Friday, May 12, 2017

Historians and Voice

We are historians. Most of the people we write about are dead. No matter how unfairly we may treat them, or how completely we misunderstand them, or fit their precious lives into our own purposes, or trivialize their deepest concerns in favour of our own, they are not going to come back at us. It's the historian's responsibility to remember that.

For a long time historians could write about the indigenous peoples of North America as if they were dead. They were not going to come back at us. Mostly they did not have access to publication, and they were not going to be heard. That is changing.

Controversies about appropriation of voice, no matter how much they are reframed as free-speech issues by those unwilling to listen, are mostly about that. Who get to be heard, and how should one write of another cultures when that culture's own voice is barely audible?

The controversy flared recently around the Writers’ Union of Canada and its magazine Write. It lives, rather less publicly, in historical academia too. In a review of Kenneth Coates's #IdleNoMore and the Remaking of Canada, Karen McCallum of the Institute of Commonwealth Studies in London, UK, writes:
I don’t think he should have written the book. I think that the opportunity should have been given to an Indigenous scholar with background knowledge of the topic area. Had this happened, I think that the book would have been better– more analytically nuanced and more useful to scholars interested in the movement. I am concerned that Coates has taken up too much space in publishing this book.
She observes that publishers have brought out relatively little by indigenous writers about Idle No More, an entirely indigenous movement, and that in this case a mainstream publisher who wanted a book on the topic approached a non-indigenous author.

McCallum's position is not universally held, Angela Semple of the Ktunaxa First Nation, reviewing three related titles, respects Coates' work. She writes extensively about positionality in scholarship about indigenous matters, and on Idle No More she too prefers “inside” indigenous works, such as the anthology The Winter We Danced. But she finds Coates work both respectful and useful.
Ken Coates provides us with a perfect example of the kind of self-reflexivity that I would call responsible and respectful scholarship. At various times throughout his book ..., Coates identifies himself as non-Indigenous, for example: "As a non-Aboriginal man who watched from the sidelines and did not participate in any of the organized activities or demonstrations associated with Idle No More, I am, in many ways, far removed from the centre of the movement."
For Semple, "This is an important book for allies." 

This situation, where the authority to write depends on the willingness to listen, sounds like the future -- the present really, for those who listen.  The subject has been alive at The Writers' Union for a quarter century. It's going to take hold in academia too.

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