Monday, May 15, 2017

Appropriation of voice ... not just for fiction writers

Much of the furor over appropriation of voice seems to be addressed to novelists.("Oh god, will they be forbidden to make up a story about something?")  Maybe it's just where my own interests lie, but it seems to me the issue is at least as important in non-fiction, and journalism, and yes, history.

The other day Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne was "warning fly-in First Nations in Northern Ontario they must quickly agree on the construction of a road into their region."  Ontario has plans for a mega-zillion dollar mining development in that area, and Wynne was warning that if First Nations don't quickly say "Yes, ma'am, thank you, ma'am," the province would just go ahead unilaterally, dealing with specific reserve communities that are willing (under the duress of poverty and dispossession, no doubt) to give the province a free hand.

Appropriation of voice?  As I read the news reports on this story, I was struck by the ignorance and complacency coming, not just from the government, but from the news reporters. There probably was not a single indigenous reporter (at least for a major news outlet) at the press conferences on this topic.  And I'm struck by the ease with which those who write the news stories accept the government position that these Northern Ontario lands and resources belong entirely to Ontario, and any consideration being given to the First Nations there is strictly a matter of charity and do-gooderism.

The idea of reporting both sides just does not seem to occur.  The premier and the journalists covering her -- and the readers of most Canadian media -- simply do not hear the extremely well-founded case of the First Nations that they do hold title in that land and its resources, do have a right to veto the mining development if they choose, and certainly do have every right to influence the time-table for decisions about it. That voice has been appropriated by the ignorant complacency of the Canadian mainstream.

As historians, we mostly write about people who are dead.  It is part of the burden of historical practice to be aware that our subjects will never get a chance to call us out on the stupid and ignorant things we may say about them sometimes. But when I used to write quite a bit about New France, I used to say I felt pretty free to discuss francophone culture in Canada without claiming to be part of that culture. Because, you know, there were lots of terrific francophone historians of New France.  And they would be quite prepared to call me out on my ignorant stupidities (and might even be willing sometimes to be schooled by outsider perspectives of people like me)

It's more fraught to write about First Nations matters, because Canadian culture does still write about indigenous people as if they were a dead and voiceless culture. Every time you read a journalist defending his or her intellectual freedom to write stupid shit about things they don't understand (see the example above), you are getting a crash course in appropriation of voice.

There are and have been terrific mainstream historians and anthropologists writing sensitively and conscientiously about First Nations matters for quite a while. I don't want them to stop. But the number and range of indigenous writers finding publication and audience is still a problem. We would have been political discussion and better history if the balance were redressed.

Meanwhile, to hear leading voices in Canadian culture and journalism celebrating the imbalance --- as their sacred right! --  jeez.

Update, 18 May:  Daniel Francis reminds us he wrote the book 25 years ago about the writers who want to give each other prizes for cultural appropriation.  It's called The Imaginary Indian.
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