Even his choice of equipment often has a mundane rationale. Years ago he changed his camera after a number of people had asked what it was worth. How could he function, worrying his camera might be stolen?

Rogovin purchased his first camera in 1942, the year he was drafted, the year he married his wife, Anne. But even then he wasn’t a serious photographer. He took snapshots of family vacations and the like. Then in 1958 he was asked by a friend, a professor of music at Buffalo’s state college, to collaborate on a project. The professor would record music at store front churches; Rogovin would take pictures. After three months the music recordings were finished, and the professor moved on. But Rogovin had found his place, and so he continued to photograph at the churches a further three years. He had embarked on a path that would cross the Earth.

In the late 1950s he was still practicing optometry and could photograph only weekends. Besides the responsibilities of his work, he had three children to consider. In addition, Rogovin was politically active in the Black community, as he had been since the 1940s. His efforts caught the attention of the House Committee on Un-American activities, which targeted Rogovin in 1957. His name appeared in the papers. He was shunned by neighbours; his children were no longer visited by their friends; his income dropped immediately by one-half. The wounds have never healed, though in recent years he has been awarded an honorary doctorate by the local university. The recognition, he adds, is encouraging. “It helps,” he says.

As early as the 1960s Rogovin began to receive critical recognition. A number of the store front church photographs (accompanied with an introduction by W. E. B. Du Bois, an educator, writer and founder of the NAACP) was published in a 1962 issue of Aperture by an impressed editor, Minor White. In this same year, Rogovin travelled to Appalachia to photograph coal miners. He had been reading about the problems that they faced, and he wanted to document the hardships, to show outsiders what was happening. This would be the beginning of a world-wide trek. Milton and his wife Anne eventually lived among miners in France (1981), Scotland (1982) and Spain (1983); they would also travel many times to Mexico, and once to China (1986). A selection of the photographs which Rogovin took in these places was published in book form with the title The Forgotten Ones.

Rogovin says he is normally a shy person. But that changes when it comes to his photography. He is not afraid of being aggressive. Perhaps his most remarkable act was to write to the world-famous Chilean poet Pablo Neruda in 1967, asking if he were interested in collaborating on a book. I asked Rogovin what motivated him to do this. The poems, of course: he mentions “The United Fruit Company,” and then asks rhetorically, “Neruda had worked with other photographers and artists—why couldn’t he work with me?” Rogovin laughs when he tells this story; even he seems a bit surprised by his boldness—but there is no doubt that the letter paid off. Neruda replied on 13 November 1966 with a letter that begins, “your work is wonderful and I will be greatly honoured if we collaborate in any venture.” Collaborate they did, and the result was Windows That Open Inward: Images of Chile.

After leaving Chile Rogovin returned to Buffalo. He began in 1969 to photograph the people of the Lower West Side. At first some were suspicious (was he with the police? —the F.B.I.?). He photographed prostitutes, pimps, drug dealers. He met intelligent people whose lives had gone terribly wrong. He tells me a few stories about people he has met. He tells me of a man who lived in the shadow of an abandoned apartment building. “Why,” the man had once said, “can’t the city give us this building? I could teach people here how to do lathe work and other sorts of work. We could fix up this building and live in it. All we want is a job.” A job, Rogovin repeats, a job. The problem, overlooked in this time of welfare-bashing, is the lack of good jobs, and Rogovin’s experiences have convinced him that matters are only getting worse. Today, he reminds me, AT&T have announced they will fire thousands of workers as part of their “restructuring.” The topic turns to work.

In The Forgotten Ones there is a section entitled “Working People.” This group of photographs was begun in 1977, shortly after Rogovin read Bertolt Brecht’s poem, “A Worker Reads History.” He decided he wanted to show the people who do the gruelling physical work on which our society depends, work we don’t see depicted in the photographs of mainstream magazines—or anywhere in our media. Meanwhile, he had been gradually phasing out his optometry practice, from which he retired in 1976, after discussing with his family his desire to photograph full-time. Rogovin could no longer bear the distraction which optometry had become. Photography, he knew, was his calling. Having exhibited his work in Buffalo’s Albright-Knox gallery, he’d by this time established his credibility. He was able to get permission to go into Republic Steel. Once inside he pressed further, asking the workers he’d photographed if they would allow him to take pictures in their homes. He wanted to document the contrasting aspects of working people, to allow them to dress the way that they wanted to dress and to sit where they wanted to sit. He had learned quickly, in the Lower West Side, not to ask questions and not to make demands. He let people choose how they wanted to be photographed. And he was careful to keep a distance.

He returned to the Lower West Side in the early 1980s and again in the early 1990s. He didn’t know the names of the people whose pictures he’d taken between 1969 and 1972, much less where they had gone; but he had the pictures. He showed them to the locals, and was told who had OD’d, who was in jail. Others, he was told, had moved or disappeared. Those he could find he again photographed, and in 1994 the resulting book Triptych was published by Norton.

Milton Rogovin wonders aloud, Is anyone listening? Is anyone listening to the silence of his photographs? If you study them for a while, they begin to speak; but you must pay attention. He finds the sometimes fruitless work of selling himself to booksellers, publishers and museums disheartening. Outside of Buffalo, his work is largely ignored. He recognises that his photography is good, and yet he must acknowledge that “good” does not guarantee an audience. And besides, the well-to-do don’t want to be reminded of those who are less fortunate. Poverty isn’t fun, and so it can’t compete with, say, the glossy colour images of People and Glamour (“I hate colour photography,” he says), or the saccharine banality of Trisha Romance. He’s never heard of Romance (a painter who has captivated the bourgeoisie), so we throw around a few more names and indulge our consternation. In the end though Rogovin is confident he has taken the right path, and he knows that there are a few people out there who are paying attention.

I have one last request of Milton Rogovin before I leave. He has told me of a book, a very special book, given to him by Neruda many years ago. “May I see it?” He goes to the shelves and carefully pulls out a large volume, 20 inches in height, perhaps more. Neruda has inscribed the book for Rogovin. I’m struck by the exuberance of the large green script, among which are whimsically-drawn green birds (“Neruda always wrote with a green pen,” he tells me). The book, Arte de Pajaros [Art of Birds], is a collection of poems. Beside each poem is a gorgeous illustration of birds, painted by friends of Neruda. It is a work of beauty and simplicity, and I look upon it with delight. Then I look out of the window, and see it is getting dark—it is time to go. [-June 1996]