Mariese Ribas Stankiewicz
Universidade Tecnológica Federal do Paraná
Abstract: By pointing at an indigenous community fragmented by colonization, Jeannette Armstrong writes about the tension of walking in the city, amid loss and absence. In doing so, the poet recentralizes the idea of what is marginal in order to make the silenced not only to speak, but also to reclaim what has been lost. In the light of Homi Bhabha’s notion of hybridity and Fred Wah’s elaborations on hyphenated identities, this essay presents a brief reading of Jeannette Armstrong’s poetic commitment to reassert her people’s culture and history (the Canadian Okaganan), while voicing a hyphenated discourse that may allow for reterritorialization. Thus, the issue of land/place/placement in her poetry is recreated from characteristics such as race, religion, and ethnicity to shield from homogenising Canadian nationality.
Keywords: Okanagan-Canadian poetry. Historical consciousness. Hyphenated discourse. Cultural hybridity.
Resumo: Observando uma comunidade indígena fragmentada pela colonização, Jeannette Armstrong escreve sobre a tensão em se caminhar na cidade, em meio à perda e à ausência. Ao fazer isso, a autora recentraliza a ideia daquilo que está às margens, para fazer o silenciado não apenas falar, mas também reclamar o que foi perdido. Sob a luz das noções de hibridismo de Homi Bhabha e das elaborações sobre as identidades hifenizadas de Fred Wah, este ensaio aborda uma breve leitura do compromisso poético de Jeannette Armstrong em reafirmar a cultura e a história de seu povo (os Okaganan to Canadá), enquanto vocalizando um discurso hifenizado que pode permitir a re-territorialização. Assim, o assunto de terra/local/posicionamento em sua poesia é recriado a partir de características, tais como raça, religião e etnicidade para se proteger da nacionalidade canadense homogeneizante.
Palavras-chave: Poesia Okanagan-canadense. Consciência histórica. Discurso hifenizado. Hibridismo cultural.
Currículo da autora: Professora Adjunta de Literaturas de Língua Inglesa e de Ensino de Língua Inglesa da Universidade Tecnológica Federal do Paraná. Doutora em Estudos Linguísticos e Literários em Inglês (USP). Mestre em Inglês e Literaturas Correspondentes (UFSC). Coordenadora do Programa Institucional de Bolsa de Iniciação à Docência UTFPR-CAPES.
DIFFERENTIATION AND NEGOTIATION IN
JEANNETTE ARMSTRONG’S POETRY: STRATEGIES IN BEHALF OF OKANAGAN CONSCIOUSNESS
Mariese Ribas Stankiewicz
Universidade Tecnológica Federal do Paraná
In the poem entitled “Death Mummer,” by Okanagan writer Jeannette Armstrong, the scenario of a contemporary city reveals the absence of a race: “There are no Indians here”; the good ones are dead, “preserved in alcohol” (ARMSTRONG, 2001, p. 10), that is, poverty and social exclusion makes them hopeless at finding a way out. They feel useless for the community and are often stereotyped while searching for alcohol as a means of compensation for their unhappiness. Indians are part of memories and of bitter interpretations of a so long different culture. So, “in the million dollar museum / that so carefully preserves / their clothing, their cooking utensils / their food” (ARMSTRONG, 2001, p. 10), they are far from being real. The remaining traces of their culture, being marginalized, constantly face rupture.
As many others indigenous poets around the world, Armstrong writes about the memories of her own people in permanent contrast to present reality, which is one of the most profound characteristics of multiculturalism. Inside this analytical scope, but stressing a more creative view of this kind of poetic development, this paper addresses a brief reading of Armstrong’s commitment to reassert the culture and the history of her people, while voicing a hyphenated discourse that may allow for reterritorialization, that is, land/place/placement in her poetry and critical material are recreated from characteristics such as race, religion, and ethnicity to shield from homogenising Canadian nationality. In this sense, as this essay also deals with a view of memories and traditions of a people found in the midst of consequences of post-colonialism, some ideas about identity disfiguration (mainly racial, generational, and geopolitical), by Homi K. Bhabha, may be important to help make out that, after so many years, this has still been a question of culture being dislocated to a space called “beyond”.
Armstrong is an Okanagan-Canadian educator, artist, political activist, and author of anthologies, criticism, children’s books, novels, short stories, and poetry. She is best known for her work on education, ecology, and Indigenous rights. However, as she was born and grew up on the Penticton Indian reserve in British Columbia’s Okanagan Valley, much of her artistic work is embedded in her community’s political and social matters, as one can see in poems such as “History Lesson,” “Trickster Time,” or “Bone Game.” Through her literary and critical work, Armstrong claims for the rewriting of her people’s history and for the raising of consciousness of its cultural values: “Our children, for generations, were seized from our communities and homes and placed in indoctrination camps until our language, our religion, our customs, our values, and our societal structures almost disappeared” (ARMSTRONG, 2005, p. 239). In doing so, she brings about material from Native oral tradition and myths as they are still linked with the present situation of her people, also setting forward a hybrid discourse that dispels counterfeit stereotypes of Natives and helps her delineate her people’s heterogeneity.
These discourses produced in resolution of post-colonialism or postmodernity would be related to cultural embattlements implying superposition and displacement in the realm of difference. In this sense, the more a people disfigure their tradition of past generations, the more the differences could be redefined and renegotiated. According to Bhabha, one of the important consequences of this is related to the identity perceptions in our contemporaneity. In a deconstructive way, this may be explained by saying that those perceptions were restricted to binary positions often fixed in modernity, but have found a way to become more fluid and transitory, which are characteristics of a time of mobility of global population.
In discourses of colonialism, hybridity is a depreciative word meaning miscegenation or mixed-breeds, that is, a hybrid, sterile product that resulted from the relationship between the colonizer and the colonized. This issue has to do with hegemony and eugenics, which implies a really strong matter of power relation. On the other hand, this same word “hybridity” occupies a central role in postcolonial discourse. In the light of these views, it has the benefit of the “in-betweeness” state, the overlapping of two cultures and the ability to negotiate the difference. This is part of the discussion promoted by Bhabha about cultural hybridity.
The theoretician has developed his own concept of hybridity from literary studies and cultural theory to define the structure of culture and identity within the circumstances of colonial antagonism and inequity. For Bhabha, hybridity is a way to describe the emergence of new voices exactly because it appears from the relationship between the colonizer and colonized. So it is fertile and challenges the validity and authenticity of any essentialist cultural identity.
In views of this, one can say that every kind of culture is in a continuous process of hybridity and, according to Bhabha, this new transfiguration supplants the established pattern with a “mutual and mutable” representation of cultural difference that is positioned in-between the colonizer and colonized:
For a willingness to descend into that alien territory (…) may reveal that the theoretical recognition of the split-space of enunciation may open the way to conceptualizing an international culture, based not on the inscription and articulation of culture’s hybridity. To that end we should remember that it is the ‘inter’ – the cutting edge of translation and negotiation, the inbetween space that carries the burden of the meaning of culture. It makes it possible to begin envisaging national, anti-nationalist histories of the ‘people’. And by exploring this Third Space we may elude the politics of polarity and emerge as the others of our selves (BHABHA, 1994, p. 56; the author’s italics).
Thus, it is the indeterminate place in between subject-positions that are mentioned to be the location of the disruption and displacement of hegemonic colonial narratives of cultural structures and practices, which Bhabha calls Third Space. So the space inbetween is a third one in relation to the colonizer and the colonized.
On the verge of this thought, indigenous peoples grow their art and culture. Subjected to European colonialism, besides being characterized as inferior, primitive, and unable to constitute suitable political, economic, religious and cultural structures and histories, every Native people of the New World is usually regarded as one large group (Indians), despite their heterogeneity, which, consequently, often sets them apart from progressive contemporary analyses of their particular identity traits. Diverging from this idea, in “The disempowerment of first North American Native peoples and empowerment through their writing,” Armstrong (2005, p. 241) declares: “We, as Native people, through continuously resisting cultural imperialism and seeking means toward teaching co-operative relationships, provide an integral mechanism for solutions currently needed in this country. The author voices the “we” of her people, which expresses the refusal to participate of the Canadian nationalistic aesthetic, indicating an escape from homogenising narratives. In the words of Fred Wah, this stance towards literature can be called “‘alienethnic’ poetics,” which is “often used for its ethnic imprint and frequently originating from the necessity to complicate difference” (WAH, 2000, p. 52). Thus, categorization segments social environment in classes, whose members are considered as equals in reason of their common characteristics, actions, and intentions.
Although her main thematic choices have to do with the history being told from her people’s perspective, as she does in “History Lesson,” or with their oral tradition, as in “Wind Woman,” her poetic discourse can be analysed as a hyphenated one. It is in that Third Space in which happens the “cutting edge of translation and negotiation” (BHABHA, 1994, p. 56), and that is essentially critical of essentialist positions of identity and a conceptualization of original or originary culture. Native art is that space which is a mode of articulation, describing a fruitful, and not merely contemplative, space that creates new possibility. As a means of discourse, I functions as an interruptive and interrogative space of new forms of cultural meaning and production, blurring the existing boundaries between we and them, and calling into question established categorizations of culture and identity.
However, the issue of hyphenated discourses, while concerning Native writers, is complex, because, in Wah’s words, these writers generally “feel a strong need to participate in a tangible community (despite the cries of ‘separatist’) in order to locate the cortex of their own social content without it being conditioned by first-world perceptions” (WAH, 2000, p. 77). On the other hand, Wah agrees that Native works show hybrid features. Thus, although Armstrong’s work is orchestrated with poetic tools used to resist dominant literary culture, such as references to land and genetic inscription, it also presents some traits of that which Wah calls “hyphenated poetics.” According to him, the hyphen “in the middle,” but “not in the centre” of multicultural compound adjectives metaphorically signals “a crucial location for working at hybridity’s implicit ambivalence” (WAH, 2000, p. 73).
In Armstrong poems, the reader may feel every personae in a state of enunciation, transgression, and subversion of binary positions, going beyond the realm of colonial dualistic opposition. The poet provides a spatial politics of inclusion rather than complete exclusion “that initiate new signs of identity, and innovative sites of collaboration, and contestation, in the act of defining the idea of society itself” (BHABHA, 1994, p. 2). The poems selected encode a counterhegemonic idea, in the sense that, when the colonizer shows hegemonic practices, the hybrid in the poetic content opens a space for attempts to negotiate to mean. They have that hybridity potential with their ability to transverse British, Canadian, and Okanagan cultures and to translate and to negotiate affinity and difference within a dynamic of exchange and inclusion that may start being felt in names and naming. The “play” with writers’ names that may reveal and conceal cultural tendencies and histories disturbs straightforward conclusions about most hybrid writers. Ambivalence resides in names, such as her own, “Jeannette Armstrong,” that is visibly English, concealing every Okanagan trace possible at a first sight. Further textual contact may reveal her history and political position, but will always accentuate the ambivalent character of her work.
Furthermore, the use of the English language throughout her critical work, stressing the aspect of her intellectual arrangement, besides dealing directly with cultural values as such, also outlines the chances of integration and cooperation with the dominant culture. The achievement of communication is, in Armstrong’s project, an essential point:
I don’t think I would go very far in a text if I were reading it through a text that had a lot of indigenous terms and words which didn’t have any meaning to me. I couldn’t continue reading it; I would therefore put it down as literature. Now, if I were reading it, and the literature itself was speaking to me, and the words and terms that were being used were not impeding that, then I would read it all the way through (ISERNHAGEN, 1999, p. 149)
In this sense, the use of code-switching is not strong in her work, that is, “the movement between two languages, (…) functions as part of hyphen poetics as it helps to locate (…) the ability to remain within ambivalence without succumbing to the pull of any single culture” (WAH, 2000, p. 82, 83). The use of Okanagan words in her poetry is not a constant, but English and Red English (that represents a linguistic variety) is part of her cooperative project for extending her people’s cultural survival. Thus, many communities may read poems that speak about her roots and identitary traits. On the other hand, the use of Red English and the almost absence of punctuation are strategically devised in a way that warrants shows of displacement and subversion, as it happens in “History Lesson”: “Father mean well / waves his makeshift wand / forgives saucer-eyed Indians” (ARMSTRONG, 2001, p. 8-10).
In poems, such as “Blood of My People,” “Keepers Words,” and “World Renewal Song,” among others, syntax is interrupted with silence, through gaps in the sentences. Wah verifies that the “gaps that punctuate her poem [“Blood of My People”] reflect the nomadic cut and refuse to settle into English placement of expected syntax and, more basically and politically, into both the imaginary nation and its ideological assault on the land” (WAH, 2000, p. 56). In “Keepers Words,” the silence “tells” about the sacred that cannot be changed, but that, somehow, is missing, because it is not remembered:
Her words smooth carved as bone
and so old no one remembered
were placed side by side
in a pattern
fashioned in the beginning
of her kind
(ARMSTRONG, 2001, p. 61)
Here, one cannot avoid associating the breakdown of a cultural system to loss of memories, which can only reconstruct fragmentary realities. Silence makes her discourse fragmentary at the same time that vindicates the vitalizing of her people’s history. “The cannibal monster / who devours himself / because he changes so much” (ARMSTRONG, 2001, p. 61) stands for the amalgamation and transformation of a series of different cultural traces, which coexist and are made homogeneous by globalizing ideologies.
One way out of cultural colonialism would be to teach the keeping of spiritual and tribal resources that are extremely connected to the land, so that the culture of her people can survive. Armstrong understands, however, that stressing the similarities within a category and the differences with the “other” may have dramatic consequences in the plane of behaviours and perceptions. This stance generally gives place to discriminations, to the extent that it is followed by favourable results to the groups to which one belongs, with a tendency to undervalue the groups from which one distinguishes.
Hence, in order to raise consciousness about her people’s culture without breaking through delicate issues about multiculturalism and globalization, her literary project includes principles to promote positive effects in the relationship with the dominant literary traits. In “Let Us Begin with Courage,” by blending contemporary Canadian issues about multiculturalism and Native intellectual traditions to defamiliarize common notions of Native peoples, Armstrong spins out a series of organic principles that, according to her, are essential for understanding that “the knowledge that the total community must be engaged in order to attain sustainability is the result of a natural process of survival” (ARMSTRONG, 1999, p. 1). Those principles are basically cooperation and pacifism, which she says to be natural to the foundation of Native ideologies.
Her key terms include individual, family, community, and land, which are interrelated in a stable chain. The notion of individual is, of course, not that of individualism, that is, the one that recognizes somebody apart from others. The individual is the talented person who must share his or her gifts with the community. As the four elements above constitute a stable chain, all are dependent on one another and cannot coexist separately. Furthermore, the individual is the powerful cell able to transfer cultural information to later generations, which again depends on the family structure. The family may live through many generations and constitutes a strong network able to spread cultural teaching. The community is that which embodies the identity traits of a given people, engaged in maintaining the principles in the land, which sustain all life.
These four elements cited above take part of a project, whose characteristics coexist in the collective environment of multiculturalism. She strives for accentuating cultural consciousness to her own people and for spreading their ideology to those out of her group willing to interact cooperatively and pacifically. This recipe follows the ancient and effective rules of the Bone Game, which was created and developed by Native peoples for deciding quarrels and disputes without hot conflicts, aggression, or war.
In a bone game, everybody participates with an object, which is passed around all members. A power object is chosen among all the objects of the participants involved in the game. Everybody must agree on the chosen power object. The game follows with the power object being passed around the members. The one who is holding that Object at a certain moment makes a proposal, which is listened, and then, approved or rejected. The power object is a kind of bridge linking all those involved in a dispute and every decision must be made based on consensus (BROWN, 2003).
Since she knows that the problem of social conflicts not only comes from the fight for the right to difference (ethnical, racial, or of gender), but from the fact that those phenomena are used for achieving power, the principles embedded in her project, cooperation and pacifism, much rely on the idea of the Bone Game. Negotiating the land, which is the site of political interests and element of disputes, is a slow process that involves the holding of a power object (here represented by her literary art), so that there can be consensus about the possession and use of the land.
In “Bone Game,” the four elements of Armstrong’s project engage wittily to tell that it is the moment to negotiate. The imagery of “the Okanagan” and “creek beds,” in the first stanza, is meaningful: if there was no land to which the persona belonged, or in which she could find her roots, the poem certainly would not express so intense certainty of place and placement. The persona walks the place to reach a powwow,1 in which she will propose something—imagined as an important issue, because she comments: “At the bone game I will wager / with cunning and skill / everything I own” (ARMSTRONG, 2008, p. 17). The poem treats of the individual, who, knowing the land, is going to meet others in a gathering, at the same time that will have a spiritual contact with the trickster Coyote, an indigenous entity that stands for the forces of good and evil: “I will laugh with coyote / […] / Tonight I will stalk / as I sing his song” (ARMSTRONG, 2008, p. 17).
Because the rupture of cultural and social links increases considerably, when the individual loses his or her land (or home), the redefinition of a place to which belong is a necessary measure proposed by an ethnic writer. Being a nomad constantly in search of a land that now is occupied by a different owner is to discover that “‘where you live,’ is also ‘Other,’ a large poetics term particularly attractive to contemporary ethnopoetics” (WAH, 2000, p. 57). In “History Lesson,” Armstrong tells about the white man’s search for a promised land, which, originally, belonged to her people, to try to wager, and possibly to challenge, the idea that the original owners are the best ones, since everything that she considers sacred about the land was devastated and broken:
Somewhere among the remains
Of skinless animals
Is the termination
To a long journey
And unholy search
For the power
Glimpsed in a garden
(ARMSTRONG, 1991 p. 28)
It states much about the issue of language and the attempts to survive through it, while it tries to preserve the myth that lies in the process of making history by deconstructing historical topics in the colonization of the Natives by the British and the French. Speaking about the tools of conquest, ships and guns, Armstrong’s version of the history also includes the journey to a paradisiacal land, when “Civilization has reached / the promised land” (ARMSTRONG, 1991, p. 47). However, the process of colonization comprises destruction and disorganization, which, eventually, make her people wander away in search of home. In Wah’s words, the “nomadology,” a name coined by Deleuze and Guattari, that is:
(…) the figuring out where [the ethnic writer] is, where to go, how to move, not just through language but in the world, is an investigation of place, as well as placement in said place. For some, this is a reclamation project—and who could blame them, the natives (WAH, 2000, p. 56).
Native peoples have developed, and somehow, changed countless times amidst very harsh realities. Fighting for keeping hold of group cohesion in the face of almost overwhelming obstacles and working toward the realization of common goals are among the tasks of conspicuous Native writers. However, one of the greatest tasks has to do with the integration process that develops along with the raising of consciousness of their people’s culture. This integration will perpetually show hybrid aspects in their art. It is the necessary tool so that communication exists. This in-out procedure describes the spread of literary and cultural representations as well as the historical subjection of Native peoples.
In bringing Bhabha’s views to this essay, I would not forget to remind the reader about a general awareness of his neglect to conceive historical and traditional circumstances that reside inside colonial discourses. Despite of that, this author, as many others who bring postcolonial aspects of cultures in their theories, has the merit of being responsive to the global game of strategic negotiations of affinities and differences, which is optimistic but also complex. His theoretical criticism recognizes the postcolonial reality of that game, and describes the fact that who was once the other has a voice in this world now. After all, in this writing, postcolonial does not mean that those who left Great Britain and France towards Canada have returned. Instead, they are there to stay with the Native people. Indeed, all of them are Native people now, with all those similarities and differences around, and therefore the significant requirement of negotiation.
Because of the increase of cultural consumption – many times appropriating dissimilar cultures – and the globalization of its structure in our days, we all have become members of various communities. This myriad of positions makes transformation an everyday experience. Even if we do not change into a cannibal monster, as one in Okanagan mythology, every morning we wake up to find ourselves in completely new roles. One might ask whether it is necessary for a Canadian Euro-descendant who meets an Indigenous Canadian schoolmate to define him/herself by his or her national identity, being first reaction the impulse to exclude, punish, or ignore.
What makes them choose those labels from among the stuffed bag of identity components, rather than the part of the mother playing with her son, the crazy university professor, or the unhappy Brazilian living a chaotic political situation here in Brazil? Are we really to exclude, punish, or ignore those that do not look like the ones of a group or is there a possibility for breaking through the difference-breeding division between “us” and “them”? This latter possibility might not be completely deceptive for the players of this game these days.
ARMSTRONG, Jeannette. Bone Game. 2001. Disponível em: http://www.parl. gc.ca/Information/about/people/poet/poem-of-the-week/poems-.htm?param=40. Acesso em: 25 fevereiro 2015.
ARMSTRONG, Jeannette. Breath Tracks. Stratford: Williams-Wallace/Penticton – Theytus, 1991.
ARMSTRONG, Jeannette. The Disempowerment of First North-American Native Peoples and Empowerment through their Writing. In: GOLDIE, Terry; MOSES, Daniel David. An Anthology of Canadian Native Literature in English. Don Mills, Ont.: Oxford UP, 2005.
ARMSTRONG, Jeannette. Let us Begin with Courage: Ecoliteracy: Mapping the Terrain. 1999. Disponível em: http://www.ecoliteracy.org/publications/pdf/jarmstrong_letusbegin.pdf. Acesso em: 25 fevereiro 2015.
BHABHA, Homi K. The Location of Culture. London e Nova York: Routledge, 1994.
BROWN, Michael, (Org.). The Bone Game: A Native American Ritual for Developing Personal Power and Group or Tribal Consciousness. 2000. Disponível em: http://www.michaelbrown.org/HTML/BoneGame.htm. Acesso em: 13 abril 2015.
ISERNHAGEN, Hartwig. Jeannette Armstrong. In: Mamaday, Vizenor, Armstrong: Conversations on American Indian Writing. Norman: U of Oklahoma P, 1999.
QUIRK, Randolph. Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English. 3ª ed. Essex: Pearson, 1995.
WAH, Fred. Faking it: Poetics and Hybridity. Edmonton: NeWest Press, 2000.
 Powwow: “an American Indigenous ceremony (as for victory in war; an American Indian social gathering or fair usually including competitive dancing; a meeting for discussion” (QUIRK, 1995, p. 1104).