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From the Iron House

Imprisonment in First Nations Writing

Deena Rymhs

Publication Year: 2008

In From the Iron House: Imprisonment in First Nations Writing, Deena Rymhs identifies continuities between the residential school and the prison, offering ways of reading “the carceral”—that is, the different ways that incarceration is constituted and articulated in contemporary Aboriginal literature. Addressing the work of writers like Tomson Highway and Basil Johnston along with that of lesser-known authors writing in prison serials and underground publications, this book emphasizes the literary and political strategies these authors use to resist the containment of their institutions.

The first part of the book considers a diverse sample of writing from prison serials, prisoners’ anthologies, and individual autobiographies, including Stolen Life by Rudy Wiebe and Yvonne Johnson, to show how these works serve as second hearings for their authors—an opportunity to respond to the law’s authority over their personal and public identities while making a plea to a wider audience. The second part looks at residential school narratives and shows how the authors construct identities for themselves in ways that defy the institution’s control. The interactions between these two bodies of writing—residential school accounts and prison narratives—invite recognition of the ways that guilt is colonially constructed and how these authors use their writing to distance themselves from that guilt.

Offering new ways of reading Native writing, From the Iron House is a pioneering study of prison literature in Canada and situates its readings within international criticism of prison writing. Contributing to genre studies and theoretical understandings of life writing, and covering a variety of social topics, this work will be relevant to readers interested in indigenous studies, Canadian cultural studies, postcolonial studies, auto/biography studies, law, and public policy.

Published by: Wilfrid Laurier University Press

Series: Indigenous Studies


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p. vii

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p. ix

This book is, in part, the culmination of the energy and dedication of individuals other than myself. My sincere thanks go to Glenn Willmott for nurturing this project in its various stages. Laura Murray’s sharpness brought an intellectual deftness to this study. The two anonymous readers reviewing the manuscript contributed to the breadth and ...

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pp. 1-22

In a “small, juvenile female cage” with “green cement floor, faded yellow cement walls and ceiling,” Yvonne Johnson surveys her prison cell from a thin plastic mattress (Wiebe and Johnson 368). She is awaiting a jury’s verdict in a North Battleford prison after providing testimony against her brother for rape. As she observes her surroundings, she notes the names ...

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Part I. Genre in the Institutional Setting of the Prison

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pp. 23-28

Prison literature occupies a curious, one might even say paradoxical, place in a society’s philosophical and literary imagination. In his introduction to The Time Gatherers, a collection of prisoners’ writing, Hugh MacLennan summarizes the attraction of prison writing for non-incarcerated readers: “If other readers are like myself, they will find some pages here which will ...

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1. Barred Subject: Leonard Peltier’s Prison Writings

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pp. 29-39

Leonard Peltier’s Prison Writings provides a recent, paradigmatic example of the generic innovation and reinscription of master discourses from the prison. Convicted of killing two FBI officers on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota on June 26, 1975, Peltier is sitting out two life sentences in Leavenworth Federal Penitentiary in Kansas. His ...

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2. James Tyman’s Inside Out: An Autobiography by a Native Canadian

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pp. 40-48

Inside Out was written in six weeks while Tyman was serving a two-year prison sentence at Saskatoon Correctional Centre. Experimenting first with crime fiction, Tyman turned his attention to writing his life story—a story that, by the time he was twenty-four, included a lengthy rap sheet and a growing pattern of recidivism. Like Peltier, Tyman ...

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3. Auto/biographical Jurisdictions: Collaboration, Self-Representation, and the Law in Stolen Life: The Journey of a Cree Woman

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pp. 49-66

Yvonne Johnson is a woman of Cree and mixed blood serving twenty-five years to life in a Canadian prison. Convicted of first-degree murder in 1991 for the death of a Wetaskiwin man, she has served time at the Kingston Prison for Women (P4W), the Okimaw Ohci Healing Lodge in Saskatchewan, and, more recently, the Edmonton Institute for Women. ...

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4. Prison Collections and Periodicals

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pp. 67-82

In an illuminating survey of the penal press in Canada, criminologist Robert Gaucher points out the “dearth of available documentation which provides an account of the experiences of criminalization and incarceration from the perspective of those subjected to it” (“Canadian Penal Press” 3). Gaucher performs his own inaugural work as he ...

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Part II. Genre in the Institutional Setting of the Residential School

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pp. 83-87

The movement from prison writing to residential school accounts is premised on the proximate place these two structures occupy in the carceral continuum sketched out in the introduction. Together, these two bodies of literature constitute a larger category of “carceral writing”—works written from the carceral spaces of the prison and residential school. In ...

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5. A Residential School Memoir: Basil Johnston’s Indian School Days

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pp. 88-100

The publication in 1988 of Basil Johnston’s Indian School Days initiated an explosion of writing about residential schools in Canada. A narrative re-creation of life at the Garnier Residential School for Boys by one of its “former […] inmates” (11), Johnston’s memoir helped mobilize a collective response to these institutions.1 Since its publication, a great deal ...

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6. “It is the law”: Disturbing the Authoritative Word in Tomson Highway’s Kiss of the Fur Queen

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pp. 101-108

In an evocative moment early in Highway’s novel, Abraham and Mariesis Okimasis acknowledge their ineffable sadness at their son’s encroaching departure for the residential school in the south. “‘Soonieye- gimow’s orders,’” Abraham repeats to himself, a phrase uttered by the local priest, Father Bouchard. Rather than soothe the grief of the two parents, ...

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7. Hated Structures and Lost Talk: Making Poetry Bear the Burden

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pp. 109-114

The effect of physical as well as literary structures on expression is the primary focus of my examination of Rita Joe’s poetry about her residential schooling. “Hated Structure: Indian Residential School, Shubenacadie, N.S.” and “I Lost My Talk” provide poetic reflections on the residential school that, despite their different rhetorical styles, are continuous ...

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8. Autobiography as Containment: Jane Willis’s Geniesh: An Indian Girlhood

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pp. 115-124

Published in 1973, the same year as Métis author Maria Campbell’s Halfbreed—an autobiography that would become a seminal text in Aboriginal-Canadian literature—Geniesh: An Indian Girlhood spans Willis’s childhood, from on a remote island in James Bay to her ten-anda- half years at residential schools in Fort George, Quebec, and Sault Ste. ...


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pp. 125-128

Works Cited

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pp. 129-138


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pp. 139-146

E-ISBN-13: 9781554581269
Print-ISBN-13: 9781554580217
Print-ISBN-10: 1554580218

Page Count: 162
Publication Year: 2008

Series Title: Indigenous Studies
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OCLC Number: 244637464
MUSE Marc Record: Download for From the Iron House

Research Areas


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Subject Headings

  • Canadian literature -- Indian authors -- History and criticism.
  • Indians in literature.
  • Canadian literature -- 20th century -- History and criticism.
  • Imprisonment in literature.
  • Indians of North America -- Canada -- Residential schools.
  • Prisoners' writings, Canadian -- History and criticism.
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