- Storied Landscapes: Ethno-Religious Identity and the Canadian Prairies by Frances Swyripa
Storied Landscapes documents the narratives and memorials of several groups that settled on the Canadian prairies in the late nineteenth century. Including Ukrainians, Icelanders, Mennonites, Doukhobors, Jews, Poles, Germans, and other Scandinavians, the book compares the ways these groups have remembered their “pioneer” origins by marking the prairie landscape with cemeteries, centennials, jubilees, state-sponsored memorials, and more private observances. Beginning and ending the book with brief personal disclosures of her own engagement with telling stories of the landscape, historian Frances Swyripa largely focuses on comparisons of these groups as “ethno-religious” units. She considers their different approaches to crafting founding myths based on historically specific men and mostly idealized women, on religious narratives of martyrdom or exile, and on the “regional particularity” (40) of their sites of departure from the homeland and arrival on the prairies.
Overall, Storied Landscapes is a helpful overview of white ethnic diversity in the Prairies that recognizes how memorializing the past is an active and contested practice that brings both unity and divisiveness into particular groups. The book offers some of its strongest arguments and most interesting evidence when dealing specifically with the land and its cultural modifications by way of cemeteries and monuments. Chapter Two, “Possessing the Land”, is, in part, a fascinating reflection on how different burial practices among Catholics, the Russian Orthodox, Protestants, and Mennonites led to diverse approaches to the “Christianization of the landscape” (44); Jewish cemeteries extended this diversity beyond Christian modes. Close attention to how theological and ritual practices of specific groups had material and historical effects on the Prairie landscape made this chapter particularly rich.
With chapters on “founding fathers,” diasporic connections, and “symbols of prairie ethnicity,” Swyripa clearly demonstrates that for all of these groups (save for perhaps the Doukhobors), telling stories about the ways that they possessed and transformed the Prairies, turning them into “productive” farmland, was a concerted process of both distinction from and adherence to a “mainstream” narrative of Canadian nationhood. The tensions bred of claiming cultural distinctiveness, while also practicing “self-inclusion” (207) in a broadly Canadian narrative is at the heart of Swyripa’s book. Haunting this tension between distinctiveness and inclusion is the ongoing moral burden of what being pioneers in the possessing and Christianizing (or Judaizing) of the Prairies also entailed—the dispossession and desecration of First Nations lands and peoples. Swyripa points to a few examples of Prairie groups who came to recognize their own complicity in this dispossession (148), but more [End Page 369] sustained analysis of the power and violence deployed in layering “multicultural” pioneer narratives on top of the underlying stories of First Nations presence on the land would offer a more complex perspective on just what was at stake in telling new stories about the Prairie landscape.
Methodologically, Swyripa orients her research around “group” narratives, with less attention to face-to-face interactions within or between groups in question. She frequently draws her evidence from local historians or academics who have studied their own ethno-religious groups. Arguing that “multiculturalism” along group lines was effectively in practice in the Prairies already in the late nineteenth century, Swyripa makes the intriguing comment that “[r]ather than being erased or minimized, ethno-religious differences became more pronounced and ethno-religious diversity became legitimized as part of the physical landscape and western character” (7). The idea that landscape and regional “character” help to legitimize certain kinds of group difference is an insight worth further exploration by other scholars. How did the idea of landscape, and the correlating idea that certain regions produce certain kinds of “character”, render some kinds of group difference more legitimate than others? For example, difference calibrated along ethno-religious lines may have made both Ukrainian and Icelandic people into exemplary Canadian pioneers, but difference viewed along racialized lines has not seemed to provide the kind of legitimacy that could make Chinese settlers into pioneers. (Chinese and Japanese communities are not part...