Thursday, September 8, 2016

Cosmopolitan indigenaity

This week I want to review "With these Magic Weapons, Make a New World": Indigenous Centered Urbanism in Tomson Highway's Kiss of the Fur Queen."  This article was written by Lindsey Clair Smith and given that the aim of this blog is to navigate the good urban red road, I was intrigued by this title, even as my interest in lit crit is low.  The abstract drew me in, as she promised to cover how Highway's work explores the possibilities for mapping a life that follows Cree ways of being, while diverting, "... the consumerist purposes of urban locations and claiming them within a Cree worldview, ultimately resisting assimilation and offering a portrait of transnational Indigenized urban space."  This exercise actually extends beyond the main questions of this blog and touches on some of the emerging issues that I am thinking about around the intensification of "corporate Buddhism" and the minimalism, deculttering, tiny house concepts, which in themselves are challenge to the expression of values and representativeness (the lack of non-well-educated-affluent-white people in the expression of these world views).

The article starts by situating the theory relevant to the paper and defining a number of terms including the "post-colonial" city, composed from the flows and encounters of people from different places, backgrounds, racial groups and languages.  She notes the pressures for pan-Indianess in this context and questions if continued application of this lens really supports robust analysis of modern indigenous literatures. 

She opens by setting out the common stereotype that native peoples are separate (not modern/assimilated), spiritual and close to nature.  So much so, that their true "homes" are remote and time in the urban space is to be endured or contrasted to their real lives.  To be truly Indian, one must return to where other "real" Indians are and to reject urbanization as urbanization is synonymous with assimilation.  Smith wants to explore a theoretical framework that rejects this narrative, and instead allows for an urban home that is consistent with indigenous beliefs. What is possible beyond the story of urban alienation resolved thought physical removal from that space?

Smith draws on the work of Tompson Highway and highlights his expression of a modern and healthy view of, "cosmopolitan indigenaity," where the flows of the modern urban space are not a barriers to the expression of indigenous world view, but may even provide opportunities for elaborating this expression.  She notes that, "...understanding of cosmopolitan Indigenaity has implications for urban space itself, as Indigenous writers reclaim cityscapes for their communities and undercut commodification of indigenous iconography for "civilizing" purposes." 

She speaks to myth of, "post colonization," in the modern realities of indigenous peoples.  Colonization still exists, internally, but also in the very spaces and systems we inhabit.  Shared urban spaces, especially in the Canadian context where these spaces are also shared with other historically colonized peoples, could support a conversation not constructed in the strict white/indigenous binary. (noting that even that is a gross simplification)  We could all work together to decolonize these spaces.

Having worked in multiculturalism and anti-racism policy, this is an appealing option.  We could widen the dialogue, attempting to address past issues that continue to affect us, but also to think strategically about how these issues (and new ones) will unfold.  This is not to simplify the array of diaspora experiences or to simply "find a middle ground" in order to white wash historical realities, but rather to make sure that all the players are actually at the circle (I wanted to say table, but I am decolonizing myself as I go!). 

Indigenous peoples lost community through forced relocations, residential schools and the resulting impacts .  Many indigenous peoples are now in cities, spaces were set up for the benefit of businesses and not inhabitants and are not supportive of health communities.  While urban is seen to be a contrast to indigenous spaces, many of these cities are based on what were once indigenous communities.  Home, but not home through the destruction of communities and environments.  Ignoring the role of cities in reclaiming identity may be short sighted.

In "Kiss of the Fur Queen", Highway constructs a sense of Cree self that is grounded in the urban space, with space for "creativity, community building and activism."  He can see a path to urban nativeness.  Many indigenous peoples have experienced relocations beyond those physical including those of language, religion, and even world view.  These things are not automatically reclaimed though a return to the "rural home" (if that even exists or is safe). 

Smith brings forward numerous Highway quotes where he applies the Cree world view to the urban space.  I particularly loved one about a mall, where he describes it as a Witigo/Wendigo that is always hungry and grasping.  I love this combination of unconnected ideas or tropes.  A lot of my drawings play with these ideas too.  Maybe it is the Métis in me and we just love to bring new things to life from two older things? 

Smith describes Highway as playing a role of translation, where the present reality is rooted in the past and the connections are clear to see.  It is a reclaiming of the possibilities of the urban space, for indigenous peoples to come together, and work and play in ways that might not have been feasible.  It is not about moving away or staying and assimilating, but articulating what was into a new space.  It is not an in-between state, but a fully experienced potential in which the indigenous ways and indigenous peoples can be empowered actors.  Perhaps even undermining some of these colonial spaces. such as the shopping mall.  (I am of course glossing over differences in opportunities resulting from the historical and ongoing legacy of colonization.)

Even after my acknowledged glossing, I do find this an appealing view.  Indigenous peoples are in the cities and pretending that everyone just needs to return to the land to find authenticity is problematic.  For some, it may be the answer, for others, having examples of how you can navigate these identity issues is heartening.  I am not sure there is a call to action here, so I will add one.  What am I doing in my daily urban life that embodies "cosmopolitan indigenaity"?  How can I leverage my urban spaces to further the dialogue on modern indigenaity?  What do I need to learn/do to operationalize this?

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