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Inuit & Indigenous Cultures, & history of the West

By 49thShelf
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Keavy Martin is author of the new book Stories in a New Skin: Approaches to Inuit Literature. Here, she recommends some of her favourite reads on Inuit culture, Indigenous culture, and the history of Western Canada (and we've provided a link also to her own book). Martin is an assistant professor in the Department of English and Film Studies at the University of Alberta. She also works seasonally as an instructor with the Pangnirtung Summer School, a University of Manitoba Native Studies program run in Pangnirtung, Nunavut.
If This Is Your Land, Where Are Your Stories?
Excerpt

Introduction

It happened at a meeting between an Indian community in northwest British Columbia and some government officials. The officials claimed the land for the government. The natives were astonished by the claim. They couldn’t understand what these relative newcomers were talking about. Finally one of the elders put what was bothering them in the form of a question. “If this is your land,” he asked, “where are your stories?” He spoke in English, but then he moved into Gitksan, the Tsimshian language of his people -- and told a story.

All of a sudden everyone understood . . . even though the government foresters didn’t know a word of Gitksan, and neither did some of his Gitksan companions. But what they understood was more important: how stories give meaning and value to the places we call home; how they bring us close to the world we live in by taking us into a world of words; how they hold us together and at the same time keep us apart. They also understood the importance of the Gitksan language, especially to those who do not speak it.

The language sounded strange; it made no sense to most of the people there. But its strangeness was somehow comforting, for it reminded them that stories always have something strange about them, and that this is what first takes hold of us, making us believe. Recognizing the strangeness in other people’s stories, we see and hear it in our own.

Other people’s stories are as varied as the landscapes and languages of the world; and the storytelling traditions to which they belong tell the different truths of religion and science, of history and the arts. They tell people where they came from, and why they are here; how to live, and sometimes how to die. They come in many different forms, from creation stories to constitutions, from southern epics and northern sagas to native American tales and African praise songs, and from nursery rhymes and national anthems to myths and mathematics.

And they are all ceremonies of belief as much as they are chronicles of events, even the stories that claim to be absolutely true. We first learn this when we are very young; which is to say, we learn how to believe before we learn what to believe. It is what we believe -- the second stage -- that is at the heart of many of our current conflicts. We love and hate because of our beliefs; we make homes for ourselves and drive others out, saying that we have been here forever or were sent because of a vision of goodness or gold, or instructions from our gods; we go wandering, and we go to war. Whether Jew or Arab, Catholic or Protestant, farmer or hunter, black or white, man or woman, we all have stories that hold us in thrall and hold others at bay. What we share is the practice of believing, which we become adept at very early in our lives; and it is this practice that generates the power of stories.

We need to go back to the beginning. We all want to believe. We all need to believe. Every parent, every farmer, every builder, every cook knows this. We have to believe that the child will grow, or spring will come, or that the house will take shape, or the bread will rise. Stories and songs give us a way to believe, and ceremonies sustain our faith.

They also give us things to believe, which is a mixed blessing. The reality of our lives is inseparable from the ways in which we imagine it, and this closeness sometimes produces conflict and confusion. But it also produces some of our most durable myths, whose contradictory character seems to be part of being human and is certainly part of all cultures. The contradiction is inseparable from the nature of belief and the dynamics of believing, which always involve an element of strangeness and surprise.

Every story brings the imagination and reality together in moments of what we might as well call faith. Stories give us a way to wonder how totalitarian states arise, or why cancer cells behave the way they do, or what causes people to live in the streets . . . and then come back again in a circle to the wonder of a song . . . or a supernova . . . or DNA. Wonder and wondering are closely related, and stories teach us that we cannot choose between them. If we try, we end up with the kind of amazement that is satisfied with the first explanation, or the kind of curiosity that is incapable of genuine surprise. Stories make the world more real, more rational, by bringing us closer to the irrational mystery at its centre. Why did my friend get sick and die? Why is there so much suffering in the world? Whose land is this we live on? How much is enough?

And where is home? Home may be where we hang our hat, or where our heart is . . . which may be the same place, or maybe not. It may be where we choose to live . . . or where we belong, whether we like it or not. It may be all of these things or none of them. Whatever and wherever it is, home is always border country, a place that separates and connects us, a place of possibility for both peace and perilous conflict.

Except for the idea of a creator, there is no idea quite as bewildering as the idea of home, nor one that causes as many conflicts. It is a nest of contradictions. The late-twentieth-century image of the global village seemed to sound the death knell for home as a particular place, much as an earlier generation claimed to do for religion when they said God was dead. But the report of His death was an exaggeration (as Mark Twain once said when he read his own obituary in a newspaper); and so it is too with the idea of home. God has certainly not disappeared from the scene, and nor has Allah; the world seems to be getting larger, not smaller; and home is becoming more important, not less.

Can one land ever really be home to more than one people? To native and newcomer, for instance? Or to Arab and Jew, Hutu and Tutsi, Albanian and Kosovar, Turk and Kurd? Can the world ever be home to all of us? I think so. But not until we have reimagined Them and Us.

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Why it's on the list ...
This is one of the first books that really got me thinking about Indigenous rights—and about the stories through which we all lay claim to land. But the thing that still inspires me to this day is the way that Ted Chamberlin navigates these tricky issues. Weaving in and out of tales from his own, extensive experience in Indigenous territories around the world, Ted models for me what a good and responsible scholar should do: honour the expertise that exists outside of the Ivory Tower—and the readers out there too.
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Porcupines and China Dolls

Porcupines and China Dolls

edition:Hardcover
also available: Paperback
tagged : literary
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Why it's on the list ...
We were all so excited when Theytus released a new edition of this tremendous novel, and I’ve taught it regularly ever since. At times, it can be a very hard read, as it requires us to face some of the harshest impacts of the residential school system. But Alexie is a beautiful writer, and I love the way that he always surprises us. Just wait until you read about the way that the community finally faces its demons. This book will break your heart, but you’ll be much wiser for the experience.
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Godless but Loyal to Heaven
Why it's on the list ...
It’s possible that I may be a little biased, but I think that this new collection pushes the boundaries of Aboriginal literature in ways that no other book has. I wouldn’t recommend reading the first story over lunch, but read it you must: I had never realized that something so gruesome could be so gorgeous at the same time. There are beautiful and devastating love stories, there are familiar characters with new quests, and there are a couple of tales so wonderfully silly that I giggle just thinking about them. There really is something for everyone in this book.
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Louis

Louis

The Heretic Poems
edition:Paperback
tagged : canadian
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Why it's on the list ...
It’s hard for me to pick just one of Greg Scofield’s books; in my opinion, he is the all-time master of the love poem, and it is my hope for the world that everyone will one day find someone to read Gregory Scofield with. This latest book shows us many different sides of Louis Riel in a way that no history textbook ever could. Scofield has borrowed lines of Riel’s own verse—and pieces of other 19th century documents—and breathed into them a new life. The results are stunning. Now, if you’d only ever read Greg’s work, you might think that he was a really serious guy, but he’s actually very funny. If you’re in Winnipeg, go and meet him! He’s the writer in residence at the University of Winnipeg until the end of March.
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The Red Indians

The Red Indians

An Episodic, Informal Collection of Tales from the History of Aboriginal People's Struggles in Canada
edition:Paperback
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Why it's on the list ...
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: nobody can turn a phrase like Peter Kulchyski. I always recommend this book to my classes; it’s short, to-the-point, and very readable, but it draws upon the tremendous knowledge of one of the foremost Indigenous Studies scholars. Some people think that Canadian history is dry, but I challenge you to maintain that viewpoint after reading this book. These stories are essential to understanding the fraught and complicated country that we live in today.
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Edmonton In Our Own Words
Why it's on the list ...
Continuing my love affair with Western Canadian history is this large collection of both the written and oral histories of my new home city. When I first moved to Edmonton, I was kind of amazed by the impression that many people seemed to have that this was some kind of frontier town, far off in the wintery northlands. But the stories in this book remind us that we live in a very ancient, complex, and beautiful place. Every day, when I walk to work along the river valley, I walk through thousands of years of history. I’d encourage every Edmontonian to read it—and every other Canadian to seek out similar histories of your own hometown. It’s amazing how it changes your perspective.
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Curse Of The Shaman
Why it's on the list ...
So much great Inuit literature is out of print, but this one is a happy exception! This YA novel follows the story of Qavvik (or Wolverine), a young man living in the days before southerners arrived in the Arctic homeland. With the help of an old story—the tale of Kiviuq—he overcomes a great trial in a climactic sequence that ties up the plot so neatly that I want to applaud every time. This book has so much to teach us about the ways that the stories of the older generations matter—even in times that present new and unfamiliar challenges.
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Stories in a New Skin

Stories in a New Skin

Approaches to Inuit Literature
edition:eBook
also available: Hardcover Paperback

In an age where southern power-holders look north and see only vacant polar landscapes, isolated communities, and exploitable resources, it is important to note that the Inuit homeland encompasses extensive philosophical, political, and literary traditions. Stories in a New Skin is a seminal text that explores these Arctic literary traditions and, in the process, reveals a pathway into Inuit literary criticism. Author Keavy Martin considers writing, storytelling, and performance from a range of …

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