The Assault On Aborignal Memory In The Native Studies Curriculum

January 2016

For the past ten years, Canada has been in the throes of a national argument about memory and aboriginal experience. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission and other organizations have been set up to document the memories of aboriginal people who came through the Residential School system. There have also been other large-scale initiatives with significant funding to do Cultural Preservation and Language Revitalization. Universities have borne a fair bit of the pressure, with mandatory Native Studies curricula and cultural sensitivity training. Universities have received significantly increased funding for Native Studies programs.

Ironically, the demand for memory has not helped memory as much as we might hope. In a number of situations, memory has been cherry-picked in the service of political agendas, and the chief cherry-picker is the university Native Studies programs. The majority of these programs have shed their scholarly origin, with its venerable tradition encompassing some of the very best scholars in anthropology, history, linguistics, and literature, including many significant aboriginal scholars. While this tradition still continues in some programs in Canada, many Native Studies programs are being filled with faculty who have no knowledge of the differences among aboriginal nations or of the languages they speak. With nothing of substance to teach, these professors exclusively seek the politicization of their students and the accrual of power from that process. This is a death trap for memory; ideologies require simplifications and compressions. They necessarily must excise large chunks of memory, and their main tool is the purge of those who refuse to forget.

As is inevitable with all purges, the knife has turned inward, and now aboriginal people and aboriginal memories are being excised in the same ways that “white” and “settler” perspectives were already cut out. The majority of historical aboriginal voices are being silenced forever, embedded in endangered languages and world views deprecated by the highly-acculturated Native Studies literati who control transmission. Whole swathes of the past are being clear-cut.

I ought to know. I am a linguist who worked with aboriginal groups in Western Canada through graduate school, through my SSHRC post-doctoral research, and finally in my Assistant Professor position in Native Studies at Brandon University - the oldest Native Studies program in Canada. As a linguist, it is my job to work with the people who still speak the language. My primary responsibility is to the language and the contexts it is embedded in; I take no side in political issues. As it turned out, this commitment meant that I was destined to run into serious conflict with the Native Studies establishment. People who cannot understand any aboriginal language can hardly care about the integrity of the linguistic legacy.

Agendas and Memory: Emma Minde

My years in the world of Native Studies have furnished me with many more examples of Native Studies’ censorship of aboriginal voices than a reader could have stamina to read about. However, a particularly egregious example stands out: the case of Emma Minde.

Emma Memnook was a Plains Cree woman born at the Saddle Lake reserve in Alberta in the early 20th Century. In her youth, she attended a Catholic residential school. She married Joe Minde, a member of an important family of the Ermineskin reserve at Hobbema. Her children and grandchildren have become some of the most influential and widely-known aboriginal people in Alberta. Late in her life, she met with Freda Ahenakew and told her a series of âcimowina, personal narratives, meant to offer a coda to her life. These were subsequently published as an edited, bi-lingual volume by Ahenakew and H.C. Wolfart.

I worked through Emma’s âcimowina with several speakers, including a number of people on the adjacent reserves and one of her own grand-daughters. Emma’s Cree is, by all standards, impeccable. Her discourse structure, her word usage, her intonation, her command of the complex morphology, syntax, and phonology of the language are unassailable. I know her steady, quiet voice well; in graduate school, I used to hear it in my sleep. The hours I spent with her, mediated by the recordings and texts, have given her a space permanently in my head.

This would all appear to be ideal for a Native Studies curriculum - the voice of a true matriarch, speaking to the most respected Cree-speaking scholar of the language, in elegant Cree, about her life and memories. However, Emma was unacceptable - she remembered.

The most striking thing, to me, about Emma’s narratives is the fierce way she remembers the past. She did not want to marry her husband - he was a stranger to her and a rough man. She felt alone and shy as a child. There is conflict and misunderstandings with her parents. She struggled to accept her husband’s alcoholism, her status in a foreign community, and the kind of demanding work she had to face. Her perspective was staunchly her own, and she made no excuses for it.

Emma was also Roman Catholic. Unapologetically Catholic, outspokenly Catholic. In fine Cree rhetorical style, she recounts her service with the priests and nuns. She offers homilies on the need for a good, religious life. And she remembers events during her time at the Residential School as important building blocks of her character, a basis for her personal development.

She was not a ‘good Indian’ for the new ideological reserve. People in Native Studies know better now - they know that people like her shouldn’t be allowed to be heard. They will save us from her since they could not save her from herself.

The Purge of Emma Minde

One of the best ways to teach a language is to give students as much exposure to it in its natural context as possible. Immersion is a popular way, but for a language with few speakers - far-flung and in social distress - immersive contexts are tragically lacking. Additionally, students regularly expressed fear of trying to speak in front of their fluent elders, for fear of harsh judgement. I reasoned that an alternative would be the method I had seen used when I learned German, Icelandic, Greek, and Latin; go to the texts. People from the past will talk to you as often as you want, will say it again, slower, will tell you stories that have meaning, will give you a connection to history, continuity. So I picked out sentences and recordings from the relatively vast Cree

literature and used them as part of the core language curriculum. Among these was Emma Minde.

In the course of the readings, a few very vocal students expressed surprise and anger at Emma’s positivity towards the Residential School experience, as well as anger at her Catholicism. Having worked with people who suffered horrific abuse in the Residential School system, having heard them describe their experiences personally, I was not surprised that they had a strong reaction. However, I did not expect them to assert that all Residential School experiences were abusive. Not even my friend who had had needles stuck through her tongue for speaking her language claimed that. There was such a diversity of experience, and respecting that diversity of perspectives is actually a core Cree value.

As is often the case for ‘triggered’ students and politicized departments, it was only an eye-blink from Emma Minde’s narratives to accusations that I approved of Residential School abuses, that I was tantamount to such an abuser myself. Other professors in my department were happy to foment student agitation, preferring that students yell and disrupt rather than listen and discuss. In the racialized cloister of Native Studies, identity is always conditional on ideology. I was the Evil White Man and Emma wasn’t Real Cree. If the students wanted to prove that they were Real Indians, they would have to toe the ideological line.

I remember the exact moment and place that Emma Minde got purged from the Native Studies curriculum at Brandon University. I was in the Dean’s office, being lectured by the head of my department on my transgressions and the ways I needed to repent my heterodoxy. He explained that the Native Studies department explicitly teaches that Residential School abuse was universal

- something experienced by all people who attended one. He acknowledged that many people claimed they weren’t abused, but that was `too complicated’ for these early students. In their curriculum, Emma Minde would be categorized as being abused, but not knowing it. You couldn’t just let her speak for herself, you had to interpret that stuff for them, in a higher-level class. She did not know her own experience - they knew it better. I was in awe. At best, she was a fool and an idiot. At worst, they were calling her a liar, kiyâtisk, okakiyâskisk, one of the worst things you could call a Cree person.

Because I was allowing heterodoxy into my classroom, I was responsible for the student behavior. It was my fault that the other professors were telling students I was a Residential School supporter. It was my fault that the students were disruptive, refusing to take their tests, talking over me, shouting. It was my fault that I could not do my job. After all, I was allowing stuff like Emma Minde into the classroom. What did I expect? The department head leaned back in his chair and grinned, saying that Native Studies faculty regularly use students to attack other faculty “until they learn their lesson.” Previously, Philosophy had been a favorite target. The Dean sat by while this was discussed and then suggested that I cut the stuff like Emma Minde. That would calm everyone down.

Ideological purges are never satisfied. What about the other Cree speakers I worked with? One was a devout Catholic and a staunch Conservative voter. Another was an Anglican who composed hymns. What about them? Silence. I apparently already knew the answer. I was the White Man in Native Studies, after all. I was on borrowed time myself. Purge or be purged.

My classes were in flames. I could not get students to finish their work. I managed to get class material covered in about 20% of class minutes. They did not respect me, the literature I gave them, or the general language curriculum. In this, they had ample encouragement from my Native Studies colleagues, who were taking time from their own classes to attack me as a “whiteman,” telling students that the Cree texts were fabricated and that I had no right to teach. The Dean and my department head made it clear that the harassment and disruption would continue until I fell in line, and part of that improvement in my behavior explicitly required the purge of Emma Minde and other offending material.

And so I had a choice. Do I purge Emma Minde, stop working with people who have heterodox views? Do I get in line as best a Whiteman can, submit to my re-education, produce the necessary self-criticism materials to get me out of internment, accept the findings of the student- led kangaroo court? Do I present the students with a manicured curriculum that suited the political agenda of Native Studies? Or do I refuse?

I refused. That is how me and Emma Minde got purged together.

A purge by any name

The landscape of memory is one that the modern Native Studies scholar appears to be unable to inhabit. Not satisfied to simply leave it behind, they have instead taken the torch to it. We are all standing in the glow of that bonfire.

In the ashes of this era, the past will be a simple place, with a single message. The Native Studies pogrom will pound with its ideological hammer, hard, into the skulls of young people who have little defense, who are already afraid of not being mitoni-nêhiyawak ‘real Indians,’ who already are suffering from a conditional identity. They will never know that being Cree, being anything, is more than adhering to an ideology. They will never hear about Cree people like Emma Minde, or Joseph Dion, or Freda, Alice, and Andrew Ahenakew. They will never be aware of Coming Day’s and Louis Moosomin’s âtayôhkêwina, their sacred stories, tainted as they are by the Whiteman who transcribed them. Kâ-pimwêwêhahk, a name they can neither pronounce nor translate, has also been deprecated by Brandon University’s Native Studies faculty, and he will go to the trash heap alongside the Evil Whitemen: Leonard Bloomfield, Charles Hockett, David Mandelbaum, H.C. Wolfart, David Pentland - and me. I am in the boneyard now. I prefer it here. I was never very good with matches.

They will try to say it’s not like this, of course. It’s all much more complicated than I’m making it out to be. But their story has the ring of what the powerful tell themselves about those they have silenced. Emma Minde is gone. Kâ-pimwêwêhahk is gone. All those voices are gone - more voices, in fact, than remain. And they cut them. Call it what you want, put whatever nicer words on it than I have - a clear-cut forest is still clear-cut. And there they are, holding the chainsaw.