Monday, May 01, 2006

Review: Thunder in my Soul

[Patrcia Monture-Angus. Thunder in my Soul: A Mohawk Woman Speaks. Halifax: Fernwood Publishing, 1995.]

Patricia Monture-Angus is a Mohawk woman from the Six Nations Territory who is married into the Cree Nation, a legal scholar, and a mother. The period in which she wrote the essays in this book spans her time as an academic in the area of law and the beginning of her time in a Native Studies department.

In the essays she writes from this standpoint about legal education; education more generally; Canadian law, justice, and Aboriginal peoples; Aboriginal women and the mainstream women's movement; and the so-called child welfare system and Aboriginal peoples. Not surprisingly, most of what she writes relates to Canadian law, and her journey from seeing it as a possible way for her people to achieve liberation to a realization that Canadian law has been at the heart of every way in which northern North America's indigenous nations have been oppressed and is therefore integral to the problem and not a site to seek solutions. To a certain extent the book also talks about the ways in which related concepts and issues that European-derived societies link to our legal systems have traditionally been dealt with in indigenous nations in North America. And despite these huge topics, the book is deeply personal -- as Monture-Angus puts it, it is a "reflection on my own struggle to shed the colonized shackles which bind my mind, my spirit and my heart."

I have found this a difficult book to review. I'm not sure why. It is very well written. It is essental reading for people seeking to develop an understanding of the shape of colonialism in northern North America, particularly the role of the legal system and the education system in the process. It is even quite topical -- a fair bit of my reading right now is focusing on Aboriginal struggles not because Caledonia is in the news but because of where my project happens to be at, but if the combination of an acute phase of struggle with me reviewing this right now gets a few more people to read it, all the better.

I think part of the challenge for me in responding to this is a very important difference in language. Most political writing that I read, even most of that which sets itself up as in some sense oppostional to the heritage of the European-derived left, still in a broad sense is connected to the diverse conceptual geneology associated with or derived from that particular family of traditions. This book, on the other hand, is very deliberate in rejecting any link that is more than incidental to that collection of frameworks, and instead links its analysis to the tradtions of Mohawk (and Haudenosaunee and Aboriginal more generally) thought. This is not to posit some Samuel Huntington-like essentialist chasm between "civilizations" -- I'm not sure how appropriate that term is, both because it is a very unstable unit of analysis when you look at it closely, and because I'm not sure its vernacular sense really applies very easily to European-derived societies, given our genocidal barbarism over the last five hundred years. Rather, it is a very sensible demand that if the white-dominated North American left wishes to work in support of Aboriginal struggle, as every tenet of morality and politics says we should, then we have to do it on the terms of the nations we enter alliance with and not expect them to care that their traditions overlap strongly with anarchist this or radical that. They do, and we should care as we get busy seeking diverse sources of wisdom for saving ourselves, but we shouldn't assume indigenous nations have any interest in expending their already overstretched resources in making those linkages for us.

I also get the sense, both from this book and others that I have read, that what gets stated explicitly and what is left for Canadians to figure out for ourselves relates to the Aboriginal concept of respect, part of which seems to me to be about "good boundaries" as we might mean it in terms of interpersonal relationships except as applied to relationships between nations -- "This is how your laws, your institutions, oppress us. This is where we want to go and are going whether you support us or not. It's up to you to figure out how you respond to that."

This approach also seems to have to do with Aboriginal approaches to pedagogy. Monture-Angus writes:

The tradition of oral history as a method of sharing the lessons of life with children and young people also had the advantage that the Elders told us stories. They did not tell us what to do or how to do it or figure out the world for us -- they told us a story about their experience, about their life or their grandfather's or grandmother's or auntie's or uncle's life. It is in this manner that Indian people are taught independence as well as respect because you have to do your own figurng for yourself.

In other words, I think this book (and, like I said, others that I have read that seem to come from a similar standpoint) are oriented towards the political work that me and mine need to do in a different way than I am used to, which makes the task of responding meaningfully and comprehensively seem larger and less clearly structured by the text to which I am responding.

Add to this the fact that I remain convinced that the scope of the changes on the "Canadian" side necessary to bring the relationships into balance, respect, harmony -- or one might say to have them embody justice and liberation -- is much greater than many white Canadians might conclude from examining the Mohawk (or Haudenosaunee or general indigenous) standpoints. I can foresee one possible response from the Aboriginal side: "But what we want is simple..." And that's very true, from a sane perspective focused on valuing human beings and nature. But simplicity and sanity look much different from the inside of a predatory, psychotic system of 500 years duration, particularly when one is a beneficiary of that system. I don't think that we can achieve the relationships we wish to achieve while the liberal democratic, capitalist political economy remains intact -- I just don't believe the forces at work within those structures will allow a relationship among the peoples in northern North America that transcends colonialism, and therefore those forces and structures must be fundamentally changed. And that's a pretty big mouthful to bite off in a single short book review.

In any case, I recommend this book highly. It has been one useful stepping stone for me in trying to understand what it means to be a white Canadian living on stolen land.

[Edit: For a list of all book reviews on this site, click here.]


Anonymous said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Scott said...

Hi, anonymous. While I want to thank you for stopping by my blog and reading (at least part of) this review, I'm afraid I can't thank you for the comment you left.

I don't get a high enough volume of comments that I have a policy or even an established practice around how to regulate comments, beyond consistently deleting comment spam. Certainly, I welcome people to post here in ways that disagree with me. I have also generally put up with comments that personally attack me, though there would be limits to this.

So if your comment showed some intelligent, principled disagreement with the book in question or my review of it, or even if your comment was ignorant and unpleasant disagreement with the ideas in question, I would be happy to engage in debate with you, at least up to a certain point. If your comment was an attack on me personally, my response would depend on the details, but I would not automatically get rid of it.

However, the comment you have posted consists entirely of personal attacks on the woman who wrote the book that is reviewed in this post. Some of those attacks contain implicit elements of racism and misogyny. Attacks which invoke these sorts of socially organized oppressions against one individual also implicitly attack other individuals who share similar experiences, and therefore create a hostile environment. As the maintainer of this blog, I understand myself to have a political responsibility to regulate comments in ways that prevent this space from becoming hostile to people who experience various forms of oppression, whether or not I experience them myself.

For all of those reasons, as well as out of simple respect for the person you are attacking, I have deleted you comment. If you wish to return and engage with the ideas of the book or of my post, I will certainly allow those comments to remain, and I will be happy to interact with you. If not, please stay away.