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Locations of Ethnicity in Vancouver Fiction by First Nations’ Writers

Examensarbeit 2009 64 Seiten

Didaktik - Englisch - Literatur, Werke


Table of Contents:

1. Introduction
a. First Nations Locations in Vancouver
b. Choice of Authors and Their Literary Works
c. The Cultural Importance of Female Tradition Keepers

2. Understanding Where We Have Always Been - Background Information
a. Native Terminology of Indigenous First Nations Indians
b. The First Nations of the Northwest Pacific Coast
c. First Nations Terminology
i. Location
ii. (Tribal) Ethnicity
iii. Oral Fictions

3. Emily Pauline Johnson

4. Jeannette Armstrong

5. LeeMaracle

6. Eden Robinson

7. Conclusion

8. Bibliography

1. Introduction

a) First Nations Locations in Vancouver

Vancouver, considered to be amongst the most beautiful cities in the world, is located in British Columbia on the Pacific coast of Canada. The city itself has a history of approximately 200 years of white settlement after its discovery by Europeans in 1792. However, the land has been occupied by indigenous people for at least 10,000 years.1 British Columbia has experienced more land claims than any other province with much of its land never having been ceded in a formal treaty (Conrad, Margaret/Alvin Finkel/Cornelius Jaenen 1993, 5), thus land plays an especially important role in the mindset of both Northwest Pacific Coast First Nations and other residents of British Columbia, and is and has been vitally present in the literature of its inhabitants.

Whereas it is rather unambiguous to define the area of the city of Vancouver in Western terminology, this task proves to be challenging with respect to the First Nations' understanding of Vancouver as this name was given to the city only in 1886, yet First Nations people have been present at that location for thousands of years before.2 Thus the name itself has little or no significance to them and simply attests to the Eurocentric naming of the terra incognita or even terra nullius . First Nations are forced to live within the spatial restrictions put upon them by modern state structure. Due to the “little correspondence between tribal culture areas and modern civil divisions” (Snipp 1989, 42), the definition of ‘land’ is already a constitutive act which defines First Nations identity.

Vancouver and its surrounding areas are located on land which at the time of European contact belonged to the Coast Salish tribe. However, the realm of the literature analyzed in this paper does not restrict itself to texts written by Salish people but includes literature which deals with the Pacific West Coast, as the Salish tribe has always been subsumed under the Pacific Northwest tribes (Snipp 1989, 39) and First Nations people such as Spokane Gloria Bird believe that “my relationship to my homeland, and that of the people of the Northwest in general, involves identifying not so much with a single reservation as with a larger territory” (Bird in Ortiz 1998, 31), theoretically even stretching across the U.S. border to Tacoma. The Pacific Northwest tribes were then separated by the Treaty of Washington of 1846, when the First Nations territory was divided into American and Canadian, consequently “placing closely related peoples under differing political systems” (Miller 2002, 240) and disrupting traditional First Nations village structures, an interference which severely affected the lives, cultures and traditions of the people involved and events which are evident in the literary works of writers belonging to these ethnic groups.

b) Choice of Authors and Their Literary Works

When considering the authors whose fiction was to be analyzed in this paper, I decided to apply a threefold set of criteria: ethnic belonging to a First Nation,3 connection to Vancouver and its surroundings and thirdly, their literary significance. In trying not be overtly Eurocentric, I do not solely restrict this paper to Canadian issues, although all of the authors who are considered hold Canadian citizenship, as few of the Native American authors deal with the Vancouver area.

Among others, this system of criteria ruled out Chief Dan George, an indigenous man born in a small Salish village and an acclaimed Hollywood actor. This was because his few pieces of literary work have never been regarded as being of notable significance to the literary world.4 Pauline Johnson lived in Ontario for her entire life except for the last four years. Consequently, only fictional works published during these four years were considered for this paper.

The First Nations writers will be analyzed in a chronological manner, as this approach offers the opportunity to easily place the pieces of work in the development which First Nations people and their literature have undergone. First Nations literature "has boomed since the 1970s and 1980s," but it took until the 1990s until they were given a place in the mainstream market (Sarkowsky 2007, 9).5 Emily Pauline Johnson is an extraordinary exception, as she was “the first Aboriginal woman to write in English about Aboriginal issues in poetry and fiction" (Milz 2004, 127). As “little or no Native literature preceded the 1960s” (Lee 2003, 97),6 after her death in 1913 almost six decades passed until another First Nations author was to be published in Canada (Young-Ing 2001, 182).

c) The Cultural Importance of Female Tradition Keepers

The four authors whose writings cover over a century that were chosen for this paper are all female. This is not a coincidence but a telling reflection of Northwest Pacific Coast culture and its view of women. The Salish people have always practiced gender equality (Miller 2002, 243), meaning that women were not restricted in their work, their jobs and their activities within the strictly hierarchical tribe. There were distinctly male and female occupations to some degree,7 but equal value was put on both female and male roles. Northwest First Nations placed an especially important value on the role of women, as womanhood was seen as the foundation of the tribal culture. Women had the prestigious position of being “the keepers of the stories, the ones who train the chiefs and tend tradition” (Crean 2001, 250) and were the ones especially responsible for maintaining the culture, mainly due to the fact that “women seem[ed] to be bound to the land more strongly” (Sarkowsky 2007, 62) and thus in charge of maintaining the connection between the land and its people by keeping traditions alive. Consequently, womanhood is found at the basis of almost all First Nations traditions in British Columbia (Strong-Boag, Veronica/Carole Gerson 2000, 173). This long-standing responsibility is not only important with regard to understanding First Nations culture, but affects the analysis of First Nations literature: as First Nations literature often deals with the fear of extinction of their original cultures, women as the main keepers of these (endangered) cultures are more often the ones speaking up (Lutz 1996, 160) to protect their origins and teach younger generations.

Women who teach the succeeding generation are not only present in First Nations women’s literature, but are embodied by the authors chosen for this paper. Pauline Johnson is especially considered the "spiritual grandmother to ... women writers of the First Nations" (Brant 1994, 7), as she “began a movement that has proved unstoppable in its momentum – the movement of First Nations women to write down our stories of history, of revolution, of sorrow, of love” (Brant 1998, 5). Her extraordinary position is thus seen in her influence on younger, especially female writers such as Lee Maracle who received a copy of Legends of Vancouver when she was ten or eleven years old (Twigg, 2005, 33) and says about herself that she decides “to pattern [her] reading after Pauline Johnson” ( Sojourner’s Truth and Other Stories , 109). Jeannette Armstrong as well “was strongly influenced and taught by the powerful women within her family,” amongst whom is her great aunt Hum-Ishu-Ma, “who is believed to be the first Native American woman novelist” (Shepard 2005, 177). Each of these authors can claim for herself that she was influenced by some female elder in her family (Brant 1998, 12). Thus, it is not surprising that women in particular are more likely to be writers of stories used as a means of preserving tradition, as Northwest Coast women have always been “productively independent from men” (Willmott 2004, 96).

2. Understanding Where We Have Always Been - Background Information

a) Native Terminology of Indigenous First Nations Indians

The terms ‘Indians,’ ‘Natives,’ ‘First Nations,’ ‘aboriginal,’ and ‘indigenous’ people are often used interchangeably by scholars and even Natives themselves, although certain nuances and finer distinctions are allocated to some of these terms. However, reasons for the choice need to be made clear, as Native people underwent often derogatory (e.g. ‘Eskimo’) and misleading (e.g. ‘Indian’)8 naming processes imposed upon them by white people.

I am primarily going to use the term First Nations, which is devoid of colonial derogations, because I want to acknowledge the aboriginal peoples as entities with distinctly national characters, not simply as minority groups within the nation of Canada as exemplified by the Métis Nation or the Okanagan Nation, of which Lee Maracle and Jeannette Armstrong are respectively members. Jeannette Armstrong usually speaks about “First Nations Literature” (Dudek 2002, 106). In the spirit of Sharon Barnes, “I will be referring to my people by the terms we prefer: First Nations people or simply the People.” (Barnes 1996, 32). Sometimes I decide to use ‘indigenous people’ instead when I want to emphasize the First Nations connection to the land, as the term ‘indigenous’ “implies a relationship to a specific land developed over a period of time” (McLeod 2000, 28).

b) The First Nations of the Northwest Pacific Coast

The First Nations of the Pacific Coast, amongst which we find the Coast Salish tribe which today is regarded as being one of the most influential First Nations in Canada (Miller 2002, 248), conceive of themselves as consisting of many different nations. However, this concept of nation renders itself more as a people, so that relationships to other tribes are not on the base of nation-to-nation, but people-to-people (Krupat 1996, 14).

In First Nations societies, the unity of the group is valued more than the individual, resulting in that, for example, people were not allowed to show anger as this would affect the village as a whole due to the proximity of their living (Barnes 1996, 38). The bond among the different tribe or clan members is very strong, mainly due to the necessity of relying on each other for survival. In tribal communities, there were no people in need as everyone was cared for in social networks.

The Pacific Ocean is the animated friend and soul-mate of these tribes. Especially in winter, they rely heavily on its fish and maritime animals. In “Where Love Winds Itself Around Desire,” Lee Maracle speaks through a salmon, the fish most important to coastal First Nations' survival and thus the protagonist of many salmon tales. She describes the “agreements between us and the sea” (Maracle 1998, 162), meaning that First Nations value and respect the salmon, unlike “the new humans” (ibid.), the white people. Tradition plays a major role in First Nations rootedness to the land. Peter Kulchyski points out that Native Studies can neither understand nor comprehend First Nations traditions: he distinguishes between ‘traditional’ knowledge, which can be learned by non-native scholars, and ‘indigenous’ knowledge which is understood as a “knowledge a particular people have developed in their present circumstances that is built upon their past.” (Kulchyski 2000, 17). Thus, tradition as First Nations exhibit it is not something that can be solely learned, but a knowledge that is passed on in the intricately woven conglomeration of generational teaching, living on the land and being deeply embedded in the culture.

The connection between different people and the communication between land and humans is practiced through language. Especially the older people in the communities place a great importance on being able to speak the indigenous language. This is understandable as language, just like land, is a bearer of tradition, and according to Jeannette Armstrong, land and language are completely inseparable (Willmott 2004, 92). Josef Skvorecky, a Czech writer in Canada, observes that “the language is largely lost in the second generation, and entirely lost in the third” (Skvorecky 1987, 86, emphasis in original), which explains the urgency First Nations people place on maintaining the ability to speak the language. The loss of language and the loss of land are often paralleled in First Nations writing. Many First Nations writers use “Rez-English” in their writing and clearly distinguish between First Nations members who can or want to master the English language and the ones who are proud of being different, often by trying incorporate non- English words into their speech or refusing to speak English at all.

The elders and chiefs play an especially important role in First Nations society: Due to the belief that “experience… is not something that individuals have but what constitutes them as subjects, agents [and] individuals” (Sarkowsky 2007, 60), elders function as overtly marked and experienced individuals, while chiefs have the main responsibility of protecting the land (Maracle 1993, 9). Another important cultural fact one needs to know is that the “potlatch was the absolutely central ceremony of the Northwest Coast peoples, in which all social categories and powers were named and maintained” (Willmott 2004, 118). Such central elements, like most other important aspects and beliefs of First Nations culture, are frequently based on legends (Morrison, R. Bruce/C. Roderick Wilson 1991, 473).

c) First Nations Terminology

Western scholars have long been arguing about complex terms such as ‘location’, ‘ethnicity,’ and ‘fiction,’ without having reached a consensus that could possibly include the whole range of complexities. As this paper deals with First Nations literature, it must first be understood what these terms entail in First Nations thinking, culture and (literary) tradition.

i. Location

The term ‘location’ will be analyzed in a twofold way: firstly, how indigenous people view themselves as being located on their traditional lands, in nature and in relation to their surroundings. Secondly, how they locate themselves in Canadian society as an ethnically distinct group with a specific cultural heritage. As the term ‘location’ is linked to the land, its usage varies with the First Nations relationship to the land.9 One aspect of the culture, especially of the interior tribes, was seasonal movements, that is the natural re-location due to the necessity of looking for varying hunting grounds in the summer and more permanent fishing places in the winter, thus “the relationship of the people to the land is dictated by the seasons and the availability of Indian foods” (Bird in Ortiz 1998, 30).10 After contact with non-First Nations, the indigenous population was frequently forced to move in ways opposed to the natural seasonal moving. In British Columbia, this happened when the “Canadian fear of encroachment led to increased efforts to bring non-natives into Salish areas of Canada” (Miller 2002, 241) and when the land and its resources seemed exploitable to white people, as during the gold rush in 1858.11 Thus, the term location always connotes re-location, both natural and forced.

Regardless of where the Northwest Pacific Coast First Nations are, they sense a strong “intimacy with Mother Earth” (Barnes 1996, 32) and consequently strive for a peaceful co-existence with nature and animals, whom they view as equals who have the same kind of spirit as they themselves (Barnes 1996, 37). Especially in this region, where indigenous people demonstrate a strong belief in reincarnation (ibid.), the relationship to animals and nature is of great concern.

Thus this strong fixation on land and its importance to the people have led to the fact that British Columbia has experienced more land claims than any other Canadian province. Harris states that “the heart of the Native land question in British Columbia lies in two basic stories about land, one about dispossession, the other about development” (Harris 2002, 294), with the first being the First Nations story about forced relocation, including the theft of land, while the second one summarizes the white people’s opinion that First Nations did not make good enough use of their land. This led and still leads to continual clashes between two totally different cultural entities and points of view. Canadian courts have proclaimed that land claims made on the base of ancestral cultures cannot be taken seriously (Harris 2002, 299), First Nations people, on the other hand, believe this to be of utmost importance.

Today, with their freedom being severely restricted to assigned places like reserves, this causes problems as the "sense of routedness seems extraordinarily present in Native American peoples today, so there is really no place to go, no matter where one travels for one purpose or another" (Krupat 1992, 114). First Nations were uprooted and unrouted from the “dialectic tension between ‘roots’ and ‘routes’ in Indigenous cultures,”12 and colonialization left them without the freedom to move (Eigenbrod 2005, 122-23). Thus, they need to create new spaces to maintain their culture, as “much of [the cultural discourse] is centered around the problem of real or imaginary location of space as the most fundamental part of both cultural and economic survival” (Breinig 2003, 11). However, as cultural critic James Clifford points out, tribal groups have "never been simply 'local ' : they have always been rooted and routed in particular landscapes” (Clifford 1997, 254): by that he means that indigenous people have a moving definition of ‘local’, they understand it both as a fixed place of residence and as a permanently shifting location, as they incorporate the land in themselves and create their own homelands which are not restricted to one place in particular. Today, First Nations people are even more mobile than their ancestors and we consequently find conglomerations of numerous different tribes, especially in cities (Snipp 1989, 41). Due to the high rate of urbanization of First Nations13 they were challenged to establish a new, urban identity which was often found to be opposed to the rural, traditional identity. This movement into cities was not part of their culture but posed a difficulty as it challenged First Nations to re-establish their strong relationship with the land in a totally different context.

With respect to the second location, the Canadian society is a relatively recent addition compared to First Nations societies, yet it has had a strong affect on them. Today, First Nations people often encounter a “struggle …to create ... a space for themselves in both the academy and Canadian society” (Laliberte 2000, xi). Ostracized by government policies such as the Indian Act with its Charter of Rights, they often prefer to remain on the reserves that were given to them. As they are foremost regarded as Indians rather than as citizens (Eigenbrod 2005, 135), they try to find their identity on the reserves14 which does not prove to be successful as the reserves are not the equivalents to the formerly owned lands. Those who do want to leave the reserves often face difficulties as “the reserve culture does not always willingly make room for migrants” (ibid.) and potential leavers are seen as betrayers of the original traditions, as “real Indians live on the Rez” (Sewell 2002, 20). As a consequence of their inhibited freedom to move and the restrictions of the reserve structure, they were prohibited from creating their own spaces in either First Nations or Canadian society. This forces the First Nations to locate their land, their cultures and traditions and naturally themselves in-between or beyond the post-colonial dichotomy of First Nations and Canada. Sarkowsky stresses that “space is taken for granted in its importance for Native literature: as place and sense of place, as material and mythical landscape, as contested territory, as dichotomy of reservation/reserve and city, and as metaphorical location of identity and resistance” (Sarkowsky 2007, 13). Her differentiation between First Nations ‘space’ and the colonizers ‘place’ “allows the reader to locate more than one space in a particular place and thus to realize contradictions and tensions as spatial simultaneity.” (Sarkowsky 2007, 43-44). This proves to be helpful as it allows First Nations people to finally create a space that they had been denied before. Many indigenous people feel caught in between two places, not belonging to either of them, yet belonging to both of them. Richard Wagamese summarized this as follows:

The truth is that most of us are movin’ between Indyuns. Movin’ between our jobs and the sweat lodge. Movin between school and pow wow. Movin’ between English and Anishnabe. Movin’ between both worlds. Movin’ between 1990 and 1490. Most of us are the kinda Indyun. (Wagamese 1994, 137).

Following the forced re-locations and the resulting re-negotiations of First Nations place in society, the process of naming plays an important role. A name is understood not simply as stating the status quo , but as constituting the very thing it names. Naturally, indigenous people put great emphasis on their traditional “place names [which] serve as merest word- shadows of the intricate tribal life histories behind them” (Lee 2003, 92). The land reflects thousands of years of history and is thus the vital and eternal preserver of indigenous tradition and culture, and resists re-naming by white people (Moses 2000, 315). The colonial practice of re-naming was not only applied to land but also to people, who were given Christian names to replace their original ones.

ii. (Tribal) Ethnicity

In all of these processes, the First Nations have undergone vast changes as a people, and the character of their ethnic groups was modified multiple times. According to De Vos, an ethnic group is a “self-perceived group of people who hold in common a set of traditions not shared by others with whom they are in contact” (De Vos 1975, 9). The important aspect with respect to First Nations is the stressing of the ‘self’: In times where the Indian Act with its strongly genocidal aspect of suppressing First Nations identity has practically been abolished, belonging to either First Nations or non-Native ethnic groups has become a choice of the individual based on their personal self-identification (Snipp 1989, 36-38; Newhouse/Voyageur/Beavon 2005, 8). Interestingly, in the 1980s US census, 77% of the members of the ethnic group ‘American Indians’ considered their race to be “white” (Snipp 1989, 48). Additionally, Canadian First Nations often identify themselves outside of Western terminology by simply referring to their First Nations ancestry only15 and at times excluding their Canadian citizenship (Newhouse/Voyageur/Beavon 2005, 8-9). This autoethnicity, the personal choice to regard oneself as a member and representative of an ethnic group, often results in the literary form of “ethnic autobiography” (Lee 2003, 2).

As the term ethnicity is less “emotionally charged” than race (Snipp 37), this term will be used when when talking about the Northwest Pacific Coast First Nations. There are both the objective and subjective levels of ethnic belonging: Whereas the observable, exterior social characteristics do account for the possibility of assigning someone an ethnic label, the subjective identification with the ethnic group withdraws any control from a superior entity such as a government (Snipp 1989, 37). According to the Harvard Encyclopedia of American Ethnic Groups, ‘geographic region’, ‘race’ and ‘language’ are the basic domains of ethnicity; it continues to list an inventory which intends to define ethnic groups, and, hardly surprisingly, “common geographic origins” ranks at first place, with literature and settlement occupying places eight and ten (Thernstrom 1990). Obviously, the terms ‘ethnicity’ and ‘land’ are closely interrelated, or, as A. Robert Lee put it, “location, especially in how, etymologically, it calls up locus , … gives a ready pointer to ethnicity as cultural site” (Lee 2003, 168).

When Stephen Leacock stated that the Indians in Canada consist of “one great race” (Leacock 1915, 21), little did he know about the complexity of “The Red Man in Canada.”16 Based on a modern understanding of ethnicity, there are actually very few reasons why the North American First Nations should be regarded as one race. But even with modern ethnical terminology, more complex differentiations are a difficult task as “conventional ethnic classifications do not readily acknowledge the diversity among tribes or tribal groups” (Snipp 1989, 43).

Today, ethnicity is mainly viewed as a post -concept: it is post -national, post -colonial and post -modern (Eigenbrod 2005, 13). This is an especially interesting issue with regard to former colonies which often consist of multiple major ethnic groups. With respect to North America it it interesting to note that the when American Studies developed a more post-national character, ethnic studies were incorporated (Najita 2006, 7). Consequently, McLeod speaks of an "ethnical cultural renaissance" found in Indigenous Studies (McLeod 2000, 27).

It is important to note that First Nations, naturally, do not have an identity per se. Having been told for decades by white people what and who they are supposed to be, even contemporary First Nations find it difficult to identify themselves. Gerald Vizenor clearly stated that “we’re all invented as Indians” (Lee 2003, 222). Therefore if First Nations want to establish a new, sovereign identity, it needs to be “ postindian” (ibid.). But for most of Canadian history, Canadian governments did not acknowledge the First Nations' right for sovereignty over their own communities and decided to battle these ethnically different groups, both physically and non-physically. The aforementioned Indian Act of 1876 legally affirmed this notion by taking the First Nations status away from indigenous people17 and by legalizing the sending of First Nations children to residential schools outside the reserve. The Indian Act of 1876, which has been called “the most racist document ever produced by a Canadian Government” (Barnes 1996, 35), is thus vitally present in First Nations memory and literature. This genocide18 against the First Nations had the most important impact on First Nations ethnic self-understanding as it totally disrupted their established systems, and the residential school experience in particular is present in practically every piece of First Nations literary work, due to a “colonial spasm between ‘school’ and ‘home’” (Eigenbrod 2005, 14). This accusation of genocide has been applied to the city, as the city is a “negation of the villages that were built on family, clan, and culture …Indeed, the modern city has been seen as the tool of assimilation and cultural genocide” (Ruppert 2003, 47). Thus, the city especially functions as a location of racism. As in most societies, there is an ethnic hierarchy in Canadian society: the majority prefers “white, European, and Judeo-Christian” (Ostow 1991, 14) minorities over ethnic groups that do not fit these criteria.

All in all, First Nations ethnic understanding differs greatly from the general Canadian ethnic reality. Katerie Akwenzie-Damm summarizes this notion of differing from Canadian society by pinpointing down the relevance of ‘land’:

The Native peoples of this land are fundamentally different from anyone else. We are fundamentally different from anyone else in this country, fundamentally different from Canadians. The basis of the difference is the land , our passion for it and our understanding of our relationship with it. We belong to this land. The land does not belong to us; we belong to this land. We believe that this land recognizes us and knows us. (Akiwenzie-Damm 1998, 84; emphasis mine).

iii. Oral Fictions

Ever since Aristotle, the term ‘fiction’ has undergone multiple changes with respect to categorization and is still, especially since Modernism, ambiguous, which often makes genre distinction debatable. Native genres, however, even complicate the matter by always appearing in the form of hybrids (O’Neill 2000, 4), which is natural as hybrids are often the literary forms used to mediate between two or more cultures (Breinig 2003, 24) which is true with regard to First Nations literature. Literary forms may sometimes be recognizable as poetry, short fiction or creative non-fiction, but “our literatures come from our own sources […and] are part of a cultural continuum” (Akiwenzie-Damm 2005, 170) and can thus not simply be categorized into poetry, drama or fiction (Armstrong in Anderson 1997, 53).19 Armstrong argues that due to its special heritage and rootedness in the oral tradition, contemporary First Nations literature should not simply be subsumed into existent Western genre distinctions or be treated as a newly emerging literature, but should be considered a distinctive genre within the realms of Canadian literature (Armstrong, J. 2005) which goes beyond the scope of Western literary distinctions as “in oratory, poetry happens in a prose situation” (Armstrong in Williamson 1993, 20).20 Additionally, we find that “Native fiction is often construed as different orders of emergence, vision or homecoming story” (Lee 2003, 225), thereby mixing temporal orders, narrative structures and ‘collective individuality.’ Sometimes, as in the case of Lee Maracle’s Bobbi Lee: Indian Rebel ( Bobbi Lee , 15), texts by First Nations authors were first audio recorded and afterwards transcribed into written form.

Fictional First Nations characters often do not harmonize with Western literature and perceive reading as “an alienating experience” (Eigenbrod 2005, 14). A little over a decade ago, Jeannette Armstrong noted that “Native people are notably absent from written work, and, as such, support the myth that Canada was ‘a barren land’ upon the arrival of the Europeans” (Armstrong in Anderson 1997, 49), or with the words of Lee Maracle that “the absence of our people’s stories on those shelves whispered ugly things to my unconscious” (Maracle 1990, 203).21 Thus, when analyzing First Nations fiction, one needs to be aware of Euro-Western image-shaping of First Nations on the one hand and the absence of a self-defining First Nations literature on the other.

Fortunately, the amount of First Nations writing has increased drastically over the last decades, and they were and are able to make a literary space for themselves “outside the realm of Canadian literature” (Armstrong in Anderson 1997, 49-50). The writer who is most often cited as the first successful writer with First Nations heritage is Emily Pauline Johnson who due to her mixed heritage is considered representative of both First Nations and Eurocanadian literature. The twofold audience, namely white and First Nations people, complicates the matter: Lee Maracle defined the First Nations writing style by saying that "when our orators get up to tell a story, there is no explanation, no set-up to guide the listener –just the poetic tenseness of the dilemma is presented" (Maracle 1990, 12).22 This absence of translations is mainly due to the fact that First Nations people primarily write for their own people and thus leave out additional translations (Eigenbrod 2005, 61), which makes it harder for non-First Nations members to interpret the texts appropriately, as specific texts from one particular tribe “can be perceived and understood from [that First Nations] community’s approach in terms of oral literatures and the narrative” (Armstrong in Anderson 1997, 51).

Despite the lack of explicit translations, Jeannette Armstrong points out that First Nations writers of course are aware that in the Canadian literary market they write for both an indigenous and a white audience (Armstrong in Anderson 1997, 50), and consequently double-address the reader. These addresses differ greatly as First Nations writers are “writing literature for [their] community but … information for the non-Native community” (51). One of the main differences with regard to the two-fold readership is the language itself, as most of the successful works available are written in English. Armstrong, who studied for years to become fluent in Okanagan (Armstrong 2006, 22), points out how much of the original texts, legends and stories are lost in translation. Referring to the coyote stories of hers and other cultures, she says that “in English, the coyote stories sound profane, even to myself [but] in my language … they are humour-centred and without blemish in terms of their purity” (26-27).

First Nations fiction displays a strong “connectedness to place, ancestors, and animals,” and thus focuses less on the individual than Western fiction (Ruppert 1995, 69). Yet, at the same time, “Indians, tribal people, are more individual than contemporary whites” (Binder 1995, 156) because of their rootedness in indigenous communities which have such a strong, enduring cultural traditions. Their characters represent their complex communities, which results in literary characters who are round, not due to their individuality but due to being representatives of the larger communities they embody. Often it is hard to determine whether a piece of literature is contemporary if it is a story that has been retold many times (Breinig 2003, 27), also partly due to the fact that some First Nations members feel that their stories were stolen and returned to them altered (Brant 1998, 36), making it difficult to call them either ‘original’ or ‘theirs.’ Thus, First Nations literature is a very complex genre in itself as it comprehends “a web of ancestors and descendants, the intersections between past, present, and future, between the spiritual realm and the physical realm …Our orature and literature reinforce, reflect, and are an integral manifestation of that web” (Akiwenzie-Damm 2005, 169).

3. Emily Pauline Johnson

Emily Pauline Johnson (1861-1913), who is among the first First Nations writers to be nationally and internationally successful, is known and honored as the ‘Canadian Poetess,’ yet it would be far from the truth to think that she was unable to write fiction, for she published numerous articles, essays and short stories, especially during her four years in Vancouver, a city and location with which she fell in love and which itself was the inspiration for her writing.23

The narrative structure of her most successful fictional work, Legends of the Capilanos , renamed to Legends of Vancouver for marketing reasons, is very complex and hybridical. Johnson begins each legend by depicting the current situation, then introducing the narrator who tells the legend as a story-within-the-story. After the narrator finishes the legend, Johnson then comes back to the scene in which the narration takes place. The striking feature of this ending is that she uses it to then combine the two narrative dimensions, as seen in, for example, “The Recluse.” After the inserted narrative legend, Johnson asserts that “it was here” (34) and thus links the two time frames and connects past stories to present reality. The point of connection is always found in nature and land,24 in cases such as “the stream is haunted with tradition” (21, emphasis mine), or “there was not a tree, a boulder, a dash of rapid upon which his glance fell which he could not link with some ancient poetic superstition” (22). Also, the saving canoe in “The Deep Waters” is claimed to have been seen by First Nations people, a claim that mixes reality with legend.

As Johnson was among the first Northwest Coast First Nations writers and many First Nations people were illiterate in or unfamiliar with English at the turn of the century, she did not have an indigenous readership but a primarily white one. Thus, unlike most First Nations writers (Eigenbrod 2005, 61), she needed to implement translations into her stories, often in the form of parentheses, to enable non-First Nations readers to understand more of the indigenous culture, resulting in a “highly sophisticated double- voicing, which shifts between features of oral and literary discourse” (Strong-Boag, Veronica/Carole Gerson 2000, 175).


1 Scholars differ on the time frame during which the Pacific Coast of North America was inhabited; some argue that the indigenous population has lived there for at least 10,000 years (Bruggmann 1987; Kehoe 1981), others argue about a First Nations presence of up to 30,000 years (Conrad 1993). Calvin Helin claims that North American First Nations are “the oldest known race on the earth” (Helin 2008, 17).

2 “The city of Vancouver was built on land owned and occupied by the Coast Salish peoples for at least 10,000 years. In 1923 the last Aboriginal village was relocated across Burrard Inlet to a reserve north of the new city” (Culhane 2003, 595).

3 Thomas King expertly summarized this difficulty by saying that “when we talk about Native writers, we talk as though we have a process for determining who is a Native writer and who is not, when in fact, we don’t” (qtd. in Eigenbrod 2005, 11).

4 Additionally, much of what has been published about and by Chief Dan George was written by non-First Nations people such as Helmut Hirnschall’s My Spirit Soars , and thus cannot be considered to be First Nations literature.

5 For a list of over 170 British Columbian First Nations writers from Martha Douglas Harris until today, see Twigg 2005. It affirms the choice of authors in this paper that he decided to place a photograph of Emily Pauline Johnson on the front and a photograph of Jeannette Armstrong on the back.

6 There are a few pieces of literature written in English before Emily Pauline Johnson’s national and international publications. Samson Occom’s A Sermon Preached at the Execution of Moses Paul, an Indian (1772) is often cited as being the first First Nations piece of literature in English (Breinig 2003, 22-3).

7 For controversial opinions on this issue, compare Helin 2008, 25, Armstrong in Williamson 1993, 12 and Conrad, Margaret/Alvin Finkel/Cornelius Jaenen 1993, 34.

8 Unlike most Western scholars, Jeannette Armstrong argues that the term ‘Indian’ comes from in deo and was given to the indigenous population because Columbus noticed their strong spirituality. India, however, was called Hindi or Hindustani at the time and could not have contributed to the geographic mistaking. She concludes to say that “I prefer this word, of course, because I feel we are in with God” (Armstrong in Williamson 1993, 11).

9 Land, of course, always subsumes water and the ocean as well. For some West Coast First Nations, water means even more to them than land (Harris 2002, 241).

10 Whether First Nations in fact lived a “nomadic lifestyle,” is debated; see Eigenbrod 2005: 22. The particular lifestyles had an impact on the art produced by West Coast nations: Tribes which were more rooted in one particular place often produced visual arts, e.g. in the form of totem poles, whereas tribes with a “semi-migratory lifestyle” produced art forms such as legends which were able to be brought along (Armstrong in Anderson 1997, 54).

11 How severely the conflict-laden process and clash of colonialization affected First Nations is indicated by the fact that as of 2005, there has not yet been a historical novel set in the 19th century written by a First Nations author (Eigenbrod 2005, 126).

12 Eigenbrod uses the terms ‘rooted’ and ‘routed’ to distinguish two naturally co-existing characteristics of First Nations culture, namely its strong connection to particular pieces of land (roots) and simultaneously the permanent shifting of these locations due to natural seasonal movements (routes).

13 The migration of First Nations into cities which took place especially in the 1960s was primarily due to the limited economic possibilities experienced in the country. Today, “over 50% of Canada’s Aboriginal population live in urban centres” (Helin 2008,175).

14 For a humorous essay on the relationship between the reserve and First Nations identity, see Drew Hayden Taylor’s “How Native is Native if You’re Native?” in Laliberte 2000: 57-59.

15 See for example Jeannette Armstrong who said, “"I am Okanagan. That's a political and cultural definition of who I am, a geographical definition, and also a spiritual definition for myself of who I am" (Williamson 1993,11).

16 Stephen Leacock’s The Dawn of Canadian History: A Chronicle of Aboriginal Canada appeared within the 32-book series Chronicles of Canada . Of these 32 volumes, only three deal specifically with the many thousand years of Native history (entitled “The Red Man in Canada”), providing a very Eurocentric view.

17 See e.g. Elisabeth Woody who describes the loss of her ancestor’s land because her blood quantum was too low based on Canadian law (Woody in Ortiz 1998, 157-160).

18 For a more elaborate treatment of the genocide against First Nations, see Lawrence in Laliberte et al. 2000.

19 Armstrong exemplifies the difficulty of classifying First Nations literature when she says about Lee Maracle’s Sundogs that it “isn’t a novel, but what is it?” (Armstrong in Anderson, 53).

20 For a more detailed and theoretical treatment of ‘oratory,’ see Lee Maracle’s “Oratory: Coming to Theory.

21 Armstrong founded the Enow’kin Centre, a school for Native writers which seeks to foster and support new First Nations writers, as she laments an “absence of scholarly works written by Aboriginal scholars who are storytellers” (Armstrong 2006, 21).

22 When asked to classify what ‘orature’ could be classified as within Western terminology, Armstrong answered that it is mostly like poetry, has dramatic elements in it and finds its roots in prayer, but in general is a literary form which “defies Western genres” as it breaks with conventions, combines past, present and future, refrains itself from being simply myth or legend and shows that fact cannot always be divorced from fiction (Armstrong in Anderson 1997, 56).

23 “Her love of the land made her the poet she was” (Brant 1998, 6).

24 Simon Oritz argues that the “tradition of the oral narrative … is at the core of this philosophy of interdependence” between the land and human people. Thus, the narrative as such is always closely linked to the land as they originated in the land (Ortiz 1998, xiii).


ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Buch)
781 KB
Institution / Hochschule
Universität Konstanz – Fachbereich Amerikanistik
locations ethincity vancouver first nations nischik female tradition keepers indigenous northwest pacific coast tribal oral orature orality canada emily pauline johnson jeanette armstrong lee maracle eden robinson




Titel: Locations of Ethnicity in Vancouver Fiction by First Nations’ Writers