Worldviews, Languages and Community Development: “Hospitality for the Gift” of Indigenous Worldviews at OLA 2016

In the last week of January 2016 I travelled to Toronto to attend the Ontario Library Association Superconference to present my paper A Little Matter of Genocide and attend as many of the sessions in the Aboriginal sector as I could. It promised to be an intense week, not only because the Aboriginal stream looked so rich, and that I was also attending the editorial team meeting for the journal Partnership,  (for which I edit the Viewpoints section) but because I actually hadn’t finished working on my talk yet.

(I was also really please to learn while I was in Toronto that The Decolonized Librarian is listed as a required resource for an online course through the University of Alberta School of Library and Information Studies – LIS 541 – Library and Information Services in a Culturally Diverse Society, taught by Moyra Lang, while that the students in LIS 592 – Intellectual Freedom and Social Responsibility in Librarianship, taught by Toni Samek had been particularly introduced to my work on LCSH and genocide).

As it turns out, given all the pressures and commitments with which I was dealing, I was only able to take in five sessions from the Aboriginal stream – (not including, owing to my scheduled flight, Wab Kinew’s closing keynote. But check out this amazing graphic by Liisa Sorsa!) The impressive Aboriginal sessions were organized by Feather Maracle Luke of Timmins Public Library, and I will attempt here to respectfully share some of what I learned.

The first session I attended, on Indigenous Worldview Education was an engaging, sometimes humorous and always fascinating introduction to Indigenous understandings of the world and universe and our place within them, and how these are only now beginning to be adopted by Western sciences. The session’s leaders Maria Montejo and Jordan Teshakotennyon’s Miller offer youth programming through the R.E.A.L. School (Reality Education & Applied Lifeskills Leadership Development Program).  Maria (Deer Clan) described how she had come to Canada when her family escaped the horrific Guatemalan Genocide, in which 20,000 people (most of them Indigenous Mayans) lost their lives over a 36-year period. Her personal journey helped frame the session in a powerful way: in her search to understand peace and change she had learned the violent history of Guatemala and went to visit the ruins left by her people, but it made her angry; to which her father told her, “your mind is twisted; you’re trying to understand your people with the mind you have.” She ended up in university for two years studying racism which mostly involved working in a circle discussing the shared experience of racism with others.

She and Jordan compared three world views, the Newtonian (reductionistic), Quantum (holistic) and Indigenous (holographic) worldviews. The differences are profound: in the first only the evidence of the physical world as detected by our senses is considered real; in the second, everything both seen and unseen are connected; but in the third all material essences represent an invisible spiritual dimension. At the REAL school they teach that we need to decolonize to learn the things that we have forgotten. Our Western education is based on linear, Newtonian categorizing. Think of a box, said Maria: we know what is “normal” by what is inside the box. Our minds according to this worldview only know what is separate, and so our minds create strategies and structure and hierarchy to help us make sense of it. But in the Indigenous, holographic worldview, the inputs of the five senses support only very low-level thinking. Instead, she says, we are actually “heart people” and the heart only understands connection.

In the holographic view, we are projection systems, and what we see is what we project. Accordingly, change only comes when we are uncomfortable.

Maria asked, we’re all Indigenous to planet Earth – which Indigenous peoples refer to as “all my relations” — but why is it so many of us can’t remember Her teachings? Where are our original teachings? The Drum is the heart of the Earth, which has a magnetic field, just like each of us. Maria and Jordan demonstrated this through the use of a handheld device that lit up and glowed when they held both hands, closing a circuit with their mutual fields. Drumming, we were taught, connects to our magnetic fields through the heart.

Another major difference between the Newtonian and Holographic world: the first sees a world of scarcity over which conflicts must be waged; the Indigenous world is an abundant world. Why, then, would we fight over it? The Nation-to-Nation relationship we need to move to reconciliation was demonstrated by Jordan, who held up a Wampum belt showing two courses of water, one for a ship and one with a canoe. You can’t steer one from the other, he said.

After such a rich morning — with so much to absorb — I was eager to hear what our keynote speaker R. David Lankes had to say. I’ve been intrigued by his work – mostly in thumbing through his imposing The Atlas of New Librarianship. His topic was innovation (the conference theme) and in addressing the common myths around it. Innovations, he said, should be out of quest for social equality and highlighted the work of the Ferguson Missouri and Baltimore Public Libraries which had offered such services as free food and diapers for families dealing with militarized policing and racial conflict. This was a powerful message, but was undermined somewhat at the end by his unfortunate exhortation for us to think of ourselves as “missionaries”. I imagined there was a lot of cringing in the room around me.

The following day, my colleague Monique Woroniak from Winnipeg Public Library spoke on the theme of Choosing to Walk a Path: Library Services to Indigenous Peoples with a Purpose. She began her talk with a particularly sincere land acknowledgement to the Territory of the New Credit First Nation of Mississauga Ojibwa, stressing the importance of these – that acknowledgements are not to be uttered by rote as an obligation, but that they mean a great deal. She then set the stage for her work in Winnipeg by reviewing the contexts: the one year anniversary of “the article” in Maclean’s naming Winnipeg as the country’s most racist city, which started a still-ongoing conversation in our city. Current initiatives such as the Bear Clan Patrol, my own university’s mandatory Indigenous course requirement, and the recent launch of Red Rising Magazine all point to the vitality of Indigenizing efforts in Winnipeg.

This led Monique to next reflect provocatively on the key terms (which I’ve of course used heavily on this blog) of “decolonizing” and “indigenizing.” In the first place, she stressed, we need to understand colonialism as a structure, not an event, and referred us to Patrick Wolf’s 2006 article in the Journal of Genocide Research, “Settler Colonialism and the Elimination of the Native” (which I noted as a must-read for my own research).  She believes the term “decolonizing” needs to be used with a lot of caution, as nobody knows what a “decolonized” Canada would look like. (As Eve Tuck and K. Wayne Yang argue, “decolonizing” isn’t just a metaphor, it actually requires the return of land). For her part, she prefers to frame her work in terms of Indigenizing — giving over significant control to Indigenous persons or bodies, to let them have the last word.

Other oft-used phrases in public libraries include “outreach” and “diversity”. She sees diversity as existing on the most basic end of a spectrum, with genuine anti-racism efforts the most complete realization. “Diversity” she argues celebrates differences but doesn’t challenge power or change the structure. Institutional (systemic) racism is structured racism, which requires something more focused. Anti-racism work acknowledges power differences, privilege and works to address injustices, she said. A library can only go so for with “diversity.” Outreach as well doesn’t involve divesting power, as collaboration is minimal. But in Community Development efforts the Library is a partner, an ally, and decision-making is shared. (For more of Monique’s thoughts on these ideas, check out her chapter in the book I edited for ALA Editions, Public Libraries and Resilient Cities).

Monique’s most important message: Indigenous people know what they need. It’s the job of institutions and professionals to listen, or get out of the way.

The metric here she says is on relationships: How many relationships did you build? (This also resonated with me in my own on-campus outreach work: on some days I might not actually get a lot of students wanting help with their papers, but just by being out of the library and in a student centre I am building relationships with students and staff),

Following these theoretical foundations, Monique highlighted some of the amazing Indigenous placemaking efforts at WPL, including the Aboriginal Reading in the Round which was renamed Ah kha koo gheesh or “Children emerge from learning.” The new Adult space renamed Wii ghoss or “birch bank place,” and now features installations of art loaned by community groups. With this sort of collaborative, thoughtful Indigenizing processes, she said, the Library doesn’t actually have to do so much outreach anymore, when you invite people in. A real achievement was the Library’s 2012 Last Word on First Words contest, in which at a featured poet’s suggestion the Library chartered a bus to Winnipeg’s North End for poetry reading, stopping at locations referred to in to poems, with bannock served on the bus.

There was a vigorous discussions following Monique’s talk, including Feather Maracle Luke urging us to check out the Ojibwe and Cree Cultural Centre Library in Timmins Ontario, which has developed its own classification numbers – an exciting development on which I determined to follow up for my own paper.

On Thursday afternoon I attended two back-to-back sessions on Revitalizing Indigenous Languages — the first hosted by Iehnhotonkwas Bonnie Jane Maracle, Alex McKay, and Tw^tahawiht Dawn Antone and the second by Maracle, Sara McDowell and Melanie Ribau. McKay offered extensive greetings in Anishnaabemowin – deliberate, he said, because he knew we would feel frustrated – as frustrated as he felt learning English when he was younger!

Language revitalization, we were told, is not only mandated by the UN Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (which recognizes the rights to languages, knowledge, place names, and education in own culture & language) but is a significant part of the Calls to Action by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. It’s not just the responsibility of Indigenous Canadians to learn these languages but is an obligation of the rest of us to support (but not lead) these efforts.

We then learned of the Ciimaan/Kahuwe’yá/Qajaq Indigenous language initiative at the University of Toronto which offers space, programs and support (e.g., events, workshops, presentations) for Indigenous Language learners. It features a Language Cafe open to anyone wanting to come in and use their language.

In the second Language Revitalization session, Melanie Ribau from the Toronto Public Library introduced herself in Ojibwe adding every Indigenous word spoken is one more step towards revitalization. Toronto has Ontario’s highest population of Indigenous peoples, from a diverse range of cultures, and to support Indigenous readers the Spadina Road Branch has a dedicated Native Peoples collection, replaced English street signage for Spadina with its Ojibwe name and has initiated an Elder in Resident in the branch library. We were also urged to seek out The Green Book of Language Revitalization

The University of Toronto’s Sara McDowell then showed us how the University of Toronto’s Robarts Library created some outstanding language displays taking visitors through the seasons and has LibGuides features resources in multiple languages.  Her commitment to language revitalization is that she feels an obligation as one within a system that oppressed and sought to eradicate Indigenous languages to do what she can to revitalize it. Next steps to include permanent Indigenous language signage.

I was only able to take in less than half of what was offered in the Aboriginal sector, but was most impressed with what I learned of the profound worldviews of Indigenous peoples, and how these are being incorporated into brilliantly designed Indigenized spaces and collaborative community development efforts at the Winnipeg Public Library, as well as innovative and responsive language revitalization projects at Toronto Public Library and the University of Toronto. I believe we can see in these institutions’ acceptance and incorporation of Indigenous values the beginning of a realization of what Indigenous scholar Rauna Kuokkanen (Sami) refers to as “hospitality” to the “logic of the gift” of Indigenous epistemologies, a gift with the power to transform our institutions from their former hegemonic Eurocentrism to “tolerance to engagement and to active participation in the logic of the gift.” She writes (and I would suggest that we could easily swap out “the library” for “the academy” in the following):

[T]he future of the academy is dependent on the recognition of the gift of Indigenous epistemes—recognition as understood within the logic of the gift that foregrounds the responsibility in the name of the well-being of all. As in Indigenous epistemes, the future of the academy is dependent on its ability to create and sustain appropriate reciprocal relationships grounded on action and knowledge. In other words, recognizing the gift requires acquiring and adopting a new logic that is grounded on the responsibility toward the other that is defined as the ability and willingness to reciprocate at the epistemic level, not only at the level of human interaction. The call for the recognition of the gift of Indigenous epistemes is a call for an epistemic shift grounded on a specific philosophy and as such, a more profound transformation than efforts toward the inclusive university seeking to “democratize” the traditionally Eurocentric curriculum and the canon.

These sessions had certainly given me a great deal to think about in terms of my own work, and renewed my confidence in incorporating Indigenous languages into my presentation. The Friday morning keynote by writer and actor Darrell Dennis, “Peace Pipe Dreams: The Truth About Lies About Indians” also gave me a perfect lead-in: In his entertaining and sobering speech he pointed out that he’s seeing more Native people going online to combat ignorance and racist comments by saying, “Read a book. Don’t google, don’t go back to school. Just read a book.”

As I would argue in my talk (and describe in my next post), this excellent advice does come with a caveat: You have to be able to discover the book exists first.

Book Review: The Dialectic of Academic Librarianship

The premiere issue of the Canadian Journal of Academic Librarianship, the official journal of the Canadian Association of Professional Academic Librarians (CAPAL) has just been released. It features my book review of Stephen Bales recent book The Dialectic of Academic Librarianship, in which I praise Bales for his insights into the commonly understood nature of academic libraries, as compared to the normative dialectical stance which he advocates:

For Bales, [I wrote] the academic library is not (and should not be seen as) a static, solely physical and independent repository of books and journals, but must instead be understood relationally, as a dynamic institution embedded within and functioning as a significant part of a neoliberal, late-capitalist society – what he calls the modern capitalist academic library (or MCAL).

I’ve found Bales’ work fairly indispensable in my own thinking — followers of this blog will recognize my reading of Bales strongly informed my most recent entry on the Canadian Museum for Human Rights.

The Dialectic of the Canadian Museum for Human Rights

A Review of “Caring for Difficult Knowledge: Prospects for the Canadian Museum for Human Rights” – a Special Issue of The Review of Education Pedagogy and Cultural Studies (Guest editors: Angela Failler, Peter Ives and Heather Milne).

[On November 4th, 2015 the University of Winnipeg’s Cultural Studies Research Group launched a special issue of the journal The Review of Education Pedagogy and Cultural Studies to which many of the group had contributed. One of the editors, and Lead Researcher of the Group, Dr. Angela Failler, invited me to “review” the issue and speak at the event. This is a more formal version of the speech I delivered].

 

Introduction

When it opened in September, 2014, the Canadian Museum for Human Rights had already long been the subject of considerable controversy, both across the country and in Winnipeg, Manitoba where it is located as the only national museum to be built outside of Canada’s capital, Ottawa. From the beginning, there were public debates played out in the media over not only the museum’s design and its cost, but that its genesis was associated with the conservative ideology of former Prime Minister Stephen Harper, whose government was widely criticized for its retrograde stance on human rights (Caplan). Then there was the matter of content: Indigenous Canadians as well as those from immigrant communities that had suffered atrocities in the past – notably in Ukraine – worried that their experiences were not going to be adequately represented in the Museum’s exhibit plans (Basen).

In this atmosphere of controversy and conflicting expectations, the University of Winnipeg’s Cultural Studies Research Group (CSRG) in September 2013 issued a call for papers about the Canadian Museum for Human Rights (CMHR) for the journal The Review of Education Pedagogy and Cultural Studies, with the goal of “thinking through” the museum constructively, asking, how do we publicly address difficult knowledge in a pedagogical fashion? The result was a special issue of the journal entitled, “Caring for Difficult Knowledge: Prospects for the Canadian Museum for Human Rights” (Vol. 37, nos. 2-3).

At the request of one of the co-editors of the issue, Dr. Angela Failler of the University of Winnipeg, I was tasked with reviewing the special issue for its official launch event at the University on November 4th, 2015, by offering some potentially useful insights from the perspective of critical library studies – a discipline distinct from but similar in many respects to critical museum studies, in terms of its concerns regarding representation, colonialism and hegemony (e.g., Murawska-Muthesius and Piotrowski). For the purposes of this review I will offer a brief summary of the critiques of each of the authors and how they relate to the others, and then situate them in terms of some relevant theories from Library and Information Studies – in particular the writings of radical librarian Sanford Berman, historian Lora (Dee) Garrison and critical librarianship scholar Stephen Bales – with a view to identifying the broad theoretical perspective the contributors bring to our understanding of the Canadian Museum for Human Rights.

Is the Topic of “Human Rights” Difficult or Lovely Knowledge?

In her Preface, Erica Lehrer of Concordia University sets out the issue’s task of identifying and locating the tensions between difficult knowledge and lovely knowledge: According to Pitt and Britzman, the difficult part of difficult knowledge concerning historical violence, injustices and atrocity lies not in the content of such knowledge itself, but the effects it has on us, and what we choose to do with it. It contrasts starkly with “lovely knowledge” which soothes and reassures us by reaffirming what we already know – or more accurately, believe – to be true (Pitt and Britzman, 2003).

These themes are picked up in the Introduction by editors Angela Failler, Peter Ives and Heather Milne (all from the University of Winnipeg), but carried further to frame the broader critiques to come: that interrogating the objectives, practices and physicality of the museum “offers a chance to explore a diverse set of issues that extend beyond the museum itself [including] how human rights discourses relate to genocide, colonialism, neoliberalism, issues of social justice, representations and public space” (102). Difficult knowledge, they write, “disrupts our fantasies of coherence and mastery, along with familiar ways of knowing the world, ourselves, and “others’ around us – including the commonly held…dominant cultural narrative that human rights injustices are being valiantly fought against (particularly by ‘us’ in the West)” (103).

What follows the introduction are seven peer-reviewed articles followed by four shorter reflective essays and an afterword which are all charged with this central question: to what extent does (or can) the CMHR – as a Crown Corporation (until very recently) under the authority of Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s federal government – actually engage with difficult knowledge and encourage debate about it, or can it only impose comfortable, reassuring narratives about the “past-ness” of atrocities, ones that explicitly do not implicate the museum-going public?

In “Human Rights and/or Market Logic: Neoliberalism, Difficult Knowledge and the Canadian Museum for Human Rights” Heather Milne reviews and analyzes online reader comments in response to a series of highly critical articles about the CMHR published in the right-leaning populist Winnipeg Sun, many of which angrily denounced the museum as a waste of taxpayers’ dollars, as well as the very premise of the museum. She argues that the Museum must share some responsibility for this reaction, having itself participated in the neoliberal branding and commodifying of human rights discourse while positioning itself and its narratives as a part of what its exhibit designer Ralph Applebaum calls the “reality-based entertainment industry complex.”

The Museum’s narratives are constructed not merely in the exhibits, as Nadine Blumer argues in her essay “Expanding Museum Spaces: Networks for Difficult Knowledge at and Beyond the Canadian Museum for Human Rights,” but in its use of technology as well as its online and social media presence. Blumer, a Fellow with the Center for Advanced Holocaust Studies at the National Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., sees the CMHR existing as a node in a global network of other “idea” museums, yet questions the extent to which it is capable of creating a discursive space in which human rights controversies can actually be debated, as it has aggressively positioned itself as apolitical. This has not stopped civil society groups from using the Museum as a backdrop or rallying point for their own protests – in her words, “affixing meaning the CMHR, irrespective of the museum’s seemingly apolitical stance or activities (141).”

Such activism stood in particularly stark contrast to the Museum’s silence when the bodies of Tina Fontaine and Faron Hall were both discovered in the Red River on August 17th, 2014, not far from the Museum grounds. For McMaster University’s Amber Dean, in her piece “The CMHR and the Ongoing Crisis of Murdered or Missing Indigenous Women: Do Museums Have a responsibility to Care?” the Museum’s apolitical refusal to address this issue, compounded by its cheery social media posts while thousands marched past its grounds in a vigil for Fontaine and Hall, implicated the Museum in the mainstream society’s normalization of and indifference to violence against Indigenous peoples, especially women. If the CMHR is to be a Museum for human rights, not just of them, she writes, it does have a responsibility to care about this issue, which is an especially lethal and ongoing manifestation of colonial violence.

The Museum’s grandiose approach to another historical case of racialized sexual violence which it has addressed is critiqued by Hee-Jung Serenity Joo from the University of Manitoba, in “Comfort Women in Human Rights Discourse: Fetishized Testimonies, Small Museums and the Politics of Thin Description,” and contrasted to the humble but activist efforts of South Korea’s War and Women’s Human Rights Museum in Seoul which eschews both the monumentality and comforting narratives of the CMHR, as well as to the distant “thin description” of political cartoonist Park Gun-Oong’s spare, almost abstract – yet still devastating – black-and-white panels based on anonymous survivor testimony.

Karen Sharma – a graduate student with the U of W’s Cultural Studies Research Group – considers how the design and spatial order of the museum contributes to “Governing Difficult Knowledge” for the Museum and its publics, but concretizes some problematic positionings, such as placing Indigenous experiences in the building’s roots, and thus in the past. It also, she says, makes untenable assumptions about the typical imaginary visitor as being unimplicated in and existing outside of any of the stories it tells, as not Indigenous or settler or immigrant, an uninformed tabula rasa moving from ignorance to knowledge, but without agency.

Like Sharma, the CSRG’s Larissa Wodtke also reflects on the museum’s design and form of address in “A Lovely Building for Difficult Knowledge: The Architecture of the Canadian Museum for Human Rights.” For Wodtke, the monumentality and scale of the structure – and the fact that a number of visually similar buildings are part of a global movement towards “brandscaping” through iconic architecture – belies its contents, or at the very least renders them almost irrelevant to the experience. At the same time, however, the very ambiguity of its architecture, its failure to successfully contain narratives within sanctioned parameters, may indeed lead to productive critiques and hope.

It is to the museum’s aspiration to a universal and unqualified “hope” that Angela Failler critiques in her article, “Hope Without Consolation: Prospects for Critical Learning at the Canadian Museum for Human Rights,” preferring to see hope not as a shared dream for tomorrow but instead as an indication of the condition of our shared present. Failler starts by subjecting the museum’s central assumption to interrogation: what is the connection between hope and learning, and vice-versa, particularly if the narrative of hope is difficult or inappropriate to impose on a history of horror and atrocity? This quest for balance is rendered even more problematic when, as she point out (as does Sharma), that the museum’s leaders seem to assume an imaginary and homogenous public unimplicated in the events on display, particularly when these are safely sealed off in an “absolute past” beyond redress, against which viewers can only feel passive, distant regret, foreclosing a more difficult engagement with radical, unsettling realizations. Instead, she argues, the “difficult knowledge” of genocide and violent, traumatic histories needs to seen as what the late Canadian scholar of education and cultural memory Roger I. Simon called a “terrible gift:” to encourage visitors to feel themselves implicated, to feel depression and horror, and for hope to emerge from unsettling of our understandings, rather than soothing them. In this Failler echoes the work of environmental activist and scholar Joanna Macy, who argues that disseminating information about traumatic conditions is not sufficient to motivate change, and that by facing despair – in the case of her work, over the destruction of the natural world – we can experience an unblocking of our pain, a catharsis, which allows us to move beyond simple “hope” to be “empowered with” others to take action (Macy 1995).

Four short essays follow in the Discussion Section: “Insider/Outsider Ambiguities and the Canadian Museum for Human Rights” by Julie Pelletier at the University of Winnipeg, in which she recounts both her work as a peer reviewer on the Museum’s exhibit design critiquing its use of a linear timeline, as well as her own experiences working alongside migrant workers whose tenuous legal status and lack of English language skills made them vulnerable to abuses, recognizing that our own power to tell our stories and experiences is the tool all of us can use as Museum stakeholders to encourage them to get the story of human rights right. In “Do the Rights Thing” by the U of W’s Kathryn Ready and Serena Keshavjee, the authors describe the Master’s program in Cultural Studies at the University of Winnipeg, and its practicum in Curatorial Studies’ focus on the Museum, the future prospects for placing students there, and how the presence of the Museum will continue to influence the program’s curriculum. Rita Kaur Dhamoon’s (University of Victoria) and Olena Hankivsky’s (Simon Fraser University) commentary, “Intersectionality and the Canadian Museum for Human Rights” argues that a critical intersectionality approach – which sees State-based and imperial violence as gendered and often driven by capitalism – enables us to see the interconnection between historical and contemporary human rights atrocities as systems of domination, not discrete events or group experiences.

Finally, in “Closing and Openings: Afterword on “Prospects for the Canadian Museum for Human Rights” the U of W’s Dean of Graduate Studies Mavis Reimer situates the contributions of the issue first of all by noting their composition in the year prior to the Museum’s opening, noting their dependence on official pronouncements, media accounts and other contemporary discourse; as well as the strategies used by the authors to critically analyze the Museum when its presence and controversies about it have loomed so large over our city for so long.

Discussion

Many of the observations in the journal resonate closely with some of the critical literature in library science, much of which focuses on questioning the “civilizing” and assimilationist mission of the public library (Garrison) as well as the Eurocentric erasures built into the so-called “neutral” classification and subject description schemes of the Library of Congress. These tools not only similarly situate “Indians of North America” as existing solely in the past, but also assume the library’s “majority user” to be a white, male, Christian able-bodied heterosexual – as radical librarian Sanford Berman wrote in his 1971 classic Prejudices and Antipathies), one “imbued with the transcendent, incomparable glory of western civilization” (Berman, 15).

In particular, a recent book by Texas A & M University librarian Stephen Bales offers a very constructive lens for reading the journal, as it connects many of the major themes within a single powerful theoretical rubric.

The editors state in the introduction that the contributors to the special issue do not see the museum as a “fixed static site but as a site of dynamic and shifting encounters that will continue to evolve” (104), so we are to understand it as moving through time. We are further asked by Nadine Blumer to view the CMHR relationally, as a node within a network of institutions, as existing physically, digitally and rhetorically; by Larissa Wodtke in terms of the tensions between its materiality and its ideologies; by Heather Milne in terms of its situatedness as a neoliberal project, and by Hee-Jung Serenity Joo as providing ideological scaffolding for the state – what Louis Althusser called an ideological state apparatus – creating, as Karen Sharma points out, tensions between the forces of knowledge and resistance and interpretive agency. We learn from the contributors that an institution such as the Canadian Museum for Human Rights is not just cultural, but political, aesthetic, psychological, social, economic and ideological – and therefore needs to be understood monistically, comprising a unified whole greater than the sum of its parts, rather than dualistically, reducible and as apart from ourselves. Most importantly, the contributors reveal the CMHR’s leaders to suffer from notions of objective idealism – the belief that a “Big-T Truth” such as “human rights” consists of an objective reality separate from ourselves, about which all can agree and all can recognize and discuss.

Stephen Bales utilizes a lens encompassing all these themes, one which, interestingly, is not actually referred to anywhere in the issue: dialectics. In his 2014 book The Dialectic of Academic Libraries Bales writes that academic libraries – and by extension and for our purposes, museums – are not (and should not be seen as) static, solely physical and independent repositories of books or artifacts, but must instead be understood relationally, as dynamic institutions embedded within and functioning as a significant part of a neoliberal, late-capitalist society.

As the study of continuously transforming interrelationships, dialectics emphasizes the transactions between material entities – including the physicalities of libraries and museums – over time, while recognizing that these entities and their inseparable ideological premises are bound by and within their contexts and historical circumstances. These transactional processes are, therefore, always incomplete, always in the process of becoming and, taken together, understood as constituting a unified monistic whole.

By contrast, the conventional view of academic libraries and museums is correspondingly non-dialectical, rational, bureaucratic, and viewed dualistically – that is, reducible and distinct from other institutions and forces. They are also, he argues, problematically devoted to the uncritical acceptance of a number of “Big-T Truth” ideals such as democracy, equity, diversity, intellectual freedom and human rights – abstractions with which the materiality of these institutions at present may not necessarily be either synonymous or sympathetic.

Absent a dialectical understanding, Bales argues, we are ill-equipped to contextualize our institutions, collections and services – and, indeed, our own ideological assumptions as librarians or curators. The political economy of information and knowledge organization, the intersectionalities of race, class and gender within an increasingly interdependent society, and how these forces play out in geographical space over time – all these factors and more are difficult to discern and act upon non-dialectically, rendering library and museum professionals less capable of recognizing their own consent for and participation in an unjust neoliberal status quo.

A dialectical view on “human rights” would also reveal it to be not so much a thing which we can simply grant to or take away from others, as it does a number of often competing discourses, all of which are historically situated and contextually dependent, and premised on a variety of ideological foundations, some of which can disguise or actually facilitate human rights abuses against those whom dominant power systems deem – as Noam Chomsky and Edward Herman put it in their 1988 book Manufacturing Consent – to be “unworthy victims.”

As presently conceived, therefore, the CMHR may be seen dialectically as an ideological state apparatus, one that seeks to foster acceptance of and consent for our society’s political and economic superstructure, reproducing dominant capitalist values as it reconciles visitors with their place in a neoliberal society. In its seemingly non-dialectical orientation, the museum prioritizes events rather than processes such as racialization, “othering” and fascisms; while forces and structural causes including inequality, capitalism, and neoliberalism are left unspoken. We learn of the human rights experiences of different groups – including women, gays and lesbians, and persons with disabilities – but not of the intersectionalities of gendered state violence and systems of power and domination.

This contrasts rather dramatically with the recently-opened National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation in Winnipeg, which quite explicitly implicates all Canadians – Indigenous and non-Indigenous – in a lifelong effort to learn the truth about their country’s history and work towards reconciliation.

In this light, then, the contributors to this special issue of the Review of Education, Pedagogy & Cultural Studies have produced a brilliantly dialectical analysis of the Canadian Museum for Human Rights, one which will hopefully be read and re-read by the Museum’s curators and administrators – and publics – to inform the iterative evolution of the Museum, to better enable its visitors to engage with the “terrible gift” that is difficult knowledge, to recognize systems of domination, and to feel empowered with one another to act on that knowledge.

 

Additional Works Cited

Bales, Stephen. 2015. The Dialectic of Academic Librarianship: A Critical Approach. Sacramento, CA: Library Juice Press.

Basen, I. (2011). “Memory Becomes a Minefield at the Canadian Museum for Human Rights.” Globe and Mail, August 20th 2011. http://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/national/memory-becomes-a-minefield-at-canadas-museum-for-human-rights/article555660/?page=all

Berman, Sandford. 1971, 1993. Prejudices and Antipathies: A Tract on the LC Subject Heads Concerning People. Metuchen, NJ: Scarecrow Press.

Capland, G. (2014). “Human Rights Museum is Indifferent to Some Human Rights.” Globe and Mail, October 3rd 2014.

Garrison, Dee. 1979. Apostles of Culture: The Public Librarian and American Society, 1876-1920. New York: Free Press.

Herman, Edward S., and Chomsky, Noam. 1988. Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media. New York: Pantheon Books.

Macy, J. (1995). “Working Through Environmental Despair.” Ecopsychology: Restoring the Earth, Healing the Mind, edited by R. Theodore, M. Gomes, and A. Kanner. San Francisco: Sierra Club Books, 240-259.

Murawska-Muthesius, Katarzyna, and Piotr Piotrowski, eds. From Museum Critique to the Critical Museum. Ashgate Publishing, Ltd., 2015.

Pitt, A. and Britzman, D. (2003). “Speculations on Qualities of Difficult Knowledge in Teaching and Learning: An Experiment in Psychoanalytic Research.” International Journal of Qualitative Studies in Education 16 (6): 755-776. doi:10.1080/09518390310001632135

Subjugated Knowledge in Academic Libraries pt. 1

[Excerpted and adapted with the editor’s permission from my article “Knowledge Ill-Inhabited: The Subjugation of Post-Stratfordian Scholarship in Academic Libraries.” The Oxfordian XVII (2015). Available for purchase on Amazon. ].

French philosopher Michel Foucault, in a series of lectures and interviews gathered in the book Knowledge/Power, observed that certain bodies of knowledge can become subjugated by more powerful actors:

By ‘subjugated knowledges’ I mean two things. On the one hand, I am referring to historical contents that have been buried and disguised in a functional coherence or formal systemization.[…] By ‘subjugated knowledges’ one should understand something else…namely a whole set of knowledges that have been disqualified as inadequate to the task or insufficiently elaborated;  naive knowledges, located low down on the hierarchy, beneath the required level of cognition or scientificity. I also believe that it is through the re-emergence of these low-ranking knowledges, these unqualified, even directly disqualified knowledges…a differential knowledge incapable of unanimity and which owes its force solely to the harshness with which it is opposed by everything surrounding it — that criticism performs its work (1980, 81-2).

In employing the terms naïve and below the required level of scientificity, Foucault was not himself being pejorative, only situating in general terms the ways in which certain discourses are routinely disqualified by dominant ones, his examples being the voices of front-line health care practitioners and those with the lived experience of being institutionalized. While Foucault did not develop or elaborate this theory further himself, the notion of subjugated knowledge has been applied to repressed knowledge domains in a number of diverse professional disciplines, including those of oppressed peoples in social work (Hartman); preventative, social and feminist approaches to health in nursing (Gilbert); experiential learning in adult education (Brookfield); and local, grassroots knowledge of practitioners from the global South in the use of sports in international development (Nicholls et al.).

Richard Jackson’s systematic analysis within his field of terrorism studies (2012) offers what is in my view perhaps a near-ideal model for situating subjugated knowledge. According to Jackson, the field of terrorism studies is dominated by an elite body of “experts”, many affiliated with think tanks situated within the political power structure, whose narrowly-defined conception of their field – that only non-state actors commit terrorism, thus ignoring the actions of states, while aggressively resisting the search for structural, root causes of radicalism in poverty and repression — accords conveniently with the interests of those in power. The dissenting views of those with alternative, lived experiences of terrorism – peacemakers, journalists, victims of conflict and former terrorists themselves – are actively shut out of mainstream discourse and are rarely called upon by the media “and thereby subjugated – for lacking in scholarly ‘objectivity’ or displaying the necessary standards of social science scholarship” (16). These alternative perspectives, while known to the experts, remain “unknowable” because of the exclusive manner in which discourse is constructed:

An important initial step towards understanding knowledge subjugation [he writes] is to consider how the field is constituted and functions as a discourse. That is, every discourse ‘allows certain things to be said and impedes or prevents other things from being said’ (Purvis and Hunt 1993, p. 485), in large part, because ‘discourses, by way of hegemonic closures, fix meanings in particular ways and, thus, exclude all other meaning potentials’ (Jorgensen and Phillips 2002, p. 186). From this perspective, the subjugated knowledge described above represents the unsayable within the dominant…discourse; these subjugated knowledges represent those alternative meaning potentials which have been closed off by the closures inherent to the discourse…In other words, it is an internal functional necessity that a discourse and its authorized ‘experts’ will suppress and exclude knowledge and meaning which would challenge the proper objects, boundaries and authorised speakers of the field (16).

Following the work of Reid (1993), Jackson describes this elite as an “invisible college” working within a “closed, circular and static system of information and investigation, which tends to accept dominant myths” as given, often without any empirical evidence (17). Particular energy is devoted to what he calls “taboo-enforcing practices” against certain research directions as a means of maintaining ontological enclosure (18-19), the ritual invocation of which becomes internalized, such that scholars practice not just self-governance, but self-subjugation.

What particularly concerns Jackson is that when a discipline is dominated in this way, and its admissible research domains so strictly prescribed, the field itself is destabilized as certain knowledges are simultaneously ‘known’ and ‘unknown’ leading inevitably to ontological contradictions” which are nonetheless tolerated, while “periodic eruptions of subjugated knowledge that destabilises the discourse” are not, requiring “meanings [to be] re-sutured and the discourse re-stabilised” (20):

I employ the term ‘unknown’ to mean that certain knowledge claims rooted in theoretical or empirical research remain unacknowledged in the scholarship or texts of the field. Such work is neither mentioned nor systematically engaged with, and if it is mentioned, it is dismissed as inappropriate, naïve, or irrelevant. By contrast, what is ‘known’ is acknowledged, engaged with and referenced, and therefore, legitimized (25).

Significantly, Jackson finds the major locus of this knowledge subjugation in the academy, in determining what is taught, in what contexts and with which texts, and in ensuring that only those within the approved epistemic community are invited to conferences and publish in the discipline’s key journals (17-18). As such, the production, availability, and pedagogical use of monographs and journal literature in a given field becomes essential in setting and enforcing these ontological enclosures, thereby ensuring their reproduction in the next generation of scholars.

Unstated but implied in Jackson’s analysis is the essential but underappreciated role of academic libraries in acquiring and organizing the literature required to support and facilitate sanctioned curricula and scholarship — and, in the process, institutionalizing this knowledge-subjugating function through biased collection development and cataloging, which, as will be shown in a subsequent post, have surely contributed to marginalizing certain voices, arguments and perspectives — and, indeed, entire paradigms.

 

Works Cited

Brookfield, Stephen. “Unmasking power: Foucault and adult learning.” Canadian Journal for the Study of Adult Education 15.1 (2001): 1-23.

Foucault, Michel, and Colin Gordon. Power/Knowledge: Selected Interviews and Other Writings, 1972-1977. New York: Pantheon Books, 1980. Print.

Gilbert, Tony. “Nursing: Empowerment and the Problem of Power.” Journal of Advanced Nursing 21.5 (1995): 865-871.

Hartman, Ann. “In Search of Subjugated Knowledge.” Journal of Feminist Family Therapy 11.4 (2000): 19-23.

Jackson, Richard. “Unknown Knowns: The Subjugated Knowledge of Terrorism Studies.” Critical Studies on Terrorism 5.1 (2012): 11-29.

Jorgensen, M. and Phillips, L., Discourse Analysis as Theory and Method. London: Sage, 2002.

Nicholls, Sara, Audrey R. Giles, and Christabelle Sethna. “Perpetuating the ‘Lack of Evidence’ Discourse in Sport for Development: Privileged Voices, Unheard Stories and Subjugated Knowledge.” International Review for the Sociology of Sport. 46.3 (2010): 249-264.

Purvis, T. and Hunt, A., 1993. “Discourse, Ideology, Discourse, Ideology, Discourse, Ideology . . . .”  The British Journal of Sociology, 44 (3), 473–499.

Reid, E., 1993. “Terrorism Research and the Diffusion of Ideas.” Knowledge and Policy, 6 (1), 17–37.

 

 

Indigenous Education “By Force?”

The University of Winnipeg (where I work) made headlines this past year with its unanimous Senate decision to mandate an Indigenous Course Requirement (ICR) for all undergraduate students starting in the fall of 2016. This was undertaken after a great deal of deliberation and consultation and is to be done in such a way that it doesn’t increase the number of credit hours that students would be required for graduation.

The move has not been without controversy, however, both within and without the University. I recall at one of the consultation sessions — co-chaired by Associate professor of Women’s and Gender Studies Dr. Angela Failler —  one faculty member objected to the idea that all students would be “forced” to “learn about one culture”, to which Failler replied that the ICR is not geared towards learning about so much as it is about learning from Indigenous cultures. She described how her own research into the public memory of the 1985 Air India Bombings had been informed by Indigenous world views, and considerations of Indigeneity in the Canadian context. This really resonated with me, as I had recently published an article applying postcolonial and Indigenous theories to the study of the authorship of Shakespeare.

Yet opposition remains, much of it grossly misinformed. Case in point: yesterday the Winnipeg Free Press ran an op-ed by a (white) medical student Brayden Whitlock with the inflammatory title, “Indigenous Education By Force,” in which he argues that the UW mandate is “purely anti-academic” and a “misstep”, as it promotes one culture as “more important than the rest.” He concludes,

A public university has no place in making decisions based on culture. We are here to investigate, explore and help people learn, not to decide what people learn or which cultures they should appreciate most.

Whitlock’s piece totally misses the point — and the irony, quite apart from conveniently ignoring that for generations Indigenous children and youth were violently and forcefully indoctrinated into Euro-Christian culture. Western education systems have always based their decisions according to primacy of Western values and culture, prioritizing Western thinkers, writers and leaders, and assuming that Western cultures, literature etc. should be appreciated most. American Indian historian Ward Churchill goes so far as to characterize Western education as “White Studies” by stealth:

As currently established [he writes], the university system in the United States offers little more than the presentation of “White Studies” to students, “general population,” and minority alike. The curriculum is virtually totalizing in its emphasis, not simply upon an imagined superiority of Western endeavors and accomplishments, but also upon the notion that the currents of European thinking comprise the only really “natural” — or at least truly useful — formation of knowledge/means of perceiving reality. In the vast bulk of curriculum content, Europe is not only the subject (in its conceptual mode, the very process of “learning to think”), but the object (subject matter) of investigation as well.

The Indigenous Course Requirement is but a step in correcting this totalizing imperialism of the mind, and — as Dr. Failler and I have both found — can only enrich our education and our scholarship.

 

Open Letter at American Libraries to the Shakespeare Community

This past December, I published an article on the website of American Libraries Magazine about the 2016 national (U.S.) tour of Shakespeare’s First Folio, co-sponsored by American Library Association’s Public Programs Office, the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, D.C., and the Cincinnati Museum Center. The purpose of the article was to highlight not only what  academic and public libraries are planning on doing to celebrate the 400th anniversary of the death of the “Bard of Avon” but also that this anniversary is a controversial one: that the First Folio is an extremely mysterious book, and that the authorship of the Shakespeare Canon has never been subject to more reasonable doubt than it is now.

This is a topic about which I’ve previously written extensively, for I believe it connects fundamentally with Foucauldian dimensions of subjugated knowledge and our collective epistemology in a digital age, as well as received notions about the “genius of the West” and principles of academic freedom.

As is generally the case with online articles on the authorship of Shakespeare, my piece was inundated with comments (735 as of this writing) much of it extremely heated, with partisans defending the Shakespeare of tradition and taking issue with the entire premise of my article, while proponents of the Earl of Oxford (myself included) sought to state our case.

Some of these exchanges were less than civil, let’s just say.

Once the number of comments approached 300 — and with no end in sight — I decided to try a more diplomatic approach, and posted the following as an open letter, in an attempt to defuse the controversy and establish a more civil tone in the debate.  The statement was well-received by partisans on both sides, with some fellow Oxfordians wishing to refer to it again in the future. With that in mind, I am reposting my letter here:

 

Three hundred comments! On one level I’m certainly pleased to see that my article has generated so much interest and discussion. On the other hand I find the overall tone – as is so often the case with this topic online — rather dispiriting. So, in the spirit of the season, let me offer a few comments, and a wish.

First of all, we need to recognize that the topic in which we are engaged is a matter of history, and like such matters is subject to contestation and interpretation. Even for well-documented and indisputable historical events – such as wars — historians will still debate sequences of events, causal factors, the actors involved, their motivations and the consequences of those events. Granting this, how much less certain can all of us be about what occurred between a man and his muse, writing alone, more than 400 years ago?

The fact is, we are all of us fallible humans relying on historical documents written by other fallible humans, and retained and preserved through historical events and happenstance. We simply cannot argue from certainty about matters that nobody but the author witnessed; as such, we – all of us – need to be more provisional and qualified about our claims.

Do I believe that Oxford was Shakespeare? Yes, the weight of evidence leads me to what I feel is a reasonable inference and conclusion. The works of Shakespeare make much more sense to me, and are much more rich and real to me, understanding them to come from the pen of Edward de Vere.

Can I prove it? No.

Do I believe it with the religious conviction of an unalterable truth? No.

Would I be open to being proven wrong? Yes, I would like to think so.

In that spirit, I thank all the commenters — and I’m sorry I haven’t had time to read all you’ve written here – I have learned some interesting things here. But I do wish we can – all of us – engage in this conversation in a more respectful manner, recognizing our own limitations and fallibility.

So here’s the wish: Can we please all agree that we are all Shakespeareans, that we all share a love for the writings of Shakespeare and a desire to understand them better, and are sincerely motivated by a desire to honour the author? What’s more, can we all please agree that in matters more than 400 years removed, we must be much more cautious about claiming a monopoly on truth.

A Library Matter of Genocide, pt. II

Some months ago, I decided to submit an abstract to the Ontario Library Association conference, based on a post of mine from this past May, A Library Matter of Genocide, which dealt with the bizarrely euphemistic, inadequate and utterly biased treatment of the genocide against Native Americans on the part of Library of Congress Subject Headings. The abstract was accepted, and I’m scheduled to present this paper on Friday, January 29th as a part of the OLA’s Aboriginal issues stream.

Recently, I was also asked by a faculty member in the University of Winnipeg’s History department to speak to his philosophy of history class on the theme of libraries and historiography, and this seemed like a perfect opportunity to develop the earlier essay into what will become my conference paper. The timing was also fortunate because several news items in September pointed to the invisibility of the Native American holocaust, and the imperative for libraries to foreground this history in their bibliographic tools.

In early September 2015, a Cal State Sacramento University student named Chiitaanibah Johnson (Navajo/Maidu) was expelled from class for confronting her history professor for his refusal to concede that Native Americans had been subjected to a genocide, a confrontation that made the professor so angry he accused her of “hijacking” his class, at which point he dismissed the class and told her he had “disenrolled” her. Then, on September 23rd, Pope Francis – celebrated around the world by liberals and progressives for his stances on climate change – canonized Father Junípero Serra, calling him a “protector of Native Americans” for establishing California’s mission system; despite Native American activists and other critics pointing out that the mission system was notorious for being slave labour camps, the death rates at which exceeded birth rates. Within days of Serra’s canonization, his statue at the Carmel mission where he is buried was vandalized, and “Saint of Genocide” written on the stones. As the New York Times reported,

Historians agree that [Serra] forced Native Americans to abandon their tribal culture and convert to Christianity, and that he had them whipped and imprisoned and sometimes worked or tortured to death…Thousands of Native Americans died after being exposed to European diseases. Those who survived were forced to give up tribal customs and submit to the demands of their Christian overlords — from observing rites like baptism to enduring physical abuse and working conditions that resembled slavery… Villagers were rounded up, shackled or flogged if they failed to follow the missionaries’ Catholic code. 

I framed my presentation with these stories, and how both events have reignited a debate over the long-standing lack of recognition on the part of Americans in general – and the intelligentsia in particular — of the reality of the genocide of Native Americans.

For decades, Indigenous peoples’ experiences of mass killings and atrocities have been excluded from the “borderlines” of genocide studies, owing to both a focus on definitions, typologies and perpetrator motivations, and a dismissal of Indigenous worldviews; Noam Chomsky also observes that a widely-shared imperial culture among America’s intelligentsia has resulted in a consensus view on genocides rooted in American exceptionalism such that both historic and contemporary atrocities wrought by America or her allies are by definition not genocides, or are downplayed or imbued with virtue owing to their role in furthering the American project of freedom and democracy. He notes of the historical record of Nixon’s and Kissinger’s illegal and vastly indiscriminate war against Cambodia,

We cannot be people who openly and publicly call for genocide and then carry it out. That can’t be. So therefore, it didn’t happen. And therefore, it doesn’t even have to be wiped out of history, because it will never enter history.

The title for my paper is taken from Ward Churchill’s 1997 book A Little Matter of Genocide, in which he argues that many orthodox American historians across the ideological spectrum resist applying the term “genocide” to the catastrophic loss of life Native Americans suffered over the past 500 years, either by denying, minimizing or even justifying the nature and scale of the killings that took place. As well – and to further compound the ideological nature of this controversy – the debate over the use of the term genocide has also been bound up in a broader discourse over the legitimacy of comparative genocide studies, and whether or not the uniqueness of the Holocaust prevents historians from seeking any commonalities with other historical atrocities, particularly America’s extermination of its Indigenous peoples. Churchill in particular criticizes Deborah Lipstadt, historian and author of Denying the Holocaust for her conflating historians seeking to compare genocides with outright deniers, such as David Duke. Historian and philosopher Steven Katz, too, is lambasted by Churchill for his assertion that what occurred was not a genocide but a “demographic collapse” caused overwhelmingly by disease, and that deaths owing to the violence of the so-called “Indian Wars” only amounted to some tens of thousands – that is, that the extermination of the Indians transpired “unwittingly rather than by design”.

Churchill classes the orthodox interpretations as ranging from such exclusivist and minimalizing explanations as Katz’, to efforts at “contextualizing” the mass killings as typical of civilizational clashes and conventions of warfare in a more violent past, to actually justifying and rationalizing them in light of the benificent nature of contemporary American civilization. Some of the so-called “exclusivists” carry their argument so far, he observes, that they accuse “comparativists” of antisemitism.

The discourse Churchill identifies has more or less successfully minimized, euphemized, isolated and rendered ideologically toxic the historical reality of the Native American Genocide. I then argued that access to this literature, via the Library of Congress Subject Headings, has contributed in no small way to these processes.

The response from the students was vigorous, interesting and provocative; several of them had also run into problems themselves in researching aspect of the Native American genocides or Indigenous history in general and found the subject terms inadequate at best. Some examples:

  • A student working on an oral history project concerning the residential school experience ran into difficulties when the stories they were hearing, the concepts and experiences of the residential school survivors, couldn’t be described using the LCSH;
  • a student writing a paper on how museums respond to/treat the subject of genocide found it difficult to find anything;
  • one student’s mother had tried 10 years ago to do a dissertation about the residential schools as a form of genocide, but couldn’t find resources that made this connection; this is now changing since Chief Justice Beverley McLachlin and Justice Murray Sinclair have openly applied the term to Canada in the wake of the work of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission;
  • histories of Custer’s Last Stand from an Indigenous point of view record how his “last stand” was actually only the final such defeat that the 7th Cavalry had suffered – there had been others but are not often mentioned in conventional history. The student argued that this shows how Native voices in the historical record matter.

The class concluded with a broader discussion led by the professor on what difference it makes whether we call something genocide or a massacre. I argued that it changes the conversation: if Chiitaanibah Johnson had been able to open her laptop and go to the Cal Tech library catalogue she could have shown her professor all the dozens of books with the subject heading “Genocide United States History”, thereby undercutting his genocide denial. Sadly, no books can be found using this heading.

Further, enabling the use of the word “genocide” in the case of Native Americans would help to legitimize the ability to compare genocides, the study of which can help us prevent them from happening again. As Chomsky and Churchill argue, if genocide is only seen as the Holocaust against the Jews of Europe, while dismissing many other historical atrocities and campaigns of extermination, this is a form of holocaust denial. It fails to recognize that genocide can happen anywhere, at any time, and that any one of us could potentially become participants in it, given sufficient enculturation. Disabling our ability to name and discuss genocide disables our ability to recognize and prevent it.

Book Review: The Land We Are

The Land We Are: Artists & Writers Unsettle the Politics of Reconciliation.
Edited by Gabrielle L’Hirondelle Hill and Sophie McCall
ARP Books (Arbeiter Ring Publishing), $24.95 227 pp.

The timing of this enormously significant and inspiring volume couldn’t be more fortunate: The closing event of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), a little over one month ago, has ignited a national dialogue about the vital next steps our country must take to forge a new relationship between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Canadians.

Yet, the artists and writers represented in The Land We Are have crafted a disruptive and thought-provoking challenge to this dialogue, warning that too much of it has been top-down, deliberately limited, and oriented to soothing Canadians and “moving on from this sad chapter” — as if it were, in fact, behind us.

This mainstream version of “reconciliation,” they argue, puts the onus on Aboriginal Canadians to forgive, rather than on governments to substantively redress the loss of both land rights and Indigenous forms of governance. Absent these forms of restitution, “reconciliation” can only mean Aboriginal peoples reconciling themselves with the permanence of the colonial Canadian state.

Resistance against these narratives both fuels and informs the contributions to this book. The artistic and literary offerings in The Land We Are – many of which the result of collaborations between Indigenous and non-Indigenous artists and scholars – originated in response to the commissioning of reconciliation-oriented public art on the part of municipalities, provinces, and even the TRC itself — commissions which, according to editors Gabrielle Hill and Sophie McCall, have explicitly excluded issues of land rights and governance.

The editors are representative of the cross-cultural fertilizations characterizing the book. Hill is a Vancouver-based Metis artist with many gallery showings to her credit, while McCall, an Associate professor of English at Simon Fraser University, has authored, edited, and co-edited several books related to Indigenous literatures, including another forthcoming collaboration with Hill entitled Stories Are All That We Are.

This beautifully-produced and richly-illustrated volume from Winnipeg’s ARP Books not only offers readers a visual journey into the featured artistic installations and performance pieces, but through its creative use of text and graphic design is itself an artistic statement on reconciliation.

The Land We Are is organized into four sections. The first critiques public art incorporating First Nations’ artistic traditions for being co-opted by gentrified urban developments, and offers radical alternatives that reclaim public spaces for Indigenous peoples. Part Two textually deconstructs and re-interprets the official apologies of both Prime Minister Stephen Harper and President Barack Obama, (the latter of which is barely known, having been unceremoniously buried in defense appropriations legislation).

In Part Three, powerful collaborative practices are featured, including Walking With Our Sisters, which commemorates the memory of Canada’s missing and murdered Indigenous women though hand-sewn vamps (moccasin tops) representing each woman; and (official denial) trade value in progress, which features HBC blankets decorated with dozens of hand-stitched expressions of outrage in response to Harper’s notorious assertion at the 2009 G20 meeting that Canada had “no history of colonialism.”

Part Four contemplates the transformative and insurgent power of art and performance – a power which can be decidedly personal and intimate. We learn of Tsimshian/Cree performance artist Skeena Reece’s ritual bathing of photographer Sandra Semchuk, while their dialogue about the piece is transformed through preserved tracked changes and comments from editors McCall and Hill. In Hair, communications scholar Ayumi Goto and artist Peter Morin (Tahltan) transform their own bodies – Goto by cutting her long hair (evoking the shearing of Native children in residential schools), and Morin by weighing himself down with 28 rocks tied to his body, symbolizing the traumatic experience of the schools.

The book concludes with an essay by settler scholars Allison Hargreaves and David Jefferess, reminding fellow non-Indigenous Canadians of their responsibility to unlearn the comforting narratives which have normalized and made invisible the colonialism from which they have for so long benefitted; and to listen to, learn from and collaborate with Indigenous artists, scholars and activists.

The Land We Are makes clear that genuine reconciliation will require specific and difficult work from non-Indigenous Canadians. Significantly, this is work with which a grassroots group of Winnipeggers have already engaged with their freshly-launched website groundworkforchange.org, which provides settler Canadians an easy-to-use portal into decolonization principles and Indigenous issues.

Far from “putting this sad chapter behind us,” The Land We Are is a profound argument for considering the process of reconciliation as “always beginning,” one which can only be measured through a transformed relationship between Canada’s peoples.

(Originally appeared in the Winnipeg Free Press, July 18th 2015)

“Decolonizing the Shakespeare Authorship Question” Now Public

My Brief Chronicles article, “By Nature Fram’d to Wear a Crown? Decolonizing the Shakespeare Authorship Question” — which considers the myth of the “natural and untutored genius” of Shakespeare in light of justifications for imperialism and notions of Western exceptionalism — is now out from behind a paywall on the website of the Shakespeare Oxford Fellowship.