Culture and community need stories
by Carle Steel
The Sâkêwêwak Storytellers Festival
MacKenzie Art Gallery and the Artesian
March 29 - 31
On the back of the Canadian 20 dollar bill, there's an illustration of a Bill Reid sculpture of a canoe overfull with characters from Haida mythology. Beside it, in tiny, bilingual type, reads a quote from Gabrielle Roy:
"Could we ever know each other in the slightest without the arts?"
It's a quaint thought now, in Stephen Harper's Canada, where when money talks it certainly doesn't say that. Especially in Reid's British Columbia, where the provincial government cut arts funding by 90 per cent with no political consequences.
These days, very few governments in Canada really care if we know each other in the slightest. Yet as arts advocates, we keep coming back with the same lame-ass argument for support for the arts. We often frame it in terms of our story, usually involving some sort of chafing solitude, domestic or political.
Not that our stories aren't good - we just have trouble expressing their worth to those in power. So we pull out statistics, drop names (Richard Florida, blah blah blah, Richard Florida) and impotently protest each small attack on our cultural institutions.
But these are our stooories, we cry. It's who we are.
Here in Saskatchewan, the arts are faring better than most places. It could be that our stories are more easily framed and understood. If so, it's due in part to the richness of First Nations' contributions to this great pool of narrative we call home.
From powerful myths and legends to post-contact tales of dread, when Aboriginal artists pull out a story, they don't fool around.
The Sâkêwêwak Storytellers Festival devotes itself to honouring all those stories. Featuring artists, performers, traditional knowledge keepers and academics, the Storytellers Festival will take a go at hashing out the stories around the negotiation of Treaty 4 and its meaning in today's social, spiritual, economic and political context.
"They say we are all Treaty people, but we're not," says Janice Acoose, a literary theorist and one of the speakers at this year's festival. A member of the Bird clan from Sakimay First Nation, she doesn't buy the 'we're all in it together' trope of modern education about the treaties.
"You don't carry a Treaty card and I do. It sets me apart," she says. "I wouldn't say we are all Treaty people, but I would say we all have responsibilities as a result of those treaties."
Those responsibilities go beyond what modern Canadians usually assume to be the extent of the trade of land for goodies out of Her Majesty's bounty and benevolence: reserve lands, five bucks every year, health care, education, and certain tax exemptions. It also includes the responsibility to respect First Nations people's right to practise their cultural traditions, which until recently was not respected (to put it mildly) by early Canadian governments, which, among other things, kept Indian reserves under virtual lockdown until the 1960s.
Against this historical backdrop, Acoose says First Nations people have a spiritual responsibility to themselves under the treaties: the duty to recognize their ancestors by carrying indigenous knowledge, culture, and spiritual traditions to future generations, and to retain the connectedness among families and clans that was so important to people pre-contact.
As a young mother, Acoose recognized that she had failed to live up to this part of the bargain.
"When my son was in university and he was learning about literature and heard some of our myths, he said, 'Mom, how come we didn't have stories when we were growing up?' It devastated me when I heard that," she says. "But he was right."
Acoose, who was raised in residential school, says though she had memories of stories and a basic understanding of Anishinabe language, she didn't have the political strength or formal education to articulate those stories to her children.
Acoose went on to become the first Aboriginal person to graduate with a doctorate in English in the province and has made it her life's work to carry those stories into the future.
BIG BROWN BLOBS AND OTHER PROBLEMS
Acoose reads another right between the lines of Treaty 4: literary sovereignty. "We have the right to name ourselves, affirm our beings, to interpret our own stories, to write and speak our own stories, to carry into them our own system of relations."
That's not to say others can't talk about those stories, says Acoose, but it's vital that First Nations people be heard above the din of white society and its ways of studying things.
All stories are political at their most basic level, Acoose says. "If you define politics as just meaning 'I am', set against somebody else who says 'I am', then whoever's voice is stronger is the one whose voice is heard."
In the world of literary theory, the measuring stick for the correct interpretation of Aboriginal stories and mythology is still based on white knowledge. The danger in that kind of interpretation reaches into a bigger kind of politics.
"We have become 'natives', nice brown native Canadians. We don't have culturally specific things that our kids understand anymore," says Acoose.
First Nations stories risk being incorporated into what she calls the Big Brown Blob - the kind of image of a nice, uniform native literature. There is no singular 'native literature', she says, there are only literatures, plural. "We come from many cultures and traditions and ways of life, even within the area of Treaty 4."
"It's the job of the literary theorist not just to say, 'this is a really interesting story,' but to acknowledge and interpret stories from a culturally specific perspective," she says.
The power of this kind of examination goes far beyond the university setting.
"As academics we can make connections to our community through political issues like treaty."
These connections and stories are something Acoose feels bound by her ancestors to embody and protect.
"I am my relations," she says.
For a full list of festival programming visit www.sakewewak.ca.