Tag Archives: Early Writings

Democracy à la Disney

IT IS FASHIONABLE among the political left to affect dislike for Walt Disney movies, mostly on the grounds of Disney’s crude commercial tactics and their representations of peoples of colour. And yet, let’s be honest; haven’t we all thoroughly enjoyed at least one Disney movie? There is perhaps only one Disney story, variously told, and that is the story of the underdog who, against all odds, triumphs. This is the gist of every Disney movie I have seen, from Cinderella to Matilda. Only the characters and the settings change. The subject may concern a soccer team, or a princess; the setting may be early America or ‘The Orient.’ Nevertheless, we get a certain unmistakable sort of story, a recognizably ‘Disney’ story. Careful marketing dictates that it shall be thus, but marketing only discloses what seems to work, not why it works. Why do we enjoy a Disney movie? And why is the left reluctant to admit they do enjoy it?

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Pop Culture: an essay

[Originally published in ASH Magazine, volume 3 number three Summer 1996.]

First, a definition. You will notice that the phrase is made from separable units: popular, and culture. Popular, I think, expresses the essential character of a high-tech, media-dominated age. Hence, by popular culture, I do not mean a culture everyone “likes” — as common usage would have it (“she’s the most popular gal in grade nine!”). If the media are correct, this is emphatically not the character of popular culture. No: pop culture is a “popular” one because it addresses itself to and thereby captivates the attention of The People. Every day each person is addressed by cultural institutions — television for instance — which assume as their audience nothing short of the Collective Man. It is the nature of popular culture to get into one’s daily life, whether discussions, chat, entertainment, or sex. And it does not matter who one is, popular culture makes few rhetorical distinctions, for we are all “of the people.” Innovations in technology guarantee that this will be the case not only in North America, but increasingly also in (for examples) Tokyo, Paris, and Beijing, each of which is becoming increasingly “Americanised.” Another way of saying this: the world is increasingly adopting the trappings of mass-produced popular culture, a culture “of the people.” And we are all of us of the people.

By Culture I intend those instituted actions and objects expressing that which is held in high esteem. For the public articulation of personal beliefs is never free from institutional mediation, such as when a newspaper reporter elicits our private opinion of the Conservative Harris agenda, using carefully-worded questions. Culture does not issue from a vacuum, and not even from the sincere, spontaneous expression of an individual. Culture is the institutionally-determined expression of “values”: admirable actions, appropriate behaviours, moral codes of conduct, aesthetic tastes, religious orthodoxies. And let us not forget perversions and heresies as well; for a culture, if it is to be vibrant, must somehow appropriate to itself that which issues a threatening challenge or a deplored variation. The language in which we express “that which is held in high esteem” will be necessarily variegated; not the Queen’s English certainly, but a jostling Creole, what Mikhail Bakhtin called “heteroglossia,” or “differing tongues.” Culture is a grab-bag of contending but mostly peacefully coexisting perceptions and representations of the world and of our place within it. The strength of a culture is therefore to be judged by the ability (or relative inability) of its institutions to respect diversity while representing to its constituents a public: that is, a collective self-image, construed more-or-less as a people. Aristocracies accomplish this by appealing to the metaphor of the body politic, of which the King serves as head, and we ordinary folk presumably as toes, elbows, and the like. Our tastes however, inclining as they do toward democratic models, are supposedly gratified not by distinctions, but by uniformity. Hence, pop institutions labour toward the illusion that, whatever our superficial peculiarities, we are all of us of a mass, sharing certain fundamental values.

There is one further point I wish to advance before I move on. In an industrialised capitalist nation, the expression of that “which is held in high esteem,” the present definition of culture, is inextricable from the logic and ends of capitalism. That is why capitalist differ from non-capitalist societies, tribal or socialist for examples, which nonetheless also conceive of themselves as a “people.” Capitalist societies express values with dollars and cents. And I know it might sound extreme, but I suggest that everything about persons subject to capitalist social organization, including (as I’ve earlier suggested) their sex lives, is in some manner related to capitalism. (If you doubt this, call me on the 14TH of February). Popular culture is mass-produced by corporations for profit: monetary profit of course, but political and personal profit as well. And most of the time, most people are quite comfortable with this. The relations of culture, values and capitalism — and ultimately one’s personal pathway through them —  are ongoing negotiations between the agenda of the individual and the agenda of her culture’s institutions.

Last year’s attack on Time Warner, issued by American Senate leader and Republican presidential candidate Bob Dole, was an ostensible defence of the values of the people against those of popular culture. Given my argument thus far, this would appear absurd. How does one defend the values of the people against the culture of the people? Dole’s manoeuvre is a familiar one: he accused Time Warner of representing, not the people, but the “elitist” interests of capital. Whether Dole was right to accuse Time Warner of disregarding the values of the people in their quest for profit I won’t here explore (if I did, I would have to answer a disturbing question: from whence did the profit come?), but the fact that a Republican could even articulate such a critique, for indubitable political gain, is itself telling. Dole’s views are not peculiar; his comments were greeted sympathetically by Liberals and Conservatives alike, amply demonstrating that “popular” culture is widely judged not very popular in either sense of the term: for critics contend it can today claim neither to have achieved uniform popularity (in the vulgar sense) nor an acceptable representation of a public — that is, of a People. Of course, the common wisdom, promulgated with great (self-) interest by the media, is that institutions are under the attack of the people also for their “elitism.” I suggest that such propositions however are hopelessly abstract, even if most individuals are in fact at odds with institutions (and it is not clear to me that they are, for I don’t know “most” individuals).

You might have concluded that Dole’s attack on popular culture represents, or even constitutes, a tear in the national fabric,  but I myself doubt this. The popular culture industry feeds on attack, and is indeed founded upon it. The music industry, for one, has been richly rewarded for its appropriation of rebellion and critique, whether it was the 60s youth culture or 90s Gangsta Rap. Establishment record companies promptly soak up the disposable income of anti-establishment teens, to the apparent satisfaction of all involved. This is precisely the genius of capitalism, which swiftly commodifies fringe lunatics, malcontents, and would-be subversives, the latter learning to express their politics in terms compatible with the interests of capital (and being rewarded for it), or else losing their public voice if they don’t. Capitalism thrives because it can sell even anti-capitalism.

What do we learn from all of this? Perhaps that Dole’s attack was germane not because it posed a genuine threat to a cynical elite (it did not), but because it asserted two fundamental truths of capitalist democracy: that pop culture institutions — and the market forces which guide them — play an active role in civic life, and are no less capable of moral neutrality than we are. I do think Dole is correct when he suggests that our media are fundamentally anti-democratic, and that he is in agreement on this point with Noam Chomsky only supports this conclusion. But attacks on “elitism” help little, and might even distract us from more fruitful investigations.

Why an issue of ASH on popular culture? First, we might be instructed if we reflect on the very idea of a popular culture. Inherent in the notion is the belief that people (and not only kings, or some other elite) are competent to imagine, assemble, express and debate visions of their collectivity. Popular culture issues from an implicitly constructive, democratic and hopeful assessment of the human lot. Thus, if constructivism, equity, and hope are not frequent features of public discourse, or “culture,” we might well find this odd, and question why it is so. We will be suspicious of the artist’s mantra that “I am only showing what I see,” which you’ll notice discloses a passive formulation of creativity indeed. Second, considered as a historical development, popular culture is profoundly progressive, anti-elitist, and anti-authoritarian. And yet popular culture too often glamourises ill-gotten wealth, sexism, invidious class and race stereotypes, petty atrocities, and brutal excess. What has become of the notion that all women and men are worthy of justice, respect and dignity? Dole’s attack, for all its hypocrisy (he praised Arnold Schwarzenegger, a Republican booster), raises important questions about the character of popular culture and its relationship to democracy. Dole’s jeremiad inspired the media to ask the question, What judgement have the people passed on popular culture? But I have been waiting for someone to consider another question: What judgement has popular culture passed on the people?

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Supposing It Happens

What will you do when you become a billionaire? Well, supposing you do. Become a billionaire. You’ve got to think about something while you’re supposed to be working. Of course, the work day is almost over. When you’re finished, you’ll go home to your dream house in the country and your personal Italian chef will prepare for you a gourmet meal. And this time the chef’s name won’t be Boyardee, either.

Well, supposing it happens.

You better decide right now whether you will have a Jacuzzi after dinner, or see a film in your personal movie theatre. Or maybe just lounge around the master bedroom: build a fire, lie in your big bed, look out of the picture window at the mountains. Boy, your river sure is beautiful. Wish I had one of my own.

Supposing I did. I’d go fishing everyday and catch trout. Fly fishing. Who knows what else I’d hook. Yeah, I’d be a fisherman.

Think of all the things you’re going to have when you’re rich. And the travel! Paris, Bermuda, Greece, South America. Me, I’ll be right here, fishing.

You could finally do the things you’ve always wanted to do. And suppose on top of being rich, you were young and sexy as well. With perfect health. Did I mention you are also brilliant? Everyone thinks you are the best.

You have wonderful taste in clothing. Money isn’t everything: you have to know how to spend it. Anyone can throw a billion dollars around. But taste, that’s another matter. And you have je ne sais quoi, which no amount of money can buy either. That’s why members of the opposite sex find you so attractive. Of course, you’re already involved in a passionate and exciting love affair. You and your lover travel the world together and see exotic places. You make love on beaches and buy each other delightful gifts in Rome and Moscow and Rio de Janeiro.

Meanwhile, I’m quite content to be fishing. In fact, I’m pretty sure I’ve hooked something. I’m just reeling it in.

Most billionaires aren’t cultured; have you ever noticed that? They’re all capitalism, all business. They have no charm, no class. That’s why it’s so refreshing to see someone like you. You’re rich, but you wear it well, if you know what I mean. You know exactly what you want. You make good choices. Your lover is a cultured person too. Has a great singing voice. A sensitive person. Has lots of talent. Athletic and creative. And witty, but not pretentious or condescending. Kind, loving, generous. And a great body, if you don’t mind me saying so.

Wow, that was a quick catch. Amazing how easy it is when you know what bait to use.

(Big) Business As Usual

[Originally published in ASH Magaine, Volume Four Number Three, Summer 1997.]

Now and then I find myself in a philosophical mood, pondering the evolution of this creature called ASH. I think it’s a healthy activity, the more so since I’m inclined these days not to take the magazine too seriously. I’d like to leave behind me a respectable corpus when I at long last turn my attention elsewhere, but I know also that ASH is likely never to attain a status beyond the obscurity common to small publications.

I confess this disappoints me — and not merely for its humbling effect on the ego. You see, I had a conversation once with a business-minded fellow, who maintained that the market should decide the outcome in all matters. He noted the widespread reliance of Canadian magazines on government funding (ASH is an exception) and wondered aloud: Why sustain a magazine read by so few that it needs taxpayers’ money just to survive? Indeed. I must say the logic, bolstered by economic concepts such as “utility maximization,” seemed to me to be solid. But when I drew out its implications and followed them to their conclusions, I was left with a rather troubling picture.

The image I had in my mind was of a culture that could never have enough movie celebrities, rock stars, elite athletes, arms traders, investment bankers, futures speculators, and corporate lawyers: for their market value is, it appears, without limit. As for, say, motherhood (that sacred job which is praised to the skies at appropriate occasions by businessmen and politicians), well, it has no market value whatsoever; and nearly the same is true of all the so-called “caring” professions and the many wage-labour jobs which have long sustained our privileged standard of living. Think about it: much that we might reasonably claim dignifies and enriches life, much which makes this world more than merely bearable, is practically valueless, economically speaking. Remember Mike Harris’s contempt, oft-expressed in the 1995 Ontario election campaign, for welfare mothers, who don’t do anything? Such contempt is one of the free market’s proud accomplishments, and a remarkable accomplishment it is.

I suspect my business-minded acquaintance is now pleased. His vision of an efficient, competitive, rational, growth-centred world has triumphed, and we shall live for many years to come its social and ecological consequences. The New World Order has its bureaucracy (the economists, policy experts, and investment gurus who now make regular appearances on the evening news and the bestseller lists), its constitution (the General Agreement on Trade and Tarrifs), and its Bill of Rights (the Multilateral Agreement on Investment). The message for the masses is also vaguely familiar: believe, submit, and you’ll be rewarded in a future life.

Perhaps the market knows best in some matters — magazines, for instance. In any case, I’m inclined these days to keep ASH going, if only that it might be a voice crying in the market wilderness. It’s an obscure voice, as I’ve already acknowledged, and so there’s little hope ASH might counter effectively the fallacious claims of the economic experts who dominate the landscape. The very attempt risks the pomposity and the intolerable self-righteousness that usually attend those who are convinced they’re on a mission from God. So much, you might then say, for not taking ASH too seriously.

Self-righteousness isn’t the only temptation to which the dissenters are susceptible, as the global economic empire discloses what appears to many to be a heartless agenda. Have you noticed the abundance of books in the last few years with the phrase “The End Of” in their titles? All about us, the horsemen are assuming the saddle in gleeful anticipation of the apocalypse. Unfortunately for them, there’s no end in sight. It’s (big) business as usual.

Not long ago I read George Orwell’s The Road To Wigan Pier, a book that makes me wonder why Orwell is represented in the school curricula by Animal Farm and 1984. Wigan Pier is really two books in one: the first half describes in horrific detail the lives of U.K. miners during the 1930s, and the second half is a scathing look at the people who propose to improve matters by adopting socialism. Orwell of course considered himself a socialist, but his temperament was such that he could never settle into a dogmatic understanding of human affairs. The possessor of a keen, sceptical mind, Orwell had the habit of bringing into his work troubling details — such as his observation that many a would-be “bourgeois Socialist” of his day was at heart an “old Etonian”:

Perhaps once, out of sheer bravado, he has smoked a cigar with the band on, but it would be almost physically impossible for him to put pieces of cheese into his mouth on the point of his knife, or to sit indoors with his cap on, or even to drink his tea out of the saucer. … It can only be because in his heart he feels that proletarian manners are disgusting.

Wigan Pier is full of such scandal, much of it delivered at the author’s expense. Orwell could be, and often was, indignant in the face of injustice, but I’ve yet to catch him indulging in self-righteous cant or doom-saying. It’s this balanced cast of mind that strikes me as Orwell’s greatest contribution to the dissenters’ canon, a contribution well worth recalling.

As it has turned out, Orwell’s works have thus far escaped obscurity. It would be silly to hope for the same outcome in the case of ASH, but that isn’t the point. In the here and now, there’s plenty of Orwellian work to be done — and after all, I’ve only said I’d like to leave a respectable corpus.

An Interview with Heather Menzies

[The following was first published in ASH Magazine Volume 4 Number 1, Winter 1996.]

Your argument, in the book Whose Brave New World?, is that a corporate agenda is “colonizing” the institutions and services upon which we depend in this country. Would you comment on the choice of this word?

In a colonization model, what we are talking about is empire rather than democracy —the empire of technique, but also the new corporate empires imposing their centralised authority, which is what empire is all about, over more and more of the territories of our lives. Colonization has to do with the fact that there is a cultural component, and related to that an ideological component. We’re shifting from an ethic of public service to an ethic that treats services as commodities and service transactions. In the health care field this is very dramatic, and therefore something very important to watch. This is coming out of the United States, where health care is an industry, where sickness is the raw material for a profit-making industry —their bias is built into that— and these are completely taking us away from prevention of debility, prevention of disease, and taking us toward simply the treatment model, where people can make money off a continuing dependence on medicines and treatments and so on. So the colonization aspect gets at the cultural component and the shift toward this more commoditized approach to life, generally, and then within that, service being transformed from an engaged and empathetic human interaction, to a service transaction —which is a business.

There is also colonization in the sense of an existing knowledge base being pushed to the side and treated as completely unimportant while this new knowledge base, and the new sets of technological skills being imposed by the colonizers —by the new technological agents— are being treated as the only ones that count. It’s the same kind of way in which you had the imposition of the pricing system and the commodity form that displaced barter, exchange, and the subsistence basis of an economy based on the commons of the land here.

Neil Postman has stated, in Technopoly, that a technology will “play out its hand” when introduced —that is, it will do what it’s designed to do, regardless of our efforts to control it. But you seem to believe we have a good degree of control.

I’m neither for nor against technology: I’m for a particular use of technology, one that extends what people do, rather than replaces people and replaces what they do. And so, at a fundamental level I understand and I work with the definition of technology as a social construction. Now, there’s a point at which it begins to become deterministic. It’s a bit like what Ursula Franklin said, that once values are incorporated into the design of a technology, they cannot be negotiated. That speaks to the fact that, for instance, once software monitors people and has taken over more and more of the knowledge required to do a job effectively —taken that knowledge away from people and de-skilled them — once that system is put into place, you can’t negotiate around it. There is a time when one has to negotiate. That is in the initial stages of design, and the initial stages of organizing work and the place of technology. There is scope for intervention at that point. I am somewhat sanguine about the possibility of people gaining control. People still have the capacity to negotiate. People are endlessly inventive.

What do you say to the people —and some of them aren’t necessarily pro-business— who find your critique of corporations “conspiratorial,” or at least so dark that it’s hard to accept? I have to admit I find it hard to believe that business has gotten so mean-spirited that it can enrich itself on human misery.

I think that people who subscribe to conspiracy theories are capitulating to the mystique of all-powerfulness associated with many of the institutions of power, which get all the press and are held up as being the only institutions of power. The corollary of that is that these people are betraying and not sufficiently having confidence in the power that in fact people out in the community still do have, to think for themselves, to speak for themselves, and to act. Where I think I come down is that those people who are in institutions of power do have, usually, access to faster means of communication, and they are therefore able to more quickly apprise the situation and seize an opportunity to exploit it. History is much more chaotic, much more fraught with possibilities than the conspiracy theorists would have us believe. And also it’s peopled on the other side with an awfully lot more stupidity and laziness than conspiracy theorists would have us believe [laughter]

There is another enormous advantage for those who have power, and that’s the ability to define the public interest. Until a public interest is defined, it’s impossible to get any sort of program underway.

And again, that comes back to this moral voice issue. I was giving a speech Friday, in which I stressed the importance of scale —the scale of the voices that are saying “This is in fact what the public interest is all about.” I proceeded to lay out what’s happening —the social devastations that globalization and restructuring are causing, with the downsizing and deficit being part of that larger agenda —and having done so, I was talking about the need for media paying attention to networking amongst all those voices, so that you can get the kind of sustained moral tone that is going to in fact communicate this different definition of the public interest: that the public interest is not deficit cutting, is not global competitiveness; the public interest is in fact defined by meeting people’s needs and positioning all these other agendas within the caring capacity of the larger social environment.

I find myself using the language of “community” when I speak of the public interest. But I suspect this is a buzzword — I mean, community is clearly important, but it’s hard not to be self-conscious. Do I really live in a community? And what’s the relation of business, on any scale, to the interests of community? — particularly given the erosion of traditional ties of business to employees, towns, and even democracy itself?

Too much of this gets discussed in the abstract. And abstractions can be so used by anybody. Community is a perfect case in point. You’ve got various ways in which “community” is being used. It’s being used by business to talk about corporate alliances —now they’re being called communities. Communities are also being defined around ownership of consumer goods, such as cars. And communities are being defined around lifestyles. These are all a redefinition of community into consumer roles and property relations. And that’s a complete betrayal of the historical origins of community. People don’t tend to pay attention to the hard work that communities involve. There’s this tendency to reach into the past and pull out this golden, hazy image of community where everybody gets along with their neighbours. But in fact there is no such community. Community-building is hard work. It’s the art of listening to the other person, putting up with their halitosis [laughter] —one of my ways of describing it— but it’s also the daily practice of dialogue, and dialogue doesn’t just involve speaking for yourself, and your family, and your locale, and the particularities of your group identity. It also involves listening. Listening, to be able to respect, so that freedom can be combined with responsibility, in the microcosm, and you can actually work out differences —you know, negotiate differences. That’s my sense of a real community. We need that kind of practice to avoid the idealisms: the golden age of community, which didn’t exist, and also to avoid the new commoditized images of community. The public interest isn’t an abstraction; it’s the people going to the food bank around the corner from where I live, or the Daily Bread food bank in Toronto, or the one where you live.

The current buzzwords do express an abstracted way of looking at the world which has not very much to do with people and a lot to do with processes and technologies.

One of the major shifts going on right now is we’re moving toward the equivalence of the neoliberal and neoconservative agenda —they’re really one and the same. Democracy and democratic values are being subsumed by corporate values. Human rights are being subsumed, or eclipsed, by property rights. “Whoever has the most power wins” seems to be emerging as the ethic of the new era. It’s really important to name that for what it is, and then also know what you have to do if you want to turn that around. You don’t do it, I think, with abstractions about human rights. I think we can regain our perspectives by grounding ourselves, positioning ourselves in solidarity with the people who have been marginalized —who are being displaced. We’re not doing them a favour; we’re doing ourselves a favour. Because we can redefine the public interest with people at the centre.

The economist Paul Krugman has stated [in Mother Jones], “it will take another [Roosevelt], and perhaps the moral equivalent of another war” to bring back the decent society Americans had a generation ago. What do you think it will take here?

What I was also saying about “the empire versus a democracy” is that you get something imposed, versus something negotiated. The whole public discussion of this has almost shut out the notion, the idea, that this kind of thing should be negotiated. In other words, that there should be a debate, a negotiation, between an ethic of social justice and an ethic of business efficiency and corporate profit. And instead what we’re getting is the imposition of this one ethic, the business agenda. Negotiation is reduced to quibbling over the adjustment mechanisms. To be able to reassert that this is in fact an ethical discussion, and that there are moral choices to be made, requires leadership in a very engaged form. And I think there are already in Canada a number of voices that do represent the kind of moral equivalent of, let’s say, the Roosevelt era —people like Ursula Franklin, various people also in communities. We need to pay attention to the fact that the macrocosm is also composed of a bunch of microcosms.

You’ve written a half-dozen or so books about computers, and one about cheese [By the Labour of Their Hands]. Obviously, there’s more to Heather Menzies than technology.

[laughter] The Menzies were farmers in rural Ontario, so this is sort of my personal roots book. I was also as a child taken to the cheese factories. I got a sense of fascination with technology as part of the landscape. I think I gained a sense that machines had characters and were part of our story. And having written that book, it gave me a lovely perspective, because I jumped into 18th and 19th century technology. I learned a lot about technology in the process of writing [By the Labour of Their Hands], although it isn’t at all a technology book. It’s very much a book of the rural culture in Ontario, which has hardly been written on at all. The other thing is I’m a writer first; I hate being described as an expert on computer technology. Now I’m able to pose, at least for myself if not for others, some of the deeper questions about our society and the philosophies at work in it. It’s been an interesting journey.

Heather Menzies is the author of 7 books, including Whose Brave New World?: The Information Highway and the New Economy. (Between The Lines, 1996). She spoke to ASH from Ottawa, Ontario.

Making Love

1. The first thing we need to clarify is the terminology.

Making love is not to be confused with having sex. To make love is, as the phrase suggests, to make. To have sex is, conversely, to have. To have is to possess, and everyone knows that possession and love are nowhere to be found together.

Intercourse, fornication, and copulation are too clinical and pretentious; they lack emotional content and make one feel that you are just showing off your vocabulary. There’s nothing romantic about snobbery.

Sex sounds too Anglo-Saxon, even if it has a Romance etymology. We ought not to confuse the matter by getting obsessed with the facts. The truth is, sex doesn’t sound very nice, no matter how delicately you try to articulate it.

Humping and screwing are demeaning. It grieves us that we have to even mention them. Some people think these terms are cute and funny, but general consensus dictates otherwise. The former term might be appropriate for the sexual activities of dromedaries, but certainly not of homo sapiens, while the latter term is best reserved for specific acts of carpentry.

For brevity’s sake, we will dispense with a thorough technical discussion of: porking, poking, the horizontal bop, bonking, doing the wild thing, makin’ bacon, fooling around, going down and tumbling in the hay. These terms should be avoided. This is not a moral judgement, however – merely a recommendation.

2. When to make love.

The best time to make love is Saturday night between 9:30 and 10:00 p.m. The weekdays are problematic because of busy work schedules. No one has time nor energy. Friday night is worst of all because of the cumulative exhaustion of the work-week. Your best plan is to get as much sleep on Friday night as possible. Therefore: go straight to bed. Do not make love.

Saturday morning would be good, except that there are so many things to do. Think of all the bills that have to be paid, the errands that have to be run, the myriad of chores that have been neglected because you were too busy throughout the week to get around to them. When the alarm clock rings, you had best get right out of bed and get to it. Have your partner help. Tell him to think of dusting as fore-play. This will encourage him to be efficient and enthusiastic.

Note: make sure the bills are paid! Nothing causes coitus interruptus and similar sexual disfunction like the stress of financial debt. One gas bill alone could wreck everything.

If you are efficient and organized, you will have enough energy Saturday night for making love. Here are five questions you can ask yourself and your partner to be sure:

-Am I craving sleep continually?
-Am I listening to my inner child?
-Does my partner respect my needs no matter what, or am I being pressured somehow to do something I do not want to do?
-Do I typically fall asleep during lovemaking?
-Am I getting pleasure out of lovemaking, or am I merely fooling myself?

If you have determined that it is prudent to make love, we recommend the following: First, wait until your favorite television program is finished. If you make love during a half-hour block in which a program you do not like is being broadcasted, your mind will not be divided between love making and television watching. A one-half hour block ensures that you will have time to make love and also to finish any chores (such as dish-washing) that have accumulated throughout the day. Second, ensure that the answering machine is on so that you won’t need to answer calls. Resist the impulse to rush to the phone, even if you are experiencing a lull in the activities. Most calls are not urgent and can be followed up immediately after orgasm, if such an event occurs.

3. Let us proceed to the act itself.

We have established the following norms of lovemaking:

-the missionary position, man on top. Creativity leads to perversity, and besides, you work hard all week. Don’t complicate your life needlessly.

-the bedroom. We are told that the French make love throughout the house, and even prefer the bathroom. This seems unhygienic, and not entirely in good taste. We feel the bedroom was made for making love, and making love for the bedroom.

-since foreplay has more or less been merged with Saturday chores, you might as well get right down to business. It’s a busy world, and besides, you’ve been waiting all day. And no one waits all day for anything anymore.

-congratulate yourself and your partner when appropriate. Nothing is more important in today’s atmosphere of global competitiveness than to reward and to encourage excellence.

Learning How

You can learn how:

– to lose twenty pounds
– to have more confidence
– to get a man
– to hold on to him
– to be a beauty queen
– to get into shape
– to be more desirable
– to make better love
– to love him more
– to love him less
– to reduce your stress
– to balance home and children and work
– to be the person you’ve always wanted to be.

It’s easy. Here’s how:

1 1 Sit down with a piece of paper and itemize your priorities; or better yet, use a computer–you’ll find that technology is a powerful tool. 2 Read this thoroughly and practice the helpful advice, using your computer to record your progress.

2 1 Learn the proper uses of medication. There are pills that will help you to lose weight, and pills that will reduce your stress and give you confidence. It is up to you to educate yourself regarding their uses–in consultation with an expert, naturally. 2 Watch television carefully. There will be advertisements directing you to the purchase of technologically-advanced equipment. Be comforted by the knowledge that there is a scientifically advanced product for your particular defect. 3  See your doctor. You may be surprised (and relieved) to find that your womb is the source of the problem. Medical specialists have a great deal of experience with such cases. The treatment is usually quite simple and takes little time to perform. 4 Learn the basic concepts. Co-dependency, dysfunction and hysteria are terms that will apply to you, for all have dysfunctions and fall short of the models of authorities. With the correct terminology at your disposal, you will be more able to seek the appropriate product or procedure as dictated by an expert.

3 1 Use your computer to aid you in the organization of your treatment schedule. Begin a file on your software; you may assign it any name up to eight letters in length, such as “HOLINESS,” “PURITY,” or “BODY.” Be organized: submit yourself to a ritual of daily entries, or you will not find yourself improving. 2 When you are cleansed of an offence such as a weight problem or a personal insufficiency of a sexual nature, count off seven days, after which you must visit an expert, taking an appropriate form of offering such as VISA® or MasterCard®. Keep careful track of your transactions by entering the data on your computer file. 3 Continue to purchase self-help guides such as magazines, books and computer software. The field is always changing as new discoveries alter the quest for female perfectibility. As always, seek an expert for guidance when purchasing a product or service.

4 1 Find a private place in which to work. You ought not to disturb others with your problems. Entries should be made in silence, far away from the important business that is being conducted by others.

Seeing The Light

Part One: He was born in poverty and darkness

He made a few mistakes in the beginning, because he was born in poverty and in darkness. I’ve selected, arranged, itemized and interpreted them for you.

-He fooled around a lot, sexually.

-He drank heavily.

-He used foul language.

Don’t look so discouraged. It gets better: you know that.

-He once shot his brother in the foot during an argument about money. Everyone thought it was an accident, but I know that the bastard meant to do it.

He was a bastard, all right. But he reformed. He’s a decent fellow now: I rather like him.

Part Two: He sees the light

Before we go any further, I ought to produce the relevant facts.

1. He was born 4 October 1939.

2. His father was a housepainter and an alcoholic. His mother made crafts. This accounts for our hero’s artistic propensities. He has become quite a clever writer.

3. His mother often read the Bible to him, although he didn’t get much out of it at first–that is, before he saw the light.

4. He had trouble with women. He married in 1962, but after only sixteen months of marriage his wife left him. That was 18 May 1964 at 3:27 p.m.

The car she left in was orange.

5. He liked Dixieland music, and he played his 78 r.p.m.s loud.

6. He shunned vinegar.

He was a bastard, but he saw the light. Let me tell you about it.

On 6 June 1964, 10:27 p.m., he was sitting in Sam’s diner, a white rectangular building on Queen street. If you go there today you’ll see it, although Sam is dead now and the name has changed. It’s the same place though. The very booth he was sitting in is still there.

Anyway, he was eating a clubhouse sandwich with fries. He had put salt on the fries, but not vinegar. Sam’s had the best clubhouse in those days. The bacon made all of the difference: it was crispy, but not dried out and charcoal-tasting.

He had just finished his dinner when he looked up and saw the headlights approach the front window of the diner. The light was blinding. He thought he was going to fall to his knees. He said to himself, God who are you? He eventually got up out of the booth, onto his feet, blinded. When his sight returned to him a minute later, he looked out of the window.

It was him, all right. You don’t forget a face like that, especially when it’s behind the headlights of an orange car.

Well, to make a long story into a short story, he walked up to the front door and waited for the man to come in. They looked one another in the eye, and our hero said, “Step out back.” So out back they go, and our hero gives the man a damn good beating, like no one in that town has ever been beaten before.

When our hero is done, he goes home, puts on a Dixieland 78 r.p.m., and opens up his Bible. He sees the words, eye for eye, tooth for tooth. He thought of those words, there in the restaurant.

Because he saw the light.

Part Three: A New Man

Yes sir, he was a bastard, that man. But you know the story: with age comes wisdom, understanding and contentment. He’s a new man now. I rather like him.

Did I mention he became quite a clever writer?

Shopping Around

This time I am going to shop around.

I met my last lover at a party. I had had too much to drink. We had a brief and tempestuous affair, which ended horribly after three months. I told myself then, I will never make that mistake again.

Linda was my first lover. She was tall and slender. Her hair fell straight along her back, ending where the spine curves inward to form the base of a smooth concave pocket. Her eyes were dark brown, her skin pale. I remember that her teeth were remarkably uniform, as if they were artificial. I did not know real teeth could be so straight.

I’ve had dozens and dozens of lovers. I remember only a few. I’ve probably embellished them beyond all reality. My memories may be fictions.

Tanya had short hair. She dyed it henna. Her hair was bell-shaped and hugged her head like a snug wig. She used a product that made her legs as smooth as those of a store-front mannequin. She said it was excruciatingly painful and expensive to get her legs that way, but that she felt that it was worth it.

Maggie wore clothing from a local Middle-Eastern bazaar: silks and flowing scarves and Jinn pants. She wore pink foundation and red blush. Her preferred products were: Noxema, Clairol, Seabreeze, Neat, Max Factor.

Brenda was slightly overweight, but disguised it well with bulky sweaters and skirts. She worked primarily in odours: L’air du Temps, Channel and Night Musk. Her shoes were always of the highest quality, even those that she wore when taking the garbage to the curb.

Rachel liked to wear hats. She bought most of her clothing through mail order catalogues. Her favorite colours were hunter green, teal, and royal blue. She said she was a Winter. I met her during her black and white phase. She also had a brief leather phase, during which she wore tight black pants and cowhide vests. She liked to wear earrings that dangle to the shoulder.

All of these women were bad for me. I remember their clothing and the way that they smelled, and specific physical details: the curve of a leg, the flatness of a stomach, the darkness of eyes. What I’m not going to tell you about is the grief and the frustration.

I’ve tried for years to block it out of my mind.

Linda was never happy with anything I ever did. She hated the way I cut my steak, and was determined to reform me.

Tanya ate only vegetables and said it is morally wrong to kill cows. I said I only killed them to stop them. I said, Cows are the most vicious and hateful creatures alive because they prey exclusively on helpless vegetables. I told her that I was thinking about going after other vegetable haters too.

She left me.

Maggie was a singer and sexually voracious. She was also insane. She told me that Janice Joplin once came to her house and complimented her on her musical talent.

Brenda tried to make me feel guilty about every bad thing in the world. She told me I never really loved her, which was true, and that I was leaving her only because she wasn’t thin like a supermodel, which wasn’t. She held me personally responsible for the “chauvinism and cruelty of my gender.”

Rachel was unfaithful and ran off with a neighbour of mine. That was during her Spiegel earth-tone phase.

Relationships are so difficult. It’s woeful. But this time I’m going to shop around.


What I have learned about shopping

Do your research

Find out where the product comes from. Was it produced by a respectable corporation? Or by one that is exploitative? Check into warranties, and see what kind of experiences other people have had with this product. You may discover things of great importance.

Look under the hood

We’re not talking just about cars here. Whatever it is, see how it’s made and how it works. Have a professional come along and help. Kick the tires.

Ask about trial periods

If possible, take the product home for a few days for a trial run. Be explicit that this in no way implies a commitment. There ought to be no obligation to buy.

Compare and save

Don’t take the first thing that comes along, no matter how shiny and fancy it looks. And don’t enter into a bargain until you know all of the facts! Often a salesperson will only tell you what he or she thinks you want to hear. Don’t trust these people.

Take your time. Get the best deal you can.

Get everything in writing

Remember the expression: a verbal agreement is worth the paper it’s written on.

If you do purchase, keep the receipts and accompanying documents in a safe place

You might want to make an exchange at a later date. Perhaps get a refund. You are not personally responsible for defective goods, but be careful: there are no user serviceable parts. It’s also wise to keep the packaging. Often, with the excitement that accompanies a new item, we fail to consider the possibility that we may grow tired of it later. Or it may not work the way we had thought it would. If you have discarded the packaging, you are stuck with your selection.

Consider the costs

Ask yourself, Do I really need this product? Isn’t the aggravation more than I want? And the responsibility?

In today’s throw-away society, most products break down after only a few years. Then you’re stuck with a useless product and the costs of getting rid of it.

Be honest. Why are you considering this purchase? A lot is at stake. Do you think you could live without it?

You’d be surprised. Many people nowadays are.

Playing With Fire

Everyone thinks they know the whole story. The most recent version I heard came to me in Washington, D.C., and goes like this:

He stole the fire from the gods and gave it to men. The gods weren’t too pleased, because they like having all the power to themselves. He was being insubordinate, radical, rebellious. The head god chained him to Caucasus for eternity. Every day an eagle came down from the skies and ate his blackened liver. Every day the liver grew back. That’s how this version ends, with him chained to a rock forever and with the bird coming every day for fresh liver.

There are other versions. Sometimes the bird is a vulture, sometimes a hawk. I heard someone insert a seagull once. That shows you how careless and irresponsible humans can be. Then there are the disagreements about the organ: “was it a liver? I was sure it was a gall bladder.”

The problem is, none of these humans were there. Of course, even if they had been, it wouldn’t make a difference. Human beings can’t be relied upon to get the facts straight. They mess around with everything, like children. They exaggerate, embellish, distort. They lie when it suits them. It’s a miracle they ever agree on anything. Of course, the usually don’t; they usually end up arguing and fighting.

Still, the basic idea is the same no matter who you talk to. Prometheus is the hero. The gods are tyrants, oppressive and cruel.

This however isn’t the case. When you know all of the facts, you’ll be able to make a more accurate judgement. Of course, you’re probably only human, so it won’t be completely accurate. You’ll need some guidance.

What no one has told you is what happened after he stole the fire.

People were fascinated by the new substance. They lost interest in reading and sat for hours and hours every day staring at fire. Their minds were rotting in their heads. Some of our statisticians tell us that the humans spent on average forty-two hours a week fire-watching. The fires gradually became bigger and more violent. People suffered burns from sitting too close. People paid less attention to one another. Families began to fall apart. Family values were undermined.

Someone discovered that you could ignite dehydrated plant leaves with fire and inhale the by-products of the incinerating material. For some reason completely beyond our comprehension, human beings found this pleasurable. You now call this activity “smoking.” It is both unhealthy and immoral, and it instantly became very popular.

The females experimented with fire in their food preparation. Rather than good, reliable meals such as nuts and berries and raw vegetables, they began to cook and eat the flesh of animals, introducing carcinogens into their diet. We feel it is immoral to eat meat.

Arson became rampant. The usefulness of fire in acts of crime was discovered and exploited, with deadly results.

Fire encouraged romantic behaviour, especially–to our alarm–between unmarried human beings. Not only did men engage in sexual activities with women, but there were also abominations committed between members of the same sex.

It’s no coincidence that we speak of the fires of lust. Fire led to immorality, perversity and unwholesomeness. We knew something had to be done. People were incapable of governing themselves; their thinking and behaviour needed to be directed, legislated. Our decision was intended for their benefit.

We believed that the only way to restore godliness was to make an example of this Prometheus, therefore we drafted a bill outlawing the giving of fire to human beings. The bill was retroactive, enabling us to persecute the criminal responsible for the decline of morality.

You should be able to see that our decision was the right one.

Unfortunately, fire had become so popular that we feared that there was to be no return to the days of decency. We felt that our only recourse was through law, and so we began to punish those who undermined Nature.

Recently, there has been blasphemous talk about the irrelevance of the gods, and some actually believe that we no longer exist. Nothing could be further from the truth. We are still active, although our activities are acknowledged less and less by men. We somehow underestimated the ineptitude of the human race, and the harm that men are able to do to themselves. But we are still acting upon the problem, and we are about to redouble our efforts on behalf of the honourable cause.

Fooling Ourselves

You’re fooling yourself.

The first sure indication that you are fooling yourself is that you begin to hide things. Look under your bed. Right now. I’ll wait for you here.

Well? What did you see? Come on, you can tell me. There’s no way it will ever get out. I don’t know your parents or your priest or your milkman.

You don’t have a milkman? See, that just shows you how little I know you. You’re safe with me. You can trust me.

So what did you see? Fear? Guilt? Loathing? Did you see that horrible lie you told to your mother when you were thirteen years old? We both know you were really having sex in the bushes behind the school. And you said you were helping a friend make oatmeal cookies for the annual senior elementary bake-sale. To raise money for charity.

Don’t ask me how I know all of these things. Let’s just say I’m omniscient.

Not quite like God. Well, a bit like God. I don’t have much of a body, either. God and I like to maintain a respectable distance from materiality, except when it suits us to do otherwise.

You think you know what I look like; you think you are following me along pretty good. But you’re fooling yourself. You’re not fooling God though. He sees every hidden thing, just like I do. And he casts judgement on the things that he sees.

But don’t worry. I won’t do that. I am objective. Sometimes I’ll be ironic, but that isn’t a judgement exactly. It’s more like a fun little game. You know, you try and figure out what I really mean. It’s all in the spirit of play.

Are you following along? Good. That wasn’t an ironic statement, by the way. I really do think it’s good that you are following along. I don’t know where I’d be without you. I don’t have much company. Once in a while someone comes along and drops in, usually just for a few minutes. I make some witty conversation, but people are usually in a hurry or tired, so they don’t pay very careful attention. Their eyelids get heavy and their eyes start to close, and by that point I don’t even want to bother. At first I thought it was me, but after a few times through I began to see and to understand more.

Now I am practically an expert in human nature. If you stay with me long enough, you’ll learn something from me, I promise.

You do trust me, don’t you? How often do people make a promise as wonderful as the one I’ve made? Just think of it: I could help you to understand human nature.

-What makes romance so difficult? –Human nature.

-Why do we hurt one another? –Human nature.

-Where is the secret key to social improvement and a perfect society? –Human nature.

-What is the cause of suffering? –Human nature.

I guess what I am saying is that you can have an easy, pain-free romance in a world where people are honest and happy and free. I didn’t say it was going to be easy, though. You have to read a lot of books to get there, and books are expensive. So you’ll need a lot of money. And free time. And patience. If it doesn’t work out right away like you thought it would, keep trying. You’re probably doing something wrong. You’ll figure it out, eventually. The secret is human nature. Once you’ve understood it, everything else falls into place.

I know what you’re saying. You want a perfect world now. You don’t have time to wait.

You’re in luck. I’ve got a deal for you. Not only am I going to tell you that the key to a perfect world is human nature, but I’m going to tell you what human nature is.

Are you ready? Are you sure?

Okay. Here it is then. Human nature.

Shit. I don’t seem to have it on me. I know I wrote it down. It was on a slip of white paper. In my wallet.

I must have hidden it somewhere.

Keeping One Step Ahead



-Like this: say go. Try it.

-Say go.

-Well…that’s basically it.

-And that’s how Indians say “hi”?

-Well, that’s how Mohawks say hi. Other nations have different ways.

Cree say Wace. Ojibwa say Bojoo. Whole bunch of ways.


-No no no. Bo shoe–sort of.

-I don’t get it. Is there some religious significance?

-Well, no. Bojoo is a greeting. Sometimes Ojibwa say Nana-bojoo. And Nana is Nanabush.

-Nanabush? Is he a god?

-No. Not exactly.


-Yeah, only us Mohawks don’t say Nanabush. We say Coyote.


-Yeah. Coyote, Nanabush, Trickster.

-What’s trickster?

-Well, that’s kind of hard to explain, really. Trickster’s lots of things. I guess you could say he likes to change what he is to keep you guessing. You know, stay one step ahead. He’s sort of tricky that way–tricky like a trickster. Likes to break the rules. Play tricks.

-Like a fool? In Shakespeare?

-Yeah, sort of. Sometimes the tricks backfire, and the joke is on Trickster.

-Is he some sort of religious symbol?

-No. That’s not quite it.

-I’d sure like to see an Indian religious ceremony. Maybe go up north during one of those festivals I heard of. I saw one on television once too. You Indians got anything like Christmas? I’d sure like to see it.

-Yeah, I guess you could say we have.

-What’s it like?

-Well, I’ll tell you a little story about it.

First of all, the sacred Indian ceremony begins about three weeks before sohl-stis, which is December 21 on the European calendar. We call this sacred time of the year tahkayaw. You know when the sacred time has arrived because everyone speaks the sacred greeting, eliwehk tahkayaw. I’d translate it into English, but there’s nothing like it in the Whiteman’s tongue. Anyway, when you hear that greeting, you know the sacred time has come.

The first thing Indians do when the sacred time arrives is go on a mysterious quest called shah-ping. It’s sort of a sacred hunting trip. Everyone does it: men, women, children. Well, the small children don’t. Not until they reach the sacred age. The Indians go in the morning, and return in the evening. We don’t discuss the things we find on our quests. We hide them from everyone else’s sight until the time comes to exchange the sacred objects. It’s so important that no one else know what you’ve found, that the Indians cover their objects in a special paper made just for the occasion. When we’ve covered everything up, we hide it all somewhere. You know, in our tipis.

We spend two, maybe three weeks on the shah-ping quest. We don’t quit until we have found a sacred object for each friend and family member and have brought it back home.

We decorate our tipis with sacred glittering objects made of metals and of wood. We eat special foods and drink special beverages. My favorite is called ehk-nogg. This beverage is served cold and sometimes is sprinkled with a powder called nuht-mek. I think the drink has a religious significance, but I’m not sure what it is. Someone once told me, an elder, but I’ve forgotten. Anyway, you can be sure it means something religious.

Everything Indian does.

So. Once we’ve done that, we go on another special quest. This one is really hard to explain: you might not understand it. But anyway, believe it or not, we go out in groups and look for a kris-mus-dree, which is a sacred object full of spirits that grows in the ground. And when we’ve found the right one, we bring it into our tipis and cover it in sacred objects made especially for the purpose. Some people cut down their own kris-mus-dree–in honour of the Creator. I know it sounds weird, but it’s our way.

There’s a bunch of special songs and chants that we sing throughout the sacred time of eliwehk tahkayaw. Many of the songs have religious significance, although about a hundred years ago–maybe more–people began to sing non-traditional Indian chants about a mythical Õkwehõweh…

-…that Trickster guy?

-…yeah. Yeah: you got it. Trickster.

Well, this time Trickster was really in disguise. You know, he likes to change his shape. Sometimes he’s a person, sometimes an animal. Or something else, even. But this time, Trickster showed up in a big red costume. Like a pow-wow fancy dress, sort of. It was made all of leather, with rabbit fur lining on the hood. And he had on a big black…wampum belt. And big black mukluks, too. Get this: he had a long beard. When’s the last time you saw an Indian with a beard? The really incredible thing is that he was carrying a big bag of those sacred objects I was talking about. The sacred chants tell all about it.

So. Trickster sneaks into the tipis while everyone is sleeping. And he gives each family a few of the sacred objects. Then he goes back up north. To Fort Albany, I think. Or Peawanuk.

And in the morning, all the Indians wake up and exchange the sacred objects. They take off the sacred paper and they sit around the sacred kris-mus-dree and they do many other religious things that I’m not allowed to discuss with White people.

But what about you? What kind of Christian ceremonies do White people perform? I heard once about some White pilgrims who spent Christmas day in prayer. And I saw a movie about Christians, too. Saint Paul, Saint John. Other guys names escape me. Saint someone.

That’s like a Chief, right–Saint?

-Well, a bit’s changed since then, actually.

-You don’t say? Gee, that’s too bad, you know.

-Well, maybe. Maybe not.

-Yeah. I guess I know what you mean.

Raising Cain

At first we all said she was crazy.

“Eve, you remember now what God said about curses and thorns and the sweat of the brow. And what about the increased pains and the ‘he will rule over you’ bit?”

It didn’t matter. She wanted to have a baby. Several babies. Personally, I never cared much for Adam. He borrowed my car once, got drunk, and then smashed it up. He’s rude and he talks too loud. He tells disgusting sexist jokes and thinks he’s so funny. He’s never had a job. He grows drugs in his basement, talks big about some invention of his that’s going to make him rich. The dreamer. He takes Eve’s money and uses it to get drunk, then he becomes violent.

-What happened to your face Eve?

-Um. An apple fell from a tree and hit me.

That’s the second time she’s used that one. The first was just before they moved out of her house. She told me the eviction was all because of an apple. When the authorities came around to the house to ask questions, she told them the apple story too. All Adam had to say was, “The woman did it.” And they bought the whole thing. They even wrote it down in their little black book.

Adam isn’t even divorced from his first wife, Lillith. No one knows about her, he keeps it so secret. He has children with the woman, but he never offers any support, financial or otherwise. He just lies around the house during the day, and goes down to the Paradise Club at night. He spends Eve’s money on beer and strippers.

-Why’d you agree to live with him, Eve? Can’t you see he’s no good for you?

-He really isn’t that bad. You have to get to know him. He just has his own way. Besides, I love him.

I tried to talk sense into Eve, but it was no use.

-Why don’t you go back to school? Get a university degree? You could take up a career. You could be a landscape architectural engineer. You like gardens. We could get you some new clothes, a new image. You really are a beautiful woman, Eve. You ought to care for yourself better.

Adam and Eve are still together. No one says she’s crazy any more; everyone has accepted the fact that Eve is going to stay with this man no matter what. But it still grieves me to see the way she treats herself, and the way she allows herself to be treated. I remember the day she came to my house all excited, saying, “I’m gonna have a baby! I’m gonna have that baby!”

-That baby?

-Yeah. The baby I’ve always wanted to have. I’ve always wanted something of my own, something I could love, that would love me.

-That’s great Eve.

-And I’ve got the name picked out, too.

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

Reading List

Abel, Kerry. Drum Songs: Glimpses of Dene History. Montreal and Kingston, London, Buffalo: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1993.

Adams, Howard. Prison of Grass: Canada from the Native Point of View. Toronto: New Press, 1975.

Ahenakew, Edward. Voices of the Plains Cree. Ed. by Ruth M. Buck. Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 1973.

Ahenakew, Freda, ed. Kiskinahamawakanacimowinisa/Student Stories Written by Cree-Speaking Students. Canada: Voices of Rupert’s Land, 1989.

Allen, Paula Gunn. The Sacred Hoop: Recovering the Feminine in American Indian Traditions. Boston: Beacon Press, 1986.

Allen, W. Graham. Indians and the Law. Canada: Continuing Legal Education, 1986.

Althusser, Louis. “Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses.” Trans. Ben Brewster. In Critical Theory Since 1965. Eds. Hazard Adams and Leroy Searle. Tallahassee, Florida: University Press of Florida, 1986: 239-250.

Angus, Murray. And the Last Shall Be First: Native Policy in an Era of Cutbacks. Toronto: NC Press Limited, 1991.

Asch, Michael. Home and Native Land: Aboriginal Rights and the Canadian Constitution. Scarborough, Ontario: Nelson, 1984.

Ashcroft, Bill, Gareth Griffins and Helen Tiffin. The Empire Writes Back: Theory and Practice in Post-Colonial Literatures. London and New York: Routledge, 1989.

Bakhtin, Mikhail. The Dialogic Imagination: Four Essays. Trans. Caryl Emerson and Michael Holquist. Austin, Texas: University of Texas Press, 1981.

Barbeau, Marius and Grace Melvin. The Indian Speaks. Toronto: Macmillan Company of Canada, 1943.

Barman, Jean, Yvonne Hébert and Don McCaskill, eds. Indian Education in Canada. 2 vols. Vancouver: UBC Press, 1986.

Barrett, Stephen Melvil. Geronimo: His Own Story. London, England: Abacus, 1974.

Barron, F. Laurie. “The Indian Pass System in the Canadian West, 1882-1935.” Prairie Forum 1 (Spring 1988): 25-42.

Barron, F. Laurie and James B. Waldran, eds. 1885 and After. Regina, Saskatchewan: Canadian Plains Research Centre, 1986.

Bataille, M. Gretchen and Kathleen Mullen Sands. American Indian Women: Telling Their Lives. Lincoln and London: University of Nebraska Press, 1984.

Berger, Thomas R. A Long and Terrible Shadow: White Values, Native Rights in the Americas 1492-1992. Vancouver/Toronto: Douglas & McIntyre; Seattle, Washington: University of Washington Press, 1991.

Berkhofer, Robert F., Jr. The White Man’s Indian: Images of the American Indian from Columbus to Present. New York: Vintage, 1978.

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