[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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