- Paper Talk: A History of Libraries, Print Culture, and Aboriginal Peoples in Canada before 1960
Most generally, Paper Talk describes the conflicted relationships between First Peoples and Europeans from missionary contact to 1960. Brendan Edwards documents the long and discouraging road toward Aboriginal use (and creation) of [End Page 415] libraries consistent with their own history and community goals. Although his examples are somewhat specialized, they illuminate current scholarly debates about the complexities of reading and writing and the ambiguous interactions of dissident cultures. Maximizing his dual training as librarian and historian, Edwards covers huge chronological, geographical, and intellectual territories, weaving together church sources and missionary history, accounts of language transliteration and construction, correspondence and biographies of people supportive of Indigenous literacy and libraries, and accounts of Aboriginal publications and interventions in library administration, and he relates all these to important movements in Canadian history such as the Métis Rebellions and the Native Brotherhood. In sum, he recounts compelling stories of cultural appropriation, resistance, cooperation, and invention. His focus on instances of frustrated or creative collaboration between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal individuals, groups, and institutions addresses some gaps in Canadian history and outlines others only Indigenous peoples can fill.
Edwards points out the inherently different, although evolving, aims of European literacy (conversion and assimilation) and the desire of Aboriginal peoples to use literacy and libraries to articulate and preserve their cultures. He builds on the brilliant recent work of scholars (Germaine Warkentin, Joyce Banks, Elizabeth Boone, Walter Mignolo, Harvey Graff, and Bruce Greenfield, among many others) on traditional Indian sign systems, like the birch bark hieroglyphics Father Chrestien LeClerq found among the Acadian Mi'kmaq in 1677, within wider literacies. Edwards demonstrates the importance of priests and ministers who worked to understand Aboriginal cultures and the less celebrated Indigenous individuals who used their educations for diverse ends. For instance, he gives full credit to the Ojibwe Methodist missionaries Peter Jones (Kahkewaquonaby) and Henry Bird Steinhauer for their contributions to James Evans's creation of the Cree syllabary. He portrays the Mohawk bureaucrat Charles A. Cooke (Thawennensere) as a tireless visionary whose early proposals for a National Indian Library were rejected by the Indian Affairs Department for ideological and budgetary reasons but eventually bore some fruit. He argues that philanthropists like Lady Augusta Wood and groups like the Fort St. James Homemakers' Club, who helped construct model community libraries outside the public schools, built upon long and specific traditions of Indigenous literacy.
Although situated at several theoretical crossroads, Edwards's prose is clear and efficient. Some repetition is necessary because his argument contains many strands and foci. This embarrassment of riches means that Edwards is not able to pursue all the questions he touches upon. (E.g., had the entanglement of Christian missionaries with Aboriginal peoples' exposure to books and libraries made the history of Indigenous girls and women as readers, writers, and librarians significantly different from that of Indigenous boys and men? Are some traditional Aboriginal cultures exceptionally visually oriented, and, if so, what are the implications of that difference?)
Edwards's extensive notes often provide lucid outlines of scholarly controversies, and his bibliography will tempt a variety of readers. The appendices further documenting the appalling state of Indian school libraries in the 1930s and 1940s seem slightly extraneous but may be useful for teachers and librarians. Scarecrow Press has produced a quality paperback, with apt but austere illustrations.
The word "papertalk" might be an historical noun, describing the thousands of transcribed speeches of Indigenous chiefs residing in imperial repositories like the National Archives of Canada. By ending his study in the 1960s, Edwards avoids [End Page 416] controversies about cultural restitution. In a more contemporary sense, however, "paper, talk" can also be read as an imperative that cultural texts speak to Indigenous lives and communities. While Edwards does not directly address "the post-1960 . . . concern over perceived lack of Aboriginal [library] patronage" (168), he contextualizes that concern. All the current...