||The Spirit Of Crazy Horse
by Terry Goldie
RACE AND the authority of the writer is a major issue in Canadian literature today. At a time when many have accepted the "death of the author," the liberation of the text from the human being who produced it, others are saying that the author is very much alive, alive with cultural roots and cultural responsibilities.
Yet still others see these questions of "the appropriation of voice," of the white writer who uses the modes of another culture, as so much obfuscation that interferes with "literature as literature." The first group replies that there is no such thing as pure literature and that the use of words like 11 appropriation" just makes overt what has been covert throughout the history of storytelling.
We're all caught. My first thought when I was asked to review Seventh Generation: Contemporary Native Writing was whether a white should do it. Then when I received my copy I had a second question, as to the race
of the editor and compiler, Heather Hodgson. She states on the cover, "This book is for the generation of Indian people with whom and for whom I worked as Youth Program Director of the Assembly of First Nations during 1985, which was International Youth year." That suggests she is Native, but many whites have worked with and for Native peoples and those prepositions could suggest some distance.
I have not gone the obvious route and done the research to find Hodgson's racial background because I think my squirming is productive. An answer about Hodgson would allow me to shut down the question in some obvious way. This is the reaction to W. P. Kinsella's Ermineskin stories. Most respond to Kinsella with the comment that the simplistic stereotypes of the stories just reflect his ignorance of Native life. But would it not be possible for a Native person to have written these stories? Anyone who has heard a Newfoundlander tell a Newfy joke or a Jew tell an anti-Semitic story might question that one.
Of course, Seventh Generation is far from similar. No matter what the race of its compiler it is a careful, sensitive, and very positive anthology. It includes some familiar authors, most notably Jeannette C. Armstrong and Lenore Keeshig-Tobias, two who have been on the barricades in many of the recent battles about white writing on Native issues. As well, a number of selections are from authors not published before. The care and sensitivity of the poetry is represented by all the traits one might expect. There are many examples that recall the virtues of past Native civilizations and then note their absence, as in Mary Sky Blue Morin's "I Dream of Buffalo Days." There are many gentle explorations of the alienation felt in a white world, as in A. Garnet Ruffo's "Home": "I am not home." There are even a few, very subtle, glimpses of Native reaction, as when Greg Young-Ing refers to "Searching for truth in the spirit of Crazy Horse."
But what is the result of all this quiet poetry? It reasserts throughout the dicta of the mainstream of the English tradition: poetry is an individual expression of individual angst, of one ego's thought and vision. It also follows the dicta of most white writing about Native peoples: the ethnographic material is usually general Indian and any elements relating to specific tribal cultures are so limited as to cause no trouble to the most ignorant reader; what is important is glorious prehistory not ignominious present; the Native is not functional but pure, full of mystical relation with the land.
As the cover states, this is "the first anthology of its kind" and so it might seem unfair to confront it this way. Yet it is not as if literature in English by Native peoples is a new thing: it goes back some two hundred years. Neither is it unusual to see sophisticated writing by Native peoples in Canada, as shown by many examples, most notably Harold Cardinal's 1977 classic, The Rebirth of Canada's Indians.
There is an alternative to Seventh Generation. Kevin Gilbert's Inside Black Australia (1988) includes poetry from a variety of Aboriginal writers and a variety of Aboriginal positions. Some explore the complications of one esoteric tribal tradition. Some rework the jog-trot rhyme of popular verse in a parody of white dismissal. At least one goes so far as to reassess the scope offered by blank verse. One of Australia's most interesting novelists, Colin Johnson, author of Doctor Wooreddy's Prescription for Enduring the Ending of the World, contributes excerpts from The Song Cycle of Jacky, which accomplishes an amazing blend of Aboriginal tradition, the outcast Aborigine of contemporary white Australia, and a commentary on modern life from poverty to nuclear war. The level of possibilities in the volume is suggested by the following example from Lionel Fogerty:
our published papers
ended up in pubs and in bins.
There is nothing wrong with Seventh
Generation. It is as accomplished as most anthologies of new poetry published in Canada. But it is also too similar, too easy. Given what so many Native people in Canada have said in speeches, essays, and even novels, Seventh Generation seems Just too pleasant. It reinforces the typical nostalgia for a holistic Indianness. It says little about Native life and the future.
But 1, a white Canadian, have no right to say this. If only this book, like Inside Black Australia, made it clear why I have no Such right.