Monday, April 20, 2009

Review: Prison of Grass

[Howard Adams. Prison of Grass: Canada from a Native Point of View, Revised Edition. Calgary: Fifth House Publishers, 1989. (Original edition published in 1975.)]

This book is an anti-colonial classic. Written by radical Métis scholar and Red Power movement veteran Howard Adams, its politics and writing place it in the tradition of the great national liberation texts of the mid-20th century authored by the likes of Fanon and Memmi.

Like other authors in that tradition, Adams roots his analysis in accounts of brutally painful personal experiences of living as a colonized individual in the context of colonial social relations. He grew up in a French Métis community in Saskatchewan. His internalization of the messages and values of the colonizers led him to flee, resist, hate his indigenous heritage as a young adult. Ultimately, though, he embraced his heritage and confronted the personal pain of colonization rather than futilely trying to escape it. He became an important leader in indigenous liberation struggle in Canada, particularly in the '60s and '70s, and a radical anti-colonial voice through his positions at the University of California and the University of Saskatchewan.

Much of the book focuses on retelling certain key aspects of Canadian history in a decolonized way. He talks about the origins of the fur trade and the ways in which it distorted and shifted indigenous ways of being in the central part of the continent long before the beginning of sustained settler colonialism. He talks about the role of Christianity and education, both past and present, in perpetuating colonization. He talks about the ossification of indigenous cultures -- how colonization can detach cultural symbols from actual power over collective ways of being and doing, and turns them into spectacle for the colonizer's consumption and for the colonized's entrapment. He particularly focuses on reanalyzing the uprisings of 1870 and 1885 in what was to become central Canada, rescuing them from the empty colonial stories that we learn in mainstream history classes and demonstrating the ways in which they were class and national liberation struggles. Particularly interesting to me was his insistence that in both instances there were moments of significant common cause between Cree, Métis, and white inhabitants of the prairies during these struggles -- ended by the Ottawa regime making concessions to split off important layers of the white settler population, and by the lack of functional unity among resistance forces.

He also talks about contemporary colonization during the period in which he was writing. This includes the significant role played by indigenous buy-in to the supposed superiority of white middle-class ideals with respect to everything from beauty to comportment to political culture, and the need for any anti-colonial struggle to work at rooting out that internalized self-hatred. He talks about the failures of indigenous leadership and the role of government funding in coopting radical struggle. He argues very strongly for nationalism as a potentially positive force. He recognizes that there are harmful versions of nationalism, which can co-opt and remove colonized people from political struggle, but he argues that a radical nationalism infused with class politics is key to anti-colonial struggle in Canada. It is particularly at this point, though throughout the book as well, that it would have been interesting to see more attention to issues of gender oppression and sexuality. He argues for indigenous militants mobilizing their communities in local struggles, which he envisions as eventually becoming connected to each other and to class struggles in the broader society, leading ultimately to an anti-colonial and socialist revolution.

Along with a welcome, energizing clarity about new-to-me aspects of Canada-the-colonial, this book also left me with considerable uncertainty about how exactly to relate to it in a lot of ways. It speaks historical truths that are no less relevant today. It speaks of then-contemporary realities that have shifted a bit in form in the intervening decades, but are largely the same in their fundamentals. Yet it is still a product of a particular moment.

Part of the power of this particular kind of national liberation politics in the 1970s, I think, was that it connected struggles on Turtle Island to struggles against colonization, capitalism, and imperialism around the world -- struggles and movements that were ongoing, that were alive, and that had the feeling of relentless momentum in the direction of victory. Though that is an important tradition for radicals anywhere to remain connected with, the context is vastly different today.

I also find it difficult to fairly evaluate some of the ways in which certain leftist political language and ideas are used in the book. Perhaps some of that is his deliberate revolutionary bluntness tweaking my still-middle-class sensibilities. However, part of it is that the book's use of certain notions around things like "class" and "revolution" feel kind of schematic. Which is to say, I have the sense that his use of those ideas convey vitally important things for anti-colonial struggle in North America, but I also get the feeling that there is more to say, more to understand, more to name in order to advance contemporary organizing, both in indigenous and in settler-dominated contexts. Certainly there is something very powerful in his vision of the necessary connection between indigenous liberation struggles and other struggles, but I think we need to deliberately hold onto uncertainty and questioning as we move forward rather than embracing some sort of doctrinaire blueprint, revolutionary socialist or otherwise. If we hold his particular usages somewhat loosely, we can learn from them; if we hold them too tightly, we will be trapped by them.

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6 comments:

Dirk Buchholz said...

Cnd Lefty wrote..."He argues very strongly for nationalism as a potentially positive force. He recognizes that there are harmful versions of nationalism, which can co-opt and remove colonized people from political struggle, but he argues that a radical nationalism infused with class politics is key to anti-colonial struggle in Canada"....

For indigenous peoples/nations nationalism is the key.
In that indigenous people must first defining and carving out autonomous space for themselves as peoples/nations.
This is vital if they are to survive and thrive as Cree,Nisga,Mohawk etc.This is only possible if they have a land base one which they can live as Cree,Nisga,Mohawk etc.
Of course this does not mean indigenous people can or should isolate themselves.Allies and bonds must be forged with sympathetic newcomers/settlers.But again for indigenous people the most important task is to carve out space for themselves where they can live as Cree,Mohawk etc etc.
Alfred Taiaiake makes the case quite convincingly in the 3rd edition of his book, "Peace,Power and Righteousness"Oxford Press
That said Taiaiake also recognizes that without allies among settlers/newcomers the struggle will be that much harder if not impossible.

Scott said...

Hey Dirk. Thanks for your comment. I hope what I said didn't come across as somehow opposed to or sitting in judgment of indigenous nationalisms...I'm certainly not.

However, one interesting difference between the nationalisms advocated by Alfred (and, from what I've seen, some other contemporary radicals) and those advocated by Adams (and, again from what I've seen, some others of his generation like George Manuel) is that the former tends to emphasize the actual historical nations, like Cree or Mohawk, whereas the latter tended to argue for an overarching "Aboriginal" nationalism.

The former would critique the latter by pointing out that any sort of overarching "Aboriginal" identity has been created by colonization, and to decolonize means (among many other things) to resist that kind of homogenization. The latter would critique the former, I think by looking to national liberation struggles in Africa and elsewhere, by pointing out the ways in which unity of the oppressed is essential and basing identity on smaller units plays into attempts by the colonizer to divide and rule.

It's not my place to have an opinion on that question, I don't think, just to support whatever oppressed peoples decide. But it is an interesting difference, and a hint at how anti-colonial thought and action on Turtle Island have evolved between, say, 1970 and today.

Dirk Buchholz said...

Scott wrote..."I hope what I said didn't come across as somehow opposed to or sitting in judgment of indigenous nationalisms...I'm certainly not"...

Never crossed my mind Scott,indeed far from it.
I appreciate your writing in fact you are a very good at outlining various positions etc without coming across as taking sides or beating your own drum.
In fact I would like nothing more than to be able talk/debate person to person,even if we were to disagree on certain points the conversation would be respectful,helpful and always interesting,like your reviews and writings in general.

I do understand what you were getting at, I just thought a little "clarification" was in order.For sure nationalism has a dark sides(s).
For example I am reminded of the debate between Marx and others on the Irish question,i.e whether or not Irish nationalism/the struggle for an independent Ireland is detrimentally to the over all goal of revolution and should it be supported .
Marx taking the minority view said of course Irish demands for independence must be supported,indeed he understood that nationalism in such situations is not only positive but essential.
I see the indigenous demands for autonomy/independence as being very similar.
And you are totally right some of the terminology used by Adams "belongs" more to the "past".Adams is a product of his time ,but that said his book is still very relevant and helpful.
Also you wrote..."it is an interesting difference, and a hint at how anti-colonial thought and action on Turtle Island have evolved between, say, 1970 and today"'
Totally agree...but that said I still see Adams,Manuel and Taiaiake as being very much of the same mind,despite some of the differences in terminologies used.

Scott said...

Hi again Dirk...sorry I didn't reply right away, but it has been a busy weekend.

Thanks for your kind words, and for your clarifications. And I think your final point is quite important -- there are certainly differences in detail, but the underlying spirit in the works of those you mention feels much the same.

Dirk Buchholz said...

Scott in light of our discussion on nationalism,indigenous peoples etc I thought you might find the following article interesting.Personally I am with the author on this one...

Cosmopolitan Right, Indigenous Peoples, and the Risks of Cultural Interaction

http://publicreason.ro/articol/3

Scott said...

Interesting article. I'm not sure what I think of "cosmopolitan right" as a framework in general for thinking about such things, but certainly I agree that collectives of oppressed peoples have every right to separate or connected-but-autonomous spaces, and to minimize engagement with their oppressors.

I don't remember the details, but in Exalted Subjects, Sunera Thobani talks about some of the limitations of Seyla Benhabib's use of cosmopolitan right and "hospitality" as a framework, which this article references.