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Applying Aboriginal Healing Theory to Literary Analysis 91







Garnet Ruffo

Armand Garnet Ruffo Carleton University armand_ruffo@carleton.ca


/ Résumé Considering the ongoing call for literary analysis that does not perform “a new act of colonization and conquest” but instead arises from inside the literature itself, the author examines how the Cree Medicine Wheel can be applied to a Cree authored text. Specifically, the author applies educator Herb Nabigon’s interpretation of the wheel to playwright Tomson Highway’s controversial play Dry Lips Oughta Move to Kapuskasing.

While acknowledging the primacy of the text itself and the need to ac- commodate other methodologies, the author points to the potential of applying traditional Native “ways of knowing” to literary analysis.

En tenant compte de l’appel courant en faveur d’une analyse littéraire qui ne soit pas « un nouvel acte de colonisation et de conquête », mais qui émerge plutôt de la littérature elle-même, l’auteur examine comment la roue médicinale crie peut s’appliquer aux textes d’un écrivain cri. En particulier, l’auteur applique l’interprétation de Herb Nabigon de la roue médicinale à la pièce de théâtre controversée de Tomson Highway intitulée Dry Lips Oughta Move to Kapuskasing. Tout en reconnaissant la primauté du texte lui-même et la nécessité de tenir compte d’autres méthodologies, l’auteur souligne le potentiel d’appliquer les « modes de connaissance » autochtones traditionnels à l’analyse littéraire.

The Canadian Journal of Native Studies XXIX, 1&2(2009):91-110.

92 Armand Garnet Ruffo Many years ago, during a Midewiwin spring ceremony, I happened to have the good fortune to meet the respected Anishinaabe Elder, Art Soloman, who in the course of our conversation told me about his in- volvement with the penal system and his battle to get Anishinaabe tradi- tions accepted into the institutions by Corrections Canada. Knowing that Art himself had written a book of poetry, grounded in his own expe- riences as an Anishinaabe within Canadian society, I went away from our conversation with the insight that to be Anishinaabe is to see and express the world from an Anishinaabe perspective, which includes us- ing our own ways of knowing and becoming actively involved for the betterment of the people in whatever form that may take. I mention this for two reasons; first, while reading The Native Critics Collective’s re- cent text Reasoning Together, I was struck by a rhetorical question from Creek scholar Craig Womack’s informative introductory essay “A Single Decade: Book-Length Native Literary Criticism between 1986 and 1997,” where he asks: “What of the goal of Native critics who might want to

focus on their own communities for a change instead of making everybody else central to their efforts?” (65). Womack’s statement immediately reminded me of Neal McLeod’s essay “Coming Home Through Stories,” which I published in the 2001 collection (Ad)dressing Our Words:

Aboriginal Perspectives on Aboriginal Literatures (and was later incorporated into his book Cree Narrative Memory). In it, McLeod focuses on locating the tradition of storytelling within Cree epistemology, including Cree language, in order to explore the concepts of narrative memory and imagination as Indigenous theory and the implications associated with it, namely, as an act of decolonization. Thinking about these and other recent texts by Native authors who have chosen to focus specifically on their own nations—and ostensibly the writers, storytellers and community leaders from these nations—through a theoretical lens, I was further reminded of the discussions over the past few years of the approach we might take in examining the relationship between western and Native intellectual history, between western theory and Native “ways of knowing.” Such questions are not new. Indeed, they have been raised with reoccurring frequency by Native writers and scholars since the socalled “Native literary renaissance” of the 1970s and have been reiterated in a myriad of texts.

It is with this in mind, then, that I find myself returning to a couple of observations that have held resonance for me. The first was made some forty years ago by Kiowa scholar and novelist N. Scott Momaday, in his seminal and much cited essay “The Man Made of Words.” Here he tells us that “Storytelling…is an act by which man strives to realize his capacity for wonder, meaning and delight. It is also a process in which Applying Aboriginal Healing Theory to Literary Analysis 93 man invests and preserves himself in the context of ideas. Man tells stories in order to understand his experience, whatever it may be” (168).

Pointing to an intersection where the realm of aesthetics joins a didactic role, this observation is profound in its far reaching implications in that mankind’s capacity to both reason and imagine are deemed integral to a peoples’ survival. As Lisa Brooks has recently put it, “We know the power of words. N. Scott Momaday reminds us…‘we are all’ people ‘made of words’” (225). And although Thomas King explained to us some twenty years ago, in his introductory essay to All My Relations, that we do not yet have a definition of Native literature (x), we are now beginning to recognize that its preoccupation with themes of survival and (re)affirmation are providing demarcation. Consequently, Native literature is not merely an aesthetic “game”—though it can appear to be— but a strategy, a gesture, for imparting knowledge and tradition, or, conversely, for upsetting and challenging the status quo (read colonizer).

Referring to what now appears to be a commonplace observation, contemporary Native scholars have reiterated time and again that “Contemporary Indigenous writers manipulate the English language and its literary traditions to narrate Indigenous experiences under colonialism in an effort to heal themselves and their audiences from the colonial trauma” (Episkenew 12). Whether this is a function of nationalism, tribalism, humanism, or perhaps what Jace Weaver terms “communitism,” is a provocative and on-going debate and a topic in and of itself.

The second observation I want to reference here was made almost some twenty years ago by Ojibwa scholar and poet Kimberly Blaeser, who positions herself against the imposition of western criticism on Aboriginal literatures. In her oft-quoted article “Native Literature: Seeking A Critical Centre,” Blaeser goes so far as to call “reading Aboriginal literature by way of Western theory…a new act of colonization and conquest” (Blaeser 55). What she calls for in the article is a “working from within the literature or tradition to discover appropriate tools or to form an appropriate language of discourse” (Blaeser 56). To understand what Blaeser is getting at, we must first acknowledge the pitfalls of generalizing about Native literature, though to some extent inescapable, and try as best as we can to move towards cultural and textual specificity; second, we must also acknowledge that Blaeser’s call is cautionary and not separatist, not a complete turning away from western critical theory, not “a rejection of a dialogue with the Western Academy” (American Indian 104), a claim even many “American Indian literary nationalists” do not altogether condone.

With this in mind, then, I would like to propose reconsidering the role of specific cultural traditions from which a particular literature arises 94 Armand Garnet Ruffo in order to explore both the strengths and shortcomings of the approach as we come to some understanding of that literature. Although I have in the past referred to insider/outsider perspectives (Ruffo, in Armstrong

163) and we know, as Womack points out in Red on Red: Native American Literary Separatism that “post-modernists might laugh at claims of prioritizing insider status” (8), we also know that whatever authority we might claim from our Native status, premised on the concept of “Aboriginal consciousness” (Adams 5), must arise from our traditions—from language, spirituality, ceremony, story, etc.,—that we, and those before us, continue to doggedly hold on to despite incredible odds.

Therefore, what I propose is to briefly illustrate my position by examining Cree writer Tomson Highway’s canonized yet controversial play Dry Lips Oughta Move to Kapuskasing in the context of a culturally specific methodology based on the Cree Medicine Wheel. It is my contention that while the manner of the telling—and hence the aesthetics of the literature—is unique to the individual author who produces it, its practical application is essentially a didactic function and grows out of a larger communal experience and space. Further, I maintain that the didactic function of Native literature can be used to provide insight into the trauma of colonialism and that a traditional teaching methodology, like the Medicine Wheel, can enable the reader, healer or critic to deconstruct and analyze it from a culturally appropriate perspective.

This perspective on the literature, I suggest, also serves to return it from the classrooms of academia to the Native communities themselves where the literature may actually speak to the people and make a “real” difference in someone’s life. In other words, I see my task here as trying to untie our literature from the “post” by using a methodology that is grounded in a Native way of knowing, and if not freeing it completely from western theory and rhetoric, then at least illustrating that traditional methodologies can provide an analysis which by its nature and function serves to clarify, rather than obfuscate. Therefore, the call for a “critical centre” (Blaeser 56) can be answered, at least partially, by applying such traditional methodologies of analysis, which in turn can serve as an effective vehicle for locating a culturally appropriate language of critical discourse for the literature.

I might add that western theorists might argue that the use of the Medicine Wheel is none other than a variant of structuralism. To respond to such a claim, one might consider the general imposition of western thinking and the tendency of it to subsume everything under its own rubric. Thomas King makes this very point in his much quoted essay “Godzilla vs. Post-Colonial,” where he says that “the idea of post-colonial writing effectively cuts us off from our traditions, traditions that were Applying Aboriginal Healing Theory to Literary Analysis 95 in place before colonialism ever became a question” (185). To put it another way, Michael Hart, in his book Seeking Mino-Pimatisiwin, relates an incident where he tried to explain the Cree concept “of how Aboriginal people see the relationship between individuals, families, communities and nations” to a professor who immediately “interrupted with, ‘Oh, the ecological approach’” (23). The point here is that Indigenous peoples have their own, long-standing “ways of knowing” and to simply categorize them in western terms is to dismiss thousands of years of traditional knowledge and indeed to perform a new act of colonization and conquest. Hart goes on to say that “when someone…interprets one of our basic long standing teachings as the ecological approach, a newborn Amer-European perspective, I am disheartened and left wondering what it will take in order for our ways to be respected as our ways” (Hart 23). At the risk of being charged with essentialism, I will add that the “world-view” from which Native traditions arise is profoundly sacred as well. And, with due respect to the tradition of philosophical rationalism from which much of western literary theory arises, this is a marked difference. As a caveat, I will add that the Medicine Wheel as Native theory is but one model, which can certainly be augmented by other approaches.

As with traditional Anishinaabe teachings, Nehiyawak (or Cree) teachings confer on human beings an intimate connection to nature to the extent that we are part of nature. Central to this precept is the notion of balance, which all life forms must maintain in order to function harmoniously with the inner and outer environments. In the words of educator Herb Nabigon, “Mind, body emotions and spirit of an individual are not separate, and humans are not separate from the earth and everything on it” (“Aboriginal Theory” 19-21).1 It is a holistic approach to life in which the four primary components of an individual must be kept in balance if an individual is to be considered healthy and in harmony with the natural world. Once out of balance, serious repercussions occur. Undoubtedly, drastic and sudden population disruption and decline compounded with government policy intended to assimilate Aboriginal peoples into Euro-Canadian society (Miller 61) has had lasting negative effects. The Aboriginal Healing Foundation, in the context of the intergenerational impact of residential schools, goes so far to say that “[a]ll have experienced the traumatic, accumulated losses of extended family, culture, language and identity” (Chansonneuve 49). Whether implicit or explicit, much contemporary literature by Aboriginal writers appears to be a direct response to this breakdown of traditional societal checks and balances and the near social chaos that has resulted.

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