REVIEWS AND OTHERS

 

THE GREAT CHAIN OF BEING

 

Where do we belong?  What is the place of humans in the universe?  These are some questions the idea of the Great Chain of Being tried to answer.  “To Each a Place and Rank,”  a chapter from The Myth of the Savage, and the Beginnings of the French Colonialism in the Americas, written by Olive Dickason, analyses the way Europeans viewed Amerindians through the Great Chain of Being.  I will discuss how Dickason defines this idea.  She explains the need for Europeans to incorporate Natives into Europe’s scale of values.  She also describes that most Renaissance Europeans thought that geography and climate influenced the cultural ladder.  She also brings the point that the New World was seen as the antiquity of all Nations.

The Great Chain of Being is a set hierarchical system.  This classical and religious scale is a strict concept of the universe.  Here is a definition by Sean Mcvoy:

The Great Chain of Being organised the world into a fixed order, with God at the top, descending successively through angels, men, women(!), animals, birds, fishes, insects, trees and plants to stones. There were seven orders of angels, with archangels at the top. Men were organised in a fixed order from king down to serf. (The Great, 34)

As McVoy and Dickason point out, Europeans created an established hierarchy from God to Satan.  Everybody belonged to a specific place and rank.  Man was placed at the center of the universe.  As explained on www.absoluteastronomy.com, the body, as well as anything related to nature, was closer to evil and the spirit was closer to God. (Great Chain).  In regards to species, they were also in specific order.  Dickason also refers to wild predators as imperfections for Europeans of that time.  In words, the Great Chain of being helped to organize the universe into a predetermined classification. 

         When Europeans tried to apply their concept of the cultural ladder, it did not apply to the New World.  Therefore, they had to look for other answers.  Their way of explaining cultural differences in Europe was through climate and geography.  People from the south and from the north were savages, in comparison with those from the middle, who were more temperate.  The theory stated that the people from the tropics were black, small and savage because they were oppressed by the heat.  On the contrary, people from the far north were believed to be white, tall and savage because of the cold.  In between, in centred Europe, people were closer to God.  However, there was not a similar distinction within the New World societies of indigenous.  Europeans explained the similarities between the cultures of the new continent by saying that “since Amerindians had come only a few hundred years before Spaniards, the climate had not had time to do its work” (To Each, 45).  Moreover, there was also the belief that the further west you went, the more infernal it became.  That is why people of America worshipped the Devil.

         This ideal order was shaken by the discovery of other parts of the earth.  Where would societies of the New World fit in according to the great chain of being?  Were they closer to humans or animals?  Did they have souls?  Amerindians were seen as being non-humans, capable of being humanized, therefore, Europeanized.  They had a soul, waiting to be converted to Christianity.  The New World represented the “antiquities of all nations” (To each, 55).  Nudity and “savagery” proved that it was still at an immature state.  The nakedness bothered Europeans because it showed a lack of social status and a lack of shame.  Cannibalism and human sacrifices could not be performed by civilized people!  Most of the time, natives were portrayed negatively in terms of what they did not have, such as a state.  They were seen as beastial and innocent.  Nonetheless, Montaigne admits that indigenous people were the best in debates; therefore capable of reasoning.  The myth of le “bon sauvage” also appeared in France, with Salahuddin Ayyubi, better known as Saladin, and Jean-Jacques Rousseau.

         The discovery of the New World brought the necessity to find answers that would fit in Europeans’ system of beliefs.  Their cultural assumptions enabled them to admit that New World societies were also evolving, just differently.  Even though they lived outside of Christianity, they were logical, happy and healthy people.  Climate and geography did not create major difference in the New World.  Such facts challenged the established Great Chain of Being.  The need to place in Natives from North America into a fixed hierarchy brought many debates within Europe.   

    By Audrée Vaillancourt

 

REVIEW OF: GIVE ME MY FATHER’S BODY BY KENN HARPER

         The book presents the unfortunate destiny of six Inuit from Greenland, brought to New York by the explorer Robert Peary in 1897. Minik was one of them; he became the orphan Inuit boy struggling to regain his father’ s bones.

          Robert Peary was a prominent explorer involved in Minik’s story.  He retired from the Navy after twenty-nine years. As a grateful reward for his North Pole explorations “In March of 1911, The United States Congress passed an act placing Robert Peary on the retired list of the Corps of Civil Engineers of the Navy with the highest retired pay of the rank of Rear Admiral ” ( 205). It was Robert Peary in 1897, who brought six Inuit (Eskimo) from  North Greenland to New York. They were six newcomers, Nuktaq, his wife Atangana and their daughter Aviaq, Uisaakassak, Minik and his father Qisuk. Their arrival in New York was theatrical. Thousands of people paid an admittance fee to look at the meteorite (iron), Peary had brought from Greenland, and to meet the Inuit, as if they were aliens from another world.

 Peary never tried to repair the damage he caused to Minik or to help him in any way, he never went to visit the Inuit he brought to New York, nor did he care for the promises he had made to them, the Inuit were supposed to come back to Greenland with gifts for the children and women, guns,wood and metal. In fact, Peary was run by an insatiable desire for prestige and wealth.

         The American Museum of Natural History’s basement was their first welcoming residence. One cannot imagine the cultural shock they had been through. The huge climatic difference was definitely dramatic for them, indeed all of them were soon very ill, and four of them died. Minik’s father was one of them. Eventually, one man was returned home, Uisaakassak.

         When Minik arrived in New York he was about six years old. After his father’s death, Minik was taken into the custody of William Wallace and his wife, who treated him as their own son. William Wallace was the superintendent of The American Museum of Natural History’ s buildings, and  one of the most trusted employees of Morris Jesup, the president of the institution. Wallace also took care of the Inuit, as Jesup asked him to, the Inuit lived at some point in Wallace’ s estate in Lawyersville. Wallace took advantage of his situation to become a prosperous business man, and when the administration found out his statagem, he lost his position and went down financially.

          Minik remained in the United States for twelve years. Minik was about nineteen when he went back to his homeland, Greenland. Minik was acculturated; he had forgotten his language and lost his cultural identity. Minik learned back his language and renewed with his forgotten culture. Nevertheless, even if he felt welcomed back in his homeland, he did not know where he belonged anymore; he had known another civilization and could not part from it. In 1916, Minik went back to the United States, where he later died of a “bronchial  pneumonia” (218),  in New Hampshire October 29, 1918. He was in his late twenties.

    As a teenager, Minik soon learned about the fake burial of his father and about his father’s bones being on a display at the Museum of Natural History.  This is when Minik’s struggle to gain his fathers’s body began. Minik’s goal was to give his father a decent funeral according to their cultural habits, in his homeland, Greenland. According to the law in United States, “... section 306 of the Penal Code, ′ every dead body of a human being, lying within this state, must be decently buried within a reasonable time after death.' And the same statute imposes the requirement of burial in respect to the remains of a human body after dissection” (95). Minik had the right to claim his father’ s body, but he was too young when his father died to take charge of his father’s funeral. Minik’s journeys for his achievement went on for almost a century, “On August 4, 1997, one hundred years after Qisuk, Nuktaq, Atangana, and Aviaq left the Thule district for New York aboard the Hope, and four years after the return of their remains to Greenland and their burial in the graveyard at Qaanaq, the memorial plaque was finally placed over their their common grave” (228).  Without any doubt Kenn Harper’s book Give Me My Father’s  Body  succeeded in achieving Minik’ s wish, the bones were sent back were they belonged in Greenland, Qaanaq. Harper demonstrates the influence and strength of public opinion against institutions. 

         The involvment of powerful figure, money, as well as powerful institutions cannot be denied in the controversial story of Minik, and the Inuit’s bones kept in the American Museum of Natural History. There is little doubt that the unscrupulous desire for prestige and the assumption that it was a matter of scientific interest led powerful men to be in fact responsible for this disastrous disgrace upon the American Museum of Natural History. Lots of prominent people have played a role in Minik’s life story by hiding the truth, and denying it.  The truth was always wrapped with lies and denials, even when the story of Minik was brought into the public eye by reporters.

           Give Me My Father’s Body by Kenn Harper is a vibrant testimony of a dominant culture using a minority culture to achieve a scientific study. There is not one institution or authority who has acknowledged its responsibilities in Minik’s fate, as well as the other Inuit, and their emotional trauma. The Inuit were no longer their priority, the damage was done. The Inuit were dependent on the white men in this foreign country but no one was there for them except William Wallace. The loss the Inuit have gone through will never be repaid. Some explorers took advantage; they gave guns and all sorts of goods, but it was never worth the price. Peary “ also felt a morbid affinity for the bodies of other Eskimos he knew by names, which he had exhumed in 1896, the year before he went to New York, from their fresh graves and carted off south to grace the halls of the museum. ” ( 22). “ The Inuit’s bones were  taken from Qujaukitsoq’ s grave in Greenland, along with his wife and their little girl, with the accessories of his graves. The American Museum of Natural History purchased those skeletons from him on his return, in New York ” ( 22-23).

          Kenn Harper telling Minik’ s life story  succeeded in demonstrating that  it was more than only scientist interests involved in Minik’ s life story. It was indeed people greedy for prestige and wealth. Institutions and powerful men were implicated in that dreadful past event, in which Minik was deprived of his culture, and his people tricked by falses promises.  Give Me My Father’s Body is a heavyhearted story reflecting the abuse of a dominant society over a minority.  Inuit were used to help the white man achieve his end, and when his end was secured the white man did not need any longer the company of the Inuit and he left them alone without caring for them.

    By Sylvie Pressé

 

REVIEW OF THE NIGHT WANDERER BY DREW HAYDEN TAYLOR

        According to the elements seen in class, what makes this book a Native story?

About the Author

Born in 1962 on the Curve Lake First Nation Reserve in Ontario, Taylor is a single child who grew up in a mono-parental family. This blue-eyed Ojibwa writer is also a columnist, a lecturer, a playwright, and a filmmaker. All his works are written with an aboriginal perspective, with the exception of Girl Who Loved Her Horses and Someday. Taylor uses humour and irony to write his stories.  Additional information can be found on his official website http://www.drewhaydentaylor.com . The Night Wanderer is his first novel written for a teenage audience.

About the Book

The Night Wanderer was published in 2007. It was acclaimed by critics and was nominated for the Rand\McNally Aboriginal book of the Year, the Children's Book of the Year and it won numerous other prizes. Reviews from the public have also been favourable: “Drew Hayden Taylor has created a fantastic story, weaving together the different elements of Native and gothic fiction into a marvelous and spellbinding blend.” (Hamilton-Nagorsen 1).  This book has labelled itself a Native Gothic Novel. As such, it holds items of both genres of writing. Thus, for a first book for young adults and children, Taylor has definitely produced something fresh and innovative.

Summary

The setting of this book is Otter lake reserve, in Ontario.  The reserve is surrounded by a forest, a lake and the nearby town of Baymeadow.  Tiffany, a teenager of sixteen years old, tries to get along with her father, Keith, after her mother left with a white-man for Vancouver. Granny Ruth, Keith’s mother, acts like the referee between them. The story begins with the arrival of a stranger named Pierre L’Errant who comes as a boarder into the family’s life.  We later learn that he is a Native vampire that got bitten when he went to Europe. He came back to him homeland twelve generations later to die an Anishinabe ritualized death.  One night after breaking up with her boyfriend, realising her mother has created a new life without her, and getting in a fight with her father, Tiffany runs away into the forest with the semi-intent of killing herself.  L’Errant tracks her down and by telling her his life story, reconciles her to the idea of Life.  Tiffany decides to go back home and face her problems while L’Errant happily dies his ritualised Anishinabe death.

Native Themes

        Generational Oral Teachings, Associational Literature, Native Hybridity, and the Trickster Figure in the novel The Night Wanderer.

Generational Oral Teachings

The character of Granny Ruth is a central figure in the novel.  As in other Native works such as Half-Breed by Maria Campbell and Stolen Life by Yvonne Johnson, the grandmother is the guide to the family and also the link to Aboriginal culture.  Such figures usually guide and teach their offspring about life and about what it means to be Native. In the novel The Night Wanderer, Granny Ruth  is the one who teaches Tiffany about the concept of God: “ Claudia [Tiffany’s mother], not knowing how to answer, had shrugged off the question [about God], telling her [Tiffany] to ask Granny Ruth instead”(109). Granny Ruth responds by bringing Tiffany outside and telling her to close her eyes and listen. She then tells Tiffany: “God is a feeling.  God is the world around you.  God is life.” (Taylor 110).  This hands-on oral teaching experience made by the head of the family, namely the Grandmother, to her granddaughter can be found in many other Native stories.  Granny Ruth teaches and helps the members of her family in many other different situations throughout the novel.

The character of Pierre L’Errant is another central figure in the novel.  He has been living for over 350 years and so he represents an older generation than Granny Ruth, in fact he represents pre-contact Natives.  He is still in touch with his Anishinabe culture as he returns to his homeland to die a ritualised death.  As L’Errant thinks to himself before dying; “Elders are often called upon to teach those younger than themselves lessons.  And there were no elders older than him.” (Taylor 215). As a figure of generational teaching, L’Errant is perfect.  He goes after Tiffany in the woods and tells her his own life story around a campfire.  She listens and at the end of the night she understands that life is not something to be toyed with; in fact it is a precious gift.  Through his tale, L’Errant has taught her a valuable lesson.  He is another example of generational oral teachings in The Night Wanderer.

Associational Literature

The Night Wanderer is the story of Tiffany learning the value of life but it is also the stories of many other characters in the Otter Lake reserve.  The life story of how Pierre L’Errant left his homeland to go to Europe is presented in flashback form.  The story of Granny Ruth and her questioning about language, family, and culture is another important feature of this novel. Granny Ruth is one of the last fluent speakers of Anishinabe on the reserve and she misses the sound of her Native language.  She wonders if she should have taught Anishinabe to her children and grandchildren.  There is the story of the owl family in the forest who become acquainted with Pierre L’Errant, which has strong ties with the Native concept of animism which is the worldview that everything, animals and objects, have a soul.  There is also the story of Old Rachel who is deaf and dumb and paralysed, who dies in her old home after seeing L’Errant; of James Jack and his wife who live peaceably on the outskirts of the reserve; and of Dale and Chucky who are Native hooligans and who get taught a lesson by L’Errant.  All these little stories make this novel not only the story of Tiffany, but also of her community on the Otter lake reserve.

Hybridity

Tiffany and her community live a fairly hybrid experience of what it means to be Native. As Tiffany comments:

 “Those days were long gone and though she [Tiffany] was proud of her Native heritage, she found the annual powwow events quite culturally satisfying enough, thank you very much.  The thought of herself in a buckskin dress, skinning a beaver, almost made her laugh and throw up at the same time.  But while she wasn’t particularly fond of buckskin, Tiffany did have a love for leather jackets.  If there was only something called the Versace trade” (Taylor 29).

Therefore, there is a mix of traditional ceremonies (the powwow events) and White consumerism (the Versace leather jackets) in Tiffany’s cultural identity. Taylor also uses the description of the food to indicate the cultural identity of Tiffany and her community.  Many fast-foods such as fries and burgers are referred to, yet Taylor also refers to typical Native food like cedar tea, pancakes that taste like bannock, and maple syrup.  The mix of white consumer food and typical Native food is another example of the hybrid nature of Tiffany and her community’s culture.

The Trickster Figure

In the novel The Night Wanderer, the vampire Pierre L’Errant can be perceived as being the trickster figure.  At first, L’Errant tricks the characters in the story into thinking he will be a French person because of his name.  He tricks them again when he says he was born in Europe even if he looks Native and knows a lot of old Native customs.  L’Errant tricks the characters in the story by hiding his true cultural background from them and also by moving very quickly and silently to surprise the other characters in the novel: “For the second time that evening, Tiffany’s heart imploded and exploded at the same moment. […]  “Will you quit scaring me!” Tiffany had finally found her voice” (Taylor 191).

Another element that indicates that L’Errant is the trickster figure is that throughout the story, readers never knows if they can trust L’Errant. They are always wondering if he will eat other characters in the story, especially when he tracking Tiffany in the forest “Do you want to die? I can arrange that. Quite easily.” (Taylor 209).  Readers are also constantly surprised by his abilities.  For example, L’Errant can converse with the owls of the forest “ [L’Errant’s owl cry] was so perfect, even the owl did a double- take.  The two-legged beast could see him and talk like him” (Taylor 59). Even the fact that L’Errant is a vampire is unusual to the reader and to the other characters in the story: “I [the European vampire] will let you become the first of your kind to join my kind” (Taylor 180).  His abnormalities and his lapses of will-power surprise and trick the readers so they never know what abilities L’Errant has and if they can trust him to help Tiffany.

Fixing things is an important aspect of the Trickster figure.  L’Errant’s determination to help Tiffany understand the value of life before he dies is another indicator that he is a trickster figure.  L’Errant also whispers Anishinabe words into Granny Ruth’s ears when she is sleeping to comfort her in her language plight. He also places Dale and Chucky on a remote island to teach them a lesson about bullying.  All these small and big actions indicate to readers that L’Errant really wants to help this community… but the readers should stay on their guard because L’Errant might just end up eating some of them.

Conclusion

Drew Hayden Taylor’s Native Gothic Novel The Night Wanderer can be labelled a Native story as it holds many recurrent themes of Native Literature. Generational oral teachings, associational literature, native hybridity, and the trickster figure are all themes which are found in Taylor’s recent novel for young adults and children.

    By Kathleen Fergy Nadeau

 

REVIEW OF: A BROKEN FLUTE: THE NATIVE EXPERIENCE IN BOOKS FOR CHILDREN

Broken Flute Bookcover

            How do you choose a children’s book that deals with Native themes, history, and culture? How do you know the book you picked is not going to hurt native children and promote native stereotyping or false representations of their culture? A Broken Flute, The Native experience in Books for Children is a reference book that evaluates “the cultural authenticity and historical accuracy” (Seale and Slapin, 62)  of children’s books that were written by native writers and about native peoples. A Broken Flute also contains essays, people’s own stories, poems, historical facts, and guides to evaluate anti-indian bias.

         The editors, Doris Seale and Beverly Slapin, have both written books and essays about contemporary native issues. They are also current members of Oyate (http://oyate.org) which is a native organisation working to ensure that native culture is accurately portrayed. The authors, through A Broken Flute, want to educate readers about how books about native people are often very “inacurate, inauthentic, patronizing, full of lies, and altogether a huge insult to the people out of whose lives so much money is being made” (Seale & Slapin, 4).

         The book’s introduction sets the tone: Enough is enough! Native people have suffered from stereotyping, appropriation of their stories, and misrepresentation of history by westerners for too long. The authors, through native children’s experiences, bring the readers to understand the unfairness and immeasurable pain that native people have carried since the coming of the European colonizers.

“My name is Raven. When I was in the third grade, our class read The Courage of Sarah Noble. In this book they said Indian people were savages and murderers, they chop your head off and eat you alive and that we were not really people. When the class put on the play for the whole school, the kids started taunting me, calling me "stinky" and asking me how many people I've eaten. Nobody would play with me or even sit next to me in class...I felt so ashamed. Finally, I told my mother I didn't want to go back to school” (Seale & Slapin 16).

Mayana’s story

“One day in third grade my teacher said that we were going to learn about Christopher Columbus. She said that Christopher Columbus was great, and that he had discovered America. She said all this great stuff about Columbus, but I told her that it was not right because Columbus cut off legs and enslaved the Indians whose land he was on.

The teacher said that I was not back there 500 years ago. I said, “I know, but I have proof because my step-mom has read the diary of a man who was traveling with Columbus. So she has proof and I have proof.”

“Well,” the teacher said, “I’m sorry, you were not there 500 years ago.”

I said’ “Well, neither were you!” So after that the teacher said, “Write something about Columbus that you have learned.” So I went to my desk and wrote all the bad stuff Columbus had done to Indians.

When I was done I went to my teacher to show her what I had written. She said, “I’m sorry you’re going to have to rewrite this because you have to write something nice about Columbus.”

So I went to my desk. And wrote that Christopher Columbus had three ships: the Nina, the Pinta, and the Santa Maria” (Seale & Slapin 16).

         Unfortunately, through their content, many North American books on native culture are still viciously feeding the stereotypes and myths that have brought so much suffering to natives. Surprisingly, and as it is mentioned in A Broken Flute, not even books that won awards or that are bestsellers can be trusted. Prices do not guarantee that the books are accurate and respectful towards natives’ culture and history.

          In an Open Letter to a Non-Indian Teacher, another issue is raised by an Indian mother on how the educational system treats native children. She is very concerned with how “too many teachers seem to see their role as rescuer” (Seale & Slapin, 8). The mother points out that “her child doesn’t need to be rescued; he doesn’t consider Indian a misfortune. He has a culture.” The author explains that teachers’ stereotypes or assumptions toward natives often lead them to misunderstand native children’s behaviour in class. She gives the example of courtesy which is an important cultural aspect of native culture, “He has been taught by precept that courtesy is an essential part of human conduct and rudeness is any action that makes another person feel stupid or foolish. Do not mistake his patient courtesy for indifference or passivity” (Seale & Slapin, 8).  The author wants teachers to reflect on their behaviour and relationships with native children. She asks teachers to help native children in their learning process by respecting who they are and without imposing western values.

         As I said previously, the authors of  A Broken Flute, along with other native and non-native people, have evaluated many children’s books to see if they were portraying native culture in a respectful way. They say that the writer’s culture is not that important even though non-native writers have more chance of being innacurate. What is really important is to give an exact representation of history and native people’s culture. Whether you are native or not, the reviewers all agree with the fact that writing about native themes implies a lot of research. What comes out of  A Broken Flute when it comes to purchasing native children’s books is that it is almost necessary to buy a book that has been revised by native people. The authors also give some caracteristics that readers should pay special attention to when they want to buy or read a native children’s book.

 

s   Omissions of facts or misrepresentation when talking about history

In California Missions: Projects and Layouts by Nelson, L. & Kari, A. C.

“These two books do not mention that not only were the Indians actually used as construction materials, but that they did the difficult construction labor, as well as the painting, artwork… the book never tell their readers that there are dead Indians in the walls” (Seale and Slapin, 35).

s   Lack of cultural authenticity

-         Wrong information about names of tribes, places, events

-         Wrong explanation of roles (men vs. women, brothers and sisters)

s   Verb tenses in the past as if Indians do not exist anymore

s   Trivialization

Usage and false interpretation of a proverb

s   Stereotypes

         “Braves”, “Savages”, and the concept of nobleness are among these stereotypes

          The use of stereotyped language to express “Indian” speech and thought patterns such as over-emphasis on compound words to “sound Indian” when there is no basis for such use (ex: “night-middle-made”). (Seale and Slapin, 67).

 

    By Sara Faucher