What simpler way to celebrate the most enduring of Canadian values: coming face-to-face with the Earth, the Universe and Everything, alone, and for the first time, and the first time again tomorrow, and next year, and in a century.
It is a fine and beautiful thing, but what if it’s not the Earth we’re meeting, what if this is social space, and what if it is a people? What then? Is it natural for a drama to have no resolution? Is it natural to claim that Indigenous cultures celebrate eternal return, living in constantly repeating circles, while European cultures are linear, and lead to historical and personal development, when it is the European culture that declared that and lives it out here day by day by day, year by year by year? What if there were better ways of doing this?
What if it wasn’t for the first time? At the moment, Indigenous histories are being tacked on respectfully as prefaces to European history in this place, as the stories they are told by fit only poorly into European historical models, but doesn’t it work the other way? What if European history in this place were told in Indigenous models? What if we stopped calling that fiction? Sherman Alexie takes a stab at it in You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me. It’s a memoir of his mother, mostly, and a pretty flawed one, but that’s part of its greatness. Alexie attempts to incorporate some Pow Wow and drumming tradition into the form of his narrative. When he does so in a large, structural manner, spanning entire sections of the book, it works intriguingly well. When he does so with mundane repetitions on the line or paragraph level, it’s unbearably painful, as much lost between cultures as this strange little camp on the Thompson River, with a highway and a railroad behind it and a railroad across from it and sometimes trains screaming by at once.
But that’s the beauty of it: this being here with everyone at the same time, and not for the first time, not ever. Rather than looking past the struggles of history to some kind of pure experience, we can look at it all at once.
The standard Canadian model for doing this work is fiction, but isn’t that a way of deflecting the drive for reconciliation? lt is easy to remain yourself while writing fiction, but changing your self to become a character among others, in a storied landscape rather than a mapped one, isn’t that the harder work? To be on the shore of the salmon’s story and to leave no trace, lest one stop it?
Is it the idea of an eternal return, of an eternally-rejuvenating Earth, outside of human agency, the thing that allows us to look past ourselves as if we weren’t there? It does the salmon great disrespect. It strips them of personhood. Right now in Canada, Indigenous peoples are working hard to reclaim personhood from the Canada Indian Act, which denied it to them and made them wards of the state. That is a fine start. Let’s get behind it…
… but let’s not …
These are good questions for many reasons, but one is that currently in Canadian culture “nature” is the space in which city people (citizens) can recreate (re-create themselves) by exposure to clean air and water; the resulting emotional charge and shedding of urban stress allows them to return to the city and put their shoulder to the wheel again. It makes the cities bearable. We have learned this well in the Okanagan Valley these last two summers: this beautiful place has revealed itself to be tawdry as soon as the smoke from forest fires has taken away the sky. Without the sky, we are left only with the non-re-created space of built culture:
OK, fine, it focusses the attention.
Let’s not turn away, back to simple fictions.
We are not living in a novel.