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First Person Plural: Aboriginal Storytelling and the Ethics of Collaborative Authorship

By Sophie McCall

Review By Neil Vallance

November 4, 2013

BC Studies no. 179 Autumn 2013  | p. 229-230

While Sophie McCall’s book is aimed primarily at readers of Aboriginal literary studies, she hopes that her book also will be of interest to “scholars investigating the problem of textualizing Aboriginal oral narrative.” This review does not attempt to discuss the merits of the book as literary criticism, but does assess its potential to assist scholars, researchers, and legal counsel working on claims for Aboriginal rights.

The accessible style of the book is an excellent start. The content is arresting because McCall applies her critical skills to an unusual range of topics. In addition to exciting events such as Inuit filmmaking and the Oka Crisis, she tackles seemingly dull affairs such as the Mackenzie River Pipeline Inquiry, the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples (RCAP), and the Delgamuukw trial. McCall analyzes all of them as “told-to narratives.” Historically, in the production of such works, “non-Aboriginal recorders” collected, edited, and structured “stories by Aboriginal narrators” and then submitted them to “numerous changes, omissions, and manipulations, while claiming sole authorship on the title page” (2). As a result they are commonly assumed to be “synonymous with literary colonization,” and not worth further study (5). However, McCall believes there is value in the critique of old narratives and the creation of new ones, provided they make visible “the degrees of authorship and degrees of collaboration between storytellers, recorders, translators, editors, and authors,” and track “the subtle shifts in the balance of power between mediators” (2).

McCall presents each topic from at least two points of view, and then analyses them as if they were in dialogue with each other. For example, the Oka Crisis chapter examines four films by Alanis Obomsawin that collectively “instantiate Obomsawin’s technique of multiple tellings, in which stories from Kanehsatke are retold in new interpretive frames” (89). McCall’s approach also produces fresh insights into familiar works. For example, she notes a central paradox in Tom Berger’s report on the Mackenzie River Pipeline Inquiry: “while he argues that it is time for Aboriginal people to ‘speak for themselves,’ he places considerable importance upon the role of federal leadership to end paternalism and move towards self-government” (48). With respect to the RCAP report, McCall observes that, “The need to preserve the report’s narrative resulted in the paraphrasing, bracketing, or elimination of testimony that did not fit with the commission’s story of improvement” (113).

In sum, McCall argues that “reading and writing collaborative, cross-cultural, composite texts such as told-to narratives provides a way to imagine a new politics of voice and of sovereignty” (16). This may be true, but the obstacles in the way of converting imagination into reality are immense in the realm of Aboriginal rights claims. McCall is at her best when using her considerable analytical skills to pick apart the players described in each chapter, such as the “liminal figures (plaintiffs, defendants, cultural translators, expert witnesses, lawyers)” in land claims trials, “who are testifying, performing, recording, translating, debating, editing, and arranging oral utterances” (9).

First Person Plural: Aboriginal Storytelling and the Ethics of Collaborative Authorship
By Sophie McCall 
Vancouver: UBC Press, 2011. 268 pp, $32.95 paper