- From the Iron House: Imprisonment in First Nations Writing
In the wake of the Harper government's residential school apology and the inauguration of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, Deena Rymhs's From the Iron House: Imprisonment in First Nations Writing performs valuable and timely critical interventions. For many non-Indigenous Canadians, the machinery of apology and recompense functions, as Pauline Wakeham notes, as a means of 'silencing resistance' by fixing residential school in the past through the 'instrumental trope' of the 'sad chapter' in Canadian history, thereby permitting mainstream Canadians to wash their hands of complicity in ongoing oppression through performances of collective contrition for identifiably historical transgressions. Rymhs's work lays bare the flaws in such rhetorical repression by analyzing residential-school survival narratives as 'carceral compositions' alongside Indigenous prison writings. From the Iron House foregrounds the continuity between residential school social engineering and the 'parallel insidious presence' of the prison as a contemporary instrument of neo-colonial control in Indigenous lives. Rymhs contextualizes both prison and residential school within an imperial trajectory of Indigenous dispossession, arguing that such carceral spaces are 'not just . . . apparatus[es] of detention and punishment, but . . . structure[s] signifying the colonization, criminalization, and suppression of a people.'
To analyze how authors at the centre of this study struggle against '"overdetermined' position[s] . . . already infused with guilt' as inmates and as Indigenous people, Rymhs turns her considerable critical arsenal toward genre, uncovering how forms of authorial agency are mobilized through formal adaptation and deviance. Rymhs asks, 'How do these [End Page 496] authors enable genre to speak against a silence that judicial and legal institutions have forced upon them?' One compelling answer comes in Rymhs's examination of Lakota/Anishnabe prisoner Leonard Peltier's strategic modification of the 'typical features of the prison autobiography' by reformulating the 'apology' as a political 'defence of his people's actions' in the face of governmental oppression and substituting 'Anishnabe and Lakota cosmologies' for the Judeo-Christian concepts of the afterlife typically relied upon in prison narratives.
Both concise and generally precise, From the Iron House is eminently readable, offering astute analyses of understudied works - like Yvonne Johnson and Rudy Wiebe's Stolen Life, James Tyman's Inside Out, and Jane Willis's Ganiesh - in succinct, hard-hitting chapters that total a mere 128 pages. And by maintaining focus on the political ramifications of carceral spaces, Rymhs avoids the diversionary preoccupation of much Indigenous literary criticism with what Kristina Fagan calls the 'politically soft and shifty . . . external symbols' of Indigenous 'culture' that 'walk close to "folklore."' The study's brevity and political focus, however, come at a cost as Rymhs pays only moderate attention to Indigenous intellectual traditions that might profoundly illuminate the texts under analysis. For instance, although Rymhs rightly acknowledges that prison periodicals illustrate the 'merging [of] a prison oral tradition with indigenous oral traditions,' the latter are treated as decontextualized markers of generic indigeneity rather than signifiers of ongoing cultural production because Rymhs neither provides evidence to characterize the complexity of specific Indigenous oral traditions nor acknowledges how the oral traditions of tribal nations differ. In a more troubling example, Rymhs discusses the Weesageechak and Weetigo episode from Tomson Highway's Kiss of the Fur Queen without reference to either figure's role in Cree cosmology, thereby rendering the former a generic 'Trickster' undifferentiated from Nana'b'oozoo, Napî, Raven, and others, and the latter a stand-in for colonial imposition. Almost fifteen years after Robert Warrior's groundbreaking Tribal Secrets and nearly a decade after Craig Womack's initial forays into tribal-specific literary criticism, Rymhs's decision to read Weesageechak and Weetigo through the lens of Bakhtin's theory of 'taboo' rather than through Cree knowledge sources seems odd and potentially counterproductive to the social and political goals of the project.
Rymhs identifies as an 'outcome' of her study the 'recognition that [carceral] texts ultimately demand [readers'] engagement on a social, not just a literary or interpretive, level.' However, Rymhs is unable to attend consistently to what Fagan describes...