Saturday, July 11, 2020

Stone: Linking the Present and the Past for Modern-Day Cree

After realizing that I haven't read many First Nations authors despite living in Canada for ~15 years, I did a little research to find a few names, and started today with a short graphic novel by David A. Robertson.

Living in the province of Manitoba, he is a member of the Norway House Cree Nation. He has written many other books that also thematize the Cree community. For example, one was about Helen Betty Osborne, who was murdered when she was only 19 years old in 1971, and whose murder was only resolved after 16 years after investigations that were reported to have been undercut by racism and sexism.

It, and his series 7 Generations, were censored in school systems in the province of Alberta. In the case of 7 Generations, it was alleged that the series contained "sensitive subject matter and visual inferencing of abuse regarding residential schools."

David Alexander Robertson [Goodreads]
David A. Robertson [Twitter]
"Edmonton public schools to review its ‘books to weed out’ list due to concerns" [Global News Canada] by Colette Derworiz, The Canadian Press (September 25, 2018) [Read July 11, 2020]
"Alberta government 'censored' Indigenous book, undermining reconciliation in schools, author says" [Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) Radio] by Amara McLaughlin (November 23, 2018) [Read July 11, 2020]

*Note: 20th century Canadian residential schools for First Nations are in fact notorious, not just for 'inferences' of abuse, now. "About 150,000 First Nations, Inuit and Metis children were taken from their families and forced to attend government schools. The last school closed outside Regina in 1996," wrote Bill Graveland, of the Canadian Press, in 2018. These schools had a history of "physical, sexual and emotional abuse," and a Truth and Reconciliation Commission "estimated at least 6,000 children died at the schools."
Source: "Online course that asks about positive effect of residential schools 'a slap in the face'" [Global News Canada]


[Disclaimer in advance: Maybe this review isn't a very profound insight, because I read the book for the first time today and likely many facets haven't sunk in yet. Also, it's part of a series.]

In Stone (Highwater Press, 2010), the first book of the 7 Generations series, David Alexander Robertson's protagonist is Edwin, a present-day man who attempts to kill himself and sends a despairing message to his mother. The young man's mother rushes to his hospital bed and asks him to look to his ancestors to guide him out of his crisis.

Faith in ancestors is a little sentimentalized. Maybe a few ancestors were awful people who'd give awful advice. But I think that for First Nations, searching for and understanding one's forebears is a necessity of life if, because of colonialist policies, the line of tradition and of family history has been interrupted.

"Cree Camp on the prairie, south of Vermilion (Lat N. 53 Long W. 111 nearly) Sept. 1871."
by Charles Horetzky (1838 - 1900)
Library and Archives Canada
via Wikimedia Commons

In flashback scenes, Edwin sees the life of a warrior ancestor Stone whose brother has been killed by the Blackfoot nation. Struggling to come to terms with the death, the 19th-century warrior finds that he is finally permitted to avenge his brother, and he is able to find a new life with a young woman who loves him.

"Wanuskewin Heritage Park" c. 2008 by K. Duhamel
via Wikimedia Commons (License: CC BY 2.0)

(To pick up on a pettier detail, it did not entirely surprise me that the author lists Ernest Hemingway and J.D. Salinger on Goodreads as influences.

To me, none of the characters in the book is three-dimensional: the main character is tormented, his mother is nurturing and anguished, the young woman who marries the warrior seems meekly subservient I think, the conventionally handsome warriors are conventionally handsome warriors who value brotherhood.

Perhaps in a slender book of 30-odd pages one would not expect great psychological ambition, but I think it would have been good to hint at character traits that 'cut against the grain' or make them less stereotypical.

But as a female reader, it strikes me that especially the women characters seem to exist merely to administer to the male characters.

And, although this narrow focus may not be driven by gender roles, the main character also doesn't appear to realize that dragging his mother into his suicidal efforts is adding a tragic element to her life that she doesn't really need. Which doesn't mean that it is not a privilege of one person to help another as she helps her son; but it should be less one-sided, and it doesn't need to be a female relative or partner who does it.

That said, the author has made women the protagonists of his stories before. So presumably he does not write as exclusively masculinely as Salinger did in the Catcher in the Rye or as Hemingway did elsewhere.)

I was disappointed that I didn't learn much more of Cree culture. Since the warriors are plains Cree, it is (as far as I can tell) historically accurate that we would see the tipis, horseback riding, etc., that were common in the American and Canadian prairies and thus the bread-and-butter of depictions of First Nations in Hollywood cowboy westerns. It is not surprising to see plains Cree hunting bison, either, nor are the rather bloody initiation rites for warriors a surprise even though I don't recall seeing these rites in films.

That said, a new detail I appreciated was that there was a 'hoop game' where men would practice the precision of their archery by shooting through discs.* Also, the author tries to undermine tropes of First Nations 'barbarism' by emphasizing that an enemy warrior would be killed (fairly cleanly) with an arrow in battle, not shredded according to macabre methods that a fevered outsider's imagination might devise.

As for Scott B. Henderson's black-and-white pictures, they are detailed and dense, so that thirty-two pages feel like more. They feel reverent toward the subject matter of David A. Robertson's text and reverent toward the entire genre of comics and graphic novels. Altogether their quality helps propel the book toward being a 'four star' book, for me.

Stone (cover)
by Scott B. Henderson, 2010
Courtesy of Highwater Press

Stone is fuelled by passion for its core topic — the plight of young First Nations men, and the importance of fighting for a brother or a son or someone else who is close to you — and it seems part of the author's aim of social outreach to youth. And, refreshingly, it does not feel exploitative or sensation-seeking.

* The Manataka American Indian Council describes the game here:
Native Games: Hoop and Pole Game

Stone (Book One) [Highwater Press]
Stone [Goodreads]
Sugar Falls: A Residential School Story [Goodreads]

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