Writerly New Year’s Resolutions for 2015:
1.Read Every History Sceptically, Not Just ‘Outsider’ Histories, Bearing in Mind the Ancient Provenance of Propaganda and Pure Old Wishful Thinking
2. Write, and Challenge Others to Write, More Realistic Histories… and
3. Write the Wildest, Most Daring Speculations, in pursuit of ways through these Interesting Times
So, for Christmas, i was given ‘The Island of Seven Cities,’ a speculative work by Paul Chiasson, a “Yale Educated Architect,” who has become convinced the Chinese settled in North America before the Europeans.
A few years back, i read most of Gavin Menzies’ 1421. Bogged down in that one at some point, where the focus went all wonky. Was weirdly gratified to later learn that that lack of focus was not my own – rather, Menzies had employed a team of researchers and their various voices lent lack of cohesion to an already-sprawling narrative. That book, of course, also claimed America for the Chinese.
Now, i was raised on Thor Heyerdahl. He remains one of my lifelong heroes; had theories, tried them out in real-world reenactments. What is cooler than that? Whatever aspersions academia casts upon Mr. Heyerdahl’s legacy, there’s no denying the bravado and the integrity of his life’s work. And so, i am open to the likelihood that people have traveled widely in the past, on adventures, explorations and migrations that are lost to the current narratives in the mainstream of history.
So, i have a predilection for hunting down odd and outsider histories. Jack Weatherford’s Secret History of the Mongol Queens? I was all over that one. Erich von Däniken? My dad had a well-worn copy of Chariots of the Gods flapping round the farm for years, and i took my turn pondering the possibility of Aliens taking a hand in Earth affairs.
As an adult, i found out Anisihinaabe lore telling that we came from the Pleiades, the Seven Sisters. I also found a lot of colleagues and peers in the indigenous community who pointed out the political expediency of the various threads of narrative in which Native Americans did nothing much of our own cultural volition. Why must it be someone else who built (cities, roads, monuments), up to and including Aliens, before it could be possibly attributed to Indigenous peoples? Once i recognised that aspect, my ability to read any history without talking back to it fell apart pretty fast.
So, i’ve only made it about a third of the way through this latest book, and it’s already marked up like a novice mixed martial artist in his first cage match.
Chiasson writes of silver and gold artifacts that explorers recorded finding there, before European trade would have brought them there. What could this mean? Surely either a)an early and perished colony of Europeans, or b) The Chinese left these things behind. On the thinnest of descriptions in an explorer’s notes – that they were ornate in the Venetian style – he blithely glides to the conclusion that these artifacts could only have come from Europe or China.
What else could account for it? I am not holding my breath in hopes that the writer might yet speculate that people who used the mighty waterways of Turtle Island might use them as Trade Routes, and might travel as far as the gold and silver producing realms of the South. But i wish he would. I really really wish he would. Because that would set him apart from all the histories, whether mainstream or outsider, that so blithely and near-universally swallow whole the ‘primitive wilderness,’ and still, after so many generations of work by Indigenous Scholars, spew out work that never once questions the portrait of pre-Columbian peoples north of Mexico as ‘nomads,’ ‘hunters and gatherers,’ etc. But i don’t think he’s gonna go there. He shows not the slightest inclination to question the assessment of Mi’gmaq and other East Coast peoples, by explorers who, he notes, took them as slaves; he doesn’t question the right of European nobility to ‘give’ lands to explorers. I will try to finish the book without wanting to shake him for his vast ignorance.
Thank God (by whatever name and creed) for the work of people like Vine Deloria Jr, Jack D. Forbes, Louise Erdrich, and more, whose respect for their ancestry and worldview have inspired them to shift that narrative. Thank God for people like Diana Beresford-Kroeger, of European immigrant stock, who wrote from the position that indigenous people were actually using the land, had developed silviculture, etc.
I just want there to be more and more writing from this understanding. And so, i find myself looking forward to 2015, because this could be the year that it finally becomes an accepted – even required – standard, of historical writing, to recognise that what has been written about Indigenous people for the past several centuries has been driven by lust for land and resources, has been framed as justification for colonial acts and policies. And to change that. Not to wallow in anger or guilt, but to dare to write from a clearer perspective. No more daft ramblings from the ilk of Conrad Black. Let us seek to read, and to write, more sensible and realistic narratives.I know we can. Indigenous authors are doing it, all over Turtle Island.
As fo me, one of my family touchstones is a story my mother shared. When her dad, my Polish Grandpa, came to Canada in 1928, he was bringing his young family out of a country that was under martial law and lurching toward totalitarian darkness. They chose Alberta because of propaganda campaigns from the Canadian Government. Free land. Good land in need of settlement.
Grandpa could read and write Polish because his family kept a tutor in their basement for a few winters. He laboriously taught himself English, and my mom remembers helping him learn to read newspapers. He was very frank about his ignorance, and about how long it took him to comprehend that the ‘free and empty land’ was already occupied. By then, he had several more children, years of labour to establish a farmstead and a community, and no desire to return to his homeland, which was in ever more perilous straits. Besides, as he told my mom, he simply did know to whom he’d give it back. So, he stayed, and did the best he could to be a good neighbour.
I don’t think that’s too much to ask of our community of writers, in this year upcoming. Thanks to the work of many generations, and to the recent Truth and Reconciliation movement, the years of official amnesia are ending. It is long past time to come to understand, this ‘free, empty’ land did not exist as such. If we don’t know who to give it back to, can we at least acknowledge that so much has been built through benefits about whose cost we were too long ignorant? And could we resolve to be good neighbours, in our deeds and in our writing. It will take rigour, openness, and courage – maybe even outlandish derring-do. But what’s New Year’s without some Challenge to be better than we’ve been, to renew ourselves in the world, and thus renew the world.
All My Relations