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Cultural Grammars of Nation, Diaspora, and Indigeneity in Canada

By C. Kim, S. McCall, M. Baum Singer, Editors

Review By Gabrielle Legault

November 4, 2013

BC Studies no. 175 Autumn 2012  | p. 139-40

Cultural Grammars of Nation, Diaspora, and Indigeneity in Canada is a valuable contribution to an emerging discourse within the field of Indigenous Studies. It furthers a multi-disciplinary dialogue by exploring the relationships between transnationalism, diaspora, and indigeneity in Canada, while interrogating the value of postcolonial theory as a lens for working through these topics. With the objective of “[making] discernible the language rules governing our critical choices and the conceptual frameworks we mobilize, consciously or not” (9), Cultural Grammars challenges existing notions of nation, home, nostalgia, and authenticity, and explores the linkages between the respective histories that shape transnational and Indigenous identities.

Chapters focused on Indigenous experiences indicate a contemporary movement from positions of resistance to positive transformation and reconciliation. “Canadian Indian Literary Nationalism?” written collaboratively by Kristina Fagan, Daniel Health Justice, Keavy Martin, Sam McKegney, Deanna Reder, and Niigaanwewidam James Sinclair, critiques various aspects of Indigenous Literary Nationalism, questioning how Indigenous Literary Nationalists can continue to assert sovereignty, yet honour the diversity that exists within their nations while working within a broader system that considers viability equal to ideological homogeneity. Renate Eigenbrod’s analysis of Wagamese’s fictional work highlights a broader literary shift from narratives of dispossession, to writing about the transformation and adaptation of Indigenous values to new contexts.

Much of Cultural Grammars investigates diaspora to understand transnational mobility and Indigenous deracination (physical relocation and cultural dislocation). The archetypal Jewish diaspora is reconceptualized not only as “an interpretative device for literary and cultural analysis, but also a powerful organizing prism that excludes particular identity formations” (99). Writing from the context of Métis identity politics, Sophie McCall argues that applications of diaspora theory risk promoting generalizations that ignore the diversity inherent in Indigenous experiences. Because not all Indigenous peoples have been displaced, Indigenous relationships to land are complexly mediated, constantly changing, and never static.

“Breaking the Framework of Representational Violence” is particularly relevant to Indigenous experiences in British Columbia. Julia Emberley explores representations of violence towards Aboriginal women in the Pickton Trial, questioning, “how testimonial practices might contribute to a fundamental transformation in how Indigenous women’s bodies are viewed as objects of violence” (66). Similar to other chapters in this book, Emberley challenges the meaning of decolonization by focusing on consolidation, healing, and positive transformation.

Deena Rymhs’ “Word Warriors” has a similar tone, as she explores the deracination of Indigenous peoples incarcerated throughout Canada who deploy pan-Indigenous identities to engage in processes of cultural renewal and colonial resistance. Rymhs argues that the stance of the texts created by these Word Warriors are “post-national,” as they advocate intertribal identities, put forth notions of sovereignty, and engage international communities. Rymhs explains, “in adapting the meaning of warrior to address their present, immediate contexts, and to encompass their personal healing and political activism from prison, Indigenous prisoners invent new ‘cultural grammars’ of their own” (237).

Cultural Grammars is highly sophisticated, intensely theoretical, and can be difficult to apply across disciplines on account of the specificity of some of the literary analysis; however, these concerns are perhaps inevitable when engaging in complex conversations involving multiple overlapping discourses. While the audience may appear narrow, there are moments of insight in each chapter that encourage a broad array of readers to be self-reflexive of the nomenclature and theoretical frameworks employed in their own work.

Cultural Grammars of Nation, Diaspora, and Indigeneity in Canada
By Christine Kim, Sophie McCall, and Melina Baum Singer, editors
Waterloo, Ontario: Wilfred Laurier University Press, 2012. 284 PP. $49.95