- Literary Land Claims: The “Indian Land Question” from Pontiac’s War to Attawapiskat by Margery Fee
The title of this book encapsulates its view of literature as a discourse involved in the stabilization of claims to land. Margery [End Page 475] Fee, who has taught Indigenous literatures for more than thirty years in Canada, makes a strong case for the role Canadian literature and literary criticism have played in the naturalization of settler occupation of Indigenous land. Certain stories—and their institutionalization—have reinforced Lockean concepts of rightful possession, illustrated a national character formed out of the land, circulated representations of Indigenous peoples as vanishing, and maintained the condition of sanctioned ignorance in which it could appear that the “Indian land question” had been settled.
In developing the concept of the literary land claim, however, this book aims to move beyond what has been called “representations criticism,” with its continued focus on canonical texts and its tendencies to moral condemnation, on the one hand, and arbitrations of “authentic” and “fake” identity, on the other (33). Fee keeps land in view as the ultimate stake. Crucial to this departure is her sustained engagement with Indigenous perspectives and responses from within the two-hundred-year history she examines. Equally important to this shift from identity to land is Fee’s assembly of an archive that confounds the quest for purity. The writers, performers, and storytellers who provide the focus for each of the chapters demand acknowledgment of contradiction, paradox, contingent expression and reception, and the particularity and variety of experiences and identifications that connect their work to issues of land.
Born into a fur-trading family and living into the era in which Indigenous peoples were framed as wards of the new settler state, John Richardson (1796–1852) used paradox and the parodic redeployment of tropes in his historical novels to highlight the issues of land and honorable relationship that an emerging settler nation was in the process of burying. Louis Riel (1844–1885) offered the vision of a “cosmopolitan and egalitarian” future for Canada’s North-West in his two addresses to a court trying him for high treason in 1885 (89). He was received as incoherent because, as Fee puts it, he was attempting to construct an audience that could hear him, as he reasoned on the basis of assumptions of Indigenous rights and title, nation-to-nation relationship, and a complex weaving of epistemological traditions. E. Pauline Johnson (1861–1893) assumed her great-grandfather’s Mohawk name, Tekahionwake, in order to counter her exclusion as inauthentic from Mohawk society and the [End Page 476] settler patriarchal presumption that she would disappear beneath a husband’s name in marriage. She deployed the cultural capital of this name to make political claims for Indigenous rights and to insist on the contemporaneity of Mohawk traditions, but she did so “independently of the Haudenosaunee political structure” (143). Archibald Belaney, or Grey Owl (1888–1938), likewise worked in the tradition of the “performing Indian,” and was dismissed, eventually, as a fraud and a cultural appropriator, but Fee stresses that this reading misses the way Belaney’s disidentification from Englishness took him to a serious ecological learning from the Anishinaabeg and to promoting a message of Indigenous stewardship of the land. Harry Robinson (1900–1990), the Syilx storyteller from the Okanagan, engaged in a storytelling practice that thematically stressed the usefulness of literacy and print culture to struggles to establish land title. Fee interprets Robinson’s postcontact origin story, “Coyote Makes a Deal with the King of England,” as the record of a Salish struggle over access to documentation and an allegory of right political relationships based on an ethos of reciprocity.
Fee derives key aspects of her methodology—her interdisciplinarity, her sense of the intimacy of story and law, her attentiveness to the situatedness of speech and writing, and her approach to the truth of stories as lying in “what we make of them” (211)—from Indigenous thought. At the same time, she does not...