Friday, May 30, 2008

Review: The Red Indians

[Peter Kulchyski. The Red Indians: An Episodic, Informal Collection of Tales from the History of Aboriginal People's Struggles in Canada. Winnipeg: Arbeiter Ring Publishing, 2007.]

This is a short, sweet review of a short, sweet book. It is billed on the back as "an introductory historical overview and an astute, nuanced analysis of Canadian aboriginal politics," and that is exactly right. Kulchyski, a Professor of Native Studies at the University of Manitoba, has put together an extremely readable book with a conversational style, a focus on narratives, and clear anti-colonial politics. The title, which the author admits "may upset or even offend some people," is a play on the multiple uses of the word "red." Kulchyski writes, "for me, the red indians are aboriginal leaders who were 'reds,' that is, on the left of the political spectrum. the red indians, leaders like fred loft or malcolm norris, were those who, in fighting for aboriginal rights, saw an affinity or similarity with the struggle against capitalism in canada" [6].

I have very little to say that is critical of the book, but I'll start with my pettiest objection first: I felt that the author's rationale for not using any capital letters came across a little bit like hipster political posturing, though I have no objections at all to the decision itself.

More generally, my main concern was that I wanted more, particularly more detail on the struggle against the infamous 'white paper' of the Trudeau government, and more on struggles since then. Also, I did not encounter a whole lot that was completely new to me, apart from a few elements of the discussion of earlier eras, and that's always disappointing. But these things are more about my wants/needs being different from the book's intended project than any actual problem with the book. And adding too much more -- more scope or more detail -- would have put at risk what is most valuable about this text.

See, this book is not just short, conversational, and focused on narratives in the strained sense that some academic books might merit those descriptions -- it actually is those things. Written words are never conversation, but it does well in coming across as if you were hearing a story from someone who knew these histories well. Even when it refers readers to sources that can provide more detail, it does so not with a potentially offputting academic convention like footnotes or endnotes, but in sentences written like friendly advice in the body of the text.

It is the sort of book that almost anyone could read and learn from. It covers material across several centuries, yet precisely because it openly aims to be anecdotal rather than comprehensive, it is successful in using those anecdotes to give not a totalizing explanation but rather an important qualitative impression that conveys something of the flavour of oppression and resistance in different eras beyond the details of the specific stories. I could see it being used in high school or even senior elementary school classrooms, as well as community discussion circles, while still being of interest to experienced activists. I could also see it being the first thing I point L to if, at some point when he is a bit (but not too much) older, he comes to me with questions about indigenous issues.

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

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