- Literary Land Claims: The "Indian Land Question" from Pontiac's War to Attawapiskat by Margery Fee
Margery Fee's Literary Land Claims: The "Indian Land Question" from Pontiac's War to Attawapiskat is as its title suggests a wide-ranging and exceedingly timely contribution to North American treaty rights disputes that have culminated most recently in grassroots movements like Idle No More and the DAPL protests at Standing Rock. Fee's book retreads familiar ground – John Richardson's Wacousta and its far bleaker sequel, Louis Riel's trial speeches, Pauline Johnson's and Archibald Belaney's cultural performances of Indigenous identity, and Harry Robinson's oral origin story – but in an attempt to reconfigure our relation to this very terrain (both the text and the land as imagined through language). Fee's book is in essence an invitation to join her endeavour to decolonize Canadian literary studies as one of many interventions required to promote reconciliation between white settlers and Indigenous people. Articulated with urgency and sincerity, Fee's project demands that we acknowledge the complicity of Canadian literature in the history of colonial occupation. In the process, she both exposes historical attempts to discredit literary claims by or on behalf of Indigenous people (notably by sympathetic but conflicted writers like John Richardson) and recovers more acceptable and culturally sensitive practices of reading. While Fee's demands (of both government and academe) are uncompromising, her characterization of her own undertaking is relatively understated, as she attempts to "move [Riel's language] closer to coherence" and "shift details around land and identity into a better place." The recurrent language of "shifting" acknowledges the work that literary criticism has already undertaken in this regard while signalling the room that yet remains for serious scholarship on familiar stories and texts.
Although the individual chapters do not interlock as neatly as one might expect, the book's structure enables clusters of chapters to sustain a conversation unified more by methodology and theoretical approach than by argument. Early chapters take rhetoric as their focus, with the book's middle chapters leaning heavily on performativity, and orality serving as the emphasis of the last section on Robinson and the epilogue. As exhaustive as Fee's research and attention to critical debates undeniably are, her use of theory as a kind of shorthand might be identified as a potential shortcoming in this otherwise valuable work. For instance, the readings of performativity reference Judith Butler in a rather predictable way, while the chapters dealing with rhetoric cry out for more rigorous attention to work by twentieth- and twenty-first-century theorists in this field. The approach to oral narratives also seems fairly conventional, with Indigenous theorists on the subject (like Christopher Teuton) omitted from the conversation. Still, this is a richly textured, adeptly historicized [End Page 199] work of deep erudition that moves effortlessly between genres as part of an effort to challenge and destabilize notions of fixity (both in a literary sense and in terms of identity).
Fee concludes her trenchant work with a call for a "new genre of academic writing, one that signals its acknowledgement not only of emerging from Indigenous land, but also of learning from Indigenous storied thinking." Fee's own writing potentially models this new genre as her anecdotes about her childhood reading practices and subsequent attempts to shed the colonialist misconceptions they helped foster tell with candour an all too familiar story. The confessional and self-conscious aspects of her approach point a way forward as valuable in itself as her project of recovery and restitution. Moreover, the clarity of Fee's prose, which should prove accessible to undergraduate readers and welcome to academics of various disciplines, legal scholars, and broader socially conscious audiences, also helps to further her attempt to move beyond pathological (a word that recurs regularly in the work) relations and orientations into a far healthier space of mutual regard. A work deeply attuned to the complexities and possibilities of rhetoric, Literary Land Claims enacts its own rhetorical claims as an...