Academic journal article English Studies in Canada

Unraveling the Knot of Acculturation and Resistance in Anthony Thrasher's Skid Row Eskimo

Academic journal article English Studies in Canada

Unraveling the Knot of Acculturation and Resistance in Anthony Thrasher's Skid Row Eskimo

Article excerpt

FEW RESIDENTIAL. SCHOOL SURVIVAL. NARRATIVES have found their way to publication as literature. Segments of hundreds of (largely anonymous) survivor accounts exist within historical studies and government publications, but these are mainly invoked as testimonial evidence and discussed in distinctly non-literary terms. (Such presentation is unsurprising, of course, given the veracity of such accounts depends on their perceived transparency, on the orator's reluctance to ornament, to mould, to play.) In a few instances, however, indigenous survivors have had occasion to record their residential school experiences within book-length memoirs which profit from the technologies of literary analysis.

Such life-writings emerge, for the most part, from an extremely small sector of the indigenous population within the geographical space of Canada. A cursory glance at the careers of authors of some of the most famous residential school survival narratives--Tomson Highway, Basil Johnston, Rita Joe (1)--reveals their distinguished status among the elite of Native letters: all have multiple publications; all are educators, lecturers, and activists as well as writers; all are considered pillars of their tribal communities and of the Native arts community in general; all have received honorary doctorates from Canadian academic institutions and two of the three are members of the Order of Canada (Johnston is a member of the Order of Ontario). Highway, Johnston, and Joe are among the extraordinary success stories to emerge from the assimilationist machinery of the residential school system. As a result, their life-writings both dramatize and serve as evidence for the capacity of the individual to overcome institutionalized trauma. They also relate how tribal languages, customs, and spirituality can participate in the healing of wounded identities which can ultimately be reasserted as viable, healthy, and ongoing through the magic of art. In short, these texts inspire hope with messages of possibility. (2)

However, these narratives remain haunted by the absence of other stories. They exist in the shadow of a far greater number of tales of perpetual disillusion, unhealed pain, and ongoing fragmentation of indigenous identity, tales that have remained either untold or hidden from the literary community within obscure sociological, political, and academic archives. As Highway, Johnston, and Joe are only too aware, their survival narratives carry with them, as obligatory subtext, the understanding that others have not similarly survived, that the overwhelming majority of former residential school students have never been able to achieve stable indigenous identities much less write about them. (3) As Cree writer and editor Greg Young-Ing has noted:

   [The residential school system] was hardly a training ground or a
   vehicle for promoting Aboriginal literature. One impact of the
   residential school system was to effectively stifle the Aboriginal
   Voice by denying generations of children access to their cultural
   knowledge while instilling in them negative perceptions of their
   cultural identities. Even if exceptional children were able to
   miraculously overcome these impositions, as well as the other
   racial, social and economic barriers, they were not given adequate
   skills enabling them to write. (180)

Young-Ing continues by quoting Stoh:lo writer Lee Maracle's assertion that residential schools produced "languageless generations [by forbidding] them to speak their own language and imped[ing] their mastery of English, creating an entire population, with few exceptions, who were unfamiliar with language in general" (180). Furthermore, residential school denied its students access to those resources that might otherwise have assisted their struggle to overcome trauma incurred within the residential school setting (including, of course, appallingly common sexual and physical abuse, but also the trauma of familial separation and denial of nurturing and affection). …

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