Academic journal article Cross / Cultures

Fanciful Indigeneity

Academic journal article Cross / Cultures

Fanciful Indigeneity

Article excerpt

SOME TIME AGO, I WROTE AN ARTICLE ENTITLED "On Not Being Australian." In it I explored the problem of Helen Demidenko and Mudrooroo. These two very well-known and award-winning Australian authors had been revealed as other than they claimed to be. Demidenko, not a Ukrainian but, rather, just another Anglo-Australian, seemed simply deceitful, but Mudrooroo was a black street kid who had been treated as Aboriginal and was later proven to be, most likely, of African-American ancestry. I asserted in the article that the uproar over the false identities was wrapped up in the Australian need for those identities, Demidenko as the quintessential immigrant and Mudrooroo as the voice of Aboriginal Australia.

At least partly as a result ofthat article, I later wrote a quite different piece entitled "On Not Being Canadian." This was an exploration of my academic career in terms of my own identity, as a gay white Canadian male, who had written on Canadian and Australian literatures, on Native Canadian literatures and issues, and on gay literature and culture. I came to the vague conclusion that it was all very confusing. Recently the Canadian critic Frank Davey has written a reply to one aspect of this article, the part in which I refused to continue as a white critic commenting on Native Canadian literature.

This article is primarily a reply to Frank Davey, a continuation of the argument. However, it began, rather, as a contribution to the present volume in honour of Geoff Davis. I am sure other essays in this book will do a much better job than I could to elucidate Geoff s own contributions to the postcolonial field, but I must mention at least the surface, as this was the original impetus for my rehearsal of some questions on identity and criticism. Geoff, unlike Terry Goldie, has not been an identity-mongerer, someone who uses his own navel-gazing as a focal point for his literary criticism. Still, his own identity provides one of those mixtures that so suits my argument. Few would doubt that Geoff is British, but he has spent his whole career in Germany as a scholar of African (and other) literature. Clearly, if he had decided his only possible role could be to stay 'home' and comment on literature produced by his own tiny part of that sceptred isle, many important contributions would have been lost.

I must begin with a lengthy quotation from "On Not Being Canadian." I apologize for this excursion through self-plagiarism, but the essence of my position is offered in what I wrote there about the problems inherent in Canadian identity, and the way I articulated some of those in my book Fear and Temptation: The Image of the Indigene in Canadian, Australian and New Zealand Literatures. In the following few pages I quote what I said about my projects that touched on aspects of Native studies, beginning with Fear and Temptation.

I considered how the sign called 'Indian' affects the meaning of being Canadian:

The white Canadian looks at the Indian. The Indian is Other and therefore alien. But the Indian is indigenous and therefore cannot be alien. So the Canadian must be alien. But how can the Canadian be alien within Canada?1

This is a point of discussion in any settler culture. My argument is that the settler in Canada uses a variety of strategies, from erasing the First Nations to embracing them, in a process which I called indigenization, to become as though indigenous. In other words, the settler is trying to overcome that feeling of not being Canadian. There is a constant ambivalence in Canadian history between over-valuing and under-valuing indigeneity. Issues such as citizenship are met by limitations on the right of the indigenous to govern their/our country. In my youth I would have called myself "a native of Saskatchewan" but the irony of that statement is too difficult to bear. My book concluded:

If self can be viewed as a collective, as manifest nation, then the indigene at present is most assuredly not-self, politically, economically, ideologically. …

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