The Inconvenient Indian, Pauline Johnson, (in) A Fair Country
(a triple book report - a polemic - a vision)
This summer at PurdyFest #8 we are studying the poetry & legacy of Pauline Johnson as we work our way back through the history of Canadian People's Poetry. A First Nations friend & I were discussing preparations for the upcoming symposium on Johnson, & my friend said she doesn't like Johnson's poetry, & that she feels Johnson was mainly known for her half-Mohawk heritage, a 'professional Indian' so to speak. My friend very strongly recommended as a counter to Johnson that I read the recent book THE INCONVENIENT INDIAN by another First Nations author, Thomas King.
I have duly followed my friend's excellent advice, and I have finished the King book & marked key parts for reference. I am also jumping around enjoying FLINT AND FEATHER: THE COMPLETE POEMS OF E. PAULINE JOHNSON (TEKAHIONWAKE). In the back of my mind, while I'm absorbing the King & Johnson books, is another relevant work I read a few years ago, not long after it was published, A FAIR COUNTRY by John Ralston Saul. Saul is a White man (a term King uses), & his book is more formal & limited in scope than King's, but with a very central & interesting thesis.
So this is a real reading mash-up, which should answer the smaller questions, for me at least, about Johnson's poetic & political legacy & modern relevance. But these books & authors will also help us to frame the much larger issues facing Canadian society, & even the planet. With global climate change bearing down on our tiny blue marble with unforgiving speed, it may well be First Nations & their control of key territories which will help block & stop transnational pipelines, dams, reckless mining & other activities which are the key contributors to this human-caused planetary blight. Rethinking & reforging centuries old alliances among all Peoples is fast becoming a necessity for all human survival. It is obviously the duty of People's Poets to tailor our work & visions for the survival of our planet, or we won't have any future generations around to admire our brilliant poetics ; )
So shoot me for cribbing the following. It's been 3 or 4 years since I read A FAIR COUNTRY: TELLING TRUTHS ABOUT CANADA. This back cover blurb does a great job of summarizing John Ralston Saul's central thesis, & it's in his own words:
We are a people of aboriginal inspiration organized around a concept of peace, fairness and good government. That is what lies at the heart of our story; at the heart of Canadian mythology, whether Francophone or Anglophone. If we can embrace a language that expresses that story, we will feel a great release. We will discover a remarkable power to act and to do so in such a way that we will feel we are true to ourselves.
A central theme of THE INCONVENIENT INDIAN is land. Indians (King's preferred term for First Nations) have been & continue to be inconvenient because they are the original owners of North America. Although most of their territories and nations have been stolen through murder (genocide), forced relocations, deliberate poisonings & sickness, assimilation, Christianity & outright trickery & theft, large swathes of North America remain in the control of First Nations Peoples.
There are many other themes winding through King's blackly humorous historical account of Indian/White relations. King even has ironic fun describing three categories of Indians - those DEAD (e.g. prone to wearing headdresses & feathers), those LIVE (the most inconvenient & annoying, because, well, they're just too damn real & ubiquitous), and those who are LEGAL or STATUS.
I find the Saul & King books a dyad - they should be read back-to-back. Saul's book gives a reasoned and entirely credible basis for Canada being a society largely culturally created & oriented around First Nations concepts. King adds the flesh & bones & white hot anger to Saul's somewhat dry analysis.
What I'm finding intriguing is that King posits the circularity of Indian/White relations, the devastating repeating patterns. I'm finding the same angry references to the White abuses of First Nations Peoples in Pauline Johnson's poetry of a century ago as I've just read in King's book. Saul ties the pieces together in his awkwardly professorial (White?) way. In Canada we have been going through a so-called process of Truth & Reconciliation. The terrible old patterns repeat, & who cares who is the better or more accurate author? I vouch for all three of these authors & their profoundly important & urgent books.
The past keeps repeating, it's just observed through different lenses, as King might say. It's time for us as People's Poets to help break the patterns, to write poetry on the front lines, in alliances with all Nations against climate change, while keeping our vision clear & focused.
April 20, 2014
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I just now read your last blog on your up-and-coming PurdyFest. A well-written piece on an important subject. Three cheers.
It will make a great addition to the collection in Calgary.
I trust you are enjoying our spring weather.
Marvin, in Montreal West.
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Jim Larwill's email (April 20/14):
"Thomas King, CM (born 24 April 1943) is a noted American-Canadian novelist and broadcaster who most often writes about North America's First Nations. He is an advocate for First Nations causes. He is of Cherokee and Greek/German-American descent. In 2003, King was invited to give the Massey Lecture in Canada, the first person of aboriginal descent to be chosen. He has dual United States-Canadian citizenship."
Johnson was Canadian and Mohawk as far as I know. Or even pure Canadian given she was born in 1861 six years before Canada was born, so technically, like any Canadian at the time she was writing, could only be, 100% Canadian as much as any other Canadian at that time. So maybe SHE was the first "professional" Canadian!
Double Wampum. Song My Paddle Sings.
Double Wampum is the first articulation of the concept of multiculturalism in the world I know of.
A best selling First Nations Canadian author 100 years ago?? Oh we couldn't have that! If SHE was best selling SHE obviously wasn't First Nations. Peter Jacobs????? A first nations writer published by Thomas Bentley in England in the 1850's before Susanna Moodie is then later published by the same publisher and Susanna Moodie goes on to do a veiled parody of him her book Roughing it in the Bush ???? Ah yes... the parody continues, but Peter Jacobs is forgotten or dismissed as a professional Indian... as all Early First nation's writer's are of course professional Indians and not professional writers... and Susanna Moodie wasn't of course a professional Brit in Canada...she was a "Real" writer.... of course... of course... of course... and so goes the course
FUCK THE WORDS
FUCK ALL THE GOD DAMN STUPID WORDS
I AM GOING BACK TO ROCKS AND THE STORY THERE
I AM THE LAND
THE LAND IS ME
.... this is the song my paddle sings...
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On 2014-04-22, at 5:08 PM, Katharine Beeman wrote:
Great reflections, Chris! Sure, sure, sure hope to see you this summer, hugs and scritches, Katharine
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Chase & I feel the same way, hoping that we'll see you this summer. Chase is getting verrrrry long in the tooth - he's 15, maybe 16 or more years old now, so he may not be around for another winter.
I'm pleased you like my piece on the 3 books. I think it'll be my presentation/intro for this summer's Symposium.
scritches & scratches delivered ; )
peace & poetry power!
Chris ... & Chase Wrfffffffffffffffffffffffffffffffff!
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