From the mid-60s through the mid-70s, I attended a small rural school west of Calgary, Alberta in western Canada. Treaty 7 land, though no one called it that. Children were bussed in from the Stoney Nakoda First Nation (though no one called it that either). The majority would not last beyond grade 5. This was the era of the Sixties Scoop when children were pulled from their homes and placed in foster care, and the wounds of the Residential School System (which was still in operation) ran deep. All we knew was that our friends disappeared one by one. And what did we know of the Indigenous populations of our region? Nothing. In school, when it came time to learn about “Indians,” we studied the Iroquois. The “people of the longhouse” are, let’s say for the sake of argument, about 3,000 kilometres off target.
I am also old enough to remember watching old Western movies and reruns of The Lone Ranger on TV on Saturday afternoons, and to have played “cowboys and Indians” without a second thought. Yet wise enough that, several decades later, when I took my own children to the library to see a screening of Walt Disney’s Peter Pan, I was absolutely ashamed and horrified by the depiction of the native characters in the film. I had a long talk with the kids afterward, insisting that it was not acceptable to entertain those offensive stereotypes under any circumstances. But it is only in recent years that the full force of the need to address the impact of colonialism at home and elsewhere has really started to settle into my consciousness in a profound way.
One of the most exciting young Indigenous voices here in Canada today belongs to Jordan Abel, a Nisga’a writer from Vancouver. His book Injun, the winner of this year’s Griffin Poetry Prize is a vital examination of racism and the language of hate. However, for anyone anticipating conventional verse, that expectation is quickly undone in this inventive exercise to reclaim a dehumanizing and insulting slur and undermine the mythology of the West that still holds a romantic appeal. The decorations and themes of the annual Calgary Stampede in my hometown may have been toned down and “corrected,” but the subtext of the spectacle is still intact.
Abel’s work stands, as a reflection of his academic study, at the intersection of the Digital Humanities and Indigenous Literary Studies. He mines documents in the public domain to create what might be imagined as a “revisioned” literature. His third collection, Injun, is a powerful and necessary project of reclamation in the face of a long history of racism, an inventive exercise in decolonial poetics that takes as its initial source material 91 western novels. Using Control+F, he searched these texts for the word “injun” and came up with 509 results. As he explains:
After separating out each of the sentences that contained the word, I ended up with 26 print pages. I then cut up each page into a section of a long poem. Sometimes I would cut up a page into three- to five- word clusters. Sometimes I would cut up a page without looking. Sometimes I would arrange a page until something sounded right. Sometimes I would just write down how the pieces fell together.
I am aware that many are apprehensive about poetry at its most conventional. They may be wondering what it is like to enter into the territory claimed by Injun. The 26-part title poem, “Injun” runs from strangely lyrical couplets, to the increasingly disjointed and abstracted, and back again to verses formed with fragmented, wounded words. Roughly two thirds of the way through, at its most dispersed, the text flips over and the final sections are read upside down. The format, in itself, speaks to the legacy of colonialism: peoples disrupted, dispersed, almost destroyed, slowly healing. It is not “easy” to read, nor should it be. But is not as difficult or inaccessible as it may sound. Part c), for example, reads:
Some fearful heap
some crooked swell
bent towards him
and produced a pair
of nickel-plated pullers
a bull winder of
that stiffened into
that low-brow ice
that dead injun game
Later, section u) begins:
th e d ayki cksup
lik e a pa ck of wo lves
o n the c ut
bu zza rds
ar efin e b irds
th at a refo ol ed
b y m y re dsk in*
The poem is followed by “Notes.” In this part, faded fragments of sentences containing words marked by numbered notation in the preceding poem (asterisks here, i.e. tenderness, redskin) are aligned by the specific word in bold print, offering an interesting indication of context. As one might expect, a selection of passages containing words like warpath, squaw, or scalped, leave an ugly taste in the mouth.
The final part, “Appendix” is effectively an extended prose piece, created, I presume, by running through the stream of sentences harvested from the source material and digitally erasing every occurrence of i-n-j-u-n. Thus, the very texts that have arisen from and perpetuated a white mythology of the Wild West, are sifted and distilled to create a condensed narrative that is difficult to read without flinching. There is a delicious irony in the repurposing of this material in this way. But the blank spaces solve nothing. They only serve to render visible the ugliness of hatred and racism, and the resulting erasure and stereotyping of Indigenous peoples. The appropriation of language from this “canon” of Western pulp fiction, becomes a sharp commentary on appropriation and how it functions as an instrument of colonialism.
An important and experimentally powerful work, Injun is much more than an exercise in abstraction and recombination. It is a defiant act of reclamation, another step toward the recovery of identity. Nonetheless, it is also a commanding example of the ability of digital tools to assist in the creation of literature.
To that final note, the methodology employed here holds particular interest to me with respect to a project I’m working on to honour my father using material salvaged from his Russian literature collection, the translations of which are almost certainly in the public domain. I wish I had been paying more attention to the Canadian poetry scene before I met Jordan Abel a few weeks ago here at Wordfest. I knew he had won a major award and we talked about writing and poetry as I drove him from the hotel to the venue and back for a sound check, but had I been more familiar with his work beforehand I would have engaged in a serious discussion of technique! All the same, he is a great guy, and an exciting talent to watch.