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John Mohawk

The people of the world of science believe that our human ancestors were driven by climate changes to expand from the savannahs of eastern Africa to disperse to endless microclimates (excepting Antarctica) to which they then adapted all around the globe. In each of these places, they were initially assisted since they were hunters and they could apply their skills to expand to new territories. But hunting was not enough. In every case, they were forced to adapt to their surroundings and its distinct ecology, including its plants, animals, waters, wind, sky, and other prominent features. Our ancestors were peculiarly equipped for this job because for most of this period they possessed language and memory and the capacity to tell stories and retell them again. Their primary problem was to make sense of their surroundings, and in this they have been remarkably successful. Humans not only adapted to virtually every kind of environment from deserts to a treeless Arctic, they did so with great skill and success. In every case, indigenous peoples believe their homeland is the best place in the world and that they have a special relationship to it. This goes well beyond material adaptation and bare survival. They have learned to be happy and well-adjusted, to exploit their environment without destroying it, and to honour and even love its peculiarities. They became who they are as a distinct people — Kiowa, Waunon, Cree — in a distinct landscape. As such, they were created on the new land, which was not new but eternal. No Choctaw ever crossed a land bridge.

Indigenous peoples have accomplished something the so-called great civilizations have not. They have learned to live peacefully with the earth in a sustainable, healthy, and holistic — spiritual — way. The way they do so is not so much a formula as an art form, for they have done everything possible to communicate with the world in such a way that their communication is communal. They did this through distinct narratives, and the becoming and being one of The People — of the thousands of peoples who call themselves some version of The People — was and is a process formed in the shared experience of these narratives heard as children, discussed as adults, and transmitted as elders. So powerful are these narratives in identity formation that it is possible to say that a person who has never heard them cannot in any meaningful way participate in the cultural life of The People.

The essays that follow explore a wide range of themes related to wilderness and storytelling. In the introductory essay, “Wilderness and Storytelling,” Joe Sheridan and Penelope Ironstone-Catterall follow from the teachings of Cree Elder Raven Mackinaw and introduce non­ Indigenous readers to the symmetry between wilderness and story as equivalent entities — as living beings. In resolving a false distinction between landscape and language they establish that story and ecology are co-existing beings living within one another. Nature reveals itself in story as well as ecosystem. The subsequent essays work from that basis to exemplify this idea and to give it life. This volume establishes a thoroughgoing attempt by Indigenous and non-Indigenous thinkers alike, to do the work of talking Turtle Island into being. In so doing, they undertake the lessons of this land to build an ethic for a continued presence here that is rich in the interdependence of intact ecologies and oral traditions of wilderness and storytelling. The volume points the way out of the settler’s conceit that land and language are related, and that thought, language and the written word distinguish us from the rest of Creation.

Robert Bringhurst’s essay, “The Tree of Meaning and The Work of Ecological Linguistics,” is a seminal piece in the discussion of language and meaning. He writes powerfully and persuasively. A century ago, ethnologists went to indigenous peoples to collect information and stories, but they did so under the rules of the Victorian era. Many of the most successful of these individuals became apologists for the indigenous, seeking to show how native people were more like, than unlike, Western peoples. In doing so, they sometimes saw monotheism where little existed, and they elicited interpretations from their informants which supported their theses. Today’s scholars and writers are less interested in how indigenous peoples echo Western values than how they are distinct from them. Bringhurst seeks indigenous insight and knowledge on its own terms, in its own language. It is must reading.

Sean Kane’s “Literary Haida Gwaay: Some Traveller’s Notes” reminds us that the work of Bringhurst is part of the humanist tradition which has always sought truth in the words and works of ancient cultures. Some of the Haida culture’s works have been elevated to the status of world literature and among the estimated 5,000 cultures, more are certain to be considered as such. The effort to uncover such works is the province of people who believe that such cultures possess a share of the intelligence that is universal to the human species. The Haida culture has proven to be fertile ground to explore issues of myth and memory and to explore alternative (to Western) ways of being in the world.

David Abram’s “Shadow” explores ways in which shadows impart mystery and meaning. Shadows represent a part of the interaction of the body with nature, an entity that is always with us, and with almost everything. Night is the shadow of the earth engulfing all other shadows, and through contemplation of how shadows take shape and shift shapes, how they form significant environments for consciousness and how they have forever been part of the relationship of the ways humans perceive their existence in the universe we can contemplate, as primitive peoples have always done, and gaze up from the earth into the face of the universe with renewed consciousness.

L.M. Lipsett’s “On Speaking Terms Again: Transformation of the Human-Earth Relationship Through Spontaneous Painting” explores the process of painting as a means of learning the ways of the earth. Western consumer culture has so degraded peoples’ consciousness of the sacredness of nature and natural environments that the survival of the planet is at risk. Nature, “wildness,” represents everything we cannot control and which we therefore fear and have lost. Through the act of painting, of cohabiting with colours, one creative expression which resonates with nature. Establishing a dialogue with the earth, Lipsett provides a number of examples of his interpretations of his art.

Mary Ann O’Connor’s poem, “Bodytruths: Resonance” reminisces about ways of being, hearing and seeing in the world. Rishma Dunlap’s “In Search of Tawny Grammar: Poetics, Landscape and Embodied Ways of Knowing” addresses primal ways of knowing through the art of words in discussing her novel, Boundary Bay, and poems, and includes some material from Boundary Bay itself. Here she invites the reader to contemplate the unspoken rules of the academy and modern civilization which beckon all to be disembodied and distant from the landscapes of nature and to seek, as an alternative, what she calls an “erotics of place.”

Jim Cheney’s essay “Tricksters (In the Shadow of Civilization)” addresses indigenous American trickster narratives relative to tragedy and comedy and the uniquely European ideology of One Truth. This is an important and penetrating discussion about locating trickster narratives outside the boundaries of traditional European thought wherein validation of a way of life, not affirmation of monotheism, is sought. Here there are posited distinctions between indigenous perceptions of revealed facets of reality and postmodernism’s culturally imposed limitations. Trickster narratives may represent ways indigenous cultures perceive how they experience facets of nature. In this view, “Raven … stands outside the patterns of ecology and culture while he is at the same time integral and necessary to them,” and ultimately able to be at the heart of indigenous religions which expect the world to be mysterious and are not alienated by it when it is.

Lee Hester (“Halito. Chim achukma? Sa-hoschifo-ut”) offers an essay on North American indigenous peoples’ cultural (and thus linguistic) ways of approaching ‘belief’ and ‘truth.’ Both have been contentious themes in Western culture (at times you could be killed for what you believed, or refused to believe, to be true) but here we find cultures expressing an almost impenetrable but reflectively pragmatic ambivalence about these themes.

It is not possible to do justice to Mark Dickinson’s “The Word for World is Story: Myth, Appropriation, and Identity.” In the same way, Bringhurst describes the existence of languages as forces of nature, the myths of indigenous peoples served to frame ways of life on the land which could be preserved and enhanced in narrative forms. In the context of their origins, in the language of their birth and among the peoples living the landscape, they provide an element of the magic melding culture and land. Western cultures possessed such things long ago, and their absence in meaningful ways in the culture has left a void.

Dan Longboat provides the appropriate essay as an “Afterword” to this collection. To indigenous peoples, these are not stories or myths. He prefers to call them “teachings,” but one is left with the possibility that there is no English word that appropriately defines the entities which bind human societies to the land, the past, the future and, ultimately, to the universe. This volume is an excellent and timely addition to the growing body of literature seeking to explore what it means to become and be human to the peoples whose relationship with the earth is their essential identity.