8th Fire: Walking in two worlds


A multiplatform, multicultural documentary project, 8th Fire is a provocative look at the richness and diversity of Aboriginal cultures and Canada's complex 500-year-old relationship with Indigenous peoples — a relationship still mired in colonialism, conflict and denial.

To further explore Aboriginal history and culture through a literary perspective, CBC Books has teamed up with journalist and fiction writer Waubgeshig Rice, author of Midnight Sweatlodge, to present a series of blogs highlighting the important work of Indigenous writers, past, present and future.

In his second post, Rice shares some books that have helped him to understand the Aboriginal-Canadian experience.

By Waubgeshig Rice

"We've seen so many strategies that were set up to assimilate people, and we're still here. For me, we can be a native person that has a foot in the bush and a foot in town, but really be who we are and in a modern world." -- Edith Cloutier

waub-headshot1`.jpgIn "Indigenous in the City," the premiere episode of CBC's groundbreaking documentary series 8th Fire, Edith Cloutier left viewers with a pretty profound yet common sentiment among urban Aboriginal Canadians. As the executive director of the Native Friendship Centre in Val d'Or, Quebec, she has spent her career helping people balance rez and city life: moving forward in contemporary non-Aboriginal Canada, while keeping a close connection to traditions. It's a struggle many Aboriginal Canadians have endured, moving back and forth between their home communities and towns and cities to establish careers, families, and chase down other ambitions.

This has also become a common theme in Native literature, as many authors in recent generations found themselves with one foot in the bush and one foot in town. The paradox isn't necessarily about inhabiting both places; it's about embodying the often conflicting mentalities attached to each. These authors wrote about their experience for their own self-awareness, and for others also enduring this clash of cultures. The results were classic books that will continue to serve as vital reference points for generations to come.

green-grass.jpgA seminal novel that's a thoughtful and often hilarious look at this modern Aboriginal dichotomy is Thomas King's Green Grass, Running Water. Set in a rez, a town, a city and other locales in Alberta, the story follows a small group of adult characters on a collision course to what appears to be their destiny — a traditional sun dance in their home community, and further, a new bond with their Blackfoot traditions. Each left to start careers in the non-Aboriginal Canadian world, but now find themselves either back home or on the periphery of where they started. Unbeknownst to them, their new journey home is catalyzed by a group of trickster characters: elderly men who escaped a mental institution in the United States and who are also returning home. Their own amusing journey combines elements of traditional Aboriginal storytelling and Christian imagery. Anyone who's wrestled with all these influences can appreciate what King has done so beautifully in this book.

ravensong.jpgWhereas King explores the challenges of moving away from the community and trying to come back, Lee Maracle explains what it's like when a community is surrounded and infiltrated by non-Aboriginal influences in her novel Ravensong. A small Salish community in its traditional territory of the northwest coast of British Columbia contends with the influences of a blossoming nearby town in the 1950s. These material, political, educational and physical threats to traditional culture are overwhelming, and Maracle specifically focuses on how they affect young sisters. As a flu epidemic ravages the community and non-Aboriginal educators come in to assimilate the youth, the sisters are drawn to white society while their Salish culture fades in their own psyches. As the story unfolds, though, the protagonist Stacey accepts her own unique (and sometimes tragic) new role in this new realm of Canada, and turns back to the old ways to move forward. This challenging story is all tightly wrapped by Maracle's profoundly poetic storytelling.

half-breed.jpgWhile many powerful novels examine the difficult journey of being Aboriginal and attempting to marry two distinct ideologies mentally and spiritually, others look at how troublesome that can be when you actually embody both cultures physically. One of those books is Maria Campbell's Half-Breed. Campbell lays it out simply and strongly: "this is what it's like to be a half-breed woman in Canada." Campbell is Métis, a descendant of a mixed culture born out of the fur trade when early First Nations people and Europeans started families. It also became a traditionally marginalized identity, as Campbell explains when describing her upbringing in northern Saskatchewan. As she grew up she attempted to move away from it, bringing her to even more hardships in Vancouver. But it's Campbell's honest, raw and unforgiving look at race relations in this country that makes this book required reading on the dual existence Aboriginal people have had to accept.
While "the bush" and "town" can be geographically and ideologically distant, they're coming together virtually as the Aboriginal-Canadian experience progresses into the 21st century. With more and more young people branching out into the contemporary Canadian world, and awareness and communication between both realms improving, the gap seems to be shrinking. One of the most powerful contemporary novels that portrays the blenthroughblackspruce.jpgding of both experiences — all the while painting just how vastly opposite they are — is Joseph Boyden's Through Black Spruce. A young Cree woman juggles the experiences of life in her traditional homeland of James Bay and the exquisite urbanity of Montreal and New York City in her quest to locate her sister, a model who's gone missing. Her relationships with her uncle and other relatives back home, combined with the urban Indians and affluent hipsters she comes across in the city, continually shape her own evolving modern identity. But she embraces these experiences as tools in enlightening herself and the world around her about what it is to be "Indian" in Canada today. And because Boyden can so effectively and powerfully place you in every situation both physically and emotionally, this book will resonate on so many levels with many more generations of young people.
These titles have helped many Aboriginal people in Canada understand and relate to the complex identity struggles imposed upon us. There are many more just as powerful, and there will be more to come. We'll explore other themes in the coming weeks, but identity will be a common thread throughout them. The stories are all unique, but there's a universal bond from coast to coast that ties the beauty of Aboriginal literature in this country. Stay tuned!

Related 8th Fire links: