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Native North America: Critical and Cultural Perspectives

by Renée Hulan, ed.

Until very recently, aboriginal literature (AbLit) in Canada was dismissed as protest literature, or, worse, used as the basis for ethnographic study of aboriginal culture. Although this has changed somewhat in recent years, there is still a distinct lack of critical theory surrounding literature written by (and about) aboriginal people. A new collection edited by Renée Hulan, who teaches Canadian literature at Saint Mary’s University in Halifax, addresses this deficiency in 13 wide-ranging essays that touch upon topics including authenticity, essentialism, appropriation, and aboriginal literary tradition both in general and in relation to the CanLit canon. Surprisingly, however, and despite the obvious need for some basic definitions, neither the introduction nor any of the essays explain why the aboriginal oral tradition is now considered a literature.
Six of the contributors are aboriginal, seven are non-aboriginal; all are academics. Margery Fee’s challenging and well-argued piece “Aboriginal Writing in Canada and the Anthology as Commodity” questions the structure of the survey anthology, in which oral literature is non-temporal and aboriginal literature is static in nature. Gerald Vizenor’s essay on “Narratives of Survivance” is problematic. He argues that the English language is unable to translate the cultural context and metaphor of aboriginal literature, but he fails to acknowledge that the magic of personal dream, song, or story must always be translated into language – any language, whether Cree or English, oral or written – in order to be shared. To say that aboriginal literature written in English is not authentic is to deny that colonial AbLit must reinvent itself as aboriginal culture changes. If the only authentic aboriginal literature is literature in an aboriginal language, then AbLit belongs in a museum. (Ms. Fee, meet Mr. Vizenor.) And though it is not an answer, in Armand Garnet Ruffo’s highly readable “Why Native Literature?” we are reminded of the qualities that define AbLit: the force of memory, the power of place, and stories of resistance, survival, and liberation.