Friday, February 25, 2011

Struggling Privileges

I wrote this short analysis of an article by Emma LaRocque a couple of years ago for a course entitled Writing from the Margins, which was a graduate course focused on Indigenous literature and Indigenous Literary scholarship.  It was an incredible course, and this, my fourth of five journal entries is the only one that really looks at a specific article and explores the discourse of Aborginality and resistance literature as a means of maintaining and growing Aboriginal identity in the face of attempts to "pan-Indianize" Aboriginal people and to re-marginalize Aboriginal  people's voices by using a cross-cultural approach.  I don't think you need to read the article to understand my piece below.

The course itself was fascinating as it seemed to play out everything we were exploring in the scholarship.  By centering the Aboriginal literature and voice, we were also centering the worldview, perspective, indeed the Indigenous people in the classroom, which had the unintended (or intended, I am still not sure) consequence of marginalizing the traditional voice of privilege in the room: that of the non-Indigenous person.  I have always been intrigued by relationships of power and how power is maintained as well as how resistance is achieved by marginalized people.  This class was incredible to be a part of and allowed me to observe the reversal of power and the attempts to retake power carried out by the traditional power-holders, as well as the desire to hold onto the newly acquired power as expressed by the Indigenous students.  Two years later, I still go back to reflecting on this class, I recently contacted my grad advisor to ask her another question about it, and I continue to consider how different group assignments were designed and continue to analyse my experiences against that of another colleague from the class, with whom I enjoy working.

In the piece below, I also mention the term hybridization, which continues to be a huge problem for me.  This is one definition, I have others, I have argued with graduate colleagues over its meaning, changed my mind on it, cursed it...It means different things to different groups of Indigenous peoples in Canada, based on their lived experience, history and circumstances, all built on the foundation of colonialism.  I will go into hybridization in more depth another time, but thought I would mention it here, because I mention it below and it is a term that I struggle with.

In working t
owards an understanding of the discourse of margins and mainstreams, as explored in LaRocque’s (2002) article, Teaching Aboriginal Literature.  LaRocque (2002) positions herself as an Aboriginal scholar and teacher, teaching Native literature within a Native Studies department of a university, pointing out the issues surrounding the development of literature from the margins, as Native literature is positioned, and the mainstream location of English and English literature.  The challenges of mainstreaming a marginalized literary worldview are made apparent when you consider that the mainstream discourse, that of English literature, is the discourse and language of the colonial powers.  English privileges the oppressors by making their language and experience the normal language and experience, ensuring that the marginal remain so.

LaRocque (2002) asserts McMaster and Martin, by stating, “To be an Aboriginal person, to identify with an Indigenous heritage in these late colonial times, requires a life of reflection, critique, persistence and struggle.” (p. 211)  She is arguing that all Aboriginal people are not ‘cut from the same cloth’, each person brings his or her own heritage, lived experience and history with them, they can not and should not be expected to know everything about the Aboriginal experience.  Yet, despite this, there is an expectation that the Aboriginal teacher be the expert on Aboriginal contexts and writing.  In addition, much of the writing was dismissed as ‘cut from the same cloth’, revealing a lack of understanding and knowledge about Aboriginal writing.  This is true of both non-Aboriginal and Aboriginal people; they have the same shared experience (p. 213) and learning informing their background understanding of Aboriginal peoples and writing.

LaRocque comes back around to questions of authenticity (p. 219), particularly as she questions who should be teaching Native literature in English departments.  She makes some interesting points: the Aboriginal identity is complicated in light of colonialism, there are many Aboriginal epistemologies which are affected by this colonialism and there is a shared Native experience (p. 220) based on the colonial (my emphasis) experience, but it is not all-encompassing.  As well, she challenges the Academy’s ongoing desire to erase the Native experience from Native literature and scholarship.  With the challenge presented by the need to define the Native experience, there is always a desire to set one specific definition that will apply to all Native people and all Native writing, a definitive Native experience.  As LaRocque points out, this is not possible; there is no one experience that can be commodified, but there is a theory and praxis (p. 221) which allows that there is an epistemology necessary in the identity, not just having blood (ibid.).

LaRocque challenges the Academy’s claims to cross-cultural rights to Native material, as it does not acknowledge or incorporate Aboriginal praxis into their scholarship (p. 221).  This is cultural appropriation and an attempt to erase the Aboriginal from Aboriginal scholarship.  She argues (ibid.) for the right of Aboriginal scholars to protect the Aboriginality of their praxis and their identities.  “Aboriginal identity and Aboriginal Rights are inextricably related” (ibid.).  The decolonization played out on the Academic stage is a reflection of the larger attempts to decolonize in this country.  As well, the non-Aboriginal scholar’s attempt to remove the Aboriginality from Aboriginal scholarship reflects the larger colonial attempt to erase Aboriginal Rights from blocking Canada’s designs on the land.  Aboriginal Rights are challenged by the Canadian nation-building myth (Mackey, 2002), which seeks to remove difference and create a sameness across Aboriginal identity, removing the final resistance to the benevolent society (ibid.), the multicultural, all inclusive state.  She calls the cross-cultural idea hybridization (p. 222), meant to bring together and blend, but really a means of erasure.

 LaRocque (2002) argues that this resistance to hybridization (p. 222), in opposition to Mackey (2002), who I interpreted as a supporter, is the means by which Aboriginal people are able to resist further loss of Aboriginality within their praxis, as well as on the grander scale.  Her process of resistance scholarship (LaRocque, 2002, p. 214) challenges privileged knowledge, ensuring that ‘voice’ and ‘engaged research’ are used to critically confront dominant understandings for the purposes of decolonizing Aboriginal scholarship.


LaRocque, E. (2002) Teaching Aboriginal Literature: The discourse of margins and mainstreams, in Eigenbrod, R. et al. Creating Community: A roundtable on Canadian Aboriginal Literature.  CA, Theytus Books.

Mackey, E. (2002). The House of difference: Cultural politics and national identity in Canada.  Toronto: University of Toronto Press.

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