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What Does it Take to Decolonize a Country? Celia’s Song revisions a West Before the West

2015/11/06

ravensong

In The Truth about Stories, Tom King suggests that indigenous writers have usually avoided historical fiction, largely turning instead to the present and the future to articulate their visions of an alternative and indigenous world view.  He speculates that given the dominant negative stereotypes promoted by colonialism, indigenous writers have felt themselves lacking access to a usable discursive past capable of forming a basis for an indigenous-centred historical fiction. Since King’s lectures, Joseph Boyden has attempted historical fiction in The Orenda to mixed reviews. I hypothesize in this paper that options for engaging the past in alternative ways are opening up beyond those prescribed by a Eurocentric focus. If history as a discipline and particular orientation to the past has been contaminated by the biases of colonialism, then the more viable solution may be to turn, as King himself does, to the creation stories for an alternative starting point. In Green Grass Running Water, he pairs this approach with a deconstruction of the mythic stories told by the colonizing Europeans and their colonial descendents. Yet King has also criticized postcolonial theory for beginning its critique of colonialism with first encounters rather than recognizing the long histories of indigenous occupation and theorizing through stories that preceded that encounter. This paper is interested in the alternative approach to those pre-encounter worldviews as enacted in Lee Maracle’s novel Celia’s Song, her sequel to Ravensong.

First of all, Maracle refuses to situate those pre-encounter worldviews solely in the past. For her and her people, what mainstream History terms the past is not over.  It lives on in the present in at least two ways. Firstly, because colonialism is a structure and not an event (Wolfe), colonial structures remain, sometimes in adaptive ways, to organize people’s lives. Secondly, by beginning with her own culture’s understanding of time, rather than accepting the linear, Eurocentric view, Maracle can show how the past lives on in the present through ancestral voices, visions, and dreams and mythic incarnations. This is an approach to decolonization that refuses to situate the decolonizing project within a linear view of history. It must involve the ancestors if it is to succeed.

The last few years have seen several indigenous writers look further back into the period before colonization to imagine a usable past, derived from “a West before the West” on which to build a West after the West. Yet to use the language of before and after in such a way is to misrepresent how these writers approach the concept of time. Maracle, for example, implicitly challenges the Eurocentric separation of past from present and future, by inscribing alternative understandings of time in which the dead are neither powerless nor ghosts but rather ancestors whose spirits survive into the present and continue to make claims on the present. This conference’s title plays on the multiple significances of the West in the colonial imaginary. From a postcolonial perspective, the West is understood as a relational category, inscribing the orientation of European powers who assume the right to name the rest of the world from the place where they begin. In naming the Orient as their East, as Edward Said explained, they also named themselves, in relation, as “the West.” In that sense, the West named a geopolitical category that functioned as a geographical imaginary and generated a cognitive framework through which the world was viewed. In the same way, confusingly, in turning their gaze westward, Europeans named North America a different kind of West, as a new world and a frontier for their explorations, often stereotyped as “the wild West.” In that sense, the West was both civilization and its opposite, the wild that civilization feared and opposed, which it located outside itself yet often feared could be found within itself. That West, as King explains, was mythologized in many Hollywood westerns, describing an invented tradition for the settler societies of Canada and the United States. Those stereotypical cowboys and Indians created a view of a settler-invader West that remains difficult to dislodge. That mythic West, in turn, further marginalized the indigenous cultures of the far western edge of the continent, the place of Maracle’s two novels.

King’s answer to the dilemma of how to write oneself out of the dominant colonialist mythologies was to turn to alternative creation stories and to challenge the colonial stories head-on, especially in Green Grass, Running Water. In Cellia’s Song, Lee Maracle moves one step beyond King, bracketing the colonial period as an interlude in a much longer understanding of deep time beyond that of the human Anthropocene. The two-headed serpent protecting an abandoned house front asks itself: “How long in human time have we been here?? (10).  The novel slips back and forth between their time, and significant moments in human time, with the conversations and actions of all participants, human and non-human, witnessed by the shape-shifter mink, whose voice opens and concludes the novel. If readers still think of British Columbia as the West, then Maracle writes this West as a West simultaneously both before and after the West of the colonial imaginary.

There are at least four distinctive and interlinked elements of Celia’s Song that serve productively to start the decolonizing process. Each happens simultaneously so they cannot be labelled as first, second and third. One is the novel’s insistence on redefining beginnings and orientations to start with indigenous namings, stories, and theorizings, moving out into the world from there. Another is the route it chooses for decolonization through a focus on the embodiment of visions and dreams. Finally, because there is always a danger that such a strategy risks recuperation into inappropriate categories derived from other experiences, the novel resists recuperation into the “postcolonial exotic” (Huggan) or depoliticized versions of magic realism by highlighting the cognitive dissonance that it insists separates indigenous from non-indigenous readers. Finally, there is a grim recognition of the very real and horrific damages wrought by the colonial system that is accompanied by the insistence that the best way forward for the indigenous community will be to take responsibility for dealing with these damages on their own and in their own way. Maracle’s insistence on indigenous autonomy is the most interesting and potentially most troubling dimension of her work for the non-indigenous reader, a reader she insists on naming in colonial, racialized terms as white.

My interest in her work comes from my thinking about the inter-related violences of colonialism, particularly its epistemic and cognitive injustices. For a reader like myself, wondering what cognitive justice might look like and how it might be achieved, Celia’s Song reads like an experiment in imagining some answers. Why talk about cognitive justice instead of justice pure and simple? For at least two reasons. Understandings of what justice is can be culture-specific, so that to move toward achieving any kind of full justice, it will be essential first of all to understand the kinds of cognitive justice that came with settler colonialism and continue within institutional structures today. Taiaiaike Alfred asserts “Without a substantial change in the circumstances of colonization, there is no basis for considering the historical injustice. The crime of colonialism is present today, as are its perpetrators, and there is yet no moral or legal basis for indigenous peoples to seek reconciliation with Canada” (170). That basis must come, he argues, from a recognition of the fundamentally different models of governance and value generated by indigenous worldviews, and by subsequent moves toward restitution for the destruction of the economic and cultural logics of those alternative systems. In arguing against reconciliation, Alfred argues that “restitution is the real pathway to justice for indigenous peoples” (165). But the case for restitution can only be made once indigenous peoples free themselves from what Leanne Simpson describes as the prison of cognitive imperialism.

In Dancing on Our Turtle’s Back, Simpson explains that indigenous peoples, because they are “cognitively locked” into “the lens of colonial thought and cognitive imperialism,…are often unable to see our Ancestors” (15).  She describes cognitive imperialism as a vat in which indigenous peoples are immersed, a box in which they are trapped, and a poison for which they need to seek the antitidote. For Simpson, the key task is to create “free cognitive spaces” (34) through reclaiming, transforming, and rebuilding inherited and inherent indigenous imaginaries through story and ceremony (17). Maracle actualizes this process, enabling her readers to hear the ancestors (through the grumbling of their bones, some recent and some ancient), through the efforts of natural forces such as cedar to communicate, and through the witnessing of mink, whose words are italicized to distinguish its perspective from that of the narrator. The two-headed snake emerges from the gateposts of the house to take corporeal form in the shape of two quarelling heads, Restless and Loyal, each seeking recognition from the community in their individual ways. Maracle only allows her hereditary seer, Celia, fleeting intuitions and glimpses of the presence of these claimants to her attention. Celia sees in fragmentary flashes, but as mink observes, she is not a listener. In a similar fashion, Tomson Highway’s Kiss of the Fur Queen enables the brothers Okimasis, not to see, but at least to hear echoes of the shaman ancestor Chachagathoo, who remains in their northern lands long past her physical death, but of whom they are ashamed and afraid until late in their story when they have finally begun to learn how to re-see Chachagathoo for the powerful, decolonizing challenge she embodies.

Maracle’s vision, like Alfred’s, is more uncompromising than that provided by King or Highway. By uncompromising, I mean that she is less interested in explaining her culture to others than in mourning what was lost and regenerating what can heal. This is a question of emphasis and address. Like Simpson, she returns to the original creation stories of her people to theorize resurgence from within her own cultural paradigms rather than in dialogue with the colonizing forces. Like Alfred and Simpson, she is wary of the potential power imbalances in ideas about reconciliation if it is defined from the abuser’s perspective alone, with an eye to moving on without truly addressing what is at stake in this current moment within the long history of settler colonial structures. Whereas Kiss of the Fur Queen celebrates cultural survival and revival after the residential school experience, Celia’s Song is “Dedicated to all those children who were removed from our homes and who did not survive residential school.” There is a strong element of elegy and loss in Maracle’s text that is not present in either King or Highway. The emphasis, then, is different but each of these creative texts shares with The Truth and Reconciliation Report on the Residential Schools, a definition of settler colonialism as “a structure and not an event” (Wolfe). As such, settler colonialism cannot simply be left behind. It lives on into the present in various institutional incarnations and in the modes of thought that legitimate them.

The structure of settler colonialism is inscribed in the institutions (legal, medical, civic, educational, and business) that organize people’s lives, perpetuate forms of cultural genocide, and impose themselves on the land through the demarcation of lived space that physically separates the two communities and through the transformation of a lifestyle based on wood into one organized around electricity and oil. Traffic moves both ways across the bridge over the water that divides the village where the action takes place from the city of Vancouver but accommodation is difficult for members of both groups because those colonial structures are also inscribed in their minds and even their bodies. Ravensong had focused on Celia’s older sister Stacey and her movement out from the village into the world of white schooling, a movement offset in that novel by a devastating epidemic that came from that world into her own. Celia’s Song is set many years after the destructive impact of that epidemic and its action occurs almost entirely within the world of the indigenous village.

This is a fairly closed society into which some whites have moved through the establishment of affective and affiliative relations with individual indigenous people, but whose acceptance there remains uneasy. There is a character always named through her place of origin as “German Judy.” Like Judy, Stacey’s partner, the doctor Steve, needs to continually earn her trust and that of her family. Stacey’s difficulties when he proposes (in Celia’s Song) show the huge gap that separates them, as they move back and forth between an un-crossable distance and the promise of some kind of nascent understanding. Stacey thinks: “Living with him would require extra care; he’s white, different. She has no way to frame that difference without offending him and jeopardizing the future of the relationship…. There would have to be a separate world and a together world, which means life with him would be complicated. He has no idea that it would be this complicated, and she is not sure she can deal with it” (186). Nonetheless, as the text proceeds, together they do start to deal with it, Steve risks his career to help her family deal with a crisis their way, and there is some fragile hope they can learn to live with their differences. Helen Hoy has sensitively documented the destabilizing impact that Ravensong exerts on non-indigenous readers. She explains: “Making white culture marked and Native culture the standard foregrounds and calls into question the very naturalizing of normative cultures” (136). Celia’s Song continues that process.

In Celia’s Song, challenges to the structural incarnations of the settler colonial system take form on two fronts: the institutional and the mythic. Institutionally, Celia and her family refuse the aid of the Canadian medical and legal establishments when confronted with the child who has been violently sexually abused by one of their own. They determine to keep her at home and heal her themselves, despite the severity of her injuries, and they decide to judge and deal with the perpetrator, Amos, themselves, according to their banned pre-contact rituals. Amos, initially uncomprehending, appears to have at least implicitly assented to this procedure. The process of his dancing to his death is described as profoundly liberating for him, as he relives and then sheds his own experience of sexual abuse at the residual school and its toxic aftermath (254-255). The reader is told that eventually “Redemption comes as his ancestors reach for his dancing body” (255).

Nonetheless, this communally sanctioned death, presented here as a voluntary, ritual suicide, challenges Western condemnations of capital punishment, as it meant to do. The willingness of Steve to condone these decisions as an act of respect for the autonomy of Stacey and her community is the price he must pay for their acceptance of him, and, it is implied, such respect must be the pre-condition for any kind of reconciliation between the two cultures. The novel thus raises the important question: what are and should be the limits to indigenous autonomy and self-governance at the communal level? Could these incompatible systems function concurrently within the same state without the secrecy necessitated by the current state of affairs as depicted in Celia’s Song?

The novel presents these actions as important steps toward regained self-confidence and agency among the indigenous community actors. Through mink’s witnessing and access to the internal thoughts of each of the main characters, the reader is immersed in their worldview and our sympathies are engaged. Much of the story involves the destructive aftermath of the Canadian government’s banning of ceremonies meant to honour the dead and meet their communal contractual obligations to the two-headed snake. These entities demand their due: respect and ceremony from the people. The refusal of Western mindsets to understand such relations and to acknowledge such presences is mocked in the single scene set outside the village. Four scientists who “don’t know their lab is smack dab in the middle of Musqueam territory” (14) debate how to interpret a mysterious shadow that seems to mar their film. They cannot accept that it might depict the two-headed snake that mink has already seen slip its moorings. Only one of the three is ready to admit that “’We aren’t the only people who know things’” (18). But mink and the reader hear this lesson.

My original idea for this paper involved comparing these experimental dimensions of Maracle’s text with those employed by Australian Waanyi writer Alexis Wright in Carpentaria and The Swan Book, to situate their turns to alternative space-time imaginaries derived from local place within concurrent turns within Western theory toward nonhuman and critical posthuman imaginaries. This move will be important because I see Maracle and Wright’s texts as important theoretical and aesthetic interventions into current Western theoretical discussions too often deaf to indigenous alternatives. Parallel discussions about how to inhabit the world are occurring among mainstream academics and among indigenous writers but there is little interaction between these two epistemic communities as yet. Texts such as Dancing on our Turtle’s Back or Celia’s Song, when classified as Native Studies or Fiction, are not recognized for the full extent of the challenges they pose to the entrenched cognitive imperialism of the academy, which includes the ways in which it infiltrates disciplines and shapes the kind of stories that resonate with different audiences. Through highlighting moments of cognitive dissonance, when alternative ideas about rules and consequences clash, Celia’s Song reminds its readers that decolonization has barely begun and will not be easy.

Works Cited

Alfred, Taiaiake. “Restitution is the Real Pathway to Justice for Indigenous Peoples.” Web.

Highway, Tomson. Kiss of the Fur Queen. Toronto, Anchor, 2005.

Hoy, Helen. How Should I Read These? Native Women Writers in Canada. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2001.

King, Tom. The Truth About Stories. Toronto: Anansi, 2003.

Maracle, Lee. Celia’s Song. Toronto: Cormorant, 2014.

—. Ravensong. Vancouver: Press Gang, 1993.

Simpson, Leanne. Dancing on Our Turtle’s Back: Stories of Nishnaabeg Re-Creeation, Resurgence and a New Emergence. Winnipeg: ARP, 2011.

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada. Honouring the Truth, Reconciling for the Future: Summary of the Final Report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada. Toronto: Lorimer, 2015.

Wolfe, Patrick. Settler colonialism and the elimination of the native.” Journal of Genocide Research (2006) 8 (4): 387-409.

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2 Comments
  1. Makere permalink

    Reblogged this on The Turning Spiral and commented:
    A deeply insightful reflection from Diana Brydon about the difficulties of attempting to bridge worlds in that process that we call decolonization. Entirely on point.

  2. Thanks for this thoughtful, meaty post. There is so much here to consider that I know I will need to return to it, and spend more time with your words. I have long appreciated Thomas King and Lee Maracle, and the ways they dance with our past, present, and future as they, and we, dance with the historical-contemporary challenges we face on the road to decolonization.

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