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  • The Reception of Indigenous Life StoriesThe Case of The Days of Augusta
  • Linda Warley (bio)

In part, this is the story of my long, sometimes fraught, and ultimately stimulating relationship with a book. Sometime in the mid- 1990s, I was browsing in the Native-studies section of my local bookstore when I saw, on the very bottom shelf, a slim volume called The Days of Augusta. I pulled it out, looked at the front cover, which showed a compelling black-and-white photograph of an elderly Native woman, and saw that this was a life story. I was conducting research on Indigenous life writing (as I still do), so I bought the book, took it home, read it almost immediately and in one sitting, and then I put it aside. I felt that The Days of Augusta would be a welcome addition to my library, but I also assumed that I would not write about it.

Why did I shelve The Days of Augusta? Because it was one of those “as-told-to” life narratives, undertaken (I assumed) out of anthropological interest, and not a self-authored book, which was the only kind of Indigenous life-writing text I was then interested in studying further. I had learned to be suspicious of this particular kind of book, for it raised so many troubling issues that had to do with a history of Native and non-Native collaborations that are inevitably underwritten by unequal relationships of power. There were so many questions to which I had no ready answers. How close was the book I held in my hands to what the storyteller, Mary Augusta Tappage Evans, actually told or wanted to tell?1 How heavy-handed was the intervention of the white woman recorder, transcriber, and editor of the story, Jean E. Speare? What editorial and design features [End Page 45] had the publisher determined? What unexamined assumptions shaped the many photographs included in the book, which were taken by the white photographer Robert Keziere?2 This might be a book about Tappage’s life, and it certainly records some of her personal experiences, among other topics, but as far as I was concerned in some crucial ways it was not Tappage’s book: most of the shaping and making of it had been done by others. The book felt tainted by a publishing industry that serves up this kind of book in order to satisfy a non-Native audience’s appetite for romanticized Native Canadiana.

And yet I could not leave the book alone. The following year I pulled it off my shelf and read it again. I was preparing to teach a graduate course on Native literatures in Canada, and I was reviewing books to put on the syllabus. All of a sudden The Days of Augusta became a very teachable book. I could use it to raise all of the ethical, political, and aesthetic issues that surround the collecting, transcribing, arranging, editing, and publishing of Indigenous life stories. It would be the problem text that others could be set against.

However, my students (mostly non-Native, but not exclusively) did not respond to the book in the way I had anticipated. Many of them said that they loved The Days of Augusta. They had been moved by their encounter with the words and, no doubt, by the visual images of Tappage. They responded to the persona the text presented. They admired her strength and resilience: she had endured residential school, as well as the loss of both her husband and three of her four children. She was clearly a respected elder, and she cared for and educated children, including those not her own. She knew things: how to deliver babies, how to make a fishing net, how to make useful baskets. She had lived through significant events that had shaped the place in which she and her people lived. She seemed wise and kind. She was poor (the photos of her in her home certainly reveal her meager circumstances), but she had great poise and dignity. And she was sometimes ironic and funny. Apart from the content of the book and the persona it presented, we...


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pp. 45-71
Launched on MUSE
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