- Rethinking Canadian and American Nationality:Indigeneity and the 49th Parallel in Thomas King
In a recent issue of Comparative American Studies devoted to redressing "Canadianists' withdrawal from hemispheric conversations" (Adams and Casteel 5), the guest editors argue that "the past two decades have been marked by a growing recognition of the artificiality of assuming a purely national approach" to humanities scholarship (7). While the interdisciplinary field of "border studies," which focused primarily on the Mexican–US border,1 is an important precursor, hemispheric studies has supplanted this interest in national dividing lines with a more "transnational" (6) comparative orientation, one that attends to "contact zones across the Americas" (10; emphasis added), and thus one that must attend to the Canadian–US as well as Mexican–US borders. In so doing, the field of hemispheric studies raises new and important questions about what might constitute "identity, citizenship, and belonging" (12) within and beyond the borders of the nation-states that constitute the Americas. This article takes heed of the call to "broaden the mandate of inter-American studies beyond a mere refashioning or rehabilitation of US American studies" (7) by turning to the work of a Native and Canadian writer, Thomas King, whose fictional accounts of the diverse experiences of aboriginal peoples highlight the complex role of Canada as well as the US in upholding the borders that delimit the identity and belonging of indigenous peoples.
Hemispheric studies encourage comparative readings from a transnational or even a postnational perspective. King's writings suggest that such approaches may be both useful and problematic for indigenous individuals and groups, whose original occupancy of nation-state lands and alternative notions of nation remain either marginalized or unacknowledged altogether. Moreover, to move toward a hemispheric model that subordinates the idea of nation to [End Page 600] hemispheric geopolitical affiliations at a time when many aboriginals are attempting to make land claims and assert their sovereignty is to discount the need, however contradictory, for stable notions of the nation-state, which would allow such negotiations to take place. Much like the Latin Americanists cited by Claire F. Fox and Claudia Sadowski-Smith in their article "Theorizing the Hemisphere," the First Nations also might greet "calls to 'post-nationalism' with ironic questions about when exactly the 'national' transpired" (9). Indeed, King's writings—and in particular his attentiveness to the Canadian–US border-crossing experiences of his Native characters—demonstrate that the simultaneous need for and undermining of nation-state structures go hand-in-hand for indigenous peoples. Attending to such indigenous perspectives adds yet another dimension to hemispheric studies by situating Canada's colonialist practices in a larger hemispheric context.
As King's texts demonstrate, dispersed across the traditional borders of the nation-state are other nations, races, ethnicities, and cultures—such as those of First Nations peoples—divided by the traditional imperialist demarcations. Native lands, in a sense, lie "in-between" the borders of the nation-state because they are affected by them, but they are also conceived of as independent places by the tribes who reside on them. For aboriginals, the space between the borders of the nation-state and the lands that were historically occupied by Native North American tribes generates gaps in conventional notions of nationhood that allow King and other writers responsive to a tribal vision to explore alternative definitions of identity and community.
King depicts the Canadian–US border as a place of multiple, shifting contact zones, national and tribal, constantly subject to change.2 His critical focus on the 49th parallel shifts the terms of debates over border studies northward, across the hemisphere, to a border that marks (an)Other legacy of differences. King exploits Canadians' uncertainties about their relationship to "America" to develop a sophisticated, ironic, and often comic treatment of national borders, and then uses this perspective to examine the subtleties of an indigenous hemispheric politics, all the while avoiding an assimilation of Native tribal customs and traditions into a discourse of Eurocentric nationhood. His works refashion border studies and, more importantly, hemispheric studies by looking both within and beyond national borders to consider the legitimacy of various claims...