A partial map of the Canadian First Nations treaties.
These do not map reserves, which are small within these areas.
It is a physiological fact that human understanding is cumulative, composed of tissue connections in the millions of cells in the body which act very much like a colony of one-celled “animals.” The first knowledge is that of the cell and the half-nuclei of the ovum and sperm. It is based on crossing a boundary into a protected territory — I’m talking about the sperm ramming its head through the “skin” of the ovum and then through the smaller skin around the nucleus, so that in that sanctum of protected molecular coding the uncoiling and coiling up again of the double helix will begin the making of a new human with certain characteristics.
Where am I going with this fancy stuff? I’m hoping to end up with insight into indigenous-based literature by making it strange. Not everyone likes strange. In fact, most people have a built-in preference for what is familiar and an intention to make it stay that way. Things learned in childhood are most persistent.
Thus, the concept of “American Indian”, which everyone agrees is a misnomer imposed by Europeans. “In 1507, Martin Waldseemüller produced a world map on which he named the new continent America after the feminine Latin version of Vespucci's first name, which is Americus.” Indian, of course, is a word that arose from the fantasy of reaching India by simply crossing the Atlantic Ocean.
At first contact the east coast tribes suffered a variety of fates: death by contagion (Euro bodies' white cells had immunity code the indigenous people lacked and so the people died on contact.) I’m fond of a variation of a few robust original people's ability to withstand germs, and who chose to stand with the pale people who came on ships.
A clearly native woman in fairly recent times joined the Daughters of the American Revolution. When challenged, she pointed out that her tribal warrior ancestors had fought alongside the warriors of the newly formed colony/nation. Contrast this with the reaction of a contemporary educated woman in Valier who was upset when the state of Montana mandated that “Indian history” had to be taught in the public schools. “I don’t see why we have to study THEIR history.”
So she recognized a division probably learned as a child. It’s not just a white people problem: I’ve known young Native men — not teenagers either — who felt badly because they didn’t look like “Indians,” meaning the Italians who impersonated them in the movies.
Or consider the profile on the Buffalo nickel which is reputed to be a portrait of Two Guns Whitecalf, though the sculptor himself (Fraser) said it was a composite. You can explain all that a thousand times and people go right on claiming the same thing. Consider the name: Two Guns Whitecalf — what a mix! Two guns, not three arrows, and then a sacred icon of Blackfeet thought — a baby albino bison. A Christian equivalent might be Jesus, which is not a protected name in the Catholic countries. I suppose the English taboo goes back to Cromwell and the Puritans who had a curiously Islamic resistance to images.
So now I’m ready to talk about writing based on the tribes of this misnamed continent, depiction of their lives, each in their own ecosystem, because it is that fittingness to the requirements of the land that creates tribes. Prairie buffalo people are the dominant trope for movie-goers, but most of us realize that there were tribes based on salmon or deer or corn or arctic seals. Each had a language and socioeconomic structure, unique arrangements of gender roles and child-raising practices. If outsiders came into the group, this is what they were pressed to observe. Usually their name for themselves meant simply “us.” The People.
Europeans had only a few centuries earlier managed to create a certain amount of order by invented “nations,” which meant a ruler and boundaries. You know, like “Game of Thrones” where each nation responds to its ecosystem by being horse people or ship people with the kinds of personalities that developed out of those experiences. The need for boundaries came from murderous attempts to claim territories that were richer or more pleasant. “Let’s invade the south of France! The Riviera!”
To the Euros the tribes looked like nations. The nations of Europe busied themselves with claiming vast territories they had never visited. They sold huge areas back and forth among themselves until the colonies declared themselves a nation and got into the game. Recently, in the course of rethinking all this again, I saw this map (above) of the numbered “First Nations” treaties in Canada. (For the moment let’s leave aside the equivalence of nations to tribes.) Treaty 6 is Cree and Treaty 7 is Blackfoot. Sorta.
Canada, of course, at least on the Western half was not Canada yet. “Rupert's Land, or Prince Rupert's Land, was a territory in British North America consisting of the Hudson Bay drainage basin, a territory in which a commercial monopoly was operated by the Hudson's Bay Company for 200 years from 1670 to 1870, although numerous aboriginal groups lived in the same territory.”
As for the USA in those years, “the United States won the war and Mexico signed the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo in 1848. The treaty gave the U.S. lands that would become the states of Arizona, California, New Mexico, Nevada, Utah, southwestern Colorado, and southwestern Wyoming. Mexico received 15 million dollars and gave up its claims to Texas.”
Both the money and the territories were arbitrary and invented. The vegetation, the animals, and the humans who lived there hardly noticed. What changed everything was the Industrial Revolution. And now everything is changing again, because of the cyber-revolution, the internet that is global, paying no attention to national rules and boundaries, but creating whole new kinds of tribe, based on affinity, common cause, and financial interests like access to resources.
Now think about Native literature. Think about what a tribe “is” since it’s defined not organically by the need to survive but rather by laws and definitions created by European-style federal governments and enforced by territorial boundaries surveyed and imposed on the land and by lists kept from the first ones made after the military took control of the tribes and wrote down the names of whomever presented themselves as belonging to the tribe so as to get subsistence food and blankets.
No one knew about DNA in those days. Not even blood “types” were known. “The most well-known and medically important blood types are in the ABO group. They were discovered in 1900 and 1901 at the University of Vienna by Karl Landsteiner in the process of trying to learn why blood transfusions sometimes cause death and at other times save a patient.” Blood types became a powerful concept during war when soldiers wore “dog tags” with the crucial information in case of wounds. Back on the rez what people care about is "who's your grandma?" (Grandpas can be elusive.)
Returning to the idea at the beginning of this post, blood is a complex system of keeping the body — inside its skin boundary — both nourished with oxygen and other basics (glucose, protein) and also guarded from invasion by microbes and viruses. Remarkably, the red blood cells we so fervently capture in so many symbolisms — like the flags of nations or the iron-based red pigment so many tribes use — have no nuclei. They have no DNA, the root of identity. They simply carry oxygen through the tubal labyrinths of a living creature.
Our mis-named land-mass supports human beings with basic universal viability — we are world-wide all one species because all our biological conceptions can survive. And yet we insist on divisions, boundaries, according to conflicting cultural systems. This is the real and central key to contemporary Native Lit — the struggle to understand the human costs and triumphs in these circumstances, particularly through the poetry of experience and the narrative trajectories over the boundaries of those who were already here and those who came from somewhere else.
I would argue for the dissolution of literary boundaries based on genealogy, location, culture, and other identity markers of the writers whenever they restrict explorations of these crucial reconciliations. We need to look at both sides now. ALL sides now.