Reading and Walking

Walking, Reading, and Reading about Walking

Avril Bell, Relating Indigenous and Settler Identities: Beyond Domination


I ran across a mention of Avril Bell’s Relating Indigenous and Settler Identities in a call for papers that referred to the term “settler imaginary,” and I was surprised that I hadn’t encountered the book in any of the reading I did for my comprehensive exams. So—since libraries are closed because of the pandemic—I ordered a copy and, when it arrived, sat down to read and take careful notes. What exhausting work! How did I manage to do this for a year while I was reading for my comprehensives? The way I wrote a summary of this text, I suppose—by slogging through.

Like the summaries I wrote for those examinations, this one is very long and detailed, mostly because Bell covers a lot of ground in this book, and I want to be sure that this summary is useful for me in the future. I found the posts I made while studying for my comprehensives became a kind of searchable database, which made writing those examinations easier—certainly much easier than if I had relied on scribbled notes, inscrutable marks in the margins of books, and folded-over pages. Because I’m likely to use Bell’s book later on, I thought I would follow the same procedure. If this summary is useful for anyone else, all the better.

Bell’s book begins with a discussion of the movie Avatar, a parable about colonialism: miners extracting “unobtainium” from the planet Pandora, soldiers fighting (but unable to defeat) the planet’s inhabitants, the Na’vi, and scientists learning about the flora and fauna, as well as the Na’vi, with the goal of getting the Na’vi to move away. To accomplish that goal, Bell writes, “the scientists need to get close to the Na’vi, to learn their language and interact with them” (1). In order to get close to the Na’vi, “each scientist has an avatar, a second body made out of the combination of Na’vi and human DNA. While the human body sleeps in a ‘pod’ on the company’s base, the avatar is awake and studying life on Pandora” (1). Some of the scientists, including the movie’s protagonist, Jake Sully, empathize with the Na’vi and admire them, because they “live an authentic life, spiritually connected to both nature and their ancestors” (1). The Na’vi are based on this planet’s Indigenous cultures, and the representation of their culture “draws on long-standing stereotypes of Indigenous peoples that contrast their values and way of life sharply with those of capitalist modernity” (1). “The Na’vi live in harmony with nature, in contrast to the destructiveness of the humans’ capitalist and technological engagement with the natural world,” Bell writes. “While the human society is driven by insatiable desires for more wealth, Na’vi society appears static, unchanging, maintaining balance with the natural world and with the spirits of their ancestors” (1-2). In addition, human and Na’vi societies are “distinctly incompatible”: to get what they desire, the humans will destroy the Na’vi, and to maintain their way of life, the Na’vi will have to get rid of the humans. “The two—indigenous people and colonizers/settlers—are drawn dichotomously in incompatible contrast to each other,” Bell notes, and the film thus “tells the well-worn story of colonization and exploitation as romance and is testimony to the continuing power of the archetypes of noble, authentic indigeneity and rapacious modern, capitalist development” (2). The humans romanticize the Na’vi way of life even as they destroy it, but in the film, despite “the implicit critique of capitalist development, its destructive forces are given full reign here. The Na’vi social order is shattered and their village destroyed, before the narrative takes a less common twist that results in the banishing of the mining company” (2). The Na’vi are left hoping that they can rebuild their society, and the film’s audience, “[l]ike colonizing settlers,” end up looking nostalgically at, and identifying with, what they have destroyed (2).

For Bell, Avatar “recounts a classic settler colonial fantasy,” in which some settlers are “redeemed by conversion to the indigenous way of life” (2). “It is Sully, rather than the miners and their supporting forces, who represents the settler colonial subject”: he falls in love with the Na’vi princess, abandons his human body for his Na’vi avatar, and uses his knowledge of humans to defeat their attack and rebuild Na’vi society (2). “Sully’s conversion and redemption tracks the recurring settler fantasy in which the difference between indigenous and settler peoples disappears and the two are united as one,” a split that Lorenzo Veracini (in a book I need to read) point out “follows a specifically American version of this fantasy,” in which American settlers are distinct from the colonizing British, who are banished after the Revolution (2). Bell writes,

This tale is wearyingly familiar to any student of settler colonialism. For me, a settler descendant myself, it is depressing that this romance can still be told and lauded, despite the very real earthly correlates to the destruction of the Na’vi way of life. I am stunned at how little we, settler peoples, have learnt about ourselves, our histories and our relations with indigenous peoples, that this story can be repeated and, more particularly, celebrated so widely, in the twenty-first century. (3)

“The repetition of this double settler move—to continue to colonize and simultaneously to seek redemption—is at the heart of this book,” Bell continues. “So too are indigenous strategies of resistance and assertions of autonomy and survival. It is within this context that the juxtaposition of (indigenous) authenticity and (settler) modernity, so evident in Avatar, is a recurring theme in what follows” (3). That juxtaposition, which goes back to Enlightenment notions of the Modern Man and the Noble Savage, “continues to play out in the relationship between settler and indigenous peoples today”: that story “links the identities of indigenous and settler peoples as opposed characters in a modern narrative about lost authenticity,” a story “about indigenous being and settler becoming, indigenous stasis and settler dynamism” (3).

“One of the key tasks of this book is to demonstrate how settler societies remain caught in these tragic colonial dynamics in the present,” Bell writes. “In powerful ways that we are largely unconscious of, the unhappy identities and relationships evident in Avatar shape the way settler and indigenous peoples think about their cultural identities as national and indigenous subjects today” (3). For Bell, issues of authenticity and culture “lie at the heart of these unhappy colonial identities and relationships”: authenticity, in the form of the Noble Savage imported from Enlightenment thinkers, has become “a figure of both desire and incompatible difference with settler modernity” (3). “Variations of this early figure of authenticity continue to plague settler accounts of and responses to indigenous assertions of identity”; in addition, settlers also want to be “authentic,” and so “authenticity is claimed, used and denied on both sides in the conflictual relations over land and belonging that operate between settlers and indigenous peoples” (3). “The connected themes of temporality and agency also riddle these conflictual relations,” Bell continues. “The logics of authenticity frequently position indigenous ways of being as the ontologies of another time, incompatible with modernity” (3-4). Indigenous ways are seen within modernity as traditions that are “appropriate for symbolic and ceremonial occasions, but not appropriate to the management of economic life, the organization of social relationships, or the practice of government” (4). Tradition is frozen in the past, rather than alive in the present (4).

“The other key task of the book is to explore identity strategies and ways of thinking about identities in relation that provide us with new stories, new ways of thinking about indigenous and settler identities, new forms of indigenous-settler relationship—strategies and concepts that seek to escape the tragedy and violence of the colonizing romance,” Bell states. “Perhaps an alternative end to the story is possible. There may be ways in which indigenous and settler peoples might co-exist differently, ways that avoid the problematic of the settler romance that ends with their conversion to indigeneity” (4). Bell is interested in the “range of identity strategies indigenous peoples engage in to assert agency over their fates, outside of settler leadership and control,” but in addition, “one of the arguments of this book is that settler peoples also need to change”:

The assertion of indigenous agency, or self-determination, calls for an affirming response from the non-indigenous population of settler societies. If colonial dynamics are relational, requiring both colonizing and colonized figures, new forms of both indigenous and settler subjects are necessary to break out of these colonial patterns. This book draws on the philosophy of Emmanuel Lévinas to identify changes in thinking about settler subjectivities and relations with indigenous peoples that can support the development of new possibilities in the narratives of settler societies. (4)

Bell acknowledges that her book is about identity politics, “about what and how identities are made to mean and the effects of their articulation,” and who articulates those identities in what contexts (4). “Ongoing settler propensities to define and delimit indigenous identities—to declare which are correct, to judge who is or isn’t a ‘real’ indigenous person—are crucial signs of the ongoing existence of colonial relationships,” she writes (4). So how can Bell, “as a settler subject, speak about indigenous identities? The book maps the discursive field of settler and indigenous identities, setting out a range of ways in which both are constructed and relate to each other,” and in doing so, she intends “to assess the political effects, the limitations and achievements, of specific constructions of indigenous identities (and settler identities), but with the aim of identifying the work of colonialism and resistances to it, rather than to identify the truth of indigenous identities” (4-5). For Bell, mobility and change “are the truth of all identities, the signs of their vitality,” and she wants “to defend and promote . . . relationships between settler and indigenous peoples that facilitate indigenous self-determination and self-representation,” and so the book ends “with a focus on the changes required on the part of settler subjects to minimize their propensity for judgement of indigeneity” (5).

One of Bell’s basic premises, she writes, “is that we are all significantly the products of our cultural and political histories,” and in the book she explores “some of the items of the colonial ‘inventory’—authenticity, modernity, universalism, the linear relationship of past, present and, liberalism—that are sedimented into settler ways of thinking, and looks at how they have contributed to shaping indigenous-settler relations” (5). Such ideas have had “a massive impact” on Indigenous peoples, and “[i]dentifying these traces of history is the first step to assessing them and determining what is worth holding on to and what is holding us back” (5). The Settlers’ belief in their superiority is the beginning of “[t]he tragedy of our colonial histories: superiority because of their religion, civilization, and skin colour (5). “Today, despite a degree of widespread acceptance of cultural difference, it is the mix of ideas associated with the civilization/primitivism binary that are the most tenacious in maintaining colonial relations and that will be the central focus of this investigation,” she continues. “Constructions of race will constitute a minor theme only. The civilization/primitivism binary highlights the problematics of authenticity that continue to vex the constitution of settler nationhood” (5-6).

People sometimes challenge Bell over her use of the word “settler” to refer to contemporary white Canadians, New Zealanders, Australians, and Americans. Some argue that “the settlers are historical figures and this term is not applicable today” (6). Others feel that “it is too benign a term, disguising the harsh violence of colonial invasions of indigenous homelands” (6). Her response to the first point is to quote Patrick Wolfe’s contention that colonization “is a structure, not an event” (qtd. 6). “Structurally, present-day white New Zealanders, Americans, Australians and Canadians occupy the positions in our societies that were created by the labour of the early settlers,” she continues (6)—and, of course, not just labour, but theft of land and displacement of Indigenous inhabitants. “We still constitute the dominant culture of our societies, and our political and economic institutions are largely governed by people like us,” she writes. “And this is the case whether or not we are actually descended from early settlers or our families arrived much more recently” (6). That comment suggests a question: why does Bell consider only white Canadians (for example) to be Settlers? Are racialized people not also living on Indigenous land? I realize that is complicated—as Black Lives Matters protests across Canada have demonstrated, Canadians of African origin do not govern this country’s political and economic institutions—and yet if whites who arrived recently are also Settlers, isn’t anyone who has come here an inheritor of the history of settlement and the structure of invasion that constitutes colonialism? 

“This ‘we’ that I am invoking here is a flexible and open category,” Bell continues. “Who ‘occupies’ the position of ‘settler’ and to what degree is a shifting and mutable issue” (6). She cites the work of Ghassan Hage on white Australian national identity, who “argues that national belonging is a form of symbolic capital that can be accumulated,” and that it is “a matter of knowledge, practice and position rather than intrinsic being” (6). For that reason, what Hage calls “Third World-looking people” “can accumulate a degree of settler national capital and national belonging,” in part through “the adoption of particular discursive positions in relation to indigenous peoples or more recent or racially/culturally distinct immigrants” (6-7). In addition, Hage argues that “all non-indigenous citizens within settler societies are implicated in the colonial dynamics of those societies” (7). “While there are differential positions of power in the national field, there are no positions of innocence,” Bell writes. “At the most basic level, all whose families arrived after colonial settlement occupy a position in a set of social structures created by that settlement. It is this sense of the complicity of all of us with colonialism that motivates me to explore the politics of contemporary settler and indigenous engagements” (7). Of course, those who arrived in a colonizing society unwillingly—as enslaved people, for instance—or who are racialized and therefore structurally disadvantaged by the dominant group, might disagree with Bell on this question. It is, as she suggests, complicated and “mutable.”

“The other criticism is that ‘settler’ is a term that itself hides the violence of colonization,” Bell continues. “From this perspective it is more accurate and honest to use ‘colonizer,’ or ‘invader’ as is often used in Australia in particular” (7). However, for Bell the term “settler” “specifies, as it hides, the particular forms of violence—physical, legal, epistemological, symbolic—inflicted on indigenous people in this form of colonial relationship” (7). “Settler,” she writes, “most precisely identifies the form of colonization under discussion” (7). “What distinguishes settler colonialism from other forms is that it was driven by desire for the land itself,” she notes. “Settlers are a particular kind of colonizer, those who seek to make a new home on the lands of others,” and “this primary desire for indigenous land as a settler homeland sets up a particular relationship between settlers and indigenous peoples, one in which the settler seeks to replace the indigenous as the people of the land, to become indigenous themselves” (7). Indigenous peoples must disappear, literally or symbolically, or Indigenous peoples must merge with Settlers—and for some, those two things amount to the same thing (7). “Thus, claims to place and valuations of (both indigenous and settler) morality and worth are complexly interwoven in these settler strategies, providing a rich field for analysis within settler cultural forms,” Bell writes. “The politics of authenticity are crucially bound up with these struggles for belonging and right, the discourse of nationalism requiring that only one people can be the authentic (and sovereign) people of the nation-state” (7).

However, despite the desire of Settlers that Indigenous peoples disappear in one way or the other, Indigenous peoples in Settler societies are making a comeback—“demographically, culturally, politically, economically, morally”—and Bell locates her book at that particular historical juncture, “in which the morality of the settler project has been subject to renewed challenges form indigenous communities for justice and self-determination” (7-8). While one response to this comeback is new variations of the old strategies of forcing Indigenous people to disappear, “there are also exciting moves to establish new, respectful relationships with indigenous peoples, relations founded on acknowledgement of indigenous difference, equality and autonomy” (8). Bell writes this book to encourage other Settlers to see the comeback as an opportunity, rather than a threat (8). 

Bell notes that the term “indigenous” also needs clarification. It is often used in “two quite distinct if overlapping ways”: in one sense, “to be an indigenous person can purely mean to be ‘native’ to a place, in the sense of someone who was born there, rather than an immigrant,” which would make many Settlers indigenous (8). I doubt that’s the way Bell uses the term. On the other hand, “indigeneity can be used to refer to the particular status of peoples who occupied a territory at the time of colonization and who remain historical, often tribally articulated, connections to place” (8). That is how Bell will use the term, the way it is used in the United Nations’ Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. That use of “indigenous” carries three meanings at the same time: Indigenous people have a “temporal priority” over others living in a place, they have a “specific sense of identity and belonging,” and their status “is linked to the experience of colonization” (9). “These three meanings point to two ‘sources’ of indigenous identity,” Bell continues, citing Francesca Merlan’s categories, the “criterial” and the “relational”—which, she suggests, also apply to Settlers (9). Indigeneity “is defined in (colonial) relation to the settler people,” she suggests; that is the “relational category,” and the term “settler” “invokes a specific location and role within the colonial relation” (9). Paraphrasing Stuart Hall, she suggests that the “specificity of settler peoples points to the limitations of any universalized understanding of colonization involving only two distinct groups, ‘the West and the Rest’” (9). Settlers were both agents of power in the colony and colonial subjects themselves, “at a remove from the culture and power of the imperial centre, and subject also to that power, if in exponentially different forms from those experienced by indigenous peoples” (9). “But the other side of this colonial relationality has not disappeared,” she notes. “Settler peoples are still located in specific colonial relations to indigenous peoples and remain vexed by their own origins as colonials and migrants” (9-10). Settler nationalisms bear the traces of these “doubled and dilemmatic histories,” which “bear the historic concern for political and cultural distinction from the mother country and the ongoing concern with how to incorporate the relationship to indigeneity in settler identities” (10). 

“At the same time, neither settler nor indigenous peoples are reducible to the colonial relation,” Bell writes. “Both have prior histories and bring bodies of philosophy, law, values and practices with them to that relationship” (10). For that reason, they can be defined in relation “to particular ‘criteria’ or ‘content’” (10). The identities of Settlers and of Indigenous peoples are not reducible to a relation (10). In particular, indigenous peoples “have their own autonomous sources of law, values and practices that survive and continue to enliven their identities and ways of live,” and which “continue to animate their claims to their homelands” (10). Against those claims, “the settler imaginary seeks to reduce indigenous identities to its own terms” (10). At the same time, Settlers “cannot be fully accounted for by their position within the colonial relation,” since they too “bring prior histories, philosophies, legal systems, values and practices to the colonial encounter” (10). One of Bell’s basic assumptions is that the Settler peoples of Australia, New Zealand, Canada, and the U.S. all share “a ‘criterial’ commonality that can be traced back to the originary influence on them of the British legal and cultural traditions and the European philosophical traditions they brought with them to their ‘new worlds’” (11). Those traditions shaped the identity of those nations, as well as “their projections of indigenous identities and relations with their developing nation-states” (11).

One of Bell’s key arguments, she writes, “is that the settler peoples of Australasia and North America share a ‘settler imaginary’—the set of ideas and values that underpin a peculiarly settler discourse of nationhood, identity and indigenous-settler relations” (11). In developing this term, she draws on philosopher Charles Taylor’s notion of “social imaginaries.” A social imaginary provides “an implicit ‘background’” that grants people—Settlers, in this case—a common understanding and a sense of legitimacy about their society’s “form, practices, and social relations” (11). The social imaginary also creates a sense of legitimacy “about the form, practices and social relations of a particular society” that is shared among its members (11). Social imaginaries can change over time, as new ideas penetrate and transform them, and that leads people to take up (or be inducted into) new practices (11). According to Bell, we are living in a moment when new ideas are changing our social imaginary: “the settler imaginary that developed in the experience and practice of establishing colonial relations with indigenous peoples—and necessary to the continuation of those relations—is in a process of transformation” (12). The challenges to the Settler imaginary posed by Indigenous rights movements is the reason, according to Bell, because they are leading to responses “via a range of policies of recognition of indigenous land, and of resource and cultural rights. These policies both concede rights and resources to indigenous communities and work to contain the challenges indigenous being presents to the ideas of universality, such as ‘one law for all,’ that are engrained in the settler imaginary” (12). But as those communities are empowered by such changes, they further challenge the settler imaginary:

Settler assumptions about the nature of their societies . . . are coming up against new assertions of indigenous property rights and political and cultural projects that unsettle these understandings. Effectively a new theory of indigenous sovereignty is percolating its way into community life, empowering indigenous individuals and communities to act in new ways, to institute new social relations with their neighbours. (12)

The response of Settlers “is mixed and grudging,” but a transformation is nonetheless taking place in “their settled imaginary,” leading to new understandings and the possibility of “a relational imaginary” (12). 

Bell’s book focuses on Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and the United States—the so-called CANZUS countries—because they were the only nation-states to vote against the United Nations Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples in 2007. “While typically priding themselves on their global role as defenders of human rights, oddly these four nation-states found the Declaration was more than they could countenance,” she writes, noting that their shared rejection of the Declaration “points to shared sets of social relations and orientations” (13). “For these states, the relationship between culture and politics is at the heart of the problem of indigenous peoples’ rights,” she continues. “These our settler states are happy to recognize their indigenous communities as culturally distinctive, but have trouble with these communities’ claims to political distinction and distinct rights as indigenous peoples” (13). That’s because Indigenous nationhood “represents a challenge to settler nationhood, and indigenous rights to settler rights” (13). For that reason, this book will explore the relationship between cultural and policy in the trouble relationships between Settlers and Indigenous peoples (13).

Bell’s interest is in the “specifically colonizing/settler imaginary” in these societies, which is “shaped by the broader influence of European thought more widely shared than in Britain alone,” despite their historical antecedents in the United Kingdom (14). She cites Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak’s use of the term “worlding” to “describe the joint processes of destruction and substitution by which colonists set out to transform the indigenous worlds they entered (‘new’ only to them) into their visions of a better version of the societies they had left” (14). Plants and animals were transplanted to make the “new and alien world” more like home. “Effectively, settler colonization is a project of creating a new world, rather than a project based on the finding of one, she writes,” citing Nicholas Thomas’s argument that colonization is a creative project (14). Colonization is transformative, making new societies and identities through projects that are both discursive and material, “propelled by aims and intentions and underpinned by ‘a particular imagination’ of the colonial situation” (14). It is an exercise in self-fashioning (14). “The settler imaginary is crucial to the project of making both indigenous and settler peoples as colonial projects,” she continues (14). In addition, colonial projects are often not realized, and their impact falls short of their desired aims “in the fact of their own overreach and internal contradictions,” along with “the counter-projects of others, including those of indigenous communities” (14-15). Colonialism isn’t something located in the past, but it “continues to inflect the present” (15). “The idea that the CANZUS societies are engaged in an ongoing—incomplete, contested, hopefully diminishing—colonial project is one of the key claims of this book,” she states (15).

Bell goes on to defend her use of colonial discourse analysis as a methodology against charges that it “over-generalises, ignores indigenous agency and over-emphasises binary oppositions between colonizer and colonized” (15). Her comparative approach, she contends, “allows us to identify common discursive resources and strategies that have often been deployed in similar ways and at similar times” (15-16). At the same time, she suggests that she has remained attentive to differences between these societies (16). But, at another level, she notes that focusing on “the analysis of structural locations within discourse—points of identity, of settler and indigene as figures constructed within discourse” (16) risks other kinds of generalizations:

I am interested in the logics by which these discursive categories operate, and the ways they mark structural positions within a field of social relations. Actual indigenous and settler individuals are distributed more widely,, identifying with, deploying, crossing, and resisting these categories from day to day and context to context, and are further divided and joined by gender, class, age, sexuality, and so on—no one is “purely” an indigenous or settler subject. When we analyse examples of discourse that construct settler and/or indigenous identities in particular ways, we are looking at the work of these individual or collective human agents, but never capturing these agents themselves in their totality. They have “moved on,” leaving these discursive traces of moments of their struggles with categories of identity. (16)

That limitation does not necessarily discredit discourse analysis, Bell argues, because “the discursive formations under study, while they do not entirely capture human agents, do powerfully shape our imaginations, understandings and possibilities” (16). Discourse analysis does not exclude human agency, according to Bell. “As agents, individuals make use of and position themselves in relation to discourses,” she writes. “At the same time, within discourse, subjects are positioned and these positions are granted varying degrees of legitimacy and agency. . . . The issue of agency is a central concern in this work and the agency of indigenous individuals and collectives in constructing their own identities and actively resisting the subjection of colonial discourse is a key theme” (16). 

Bell acknowledges that colonial discourse analysis focuses on binaries and tends “to cast settler and indigene in opposition to each other and to abstract these categories out from the cross-cutting complexities of gender, social class and so on,” an abstraction of which this book is guilty, she admits (16-17). However, “oppositionalism in the construction of settler and indigenous identities is the very problem this work addresses, particularly oppositionalism around issues of authenticity” (17). In addition, the later sections of the book “deal with attempts to overcome the imposition of colonial binaries” (17). I got that reaction from an audience member when I gave a paper on settler colonialism in Guanajuato, Mexico, last October; a woman—a fellow Canadian—wanted to know when we could stop defining ourselves in opposition to each other. Nevertheless, Bell continues, “the ‘solution’ to the problematic binaries explored in this book is not unity/uniformity. The problem with binaries is not the existence of difference per se, but the hierarchical valuation of difference and the either/or assumptions involved” (17). For instance, the denial of Indigenous modernities and of the value of traditional Indigenous life ways both position the Indigenous “as ‘out of place’ and ‘out of time’ in the modern settler state” (17). “Overcoming colonial binaries requires overcoming the problematic demand for unity/singularity, the demand that there is only one way to be modern and only one way to belong to these settler nation-states,” Bell suggests (17). However “developing a theory of coevalness is not a simple task,” she continues, citing Johannes Fabian, because the temptation to see “‘the time of the other’ as in the past—and to see present time as singular, unitary, the time of modernity—is deeply engrained in western modes of thought. The resulting ‘absence of the Other from our Time’ means that indigenous people appear in western discourses ‘as an object and a victim’” (Fabian qtd. 17). The solution is to abandon the idea of the unity of time; that way, coevalness would become “the experience of the co-existence of indigenous and settler Time” (17).

The next chapter, “Indigenous Authenticity and Settler Nationalisms,” begins with the Settler expectation that Indigenous peoples will be traditional whereas Settlers themselves will be modern, a “discourse of indigenous authenticity that is foundational to the settler imaginary” (25). “Settler nationalisms and their ambivalent relations with indigenous peoples were shaped by modern understandings of peoplehood and identity and the dilemmas of authenticity that modernity brought with it,” Bell writes. “Authenticity became a problem–and the site of desire—in modernity. It became entangled with ideas of primitivism and projected onto indigenous peoples. It is also a concept complexly located in relation to concepts of time and place—one that powerfully locates peoples as ‘in’ or ‘out’ of time and ‘in’ or ‘out’ of place” (25-26). Identity became a problem in modernity, as people became more mobile and their identities were no longer fixed. As identity became a problem, so too did authenticity: “what constituted an authentic, or genuine, identity and what inauthentic? How was the new, modern individual to ground their identity in the flux of this new era of change?” (26). “The dynamism of modern society made inauthenticity possible, as disembedded individuals could fashion and re-fashion their identities to suit their circumstance,” Bell continues. “This general problematic of authenticity takes particular, pernicious and intractable forms in settler societies” (26). That is because, for Indigenous peoples, authenticity became “a problem projected on to them” by the modern imaginaries of Settlers (26). “The importance of this point cannot be overstated—authenticity is not a property of indigenous cultures, but a value attributed to them out of the concerns of European modernity,” Bell insists. For modern Europeans—after the eighteenth century, that is—Indigenous cultures and peoples “represented an earlier, primitive human state through which their own societies had already passed on their way to civilization” (26). Because authenticity had not been a problem in the past, the logic goes, and because Indigenous peoples are part of the past through which Europe has already moved, then Indigenous peoples are authentic (26). “According to this way of thinking, authenticity was a characteristic of the past, a mode of being that only survived in modernity as a hangover of a lost age,” Bell writes. “Authenticity was projected onto indigenous cultures at the very moment it was under threat in the maelstrom of change brought on by colonial contact. Indigenous authenticity then was both the object of desire and at risk, and very much a means to imagine modern/western as well as indigenous identities” (26-27).

The problems of authenticity were connected to ideas about place, particularly during the Romantic period, when “national cultures came to be understood as arising organically over time from the relationship between people and place,” and the “authentic people of a place were those who ‘belonged’ there, those whose place it was, those who had effectively arisen from its soil” (27). There would be room for only one such people in each place (27). In the new Settler societies, “the problems of authentic peoplehood and the relationship between people and place” became an important issue (27). For Bell, “modernity was the era of the dominance of white/European societies and all other ways of life were seen as both inferior and anterior—of lesser value and belonging to an earlier era of human history” (27). However, “at the same time that the supposed superiority of European modernity provided justifications for colonization, imaginings of authenticity and peoplehood created irresolvable dilemmas for the colonizing settlers,” because they were moving away from their authentic place and taking over the homelands of others (27). “By the logics of authenticity, the settlers were themselves double inauthentic—bothy modern and out of place—while indigenous peoples were cast as the site of this desired authenticity—both primitive and the people of the land” (27). Bell argues that the ideas of authenticity, primitivism, and essentialist notions of cultural identity “continue to haunt the construction of indigenous and settler identities and their relations,” and this chapter examines both “settler imaginings of nationhood in the nineteenth and into the early twentieth centuries,” in which Indigenous peoples were believed to be both passing away (disappearing) and passing on the mantle of authenticity to Settlers, and the “new strategies of appropriation” that worked “to underpin the settlers’ claim to indigenous authenticity” and belonging (27-28). 

“The concept of authenticity has always been freighted with valuations of originality and truth,” Bell writes, so it’s not surprise that authenticity “has had such a powerful place in the identity politics played out between settler and indigenous peoples” (28). Being authentic “can be a matter of being oneself, of being true to what one already is in effect, or a matter of becoming, a process of discovery and ‘self-realization’ through an individual’s life course” (28). The idea of authenticity “as already determined, existing in some fixed, core quality of characteristic of being, is a form of essentialism,” and that essentialist idea “is most pervasive and has been most powerful in the history of indigenous-settler relations” (28). Authenticity is always valuable and desired, and this “positive valuation” is just one way that Settlers “have accounted for the difference of indigenous peoples and cultures” (28). The opposite of authenticity is the inauthentic, “the debased and degraded,” which means “the ‘originality’ projected onto indigenous peoples has been simultaneously viewed as a state of purity and innocence and as one of brutishness, these paradoxical valuations co-existing and co-dependent, each being drawn on as required to serve the political ends of the moment” (28-29). The ideas of originality as authentic, and its shadow, are both “central to the dilemmatic orientation of the settler to the indigene” (29). 

Nineteenth-century Romantics reacted against the Enlightenment’s optimism about change, and thus they sought authenticity in tradition and in the past; in this way, “the search for authenticity became intertwined with already existing primitivist thought, which viewed New World peoples as living relics of the human past” (29). “The primitivism projected onto New World peoples was viewed in both positive and negative terms,” Bell writes. “They were simultaneously Noble and Ignoble Savages” (29). They were both authentic (according to the Romantics) while also representing “an earlier state of human development” (29). “Contact with the modern world was inevitably corrupting” for Indigenous peoples, and it always “meant a loss of authenticity” (29). For that reason, “[t]he authentic Savage . . . was always already the object of nostalgia, ‘passing away’ in the face of civilization as soon as contact was made” (29). Bell notes that the Romantics also saw European peasant cultures—the Folk—as more authentic, closer to nature, and more true than city dwellers (29-30). “To serve as the cultural source for the nation (the main function of this variation of primitivist authenticity) the Folk had to adhere to their traditions, while the urban bourgeoisie were free to develop theirs from that cultural base,” Bell contends. “In other words, the idea of an original authenticity as source for some depended on it being a ‘prison’ for others” (30). This idea depended “on the translation of distance into time”: since the Folk lived away from the city, in the countryside, they were far from modernity (30). “In settler nationalisms . . . the Noble Savage and the Folk come together and indigenous peoples become caught up in these logics of traditionalism, purity and temporal and spatial incarceration,” Bell suggests (30).

“Authenticity was (and is) always about modernity and its discontents,” including the methods that are used in looking for it (30). The Romantics, whom Bell describes as “the ethnologists and folklorists of their day,” collected the songs and poetry of the peasantry and of Indigenous peoples and then cleaned them up, restoring them to what they believed to be their original forms (30). “Thus, even geographical incarceration on reservations, reserves or untouched hinterlands could not guarantee indigenous or peasant cultural purity,” she states, “and the modern European elite set themselves up as the arbiters of the authenticity of others” (30). The idea of primitive authenticity became “a standard against which to critique the inauthenticity of modernity” and at the same time “a source of authenticity with which to replenish modernity’s losses” (31). This logic is present in New Age movements, which identify Indigenous cultures as an authentic standard against which to critique “a debased modernity” (31). In addition, peasant authenticity “served as a cultural source for the development of European national cultures” (31). In the Settler context, though, these functions take on different forms. “In the early stages of development of the settler nation-states in particular, the primitivized indigene as external other served as a foil to the modernity of the settler society,” Bell writes, a move that celebrated rather than (as in the European homeland) critiqued modernity (31). “In asserting their modernity the settlers sought to demonstrate their standing in relation to Europe and to justify colonization as bringing civilization to the savages, a process seen as sometimes regrettable, but as both inevitable and progressive,” she continues (31). However, once the frontier closed, “the identity of the new settler society became an issue,” and Settlers used the Noble Savage stereotype to provide “the authenticity that could serve as the resource for the construction of settler nationhood” by “constructing narratives in which the ‘passing away’ of the Noble Savage involved the ‘passing on’ of their patrimony and heritage” (31). In that way, “settler mythology internalized indigenous authenticity,” in a way that is distinct from the European context, because “in settler societies it is another people’s cultural traditions that are appropriated, involving complex strategies of denial and justification to claim them as the settlers’ own” (31-32). At the same time, Settlers also seek “the restoration of a lost innocence,” and “[i]ndigenous authenticity is deployed to secure settler redemption from the role of colonizer” (32). These two functions—appropriation and redemption—“remain apparent in contemporary constructions and appropriations of indigenous authenticity across the CANZUS societies” (32).

Next, Bell summarizes the development of nationalist sentiment, or a concern with national identity, in Canada, New Zealand, Australia, and the U.S. In each case, “the early development of settler nationalism involved the romantic construction of the indigenous people as primitive,” and because primitivism and civilization are incompatible, Indigenous peoples “were seen to be ‘passing away’ or ‘vanishing’ before the march of civility,” an idea that was “a mix of reality, romance and race” (33). “Disease, war and displacement resulted in major declines in indigenous populations throughout these societies, making the eventual disappearance of indigenous peoples seem a likely reality, not just a colonial desire,” Bell notes (33). However, her point is “the way in which primitivism and race theory provided explanations for this seeming disappearance . . . worked to absolve the colonizers of responsibility and was incorporated as an origin story in settler identity narratives” (33). Settlers were therefore innocent of the consequences of colonization (33). In addition, “[a]s indigenous peoples ‘passed away,’ so too they ‘passed on’ their patrimony to the settlers, frequently via the imagining of a familial connection” (33). I wonder if Bell is referring to the common notion in southwestern Ontario, where I grew up, that there is a Mohawk grandmother somewhere in the family tree.

From here, Bell moves to specific examples from the countries she is discussing. For reasons of time (there is never enough), I decided to focus on what she has to say about Canada. “Settler identity in Canada was from the outset defined in contrast to that of the USA,” she begins. “In emphasizing their Britishness in the early years of the Confederation, Anglo-Canadian settlers deemed themselves superior to both Americans and French Canadians. Key to these constructions was the idea of Canada as the ‘true north’ and the positioning of Native Canadians in the nationalist narrative” (36). In the rhetoric of the Canada First Movement, “the north was seen in environmentalist and racial terms as foundational to white Canadian character, the site for the construction of superior, masculine virtues, in contrast to the immorality of the south/USA” (36). The north was seen as timeless and outside of history, and this idea is closely associated “with indigenous authenticity” (36). The relationship between Indigenous peoples and Settlers is tied to the development of what Eva Mackey calls “‘the benevolent Mountie myth,” in which “the North-West Mounted Police paved the way for white settlement in the Canadian west with minimal force and with the superior morality of British justice” (36-37). In this story, Indigenous peoples are “Ignoble Savages, wild and violent—and made worse by contact with less virtuous white men,” usually Americans (37). “This narrative worked both to distinguish Canadians from Americans and as a redemptive narrative for white Canadians, their presence justified by the construction of a paternalistic relation to the indigenous peoples,” Bell suggests (37). Meanwhile, Indigenous peoples remained “caught within the discourse of primitivism—first the wild Savage, then the Savage as the child of mankind, on the path to civilization,” and “the Savage in the Mountie myth works to legitimate the white settler presence,” particularly by their gratitude for “the settler presence and the peace and justice that they brought,” which is compared to the violence of the U.S. frontier (37). She suggests that Charles Mair’s 1886 play Tecumseh suggests the Noble Savage “endorsing the settler presence” and the replacement of the Indigenous people by Settlers (37).

“In the ‘benevolent Mountie myth’ and in Tecumseh, all three strands of English Canadian nationalism are brought together,” Bell writes. “The Mountie stands for the best of the British heritage, guiding the child-like Natives to civilization, in contrast to the malevolent Americans. In Tecumseh, both the Shawnee chief and the British General are noble figures, providing the new nation with a combination of Canadian authenticity and British political traditions” (37-38). These “nationalist mythologies provide origin stories, carving out a space of moral virtue to the new nation in contrast to its British and indigenous antecedents and its large, and resented, neighbour” (38). Bell’s other example is the painting of Emily Carr, in which Indigenous peoples are both “Vanishing Canadians” and “First Canadians,” “providing the mythic origins and cultural heritage on which the culture of the modern settler nation could be built” (38). Of course, this is all too brief and simple, and three examples (one without concrete textual evidence) are insufficient, but it rings true nonetheless.

“The appropriation of indigenous symbolism in the service of settler national identities has waxed and waned since the early era of settler nationalisms,” Bell writes (42). However, the extent to which Settler “strategies of appropriation” have changed since the 1960s, when Indigenous rights movements began challenging Settlers “to face up to their colonial history and to rethink their relationships with indigenous peoples,” is arguable (42). “While no longer the ‘dying savage,’ the authentic/inauthentic binary works to divide and discipline indigenous identities in the present,” she contends. “At the same time, indigenous peoples are now firmly narrativized as the (settler) nations’ ‘First Peoples’ in the contemporary version of the familial ‘passing on’ metaphors of the earlier era” (43). She notes that the use of Indigenous language and symbolism is “particularly apparent in national branding and marketing,” especially in sports and tourism (43). Such appropriations remove Indigenous artefacts and symbolism from their “specific histories and cultural identifications” and instead they come “to stand in for an abstracted authentic national indigeneity” (43). One of her main examples is the appropriation of the inukshuk in Canada (43-44). “At one level these examples of the incorporation of indigenous symbolism within settler national imaginaries can be taken as a sign of an inclusive cultural pluralism, although it has to also be acknowledged that . . . some indigenous peoples insist on their separation from the settler nation,” Bell continues. More broadly, though, these examples “point to the way in which the practices of inclusion of indigenous symbolism can represent settler over indigenous interests and can be accomplished on settler terms, not in partnership between peoples” (47). “[T]hrough a range of disembedding and appropriative strategies, settler narratives and practices of identity construction have sought to separate the markers of authenticity from indigenous bodies and communities and to make them their own,” she states, noting that “such possession is never finally secured” because the gap “between settler and indigeneity” can never be entirely closed (47). 

“Settler appropriations of indigenous cultural authenticity rely on the continual production of that authenticity, and—most destructively for indigenous communities—its Other, indigenous inauthenticity,” Bell continues. “While authenticity remains constructed in terms of purity, originality and unsullied traditionalism—settler modernity’s Other—contemporary indigenous culture remains at risk of denigration as not ‘real’ indigenous culture” (48). I thought Settlers had moved beyond that idea, given the success of contemporary Indigenous musicians (A Tribe Called Red, Tanya Talaga, William Prince), to give one example, but perhaps not. Indigenous authenticity depends on spatial separation—Indigenous peoples need to be somewhere other than in cities—and when “they become urban, indigenous people are expected to be either ‘just like us,’ or are seen as problematic troublemakers and welfare recipients” (48). Bell cites Patrick Wolfe’s notion of “repressive authenticity”—part of the Settler “logic of elimination”—which “‘seeks to replace indigenous society with that imported by the colonizers.’ Authentic indigeneity is constructed as a ‘pristine essence’”—one “that most actual indigenous individuals cannot embody” (qtd. 48). Thus, she continues, “while producing and appropriating authentic indigeneity to serve settler identity projects, repressive authenticity also involves ‘the positive production of genetic or cultural inauthenticity,’” and through assimilation and intermarriage, actual Indigenous people disappear “while the disembedded signifiers of indigenous authenticity remain to serve the settler nation” (48). 

According to Bell, Wolfe’s distinction between genetic and cultural inauthenticity is important. “The authentic indigene imported into settler nationalism represents cultural authenticity via the symbolism of tradition, the cultural wellspring for the migrant settler identity,” she writes. “Genetic tradition, on the other hand, is constructed in the language of race, blood and descent” (48). The point about cultural inauthenticity, though, is that “repressive authenticity works as a set of divide-and-rule strategies to simultaneously produce and discredit ‘inauthentic’ indigenes,” while Settler society appropriates “a disembedded indigenous cultural authenticity” (48). Bell cites critics of Wolfe, such as Elizabeth Povinelli, who “rightly points out that the elimination of the indigene is ‘always deferred’ because of the necessary role indigeneity plays in securing the identity of the white settler subject” (49). The figure of “the indigene” is both desired and rejected by Settlers, and for that reason “the final ‘death’ of indigeneity never comes, but the logics of authenticity remain a powerful means to police and discipline indigenous identities” (49). Thus Wolfe’s “logic of elimination” has a necessary limit, although “the repressive and divisive dynamics” he identifies operate in the four Settler societies Bell is considering. For instance, notions of cultural inauthenticity are “used to discredit activists and rights claimants,” because according to “the logics of primitivism,” Indigenous peoples cannot be traditional and contemporary (50). Nor can they or their cultures be dynamic: “traditions must be invariant and fixed, the same today as in the past” (50). While academics accept the dynamic nature of all cultures, “the opposition between modern and primitive cultures, between dynamic and static cultures, continues to circulate in the public arena,” Bell states (51).

In the chapter’s final section, Bell suggests that indigenous authenticity “has proven a vexed identity strategy for both settlers and indigenous peoples,” although “it remains a potent and alluring ideal that troubles both indigenous and settler identities and the relationships between them” (54). Settlers never become indigenous; they are always in a state of becoming, and the closest they get at arriving at their goal is through their “anxious repetitions” (54). “Beyond such assertions the settler remains prone to ontological uncertainty about their identity,” Bell states (54). In addition, “the politics of settler identification with indigenous culture and tradition is a direct follow-on from the romantic primitivism that was an integral component of the initial justification for colonization” (55). Romanticism gave the colonial project “an ambivalent ground,” because it valued something destined to “pass away,” but since Indigenous peoples remain 200 years after predictions of their demise began, the “ending of the romantic settler tale has thus had to be revised” (55). Now it’s the Avatar story, in which a white man saves Indigenous people and, in the end, becomes Indigenous himself (55). However, for Indigenous peoples, “claims to authenticity do have clear positive dimensions, providing a crucial cultural space form which to claim ownership of their self-representation and from which they can speak. Indigenous peoples are the guardians of their own authenticity, the logics of purity and originality offering ready grounds for excluding and discounting settler claims to speak in their name” (55). In that way, “the logic of authenticity provides a ground for the exercise of indigenous agency and resistance, and a point of stability within the violence and oppression of the colonial relation” (56). In addition, “to speak in the voice of authenticity is to speak in a voice that the colonizer recognizes as indigenous and hence one that is more likely to be ‘heard’” (56). However, authenticity has drawbacks, especially for Indigenous political projects, because it plays into “repressive authenticity,” and because such claims to authenticity “remain on the ontological terrain of the settler imaginary,” where Indigenous people are expected to perform “authentic indigeneity” (56). It is also subject to theoretical critique from post-structuralists and postmodernists, although Bell suggests that the west abandoned essentialism “just as indigenous people were finally beginning to make use of it to serve their own political resistance” (56). She suggests that one response to those theoretical developments is “strategic essentialism,” while another is to point towards the multiple meanings of “authenticity” (57). Authenticity, she suggests, “has more than one guise,” and it can be understood as either being or becoming (57). She cites the work of David Moore, who suggests that in the work of Indigenous writers and philosophers, “native authenticity . . . is dynamic, a matter of translating the contemporary experience of living native lives in twenty-first-century America in written form” (57). “Those native lives are modern and American and continue to draw on distinct, indigenous epistemological/cultural resources, pointing to the fact that there is something indigenous that remains ‘outside’ the incarceration of colonial ontologies and epistemologies,” she suggests (57). 

Bell’s third chapter, “Hybrid Identities and the ‘One-way Street’ of Assimilation,” begins by stating, “The most remarkable, but frequently taken-for-granted, feature of the politics of hybridity is settler societies is that hybridity is an indigenous ‘problem’ only. Like race—and for related, highly racialized reasons—hybridity is not a problem for the settler” (58). That’s because, despite the “many sources of hybridity within the settler population (mixed descent and histories of migration and of culture contact with indigenous and other peoples) . . . white settler identities have become sponges that can typically absorb any amount of cultural difference” (58). Not only is hybridity not a problem for Settlers, but “‘properly diluted’ indigenous blood actually works to ‘enhance, ennoble, naturalize and legitimate’ white settler identity” by grounding and legitimizing it,” Bell suggests, citing Strong and Van Winkle (58)—the Mohawk grandmother mythology so common where I grew up. “In contrast, being of mixed descent, or being anything other than ‘pure’ and ‘authentic’ . . . has persistently been a problem for indigenous peoples across these settler societies,” Bell writes, noting that “cultural hybridity has been integrally linked with various strategies of assimilation instituted on the part of settler governments” (58-59). For Bell, “the history of hybridity in the settler imaginary is one that problematizes claims to indigenous identities while representing the success of assimilation and adding a touch of exoticism when linked to claims to settler identities” (59). 

The focus of this chapter, according to Bell, is “how the tension between purity and mixture is straddled by indigenous peoples in particular,” and the central concept, hybridity, is used “to categorize mixed identities” (59). She notes that state-sponsored assimilation strategies took place in the 19th and 20th centuries, and that those policies “formed the backdrop to the resistance movements of the 1960s and 1970s as the young, urban and educated generation reacted against the assimilation mindsets forced onto their parents’ generation, and against the racism of their environments, to re-assert their identities and reclaim their cultural difference as indigenous peoples” (59). Despite the promise of equality inherent in western liberalism, people who were not white, or who could not pass as white,  “continued to be subjected to racist and exclusionary practices” (59). 

Hybridity, Bell notes, is usually the solution to “the problematics of essentialism” in identity theory literature (60). The argument, she continues, is 

that no culture is “pure” and no identity self-originating. Rather than seek territorial rootedness we must remember our histories of migration. Rather than assert “racial” and cultural purity, we must acknowledge our mixed ancestry and cultural syncretism. Rather than hybridity being conceived of as a problem, threatening a loss of identity, the answer is to embrace and celebrate the hybrid nature of all identities. (60)

However, this “positive politics of hybridity has always been shadowed by a suspicion of ‘mixture’ and a valuation of ‘purity’” (60). “Within the context of indigenous-settler histories of forcible assimilation and miscegenation, these negative connotations of hybridity have had particular salience and their legacy is apparent in the issues discussed in this chapter,” she continues (60).

The idea of hybridity comes from the work of Mikhail Bakhtin, Bell argues, but her own notion of hybridity focuses on “various themes of resistance and combination, maintenance of difference and fusion, and the element of choice evident in Bakhtin’s references to intention and conscious mixing” (61). Forms of hybridity as a mixture, for Bell, are “ontological hybridities” because “they involve the mixing of ‘substances,’ elements, forms of being—biological elements characterized in terms of ‘race,’ descent, ancestry on the one hand, and cultural elements, arising out of culture contact and migrations on the other” (61). “It is the existence of more than one racial or cultural element that provides the (limited) option to assert a hybrid identity,” Bell writes:

The individual of “mixed” origins has a choice of identifications within the strict limits of the ontological “substances” of their parentage and cultural milieu. Ontological hybridities then reflect constructionist theories of identity in two senses: they point to the historical processes by which identities come into being out of prior origins, and they point to an element of human agency in constructing/choosing a particular identity. (61)

“While the historicized origin of ontological hybridities points to change over time, the development of a new identity label also represents a moment of stability,” she continues. “Out of processes of cultural mixture, hyphenated or doubled identities . . . or new ‘fused’ identity labels . . . are formed,” and these “foreground and maintain the distinctions between their origins, while with fused hybridities the distinct ‘parents’ of the new identity are less easy to trace” (61). Such hybridities are sometimes called “synthetic” or “syncretic” (61). 

Before she moves on to discuss hybridity in connection to Indigenous identities, though, Bell explains how the idea of “race” figures in her argument. She writes, “it is now commonly accepted that there is no such thing as ‘race’ in a biological sense. Rather, ‘race’ is understood as a flexible socio-political concept of European/western origin used to categorize people in particular ways that work to support white dominance” (62). For Bell, the idea of “race” is “un/real”: “real in its effects because of the way that people believe in it and act on it,” but “scientifically ‘unreal’ in that it lacks empirical foundation” (62). “The metaphor of ‘blood’ is intimately linked with ‘race’ and ontological hybridities,” she continues. “‘Blood’ is construed in race discourse as a substance that can be mixed and diluted, that can be divided in fractional terms to precisely categorize descent,” and in that way it can be used to “weaken an individual’s claim to an identity” (62). “The result is crucial for the categorization of identity and group belonging, leading to individuals of mixed descent being categorized as caught between, neither one thing nor the other, or both/and, and, significantly, not ‘real’ (authentic) Indians/Māori/Aboriginals,” Bell writes (62). She suggests that it is useful to compare this way of thinking, which “has long since become societal commonsense throughout the CANZUS societies,” with alternatives, such as the Māori concept of whakapapa, which “works according to an opposite, inclusive rather than divisive, logic” (62). In Māori society, she explains, people look for common ancestors or close points of connection, and “if you share one ancestor, no matter how many generations ago, your whakapapa connects you” (62-63). The idea of whakapapa also “provides the basis for a claim to tribal belonging—one, rather than all, ancestors being the minimal requirement for a tribal identity” (63).

“Diverse links between ontological hybridities, indigeneity and assimilation are evident in the histories of the CANZUS states,” Bell continues. “In racial terms, individuals of mixed descent were viewed in contrary ways, sometimes as lost and adrift, belonging to neither settler nor indigenous worlds, and at other times as ‘half-way’ to ‘civilized’ and eminently civilizable” (63). They sometimes became the “targets of a number of assimilatory policies, locating them on one side or the other of the indigenous/settler binary as it suited the colonizing, assimilatory strategy” (63). In Canada, for example, under the 1876 Indian Act, “mixed-descent children of indigenous mothers . . . were excluded from band membership and recognition as status Indians” (63). “Indigenous peoples were also assimilated according to the logics of cultural hybridity,” she writes. (63). For instance, states pursued strategies of “individualizing land title to introduce the ‘civilized’ way of life via European-style farming and landholding,” as well as assimilative educational practices and removing Indigenous children from their families (64). “Beyond these links between hybridity and assimilation there are some key differences in the categorization of indigenous identities in the four settler states that are necessary to understand to make sense of the contemporary politics of hybridity,” Bell continues. In Canada, for instance, status Indians have government-issued cards “that validate their native identities and entitle them to various benefits and privileges,” even though they may not be recognized as members of specific First Nations, while non-status Indians “claim indigenous identities on the basis of descent and cultural identification, but . . . fall outside of government-imposed definitions” (64). Such policies have been divisive, leading to a situation where “the contemporary politics of hybridity is almost entirely dominated by struggles to be indigenous, struggles for recognition from tribes, bands and/or governments” (65). The existence of the Métis nation in Canada is another complexity, with some being recognized by the federal government, and others not (65).

However, Bell suggests, “the pressure continues for individuals of mixed descent to make an either/or identity choice—to be indigenous or to assimilate into the settler community,” and pressure to make that decision can come from both Indigenous and non-Indigenous communities and be exerted in either direction (68). It is rare for someone to claim “a doubled indigenous-settler identity,” she contends, although many people might reasonably do so (68). The notion of hybridity “encapsulates the experience of multiple identifications as well as the strategies of negotiation and points of tension that are involved in living between/across/within two (or more) cultural worlds” (68). She summarizes the ways that writers (in particular) identify themselves, but notes that people “who fit the phenotypical stereotypes of indigenous peoples are subject to racism and more broadly to the assumption that they are native, despite their legal or tribal status, or how they may self-identify” (72). “The message form the settler community is—as ever—mixed,” she notes. “On the one hand, indigenous people are exhorted to abandon their claims to a distinct identity and ‘join the mainstream community’; on the other, on the basis of appearance they are frequently denied equality and inclusion” (72). As a result, many “individuals of mixed descent” will “claim an indigenous identity as an act of resistance and positive affirmation of indigenous being, in addition to being an expression of their lived sense of self” (72). “One expression of resistance is the assertion of ‘wholeness’ and a singular indigenous identity, against any idea that they are made up of ‘parts’ and neither one thing nor the other,” Bell continues (72). Other people remain “committed to both sides” of their heritage (73). For still others, “a desired transition to an indigenous identity can be made difficult or impossible by the loss of connection with family and heritage” (74). Some who look white are challenged by other members of Indigenous communities, while others are encouraged to identify as Indigenous “as part of the political project of resisting and reversing the effects of assimilation” (75). Some communities are inclusive, and others maintain “strict, even essentialist, criteria for membership” (75-76). “Either way, it is clear that as a result of historic and contemporary assimilatory pressures, the maintenance of a clear demarcation between indigene and settler (wherever drawn) is crucial for the survival of distinct indigenous peoplehood,” Bell continues (76). She quotes Linda Tuhiwai Smith: “‘Fragmentation is not an indigenous project, it is something we are recovering from’” (qtd. 76-77). 

Syncretic identities—the result of cultural contact between different Indigenous nations—are a form of “‘internal’ cultural dynamism” that is often not recognized (78). “From a political perspective, syncretic hybridities offer the means to construct a more inclusive identity,” Bell writes. “Rather than seek to ‘forget’ colonization by a turn to essence (as though colonization did not happen or did no harm, created no change), hybridity acts an important reminder of the colonial ‘break’ in the historical trajectory of identity” (78). She suggests that, along with Métis, “the identities of ‘Indian,’ ‘Aboriginal’ and ‘Māori’ . . . must be remembered as colonial constructs, as categories that didn’t exist before contact with Europeans imposed these terms onto the diversity and complexity of indigenous cultures, tribes, clans, nations and language groups across the CANZUS states” (78). I would imagine that Métis people would take great offence at that claim. Nevertheless, because of the history of such collective terms, “some are suspicious of their value to contemporary indigenous peoples, for whom the connection to pre-colonial indigenous communities depends on categories from within their own cultural frameworks—family, skin, tribe, village, nation” (79). At the same time, she suggests that the counter-argument—“that pan-tribal concepts can unite diverse tribes around shared interests, particularly agains the forces of colonization”—is understandable (79). She notes that Indigenous thinkers and writers disagree about these ideas (79-80). However, even opponents of “pan-tribal concepts,” such as Elizabeth Cook-Lynn, do find “the generic labels” useful “to encompass shared tribal experience and positioning” (80). According to Bell,

The multiplicities that constitute Indian, Māori and Aboriginal identities are sites of struggle between those suspicious of the colonial origins of these pan-tribal terms and those who acknowledge their unifying power, between those who seek to order indigenous diversity in the name of a normative (“authentic”) definition and those who seek to emphasize the differences within indigenous collectivities. These tensions between singularity and diversity are made fraught in the context of colonization, where the dangers of assimilation provoke a protectionist reaction against the recognition of diversity. (83) 

However, “[d]espite these tensions, the assertion of indigenous diversity can also be seen as ‘talking back’ to settler attempts to confine indigenous peoples to a singular image of traditionalism and racial purity” (83). Bell suggests that the coexistence of both traditional and hybrid forms of Indigenous culture suggest not only its survival, but also its dynamism and its refusal to be excluded from modernity (83). 

“The lens of hybridity can also be applied in various ways to the settler peoples,” Bell notes (83). In terms of syncretism, “white Canadians,” for instance, are made up of a variety of European cultural and linguistic groups (83). But her primary interest, she continues, “is the way that settler-indigenous hybridity works for those who claim a settler identity,” which is “not only unproblematic for the settler, but a positive affirmation of settler being and belonging” (84).”This settler hybridity has its biological/descent and cultural dimensions, both underpinned by the desires they represent—for redemption, for belonging, for the right to inherit the authority and legitimacy of the indigene,” she writes (84). For settlers, hybridity “is always a choice, and a choice made only when hybridity is enhancing and affirming of settler being” (84). “In North America, the ‘wannabe,’ the white person claiming some real or fictitious indigenous descent, is a well-known and disparaged phenomenon,” she continues (84-85):

Critics of this phenomenon point to the ease with which the white settler subject may take up and drop such identity claims, in contrast to the difficulties of such choice for most indigenous peoples. In addition, wannabe identifications serve to meet some need or lack on the part of the settler subject—again appropriating indigeneity for their own ends—rather than supporting indigenous interests. Finally, wannabe hybridization applies only in situations where the individual stands to benefit. (85).

However, beyond the “wannabe” phenomenon, “the influence of indigenous cultures on the cultural practice of everyday lives within settler cultures is also apparent” (85). Indigenous words enter the English language, for instance (85). Settlers are “a crucial market for the works of indigenous artists and designers” (86). “To some degree such appropriations are a mark of respect and admiration for indigenous cultures,” Bell suggests. “However, the problematic point is the way in which such appropriations are divorced from any support for, or understanding of, the wider political issues of indigenous struggles for survival and recovery, or the rights of indigenous sovereignty” (86). “The problem lies in the asymmetry in the way in which indigenous-settler hybridity works for each side, problematizing indigenous identities and enhancing settler ones,” Bell concludes (86).

“Ontological hybridities offer a contrast to essentialist accounts of identity in that the involve the introduction of change and diversity into the ways in which identities are conceptualized,” Bell continues in the chapter’s last section. “Thinking of identities in ontologically hybrid terms, then, does at least offer individuals a limited degree of choice in how they identify themselves. However, it is equally clear that there are powerful social influences that work to ‘determine’ the choices individuals make” (86). For colonized people, opening up identities in the context of “the logics of the settler imaginary carries the dangers of assimilation and loss of identity” (86). In addition, ontological hybridities “do not ‘escape’ essentialism, but represent its flipside,” because they “rely on the combination, rather than dismissal, of essence/s” (86-87). She cites Charles Hale’s call “to analyse specific identities and their politics” and suggests that “politically speaking, both essentialism and hybridity can be used in the service of colonial domination or in resistance to it” (87). 

“The legacy of the settler imaginary for indigenous peoples is the fraught oscillation of arguments for and against essentialism and for and against hybridity,” she writes, asking her readers to remember that those arguments take place within a “colonial environment” (87). “[W]e need to acknowledge the language of ‘blood’ as ‘a discourse of conquest with manifold and contradictory effects, but without invalidating rights and resistances that have been couched in terms of that very discourse,’” she states, quoting Strong and Van Winkle (qtd. 87). Indigenous peoples “are frequently caught in an invidious position in relation to the legacies of colonialism, legacies that include the internalization of ideas of authenticity, blood and race—and the struggle for survival against the odds” (88). She notes that Stuart Hall argued for the need to remember the “colonial break,” while also contending that it is impossible to entirely do away with, or undo, “the intertwining of European with indigenous worlds” (88). We also need to remember that “indigenous diversity and mobility has always existed,” that Indigenous societies “were never static and should never be expected to be” (88). “There was no era of ‘tradition’ before ‘modernity’; this too is a modern colonial construct,” she argues. “Colonization has greatly complicated the histories of indigenous diversity in ways that sought deliberately to undermine and destroy indigenous communities and ways of being. These colonial complications cannot be wished away or constructively denied” (88). Therefore, an Indigenous recovery “requires the combination of tradition and change, tradition and mixing, tradition and mobility, tribalism and pan-indigenism, to enable dynamic indigenous cultures to be the lifeblood of indigenous futures” (88). 

Chapter Four, “Performative Hybridity in the ‘Ruins of Representation,’” begins by describing Homi Bhabha’s theory of hybridity as “the most thoroughgoing alternative alternative to the ontological versions” of hybridity (93). Years ago I tried to read Homi Bhabha’s work, and I was stymied by his impenetrable prose; perhaps Bell’s discussion will function as an explication. Bhabha, she writes, 

is rigorously anti-essentialist in his approach to cultural identity, arguing that identity and culture are both practices without any essential foundation as such. No identity has an originary essence. Rather, all are constituted in and through difference. Here hybridity refers to the necessary instability and impurity of all identities, the figure of migration no longer the bearer of ontological mixture, but signifying movement itself, conceptualizing identities as forever in process, unstable, nomadic and “uprooted.” Rather than attend to the substance (hybridized or essentialized, “open” or exclusionary) of identity claims, Bhabha’s focus is the process by which identities are uttered, reiterated, performed. (93)

For Bhabha, culture is only a problem “‘at the point at which there is a loss of meaning in the contestation and articulation of everyday life, between classes, genders, races, nations” (qtd. 93-94). The purpose of culture, in such situations of conflict, “is to negotiate or disguise the conflict through appeals to community that work to exclude some and marginalize others,” and this “dominating operating of culture, and colonial culture in particular,” is what “Bhabha aims to expose and undo” (94). Bhabha “seeks out the weakness internal to such practices of domination and the scope for the play of resistant agency that this weakness offers”; he is interested in “power relations in the play of cultural identities, with practices of domination and resistance of the terrain of culture” (94).

Bhabha’s ideas are rooted in an understanding of culture and identity as systems of representation (94). “The instability and hybridity of identities arise out of two aspects of representation,” Bell writes. First, the gap between signifier and signified in language (as understood by semioticians), which is also a gap “between the asserting/speaking of identity and its reception and interpretation” (94). That gap “is a space, or time, of undecidability,” which Bhabha describes as both “Third Space” and “time-lag” (94). Second, “the notion of the ‘time-lag’ also points to the work of repetition in the construction of identity,” because “each iteration or re-presentation of identity differs from each previous iteration,” and that difference in repetition “adds to the inherent instability and lack of foundation in all acts and expressions of identity” (94). For Bhabha, “this mobility and repetition” is the source of “the opportunities for resistant agency” (94). “All subjects are migratory—in motion, contingent, moving between past representations of identity and enunciation in the present, and between enunciation and meaning,” Bell writes, and as a result, she uses the term “performative hybridity” to distinguish Bhabha’s ideas from the ontological forms of hybridity she discussed in the previous chapter (94).

According to Bell, Bhabha’s work focuses on the relationship between national and minority cultures and, more importantly for her purposes, the relationship between colonizer and colonized (94). His primary interest is in British colonialism in India, rather than settler colonialism, so he focuses on “the imperial colonizer, in the figure of the colonial administrator, and the colonized, and particularly . . . the possibilities of resistant forms of agency that the practice of representation allows,” but other scholars have applied Bhabha’s work to an analysis of settler identities as a way of illuminating and unsettling “the dynamics of colonial identity politics” (94-95). Bell’s focus is on Bhabha’s arguments “about the practice and menace of colonial mimicry, on how the ‘substance’ of cultural difference is situated in this theory, and on his use of Freud’s concept of the uncanny to describe the experience of the instability, or difference, of cultural hybridity” (95). She then examines how these ideas have been used to analyze settler and Indigenous subjectivities, particularly “the ‘doubled’ nature of the settler subject, located ‘in-between’ indigenous and metropolitan peoples” (95). However, Settler mimicry can do the work of domination, suggesting a limitation of Bhabha’s theory for thinking about settler colonialism (95). At the same time, though, “Bhabha’s performative hybridity allows us to identify possibilities of indigenous resistance,” although it “cannot acknowledge the value of the moment of ‘fixity’ in identity for indigenous peoples, which marks survival, presence, continuity, the border between indigenous self and colonizing other” (95). Bell also intends to think about “Bhabha’s uses of time and disjunction together with the very different ideas about time and indigenous identities outlined in Chapter 2 that have evolved from the disjunction of primitivism and civilization, tradition and modernity” (95). She argues that “the analysis of the indigenous presence in terms of the uncanny works by misrepresenting the co-existence of ‘indigenous time’ with ‘settler time’ as the Freudian return of the repressed” (95). According to Bell, “[p]erformative hybridity and the accompanying cluster of concepts from Bhabha’s work continue to operate on the terrain of the settler imaginary. They ‘speak back’ to this imaginary, but do not escape it. They cannot account for the existence of an autonomous indigenous ‘outside’ to colonial discourse” (95).

First, Bell tackle’s Bhabha’s notion of colonial mimicry. “The time-lag between one iteration and the next is the moment of undecidability in which the lack of essential foundation and the weakness of colonial authority are exposed and the possibility of resistance made visible,” she writes. “The practice of colonization as ‘civilizing mission’ incites the colonized subjects to make themselves anew, to become ‘civilized,’ to ‘speak’ a new ‘civilized’ identity via a process of colonial mimicry,” a process which “involves a process of doubling in which the English, for example, are repeated as the anglicized indigene, ‘almost the same but not quite’” (96). “Sameness and difference are simultaneously produced in a contradictory and ambivalent operation in which the colonial demand for mimicry points to the very difference it seeks to disavow and simultaneously insists on the retention of difference—the difference between the ‘mimic’/colonized and the ‘original’/colonizer,” she continues. “Colonial discourse is thus shown to be inherently ambivalent and the practice of colonial mimicry threatens colonial authority in two ways” (96). First, mimicry can be interpreted as a sign of respect or as mockery, “thus creating a sense of unease for the colonizer” as well as “a troubling equality between colonizer and colonized” (96). That mimicry also undermines the claims to originality of the colonizing identity by suggesting that original is not complete or finished, that it is open to translation and imitation (97). There is also a slippage between metropolitan orders and colonial imitation, which suggests that the colonizer, or settler, is also “a mimic subject, mimicking the authority of the centre” (97). Both kinds of mimicry, Bell continues, “work to undermine colonial authority, destabilizing the colonizing settler and empowering the resistant native. Thus Bhabha links the civilizing (but not quite) mission of colonialism to the deconstructionist recognition that every act of representation betrays its lack of identical-ness” (97). The “interplay of reiteration of identity and difference” is, for Bhabha, the possibility of “a resistant discursive agency which, through repetition, can disrupt colonial authority and these opposed colonial identities” (97).

Bell acknowledges that Bhabha’s focus on the imposition and mimicry of imperial authority refers to a historical situation rather than a contemporary one, that imperial authority no longer operates the way it did previously. However, it has been replaced by settler colonial authority, which “makes its own demands on indigenous peoples—that they be ‘civil’ in the sense of being Americans, Canadians and so on, while retaining their ability to ‘mimic’/perform cultural authenticity as required for cultural and symbolic purposes” (97). The desire or need for Settlers to imitate the imperial culture has been replaced by the desire or need to imitate Indigenous culture and hybridity, which suggests that performative hybridity may be a way to think about Settler appropriations of Indigenous difference (97-98). Bhabha acknowledges cultural difference, but he insists on “the undecidability of culture”: “What we identify as ‘culture’ is always a retroactive achievement; it comes after enunciation rather than providing the ground for it” (98). Culture is a matter of process, a becoming rather than a being, and for Bhabha cultural difference is not a challenge to colonization. That challenge lies elsewhere, “in the production and proliferation of a mobile, unstable and indecidable hybridity that speaks/articulates cultural ‘substance’ ‘otherwise’” (98-99).

According to Bell, “[t]he moment of difference . . . that appears in the enunciation of colonial identities is then a disturbance in the practice of colonial authority, a moment in which things threaten to escape the demands of colonial discourse,” and Bhabha uses Freud’s notion of the uncanny, which “describes a particular form of ambivalent anxiety,” to define that disturbance or unease that is “produced by the representation and disavowal of difference” (99).  The uncanny is a defining colonial and post-colonial condition which “marks the disruption and unsettling of binary logics and systems of discursive domination” and is “to be embraced for its insights into the workings of dominating power and as a disruption of that power, through bringing to light what has been disavowed” (99). Bell suggests that the application of the idea of “the time-lag to the moment between the demand from the colonizer and the response from the colonized” as uncanny “seems to foreground the experience of the colonizing subject,” since they are likely to find “this opening to resistance and change” to be “‘unsettling’ or troubling” (99). 

“Bhabha’s work leaves us with a cluster of concepts—performative hybridity, the time-lag, mimicry, the uncanny—that have been drawn up on by many subsequent scholars exploring the interface of colonial cultural contact,” Bell continues. In that work, “[b]oth settler and indigenous subjects are treated . . . as ‘doubled’ subjects—caught between the binaries of colonial discourse, although in distinctly different ways and with different effects” (100). Of particular importance is the work of Alan Lawson—whom I met once, 30 years ago, and who told me a story about cane toads in his Brisbane garden—“and his argument for the specificity of the settler subject as ‘in-between’ the authenticity and authority of empire and indigene” (100). According to Lawson, for Settlers “the practice of performative hybridity is unsettling but also settling,” and “the mimicries of the settler subject . . . work in support of the project of colonial domination” (100).

According to Bell, “Bhabha insists on the inherent ambivalence and ‘unhomeliness’ of colonial subjectivities. Ultimately colonialism fails to make the colonizer feel ‘at home’ in the colony, or the settler ‘at home’ in settler society” (100). Settlers are “out of place” (100). Lawson draws on Bhabha’s work to argue that “identifying the specificity of the settler subject is both ethically and hermeneutically important,” because avoiding doing so means disavowing the processes of settler colonialism (100). For Lawson, Settler cultures are “the ‘Second World,’” and he argues they are characterized by a doubleness, “at once colonizing and colonized, colonizing and other,” and thus the Settler subject is “the place where the operations of colonial power as negotiation are most intensely visible” (qtd. 101). Bell writes, “Lawson extends Bhabha’s analysis to the peculiarities of the settler subject, caught between the imperial centre and the indigene, between two sets of contending authenticities and sites of authority” (101). Both the Indigenous subject and the “imperium” are authentic (in the Romantic sense) and forms of moral authority, “the authority of ‘civilization’ in the case of the former, and of belonging and originality in the case of the latter” (101). Caught between these “contending positivities,” Settlers are figures of inauthenticity and “moral lack” which mimic “both the authority of the empire and the indigene” (101). 

Bell now moves to Daniel Coleman’s work on “white civility” as “a project of peaceful and progressive settlement, bringing civilization and order to the new society,” although the borders of that project are “maintained with uncivil violence and unfair exclusions” (qtd 102). Indigenous people, for instance, are denied within the project of white civility (102). “Coleman utilizes Bhabha’s and Lawson’s insights to ‘undo’ the authority of various figures of civility in Canadian literature,” Bell writes, but he concludes that such civility also “encapsulates positive values” and which can be encouraged to extend its borders (102). That project needs to be pursued “in a knowing and self-critical way” according to a stance Coleman calls “wry civility,” a play on Bhabha’s “sly civility” of the colonized subject (102). I’ve met Daniel, too, and I admire his book Yardwork very much; I have White Civility here somewhere, and Bell’s discussion has convinced me to read it, finally.

Next, Bell returns to Lawson and his argument that “the ambivalent location of the settler manifests itself in the ‘old tripled dreams’ of the colonizer”:

The first is the dream of effacement of the indigene and evacuation of the land, which allows the practice of settlement. The second is the now familiar dream of authentic indigeneity, which in an important sense also denies that colonization occurred, or that it did no harm since indigenous authenticity remains, seemingly untouched. The third is the familiar dream of inheriting indigenous authority or rights to the land, the dream of inheritance. (102-03)

Through these dreams, Settlers disavow “the colonial relation and their role in nit, narrating their own redemption and seeking to translate their doubled-ness into the singularity of settlement and homeliness” (103). However, “the settler’s simultaneous denial of, and dependence on, the presence of indigeneity means that these dreams of replacing the indigene as ‘first people’ (authentic and authorized can never be fulfilled” (103). For that reason, settlement is “always an anxious practice of repetition that can never be final, never ‘settled’ as the settler seeks to ‘stand in for’ the indigene who can never be replaced” (103). Lawson reverses Bhabha’s theory, though, by arguing that “settler mimicry works to serve domination and settlement rather than resistance to colonization” (103), which only makes sense given the different context Lawson is discussing. Bell suggests that in an era of Indigenous cultural and political resurgence, the dream of effacement Lawson describes is a historical phenomenon. I wonder if that’s true. It is, as Bell notes, key to narratives of settlement (103), but those stories continue to be told. In any case, I’ve downloaded Lawson’s article and plan to read it when I finish with this book.

Next, Bell turns to Eva Mackey’s discussion of contemporary Canadian nationalist narratives, which “provide examples of the workings of the settler dreams of innocence and inheritance, and also show how Coleman’s project of extending the borders of settler civility might continue the work of settler colonialism, albeit in a new, inclusive form” (104). She’s referring to Mackey’s book The House of Difference, which I probably should read—with libraries closed, research is getting expensive, because I end up buying books I could have borrowed (assuming they are in the library’s collection, which is never a reasonable assumption to make, I’ve discovered). Mackey argues that “the contemporary era of reconciliation and the reconstruction of settler nationalisms to incorporate rather than deny the indigenous presence can also work to redeem the settler, to secure their innocence in the ‘postcolonial’ national present and into the future” (104). Douglas Cardinal’s design for the Museum of Civilization is Mackey’s example, because it suggests (somehow—I don’t understand the argument, although I’ve been in the building) that Settlers give to the land rather than take it, thus mimicking Indigenous authenticity and “dreaming themselves as hybridized inheritors o indigenous right” (104). Another example is the Land, Spirit, Power exhibition at the National Gallery of Canada in 1992, in which the inclusion of Indigenous art serves to reconstruct Canadian national identity and tolerance, “so that the celebration of indigenous cultural vitality and diversity becomes a celebration of the nation’s redemption from the sins of colonization” (104). 

For Bell, these examples “illustrate how viewing settler subjectivities through the lens of performative hybridity has significant analytic power, identifying the uncertain ontological status of the settler subject” (105). “Practices of settler mimicry,” she writes,

mark the complex doubleness of settler subjectivities and point to the work that has to be done to keep colonial history at bay. Such analyses of the settler self as the “bearer” of colonial authority open up the possibility of the work of mourning for this occluded history and a new form of settler agency as self-critique. (105)

Bell cites Stephen Turner’s work on Settler self-knowledge as a way to disrupt ongoing colonizing strategies (105)—another article I need to read: “A ‘mournful’ confrontation with history and with the losses entailed can allow new ‘versions of historic memory’ and the possibilities of a post-settler imaginary to surface” (Bhabha, qtd. 105-06). Nevertheless, she suggests that “while these analyses highlight the troubling and undoing of colonial settlement and settler claims to identity and belonging, they also highlight the endless, iterative work of settlement that maintains the conflictual colonial relations between settler and indigenous peoples” (106). I wonder if those conflictual relations are really that complicated; perhaps they’re over land—land Settlers have taken and currently occupy, land which ought to be returned to Indigenous peoples.

Bell now turns to Indigenous resistance and performative hybridity. “The colonized indigene is also a doubled subject within colonial discourse, caught between the twin injunctions previously discussed—to become ‘civilized,’ to take on the culture of the colonizer, and to be the authentic indigene,” she writes:

As with the settler subject, this in-between position of the colonized indigene allows for and necessitates various forms of identity as reiteration in the service of indigenous resistance. The performance of authenticity can work as a site of resistant indigenous agency, serving indigenous political projects. And indigenous civility can take menacing forms, if no longer the form of mimicry of imperial civility that was Bhabha’s focus. As with the declining significance of mimicry of imperial authority in the case of the settler subject, the “menacing” connotations of indigenous civility take a somewhat different form in contemporary settler societies. Rather than unsettling colonial authority by pointing to its lack of foundation as Bhabha would have it, the non-indigenous communities of settler societies today are comfortable with indigenous peoples being “just like us”—workers, consumers, individualist, modern. Where it becomes problematic is where modernity—modern skills, economic forms, educational qualifications, sophisticated legal arguments—is put to the service of indigenous, communal, collective interests, where modernity/civility is used to resist rather than embrace assimilation. In such instances “indigenous civility” can still be a menace. (106)

Bell proceeds to give two examples of such menacing civility: Patricia Wald’s analysis of the famous Cherokee Nation vs Georgia court case, and Stephen Muecke’s account of the life of David Uniapon, a Ngarindjerri man from South Australia. “Indigenous mimicry, or performance of authentic tradition, has been a frequent focus of scholarship, with ‘playing native’ often being seen as a form of acquiescence to settler demands for indigenous authenticity,” while it can also be seen as providing “a space and time in which indigenous difference is ‘recognized’ rather than disavowed and hence a site for indigenous agency” (108). She discusses the differences between Philip Deloria’s and Gerald Vizenor’s accounts of the life and writing of Charles Eastman, coming to agree with Vizenor’s association of sovereignty and agency with mobility of identity (108-10). She also discusses Simone Drichel’s analysis of Patricia Grace’s short story, “Parade,” and Stephen Pritchard’s work on contemporary Māori tattooing (110-11). 

“For indigenous subjects Bhabha’s approach to hybridity draws attention to forms of resistant agency on the terrain of colonial identity politics—both a means to resist and undermine settler/colonial authority and the reclamation of indigenous cultural space under the sign of an indigenous authenticity that, by definition, excludes the settler,” Bell writes. “However, for indigenous peoples Bhabha’s theory is problematic at the very point of its strength in relation to the settler—in the focus on difference as undecidability, and on mobility over cultural substance. In a context in which a fractured and destabilized identity is understood as the outcome of colonization, the idea that this is a condition to be embraced is a difficult sell” (111). She concludes that “Bhabha’s call to indecidability is not enough,” and while it “may represent a powerful and crucial mode of resistance on the terrain of identity politics,” it doesn’t “offer any ‘ground’ for projects of indigenous recovery, which are themselves crucial forms of resistance to domination” (112). Thus it might be better to focus on the problematics of practices of Settler judgement of Indigenous authenticity and cultural difference in order to “consider how we might abandon or challenge them” (112).

In the chapter’s final section, Bell thinks “about the issue of an indigenous ‘outside’ not fully captured by colonial discourse” through a discussion of the notion of ghosts as figures for “the presence or emergence of unwelcome signs of indigeneity” that appears repeatedly in Settler literatures (112). This discussion is intended to extend Bhabha’s work “in ways that are helpful in thinking further about the continuing existence and presence of indigenous difference” (112). She discusses Renee Bergland’s work on Indigenous ghosts in early 19th-century American texts, in which “the indigene is incorporated into the time of settler history and their becoming as national subjects,” with the haunting becoming “another mode of appropriation,” as such ghosts become “the ‘ancestral spirits’ of the Americanized settler subject” (113). “Crucially though, while the indigenous ghost that haunts the settler is conceived by them as a figure from the past, a figure ‘out of time,’ for indigenous writers the indigenous ghost may mark the continuing presence of indigenous culture in time,” Bell continues (113). Such ghosts “work as ‘reconstructive agents’ that combine memory and imagining,” or tradition and recovery (113). “Other writers identify the same disruption to the settler imaginary and settler modernity by these unassimilable ‘chunks of difference’ without resort to the language of the ghost and the uncanny,” thereby refusing to reduce “indigeneity to ghostliness, to the status of relic from another time, and seek to properly register these continuing differences” (113-14). Stephen Turner’s work “on the persistence and inassimilability of Māori indigeneity,” for instance, “centres on the ongoing presence of what he calls Māori history of place, of Māori in Aoteoroa New Zealand, and on the settler inability ever to know or incorporate that history” (114). For Turner, the figure of the ghost is totally inadequate; he uses the Māori term tapu to suggest “the inassimilable ‘chunks’ of indigenous difference that lie outside and before the imposition of colonial settlement” and which “continue to exist alongside it” (114). “It is not a matter of a ‘return’ of a repressed history—that is, our own forgotten/denied history—but a matter of the co-existence of indigenous differences that are unencompassable within the worldview of western modernity, but must be reduced to ghosts, myths and dreams to be accounted for at all,” Bell writes (114). Of course, those differences could just be accepted as something beyond Settler understanding rather than reduced to anything. Why not?

“Each of these writers point to an indigenous ‘outside’—knowledges, temporalities, ontologies, life-worlds—that, while Bhabha doesn’t deny its existence (although he would deny it any foundational essence), is not his focus,” Bell continues. “Bhabha’s concern is to undo colonial discourse and colonial authority from within, to point to the internal fissures that deconstruct them,” and “the troubling repetitions of disavowed traces of difference” are central to his project (114-15). He is interested, in other words, in “how this cultural difference troubles colonial authority, rather than the ‘ground’ it provides for indigenous autonomy and persistence,” no doubt because he is not interested in settler colonialism, where “the colonizers have never left and have staked their own presence on the disappearance of any autonomous indigenous existence beyond their own categories of knowledge and evaluation” (115). For Bell, “[r]eclaiming the ground of indigenous autonomy, the indigenous outside, is . . . crucial for indigenous peoples” (115). Performative hybridity thus has limitations in the settler colonial context, particularly because its “field of operation remains the settler imaginary” and because his ideas “cannot account for the equal importance of the indigenous ‘outside’ to indigenous agency” (115). She quotes Linda Tuhiwai Smith: “the native does have an existence outside and predating the settler/native identity” (qtd. 115). That seems so obvious that it doesn’t bear repeating, but perhaps given the ways that settler colonialism have warped our perceptions, it needs to be said.

Chapter 5, “Strategic Essentialism, Indigenous Agency and Difference,” begins with a quote from Leonie Pihama about the survival of Māori identity even in a post-colonial era. “This is a position that Bhabha’s performative hybridity cannot account for,” Bell notes (116). (I wonder, then, why bother with performative hybridity at all?) Strategic essentialism, like performative hybridity, is a “central identity concept of postcolonial identity politics,” and it “aims to describe identity practices of resistance to dominant groups’ impositions,” although “unlike performative identity, it is a concept that brings us more firmly back to the ‘substance’ or ‘essence’ of identity claims” (116). The notion of “strategic” essentialism, she writes, “foregrounds the suspicions of all claims to essence evident within post-structuralist and postcolonial theories”:

On the one hand, there is the theoretical rejection of essentialism that arises out of post-structuralism and constructionist theories that view representation as constitutive, rather than expressing an already existing reality. This is the kind of theorizing evidence in Bhabha’s account of “culture as enunciation,” as something brought into being in practices of expression and reception. (116)

Such theories have the advantage of refusing “the ‘freezing’ of identities of ‘others’ that has been one of the practices of domination” (116). 

“On the other hand,” Bell continues, “critical analyses of identity politics have adopted an anti-essentialist stance, pointing to the violence involved in practices of representation that inevitably reduce and exclude and hence involve forms of domination” (116-17). When boundaries are drawn around an identity in such a way that people who might choose to define themselves that way—in other words, “where self-ascription and social ascription don’t match”—it is a problem (117). “At the same time, articulations of identity are necessary, and no more so than for indigenous peoples who are struggling for their very survival,” Bell writes (117). She turns, again, to Stuart Hall for an acknowledgement of the difficulties involved in identity politics in the context of constructionism and anti-essentialism. Hall argues that the encounter with anti-essentialism is “dangerous” to Black (and, Bell adds, Indigenous) identity politics, because it leaves “claims to essence” standing “on shaky and contestable ground,” and thus such claims “can only be self-consciously ‘knowingly’ made” (117). For that reason, arguments about the “strategic use of essentialisms have been developed in acknowledgement of their continuing necessity to the politics of subordinated groups” (117). Bell suggests that strategic essentialism “is a way of having your cake and eating it too, effectively—of accepting the theory of anti-essentialism and constructionism while, as a political strategy, asserting identity claims on the basis of some ‘essence’ shared by the collective united by the name” (117).

This chapter only discusses “the encounter between the concept of strategic essentialism and assertions of ‘essential’ differences as the basis of indigenous identities,” and does not discuss the politics of Settler identity, because as dominant peoples, Settlers “grant themselves the privilege of internal diversity and flexibility—their culture is ‘normal,’ they are individuals, barely collectives at all—allowing them to largely escape the problematics of essentialism that modern western theories have imposed upon others (the authenticity of settler national identity aside” (117). Okay, but why not then recognize the “internal diversity and flexibility” that is part of Indigenous groups? 

According to Bell, strategic essentialism is associated with the work of Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, and so she begins by presenting Spivak’s argument before discussing its limitations and impact, followed by a proposal for rebuilding Indigenous identities from the autonomous foundations of Indigenous difference (118). That proposal, she writes, “combines ‘essence’ and dynamism, continuity and change” (118). Accepting Indigenous knowledges and ways of being, she continues, “raises the question of the possibilities for non-colonizing relationships between these and those fo the western settler subject” (118). Bell believes that “the invocation of a dynamic, rather than static, cultural ‘essence’ as the basis for indigenous claims to autonomous difference is crucial to the assertion of full human agency. To be self-determining is to be a producer of culture and political and social orders, not just a register of domination” (118). Settler peoples can no longer deny self-determination to others; autonomous or self-determining Indigenous difference, she continues, “represents a first step towards shifting indigenous and settler relations ‘beyond’ the settler imaginary,” a “beyond” that “must be a site of epistemological pluralism, in which indigenous ways of knowing and being are accepted as equally valid as those of the west” (118).

Unlike Bhabha, Spivak is suspicious of celebrations of hybridity (118). Hybridity, for Spivak, is “‘the benign rusing face’ of the dominance of global capital,” and it “continues the domination of the colonial past” (118). Although she translated Jacques Derrida, Spivak argues that deconstruction cannot be the basis of a political program; it can only be an anti-essentialist critique, and its anti-essentialism necessarily sits alongside “the need to continue to use essence, because without essence there can be no politics” (119). For Spivak, Bell writes, “there can be no political representation . . . without the discursive representations . . . that claim an essence—‘the worker,’ ‘the woman,’ ‘the indigenous’ or ‘the colonized’” (119). Such essentialism is a strategy that is necessary to political action (119). “She is concerned with the construction of a subaltern agency through strategic recourse to the humanist subject,” Bell continues (119). However, she writes, “[o]ne of the key limitations of strategic essentialism . . . is that it cannot account for the place and role of the now subordinated Aboriginality itself, except as a political strategy in resistance to domination” (119-20). In contrast, Bell argues for “the continuing place of indigenous ontologies and epistemologies (in other words, the ‘facticity’ of indigenous difference) in the practice of indigenous agency” (120). “Indigenous knowledge systems constitute a counter-archive to the colonial archive that has been the source of domination,” she states (120).

For Bell, there are three critiques to be made about the limitations of strategic essentialism in relation to the politics of Indigenous peoples:

Firstly, there is the suggestion in Spivak’s work that essentialism is a “good” strategy only when it seeks to undo the very terms it invokes; a logic that I argue has its limitations for indigenous identity politics. . . . For indigenous peoples, essentialist claims (to cultural authenticity) may have a deconstructive element . . . but are also importantly about claiming and protecting some autonomous space, a space in which indigenous rather than settler peoples judge what is correct and appropriate or not. Secondly, in ignoring the content of identity claims in favour of their strategic uses, the concept ignores the point that the “substance” claimed in the practice of political representation does matter. Finally, strategic essentialism remains anti-essentialist in that it holds that the “essence” underpinning an identity claim is not true, not real, not authentic, but a claim made for political purposes—as a strategy. (120)

For Spivak, Bell continues, “the ‘good’ use of essentialism can only be in the pursuit of a deconstructive project, a political project whose aim is to overcome the very terms it invokes,” such as “Marx’s invocation of class consciousness to fight capital in the ultimate interest of overcoming class altogether” (120). The “political aim of the subaltern subject is to critique the very form of subjectivity they invoke (because the foundations of these subjectivities are not ‘real’ but arise from antagonistic social relations” (121). However, applying this idea to the colonized, Indigenous subject is complex. “What is it about the form of this subject that is being critiqued?” Bell asks, noting that, unlike the example of class consciousness, “the claiming of indigenous identities is not aimed at ultimately dismantling indigeneity” (121). Rather, “indigenous peoples crucially desire to maintain their difference and autonomous existence” (121). It is colonization that is to be dismantled—“colonial relations and the colonial identities of colonizer and colonized”—while maintaining “the difference of indigeneity” (121). “Any politics of recovery for colonized people requires more than the deconstruction of colonial relations,” Bell argues; instead, it requires “the survival and recovery of the remnants of the ‘Aboriginal dominant’” (121). She suggests that “a crucial part of the indigenous project is not only the destruction of colonialism but the ‘recovery’ of those fragments of indigenous ontologies and epistemologies” (121). “Hence, Spivak’s support for the use of essentialism as resistance to domination does not translate exactly to the situation of indigenous identity politics,” Bell continues (122). Indigenous political agency involves a positive politics of resistance and resurgence,” she states, citing Taiaiake Alfred and Jeff Corntassel (122).

In the chapter’s next section, Bell explores the problems of anti-essentialist positions for the recovery of “the indigenous ‘outside’” (123). She concludes that “two crucial features [are] necessary to decolonizing identities: agency and the cultural remnants from the ‘Aboriginal dominant’—memories, traditions, languages, concepts, everyday practices that survive from the time before colonization” (127). These are intertwined: “to be a producer of culture is to be a creative, sovereign agent” (127). According to Bell, “Indigenous writers throughout the CANZUS societies are integrally involved in projects of cultural regeneration within their own communities and are clear in their assertion of a distinct and autonomous source or ‘essence’ in the construction of indigenous identities” (127). She cites Linda Tuhiwai Smith’s discussion of Indigenous spirituality and M. Scott Momaday’s notion of “blood memory” as examples (127-28). “In invoking indigenous forms of spirituality, or forms of connection to past and place that lie outside of western frameworks of knowledge, Smith and Momaday point to both dimensions of projects of indigenous recovery,” Bell writes. “Such a project requires a space of autonomy, a boundary between the indigenous and non-indigenous, in which to act. Within that space indigenous communities can pursue the project of reclaiming and rebuilding the cultural fragments that found distinctly indigenous ways of life” (128).

“As the terminology suggests—recovery, resurgence, re-inhabiting, re-membering, re-making—the foundations of autonomous indigenous identities cannot take the form if a static traditionalism as represented in the settler imaginary,” Bell continues (128). Indigenous people, in other words, can be just as dynamic, diverse, and contradictory as Settlers, and if Indigenous identities are based on pre-colonial foundations that doesn’t mean “they are unsullied” or “come to the present ‘whole’ and untouched by history” (128). In fact, “[t]hat passage through history is indicated by the use of terms such as ‘fragments’” (128-29). She discusses Eva Marie Garroutte’s notion of “radical indigenism” as one way that Indigenous communities might approach the project of recovery “on dynamic foundations” (129). Garroutte “argues for the importance of forms of indigenous self-construction for two primary reasons”: first, the desire for recovery of Indigenous traditions as something living and in which to live, and second, the idea that Indigenous knowledges have value for the rest of the world (129). Bell quotes Garroutte’s definition of “radical indigenism”: “rebuilding traditional knowledge from its roots, its fundamental principles” (qtd. 130). “This is a firmly indigene-centric project, founded on the traditions, values, knowledges, practices and stories that persist within indigenous communities,” Bell writes. “Fundamental to the project of radical indigenism is that indigenous cultural resources be taken seriously as bodies of scholarship, equal to those of western science” (130). Their spiritual elements need to be retained and taken seriously, rather than being understood as merely symbolic (130). She cites Anthony Appiah’s statement that it isn’t obvious how much spirituality intellectuals must give up or understand as merely ceremonial as an issue for scholars of radical indigenism as well (130). Garroutte advocates that Indigenous communities engage in a method of inquiry that “begins from the ‘Original Instructions’ of the cultural tradition” (130). This argument doesn’t seem too far from John Borrow’s insistence that Indigenous stories contain legal principles, and Garroutte does discuss punishments for social transgressions, such as banishment, and the fact that “kinship obligations in American Indian communities extend beyond the human world to the animal and natural worlds” (131). 

“Acceptance of the living difference of indigenous knowledges and ways of being—and of their necessity to the survival of indigenous peoples, as peoples—raises the issue of the ‘proper’ relationship between these indigenous knowledges and western knowledge, and between western/settler people and indigenous knowledges,” Bell continues. “How can or should settler peoples relate to indigenous difference in ways that do not continue the politics of erasure and assimilation canvassed earlier in this book? What might it mean to take indigenous epistemological and ontological and temporal differences seriously—as something lived, to relate to as equal but different forms of rationality, as something to ‘encounter?’” (131-32). Those are excellent questions, ones I struggle with when I am asked to accept the notion of a Creator by an Indigenous Elder, and as Bell suggests, they “relate to the larger question of how settler and indigenous peoples might co-exist in non-colonizing ways”:

What relationships between indigenous and settler knowledges and ways of being will support the project of decolonization? Are these bodies of knowledge entirely distinct? Are they incommensurable? Is it possible for settler peoples, with their problematic legacies of “knowing” indigenous peoples as a means of assimilation, to learn from indigenous peoples and engage with indigenous knowledge in ways that are not colonizing? (132)

Bell begins with the question of whether Indigenous and western knowledges are incommensurable, beginning with the Australian scholar Dick Moses, who criticizes the idea that they are incommensurable. For Moses, a Settler scholar, arguments about “the radical difference of indigenous knowledges and ways of being” and “their untranslatability and pristine difference from the orders of western thought and being” is that “such positions are linked to the tendencies to idealize pre-colonial indigeneity and hence to render that indigeneity beyond critique, including self-critique” (132). That kind of orientation also limits Indigenous agency by blaming everything on the colonizer (132). He suggests that the work of Indigenous scholars, such as Garroutte, whom he argues see Indigenous difference in less absolute terms, indicates an openness to engagement by outsiders (133). However, Bell notes that while Garroutte does see Indigenous scholarship as something that is open to all, she contends that Settlers “must be prepared to ‘enter tribal philosophies’ and ‘enter tribal relations’” (qtd. 133); in other words, they must be willing “to abandon any idea of the superiority of western systems of knowledge and to accept indigenous philosophies as legitimate and operating according to their own rationalities,” as well as becoming “primarily accountable to the tribe, to make a commitment to the indigenous community with which one works, to accept their authority at the price of lessening one’s own academic authority, and also to accept the tribe’s requirements that some knowledge not be made public” (133). For many Settler academics, these demands might be difficult to accept.

It’s clear, then, that for Settlers, engaging with Indigenous knowledge, on Garroutte’s terms, “is not simply a matter of book learning, but of living and experience, and also, crucially, of entering into relationships of responsibility and reciprocity with indigenous communities” (133). “This demand for a high standard of commitment from non-indigenous individuals seeking to engage with indigenous knowledges seems reasonable in the face of the history of colonization and the role that the assimilation and reduction of indigenous knowledge has played in that history,” Bell continues (133-34). Allowing Settlers to engage with Indigenous peoples remains dangerous for the latter, because of the danger of Settler mimicry: “if settlers can know and do it too, what happens to the authority and autonomy of indigenous knowledges and ways of being?” (134). 

“Finally,” Bell writes, “while the divide between indigenous knowledge and non-indigenous individuals is not unbridgeable,” in one instance, “this divide is at times absolute, and at least more difficult to straddle . . . and the ontological difference . . . apparent”:

While the western mind is capable of learning indigenous ways, or learning to walk in an indigenous world (with much effort and time and the right orientation to engagement), indigenous and western knowledges cannot be ‘held’ or ‘lived’ at the same time. In some crucial sense, and at some crucial points, the two cannot be combined or brought together; it is one or the other. (134)

For instance, one might see a rock as “a sedimentation of organic compounds,” or as a spiritual being, “but not both at once,” or a river can be either “a resource to be exploited” or an ancestor, but not “both at once” (134). “There are times—when it comes to practice, to living—where it must be either/or,” Bell writes. “This is the meaning of the saying that indigenous people have to ‘walk in two worlds. As non-indigenous peoples we can learn to walk in two worlds also—if we are willing. But the question of how the two worlds themselves co-exist remains” (134).

In the chapter’s conclusion, Bell returns to the concept of strategic essentialism, suggesting that it foregrounds the notion that all identity claims are inherently political (135). However, she continues, “the ‘substance’ of identity claims are a crucial part of those politics—what is claimed to found a particular identity does matter,” because such claims “rely on the articulation of some ‘substance,’ some positive content” (135). To claim that all claims about content or substance are essentialist “is of little political or analytic assistance” (135). “The historicized and constructionist approach to identity,” she suggests, “avoids the assertion of essence in terms of fixity and purity, allowing for the interweaving of elements of continuity and change,” allowing for a “dynamic construction of identity” that allows Indigenous people “the freedom to be self-defining and to be both traditional and modern,” something Settlers assume for themselves (135). “This is precisely one of the gains of constructionism over assertions of purity and stasis,” she continues. “The narratives of history and the choices and emphases made in practices of identity construction, and living an identity, are always subject to revision and remain sites of contestation” (135). Accepting “the living difference of indigenous epistemologies and ontologies raises important challenges for the non-indigenous members of settler societies,” however, because of the claims to universal truth that are deeply rooted in Western thought (135). “The provocation that other knowledges and ways of being lay at the door or the west is to accept the equal validity and value—at times even superiority—of ways other than the west’s own,” Bell writes. “The challenge of not reducing unassimilable indigenous beliefs and practices to the status of myth and superstition, of grappling with other cultures’ standards of evidence and truth, is not to be underestimated” (135). Decentering the the West, she states, citing Salman Sayyid, means abandoning any notion of the universality of the Western project (136). The third part of Bell’s book “aims to provide some insight into the complexity of this challenge and possibilities for engaging it” (136).

Chapter 6, “‘Deep Colonizing’: The Politics of Recognition,” begins with the announcement that this chapter, and the next, will “centre on modes of settler responsiveness to the co-existing, living difference of indigenous communities” (139). “If settler peoples accept the rights of indigenous peoples to establish the boundaries of their own communities and collective identities, and their rights to pursue their own ‘ways of life,’ then how to settlers respond to indigenous claims and assertions as neighbours and co-citizens?” she asks (139). What do Settlers need to do “to support indigenous projects of repair and recovery”—or at least “not to hinder and thwart them?” (139). “What kinds of future relationships might we envisage between indigenous and settler peoples that would support indigenous flourishing, and avoid repeating the colonial patterns of misrecognition of indigenous cultures and peoples as authentic or inauthentic, primitive or civilized?” she continues. “And, at the heart of all these questions is another—what changes in settler self-identities and entrenched patterns of thought and behaviour are required to support the development of new, decolonized relationships between indigenous and settler peoples?” (139-40). These are the questions at the heart of my research, and I don’t know how to answer them; my hope is that Bell can provide some ideas.

She notes that Settler state responses to Indigenous political struggles have generally taken the form of a politics of recognition: “Through a range of legal and political processes—courts, tribunals, commissions of inquiry—settler governments have sought to ‘recognize’ indigenous cultural difference and indigenous persistence, and to ‘reconcile’ or ‘settle’ the rights claims made by indigenous communities” (140). The focus of Indigenous communities has been on reparations for injustices and “securing the land and resources to ensure the continuing life of the community”—including “forms of self-governance, sovereignty, self-determination” (140). Those claims are supported by two different kinds of argument: “that the group has survived colonization and continues to exist, and that they have experienced injustice as a result of acts of commission or omission of the settler state” (140). In other words, those claims are underpinned by “claims to peoplehood and debates over history” (140). Recognition politics takes a variety of forms, but it typically involves negotiations between Indigenous communities and governments (140-41). “The focus of this chapter will be on the legal arguments and processes that adjudicate on issues of collective indigenous rights and redress,” both Indigenous and Settler—the latter represented by Charles Taylor, Will Kymlicka, and James Tully (141). Then the chapter will consider the achievements and limitations of the politics of recognition for Indigenous communities, before finally discussing “what desires of the settler subject are highlighted by theories and politics of recognition” (141).

First come the different theories of recognition of cultural difference (141). Taylor’s account of cultural difference “is based in a theory of identity” and thus “most closely follows the concerns around which this book is structured” (141). Kymlicka, on the other hand, “begins from the reality of multiculturalism and a concern to work through the possibilities of multiculturalism being accommodated within liberal political theory” (141). Tully also begins with multiculturalism, and asks if the British common law tradition can accommodate cultural plurality (141). “These theories of recognition then arise from attempts to develop the philosophical bases on which liberalism can be modified to encompass collective forms of difference,” Bell writes. “How can liberalism, fundamentally based on the equality and freedom of rational individuals, be transformed to account for collective forms of life and group rights?” (141). Each theory “turns our gaze back on the western liberal subject and what changes are required of, and can be accommodated within, settler liberalism in response to the claims for justice of culturally distinct communities” (141-42).

First up is Charles Taylor’s theory, “founded on a Hegelian argument that identity is intersubjectivity constituted” (142). In other words, identity is not an essence but is developed socially, through interaction with others, which means that a successful or secure individual identity depends on recognition from others (142). Culture is therefore “a requirement of human flourishing and a multicultural liberal society needs to be able to recognize cultural diversity” (142). But for Taylor there are limits to liberalism’s ability to recognize cultural difference; some forms of culture will be incompatible with and unrecognizable to a liberal polity (142). At the same time, “the demand that cultural difference be recognized as of equal worth cannot be easily dismissed” (142). Taylor explores the debate over expanding the literary canon to include women and nonwhite authors, which requires a revision of judgements of literary value: “calls for changes to the grounds for cultural judgement amount to the demand for the recognition of the equal worth of the claimant culture” (142). Quick judgements run the risk of ethnocentric outcomes, to before granting recognition of equal worth we need to study the cultures in question and judge their contributions to human society (142-43). In the meantime, we owe claimants the “‘presumption of equal worth,’ grounded in the assumption that ‘cultures that have provided the horizon of meaning for large numbers of human beings . . . are almost certain to have something that deserves our admiration and respect, even if it is accompanied by much that we [liberals] have to abhor and reject” (qtd. 143). For Taylor, Bell writes, “relations of recognition are fundamentally epistemological; they are a matter of knowledge, relations formed in learning about each other,” and each side must remain open to the possibility of learning form the other (143). The epistemological relation on which we base our judgements about cultural value are “construed as mutual and reciprocal, rather than dominating and reductive,” and it results in a transformation and fusion of the epistemological frameworks of both sides (143). 

For Bell, there are three fundamental problems with Taylor’s theory for those who want to “conceptualize a non-dominating relation with indigenous cultural difference” (143). First, despite Taylor’s emphasis on “reciprocal engagement and a willingness on the part of each group to be transformed by the study of the other, from the outset there is a degree of inequality in the roles of the parties to the recognition relation; there is a ‘recognizer’ and a ‘recognizee’” (143). The Western liberal subject and society do not need to be recognized, in other words: “Only the culture and identity of one side of this engagement is subject to judgement by the other” (143). The side that makes judgements is the Western liberal side. In addition, Taylor is “clear that there are limits to what the judging (western) self will accept,” and the “asymmetry of the relationship suggests that the only ‘displacements’ likely to occur for liberal, western subjects in this exchange will be freely chosen expansions of their existing ‘horizon of value’” (144). “Anything too discomforting or ‘abhorrent’ to that liberal culture would result in the claimants’ case being rejected,” Bell writes (144). Second, “the outcome of successful struggles for recognition would be ‘inclusion’ within broadly existing liberal frameworks” (144). The claimant for recognition is thus one that implicitly comes from outside those frameworks (144). Desires for self-determination are not addressed in Taylor’s theory (144). In addition, “the logic of the relationship in this account is one in which the claimant of recognition ‘arrives’ from the outside, reversing the historical relations of colonization which began with the arrival of those who established the liberal state on indigenous lands” (144). Applying this theory to Indigenous-Settler relations would involve a “crucial amnesia around issues of first occupation and prior right” (144). I doubt, though, that Taylor is considering Indigenous-Settler relations in his theory; isn’t his concern with the cultural claims of immigrants to Settler society? Finally, Bell argues that “there is a problem with Taylor’s view of recognition as a fundamentally epistemological relation of ‘getting to know’ each other”: it presupposes that culture is “a unified, discrete—and fairly static—totality” (144). This suggests that essentialism has snuck back into Taylor’s theory. Moreover, the “assumption that a culture is a knowable whole problematically repeats the form of epistemological domination by which the west has studied and consumed difference. Indigenous people, and non-white people generally, are weary and wary of being studied and subjected to western categories of evaluation” (144). “In sum,” Bell concludes, “for colonized peoples Taylor’s vision of social inclusion as a ‘fusion of horizons’ sounds suspiciously like assimilation and the continuing loss of culture and identity already familiar after centuries of colonialism and domination” (145).

Next, Bell takes on Will Kymlicka’s theory of recognition, which “is grounded in political theory rather than a theory of identity” (145). In addition, relations between Settlers and Indigenous peoples are central to Kymlicka’s argument. “Like Taylor, Kymlicka argues that individual freedom requires membership of your own ‘societal culture,’” and such cultures give us “‘contexts of choice’ within which  individual life choices are offered and lives are made meaningful” (145). Kymlicka believes that “the right of indigenous communities to recognition is based on their existence as ‘national minorities,’ defined as ‘historical communit[ies] more or less institutionally, complete, occupying a given territory or homeland, sharing a distinct language and culture,” and on the basis of that definition, those communities can be granted “‘group-differentiated rights’—to self determination and to special representation at national levels of government” (145). For Kymlicka, then, Indigenous peoples would have to meet the criteria of a national minority, “with all the inherent pitfalls of defining and then trying to establish historical continuity and cultural distinctiveness after centuries of colonial pressures aimed at destroying indigenous communities” (145). Kymlicka does recognize this problem, and he “argues that even a severely decimated culture can be rebuilt and that it is up to individuals and groups whether or not that is what they want” (145). Therefore, “the primary requirements of Kymlicka’s definition are the desire, or political will, to assert cultural distinctiveness and the occupation of an appropriate territory” (145). Occupation of territory, for Kymlicka, means being the majority in a specific geographical enclave; “groups who do not live in such distinct territorial enclaves” have “no other avenue to the recognition of their indigeneity in this theory” (145). For Kymlicka, “claims for collective rights can be based on either appeals to equality (the right to live within your own societal culture and therefore for your culture to receive special protections if it is disadvantaged in the ‘cultural market-place,’” or on “the existence of ‘historical agreements’” (145-46). He notes that not all Indigenous nations joined Canada voluntarily, “but considers this renegotiable in the present to make the basis of their federation ‘more voluntary’” (146). 

As with Taylor, Bell writes, “in Kymlicka’s account there is a ‘recognizer’ and a ‘recognizee’” (146). That relationship is “fundamentally asymmetrical,” and while he acknowledges colonial injustice, “he is pragmatic about the existence of the settler state and the fact that indigenous communities are now ‘inside’ that state and hence must negotiate their existence within it” (146). Any recognition therefore “must ultimately be compatible with liberalism” and “the legitimacy of the settler state is not subject to question” (146). Again, “only one side is set up for judgement of their identity and rights” (146). In addition, “the terms of what might be granted if those rights are recognized are already preset for both Taylor and Kymlicka—effectively a mix of policies aimed at cultural protection and, in Kymlicka’s case, limited forms of self-government” (146). Neither suggests that the dialogue between the Settler state and Indigenous nations “might include an open-ended discussion of what they want, in which anything might be considered,” including “the legitimacy of the settler state itself” (146).

Finally, Tully “begins with the fact of cultural difference in contemporary Canadian society but, rather than framing his argument in terms of the relationship between liberalism and multiculturalism, explores the history of British constitutional law for historical forms of recognition” (146). He compares “ancient constitutionalism” to “modern constitutionalism,” which “encompasses liberalism, communitarianism and nationalism” (146). Tully sees the ancient version as supporting cultural diversity (146-47). It “rests on three ‘conventions’—mutual recognition, consent and continuity”—guides to action which become norms over time, through repeated use, “and hence provide a negotiated and already tried foundation on which to pursue justice in cultural recognition” (147). Bell suggests that consent and continuity are straightforward and represent improvements over Taylor’s politics of recognition: consent is “the fact that a constitution requires the consent of all parties,” and continuity holds that a peoples’ culture and forms of government continue even after conquest unless they explicitly agree to change them (147). “Mutual recognition is fundamentally recognition of peoplehood and rights to self-government,” but it is different from Taylor’s and Kymlicka’s version of recognition, because rather than “an end state to be achieved or settled in any way once and for all,” it is “a form of ongoing commitment to a relationship, with any settlements and agreements being understood as moments that over time will need to be revisited and adapted to present ends” (147). That resembles the Indigenous understanding of treaties, I think. For Tully, dialogue is a “multilogue,” a term he uses to “highlight the multiplicity and cross-cutting nature of diversity” (147). “The nature of multilogue depends on two key orientations or understandings of the nature of the parties to the relationship,” Bell writes (147). First, “cultures cannot be conceived as discrete wholes, but are rather overlapping, and internally diverse” (147). Tully’s “implicit assumption” regarding culture is “that groups seeking recognition are defined by their historical existence and political will for distinction, as in Kymlicka’s account” (147). Recognition isn’t “recognition of a knowable cultural whole,” as Taylor suggests (147). Second, in a multilogue between peoples, the participants must be able to speak in their own languages and according to their “‘customary ways’” (147). “Participation in the multilogue takes place on an intercultural ‘middle ground’” made up of “‘the overlap, interaction and negotiation of cultures over time’” (qtd. 147-48). 

According to Bell, Tully’s theory is better than Taylor’s or Kymlicka’s: “His conceptualization of cultures as overlapping and intertwined is an advance on Taylor’s conception of cultural difference in particular,” and his “emphasis on the need for mutuality and an ongoing commitment to relationship counters the asymmetrical terms of Kymlicka’s and Taylor’s theories” (148). However, “potential shortcomings are evident” in Tully’s fundamental argument “that the western tradition of constitutional law has the capacity to embrace legal pluralism,” since that capacity has rarely been acted upon (148):

So despite the possibility and ideal of mutuality and pluralist participation in the law, what is going to motivate the settler legal system to enact the pluralism Tully calls for? Participation in itself is not enough. Indigenous peoples have participated in legal processes in settler courts for hundred of years but, until recently, have rarely won or, where they have, governments have overruled or ignored the decisions. Tully’s argument suggests the need for fundamental changes in the orientations of courts and legal frameworks when it comes to engaging with indigenous difference. (148)

For Bell, this discussion “highlights two key and interconnected dimensions” of recognition politics in CANZUS states (148). One is the issue of “asymmetry versus mutuality” and “the extent to which indigenous communities are empowered or judged within relations of recognition, the extent to which their political agency and will are foregrounded, their assertions of identity accepted on their own cultural terms, or their claims assessed by the standards of settler frameworks of judgement” (148). Is a middle ground possible? What can recognition offer? Does recognition enable self-determination? The second issue is assimilation versus pluralism (148). Can Settler states “embrace and give equal respect to indigenous worldviews, indigenous difference” through recognition (148)? Do “recognition politics mark a new form of assimilation of indigenous ways of life to those fo the settler majorities?” (148-49). Those are the questions Bell takes up next.

The issue of recognition involves “the work of courts, commissions of inquiry and governments that respond to indigenous rights claims,” Bell states (149). The literature on this topic is huge, and her “necessarily incomplete overview is intended to identify some crucial features of what has been achieved as well as the limitations of the politics of recognition as it currently exists” (149). “Are the terms of engagement such that indigenous worldviews and conceptions of identity are treated on equal footing with settler frames of reference?” Bell asks. “And is the practice of recognition such that new forms of pluralist accommodation are made with indigenous lifeways and epistemologies?” (149). “Throughout the CANZUS states, indigenous difference and autonomy is now accepted as a ‘social fact,’” Bell continues, although the “forms and extent of self-governance, practice of treaty-making and recognition of indigenous rights vary widely” (149). This summary will focus on Canada, which, Bell notes, is the only one of the four states “to have recognized indigenous rights in its constitution,” in Section 35 (151). However, in Canada land rights and governance rights are treated separately (151). The 1973 Calder decision accepted that Indigenous land rights exist unless explicitly extinguished, and it “ushered in a new era of indigenous rights claims,” defined as either “specific claims” (in which the Crown had failed to discharge its duties according to previous treaties) or “comprehensive claims” (in which no treaties previously existed) (151). The 1997 Delgamuuku v. British Columbia decision was the next breakthrough; there, the Supreme Court extended recognition of Indigenous rights beyond land use to rights to Aboriginal land title (151). At the same time, some First Nations have been able to negotiate modern treaties through the comprehensive claims process (151). Bell’s main example is the territory of Nunavut, which led to self-government, as did the 200 Nisga’a Final Agreement (151). 

From here, Bell moves to critiques of the politics of recognition, beginning with the work of Elizabeth Povinelli, who, as a result of her experience in Australia,  “argues that legal recognition . . . involves the inspection and examination of Aboriginal ‘being’ and ‘being worthy’ that ‘always already constitutes indigenous persons as failures of indigeneity as such,’ judging living Aboriginal persons against a standard of indigenous tradition and authenticity that is not in fact theirs” (153). The first question the juridical bodies of Settler states must decide is whether a person or group fits their categories of valid Indigenous claimants (153). Indigenous descent is one criterion; representing an Indigenous community is another; historical continuity a third (153). That final criterion is the most vexed, given the effects of colonialism. “In each jurisdiction before any engagement over the substance of recognition proper can begin, the standard of indigenous ‘being’ is set by the settler legal and political system rather than indigenous people themselves,” Bell writes (154). “Most stringently, indigenous ‘being’ is frequently assessed by various standards of continuity to determine whether or not the claimant group are the ‘traditional’ owners of the lands under claim” (155). Usually, an Indigenous community “cannot have a broken or disrupted narrative of identity, despite the pressures of living under colonialism” (156). Thus, “[s]ettler state practices of recognition of indigenous rights work in various ways . . . to judge indigenous ‘being,’ to create winners and losers, and to re-shape indigenous communities into a ‘recognizable’ form” (156). “One assumption,” Bell notes,

is that pre-contact communities were discrete and located in clearly defined geographical territories. Settler law cannot encompass overlapping groups and territories, or fluid and dynamic boundaries between peoples. Against that assumption, indigenous communities were frequently layered and fluid in constitution. (156)

That was certainly true in southern Saskatchewan, where multilingual and multinational communities of Cree and Saulteaux people, or Cree, Saulteaux, and Nakoda, were commonplace. However, “[i]n legal and political rulings on Aboriginal identities, traces are evident of the persistent demand for a static authenticity (and the parallel production of inauthenticity)” (157). In the past, Settler states demanded change and assimilation; now they demand that Indigenous peoples “demonstrate the unchanging nature of their traditions,” and where they denied Indigenous peoples a land base by forcibly removing them from traditional lands, Settler states now demand that “they demonstrate their continuous relationship with those lands” (157). Bell cites Povinelli’s words: “taking a claim before tribunals and courts opens Aboriginal subjects up to becoming the ‘wounded subjects’ of settler state recognition, forced to ‘recite’ their traditions, a process that inevitably marks their difference from their ancestors and exposes them to accusations of inauthenticity” (157).

“The central focus of Povinelli’s critique of the ‘cunning of recognition’ is the relationship between recognition and liberalism,” Bell writes (157). Legal judgements in Australia, for instance, which “appear to represent legal pluralism” actually “establish a hierarchical relationship that subordinates Aboriginal customary law to the common law” (157-58). “Aboriginal law is only recognizable because the common law says so—and as long as it is not too ‘repugnant,’ too different from or ‘inconsistent’ with the principles of the common law,” Bell continues (158). Povinelli argues that “the politics of cultural recognition are fundamentally a response to a crisis in the legitimacy of liberalism itself,” which has in recent decades had to face the illiberality of its history in relation to “a range of cultural others, so that the claims to equality and freedom that underpin liberalism are at risk” (158). The politics of recognition is a response, and it “turns a crisis for liberalism itself into a ‘crisis of culture’ and creates the challenge of how to ‘fit’ cultural difference into liberalism without rupturing it” (158). It does so by treating culture as a think and making “others (indigenous peoples) ‘speak’ that thingification” (158). Recognition is a way of warding off “the dangers of rupture to liberalism that indigenous rights claims represent” and it constitutes “a further set of limits to the practice of recognition” and points out “the blockages to the adoption of legal pluralism” (158). “To date, the practice of recognition has involved the establishment of clear limits to how far the liberal settler state will go to accommodate indigenous difference,” Bell writes, noting that in Canada “judges have commented on the limits of recognition in terms of the need to ensure there is no ‘strain’ or ‘fracture’ in the law” (158). Such limits “are in line with the assertions both Taylor and Kymlicka that there is a limit to liberalism’s ability to accommodate cultural difference and support the criticism that recognition politics operate as strategies of containment” (159).

In the U.S., recent court decisions have found that Indigenous nations were “too late” in pursuing their rightful claims to land and other forms of redress (159). The same is true in Australia (159). In Canada, the emphasis seems to be on “constraints and limits” on the recognition of Indigenous rights (160). Courts in this country “struggle with the sui generis nature of native title and the extent and limits of accommodation with it within the common law” (160). Even in the Delgamuukw v. British Columbia decision, the recognition of equal status for the Gitksan and Wet’suwet’an peoples was limited by accommodation must not “‘strain’” the Canadian judicial system (161). Thus, legally speaking, Indigenous peoples must fit into the existing Canadian legal and constitutional structure, and translate their claims, evidence, and history into that framework (161). Delgamuukw is really about Canada’s legal system judging the Gitksan system, rather than a dialogue, and the recognition it offers is a one-way process (161). 

Legal pluralism, according to Tully, “requires the recognition of the autonomy and validity of indigenous systems of law, which then meets in ‘multilogue’ with the common law” (162). However, the Supreme Court has treated Indigenous oral traditions “as evidence to be judged, failing to acknowledge that they are an expression of a distinct indigenous legal tradition” (162). Such processes subordinate Indigenous peoples because they do not recognize that there is more than one system of law in Canada (162). Moreover, legal pluralism requires “active indigenous participation in the legal processes that adjudicate over indigenous claims—the incorporation of Aboriginal elders, judges and counsel, she writes, citing John Borrows. Only those with the adequate indigenous knowledge base are qualified and equipped to deal with indigenous oral histories respectfully and knowledgeably” (163). That argument moves towards Tully’s call for “a ‘middle ground’ of cultural overlap, interaction and negotiation,” where each side “gets to speak and be recognized in their own languages and according to their own customs, although a genuine equality in power-sharing that is difficult to envisage in settler legal contexts would be crucial to such a ‘middle ground’” (163). 

To this point, Bell acknowledges, her emphasis has been “on the limitations of the politics of recognition,” and she suggests that “[i]t must also be noted that very real gains have been made by indigenous communities across the CANZUS states as a result of these new forms of political engagement,” with “millions of acres of land . . . returned to indigenous control and many millions of dollars . . .  paid in compensation for losses not able to be restored” (165). Supports for endangered languages have been negotiated, and the economic development of Indigenous communities has been supported with settlements over land and resource rights (165). Some nations have achieved self-government, and while such sovereignty is always limited, it can lead to “government-to-government relations” being established between Indigenous nations and the central government (165). In addition, the practice of negotiated settlements has been brought about through the efforts of Indigenous peoples, rather than “any magnanimous shift in sentiment on the part of the settler states” (166). Nevertheless, Settler governments “retain most of the cards at the table and largely continue to set the rules of the game” of negotiation (166).

Bell’s assessment of the practices she has been discussing is mixed. For the communities that have succeeded in these processes, “the balance between asymmetry and mutuality has certainly tipped towards the mutual pole, even if it remains far short of the desired self-determination and equality” (166). Cultural difference provides “the glue of community cohesion and the foundation of the demand for recognition,” but “successful claimants of recognition run the risk . . . of becoming ‘unrecognizable’ to the liberal state” (166-67). “The successful exercise of indigenous sovereignty can paradoxically put its future at risk as indigenous communities no longer take the form and occupy the social location that made their need recognizable,” Bell writes. “Settler backlash against the ‘special privileges’ of indigenous communities is a symptom of this danger” (167). Within Indigenous communities there can be tension over following capitalist forms of development as well (167). But “indigenous sovereignty and cultural difference can be mutually reinforcing” (167).

Have recognition politics led to “a new form of indigenous assimilation within settler regimes,” or have they “resulted in shifting and decentering those regimes in substantial ways” (167)? For Bell, the results are, again, mixed. “Settler sovereignty and the liberal framework of law and politics remain the ‘bottom line’ across the CANZUS states,” she writes, and while in some instances “indigenous worldviews and values have been inserted into the liberal law . . . indigenous legal systems have yet to achieve anything like equal status on a ‘middle ground’ of pluralist engagement” (168). “Overall, the politics of recognition is a game that indigenous communities cannot not play, its ‘messy actualities’ representing the latest turn in the project of colonization,” she suggests, citing Bargh and Otter (168). Settler responses to Indigenous assertions of sovereignty and difference are important: “The tensions of the ‘double-binds’ of recognition are clearly apparent. Settler peoples continue to sit in judgement, denying indigenous self-determination while demanding indigenous difference, but only of a tolerable/compatible sort” (168). 

Next, Bell looks at “settler subjectivity in relations of recognition” through the work of Patchen Markell, who looks at what recognition does for the one doing the recognizing (168). For Markell, practices of recognition offers the dominant group “‘an imperfect simulation of the [sovereign] invulnerability they desire” (qtd. 169). For Markell, both Taylor and Kymlicka exhibit “a recurring desire for mastery” in their theories (169). Part of the problem is the notion of cultural wholes, which reassure members of the dominant group “that the demands of cultural recognition will be finite and manageable” (169). Along with fantasies of mastery, “the liberal subjects of recognition” also seek “to secure redemption from their illiberality—to maintain their view of themselves as masterful and ‘good’ actors in the world” (170). They also, according to Povinelli, wish to be reassured that no lasting harm has been caused by settler colonization—that is the reason for the emphasis on Indigenous traditionalism in processes of recognition (170).

In her conclusion, Bell writes, “As currently enacted, relations of recognition between settler and indigenous peoples remain asymmetrical, and legal systems only minimally pluralistic. At the heart of the difficulties involved lies the unwillingness and/or inability of the settler societies to recognize indigenous sovereignty/self-determination” (171). The Settler “desire for mastery, the expectation of always being in charge, thwarts and truncates moves to engage with indigenous communities as sovereign agents” (171). Perhaps this expectation is the root of the “settler futurity” which Eve Tuck and Rubén A. Gaztambide-Fernández argue must be replaced by Indigenous futurity? I’m not sure. In any case, “[t]he desire for finality in settlements evidences the persistence of this desire, and also the failure to grasp the reality that the entanglement of settler and indigenous lives means that a final settlement can never come” (171). Committing “to an ongoing relationship—and therefore ongoing negotiation and revisiting of the grounds of relationship—is both more realistic and supportive of the project of decolonization” (171). In addition, Bell contends, “relations of recognition are about more than knowledge, judgement and rights” (171). Identity is “never purely rational or epistemological,” and calls that it be those things—like Taylor’s—are a problem (171). “Ethics and obligation are displaced in the practices of recognition, but resurface in the settler desire for redemption,” which means (according to Povinelli) that “indigenous individuals and communities bear the effects of this displacement in the demands that they meet the standards of settler judgement” (171). Legal institutions need to take responsibility for creating a meeting place with Indigenous law, which “points to obligation and commitment to relationship,” but they also need to acknowledge the limits of the common law, which “both points to the abandonment of the need for mastery and to the acceptance of an ‘outside’ of the common law, a space in which indigenous law exists and where the two systems of law might meet” (172). “Effectively, settler insistence on the universal applicability of their worldview, their way of life, their legal and political systems, is the problem blocking relations of equality and recognition between indigenous and settler peoples,” Bell concludes. “The practice of recognition needs to be underpinned by a shift in the self-understanding and orientation to relation of the settler subject” (172). The politics of recognition, in other words, needs to be “shadowed by ethics,” and it is to ethics that Bell turns in her next chapter (172).

Bell’s final chapter, “Ethical Obligation and Relationality,” aims to respond to James Tully’s question: “How can a non-Aboriginal person, after centuries of appropriation and destruction of Indigenous civilizations, free himself or herself from deeply ingrained, imperious habits of thought and behaviour and approach this [indigenous] symbol in the appropriate way?” (qtd. 173). That’s an important question, one my own work asks. How can we free ourselves from “ways of thinking and acting that are our inheritance from the centuries of colonial modernity?” (173). Bell’s focus in this chapter is “the responses and responsibilities of settler subjects as individual actors” (173). “What can each of us do?” she asks. “How can we re-think our relationships with indigenous people—individually and collectively—and how can we live those relationships in ways that respect indigenous autonomous personhood and ways of being and knowing?” (173). Her argument is “that the way to begin this task of re-imagining our/settler relationships with indigenous people(s) is through attention to the ethical dimensions of those relationships,” and “attention to our ethical obligations can interrupt our will to mastery and certainty, and open settler subjects to the possibilities of relations of mutuality rather than domination” (173-74). She acknowledges that it is not easy to abandon the desire to be in control, but nonetheless we must accept “that our ability to control is limited . . . and that always being in control points to injustice” (174). “The challenge is to recognize our limits, rather than to deny them and live with a destructive fantasy of our abilities to always be in command and the possibilities of complete, unfettered understanding and judgement,” Bell continues. “To do so, we need to attend to the ethical dimensions of our relations with others, as well as the political and epistemological” (174). 

Ethics, Bell writes, “is the domain in which narrow calculations of individual and collective ‘interests’ are trumped by the place of obligation and responsibility in human relations,” rather than “a set of fixed moral prescriptions that guide behaviour” (174). She intends to argue for “the value of Emmanuel Lévinas’s theory of ethics in providing guidance as to how we might interrupt relations of domination” (174). Lévinas “reminds us that our response-ability to others can involve relations of care and obligation, rather than violence and domination,” and the other “‘interrupts’ the settled horizons of the self and ‘puts the self into question’” (174). This may sound threatening, but she intends to argue that such questioning has a positive value for Settlers. “Further, the ethical obligation offers some guidance to action in our relations with others, although this guidance is marked by openness and uncertainty,” she continues:

For Lévinas, we can never fully live up to or discharge the obligations of ethics. These obligations are never over. Nor is there any prescription for ethical action that can ensure our goodness and the justice of our social relations. Rather, ethics and politics are distinct (but also crucially connected) spheres of intersubjective relations. Thus ethics cannot prescribe our political (and social) engagements with others. (174-75)

For that reason, some argue that ethics as Lévinas describes them are useless to political life, but Bell agrees with Derrida’s argument about “the value of the gap or ‘hiatus’ between ethics and politics in Lévinas’s philosophy” (175). For her, the crucial gap is between identity politics and ethics (175).

“Lévinas’s philosophy begins from an awareness of the violence of relations based on knowledge,” Bell writes. “To know the other is to reduce them to our existing categories of thought. Against the possibility of knowing the other, Lévinas insists on the centrality and singularity of the human other. For Lévinas, ethics is respect and care for this alterity, or unknowable difference, of the other” (176). Lévinas reverses Taylor’s argument by contending that, first of all, “respect is owed to others from the outset, in recognition of their singularity, rather than the end result of a process of learning and judging,” and secondly, that “our social engagements begin with an acknowledgement that human others necessarily escape our horizons of understanding” (176). “The alterity of the other comes from ‘beyond being,’ beyond our existing ontological categories,” such as “man,” “woman,” “Indian,” and so on (176).

To make alterity concrete, Lévinas describes our first encounter with someone else, using the terms “‘nakedness’ and ‘face’” (qtd. 176). “It is in the nakedness/face of the other that their unknowable difference is signified,” Bell writes. “In the face we see both humility and ‘height,’ both an appeal to our care and a challenge to our existing horizon of being. The human other ‘arrives’ at the juncture between horizontal and vertical planes, as if a bodily being such as ourselves and also absolutely other, from beyond our horizons of being and modes of understanding, and hence beyond our ability to fully ‘capture’” (176-77). Even though our subsequent relations with others will involve “the exchange of knowledge and the passing of judgements, ethical engagement with the unknowable difference, or alterity, of the other points beyond the limits of our capacity for understanding” (177). We can never know the other fully; we can never “categorize and understand others who from the outset also demand our respect as agents/subjects,” rather than as representatives of a category. Our response to the interruption of the alterity of the other could be violent or negligent, but it could also be “an ethical response of endless obligation and responsibility, an interruption of self-certainty and our settled horizons, a response that unsettles and decentres the self” (177). 

Bell notes that there are dimensions to that obligation that “require unpacking” (177). First, “the demand of the other is itself the foundation of subjectivity”—the “I” is constructed through a response to the other (177-78). Second, “the alterity of the other is the catalyst for the development of social life” (178). “Lévinas seeks to unseat the autonomous individual of liberal philosophy, replacing it with an individualism founded in responsibility for the other,” she writes. “Thus the ethical obligation is an unpayable debt to the other form which no one can be excused, a debt for sociality itself” (178). For Lévinas, “ethics is ‘first philosophy’; the ethical dimension of our encounters with others is primary—both prior and most significant” (178). He contends that politics and identity come after ethics, and that while politics and ethics coexist, they do so the way that the act of speaking coexists with what is said (178-79). That metaphor describes his claim about the relation between ethics and politics: saying—ethics—always precedes what is said—politics (179). Similarly, there can be no identity without agency, which is a responsiveness to the other (179). For Lévinas, “all our engagements with others have an ethical dimension that we can either honour or ignore” (179).

For Lévinas, a response to the other that honours the other’s alterity would be “‘radical generosity,’” an openness that is not concerned with “any project of the self” (179). “Thus the ethical response is distinct from learning about or judging the other, or engaging in political dialogue and negotiation,” Bell writes. “It is an engagement outside of self-interest” (179). In addition, according to Lévinas “we owe this ethical obligation to all others equally,” since deciding who is worthy would be an interruption of ethics (180). “Lévinas sees ethical obligations as a profoundly unsettling appeal, that ‘shames’ and ‘persecutes’ the self and [is] a responsibility that can never be discharged,” Bell continues (180). Politics, on the other hand, “requires judgement between competing demands”—it is “the sphere of dialogical engagement around substantive issues where agreement is sought via reasoning” (180). It is also a relationship of “the many,” of more than a dyad of self and other (180). Some argue this means that Lévinas’s ethics are useless for political engagements, but Derrida suggests that “the gap between Lévinasian ethics and politics” is both “a break and a necessary connection” (180). “While the gap is ‘silent’ on the rules to be deduced from ethics that might inform political decisions, it ‘whispers’ of the necessity to deduce a politics from ethics,” Bell writes. “The connection between ethics and politics can provoke and incite us to better forms of political engagement, while stopping short of providing any prescriptions” (180). So, from that perspective, “the value of Lévinas’s ethics lies precisely in the break between ethics and politics,” a break which points to “their undetermined co-existence” (180). No system of justice is perfect, but since “indigenous peoples have their own systems and standards of justice . . . imposing either an indigenous or a settler system on all inevitably involves the creation of new injustices for some” (180-81). Thus, “there can be no universal prescription for justice” (181).

For Bell, Lévinas’s “assertion of the primacy of ethics over politics reminds us that the abandonment of self-interest, and the care for the other’s difference of the ethical moment, are what founds the desire for justice” (181). The “ethical relation” offers “a guide to justice,” and justice itself is “‘for the other’” (181). Moreover, “the ethical obligation demands of us an ongoing vigilance against the potential for injustice in any system of laws and a readiness to revise our political prescriptions” (181). “This insistence on the undecidability of politics, rather than a reason to dismiss Lévinasian ethics, is precisely its strength,” Bell writes. “It is the lack of prescription that provides the guard against totalization and domination. Political action is, in this view, risky and underdetermined; it is undecidability that keeps our political responses ‘unfinished’” (181). The break between ethics and politics requires that politics be self-reflexive, that each political decision stay open to further challenge on the basis of ethics (181). How might this work in practice? Bell asks (182). “To remember the link between ethics and politics in this way would seem to require a critical stance towards all political and philosophical positions, including, and especially, our own,” Bell notes. “But it does not mean the abandonment of politics. Rather it means holding politics in ‘generative tension’ with the ethical commitment to justice,” she states, citing James Clifford (182). The notion of “generative tension” suggests “the limitations of all our political attempts to secure justice and the limitations of all our systems of thought,” she continues. “What is then required, while pursuing knowledge and justie, is an ongoing vigilance, reflexivity and openness to the dangers of violence inflicted on others, all others—a preparedness to decentre one’s own views and assumptions” (182).

The rest of the chapter presents examples, organized around “three related themes—interrupting domination, welcoming otherness, and relations of co-existence” (182). The first theme “attends to what is required to interrupt the desire for mastery that is sedimented into the settler imaginary, and the ethical value that can arise from such interruption”; the second “provides exemplars of welcome to indigenous difference that offer guidance on orientations to difference that enable rather than block the work of ethics”; and the third “points to the new relations of co-existence between indigenous and settler communities that can arise from such ethical interruptions and acts of welcome” (182). “In each case,” Bell writes, “the emphasis is on the concrete ground of experience, bringing Lévinasian ethics down to earth and providing insights into its real productivity ‘on the ground’” (182).

Bell’s first example is the collaboration between Alison Jones (Pākehā) and Kuni Jenkins (Māori), teaching a course in feminist education (182-83). The Māori students were unimpressed by their first attempt, because “the interests of the Pākehā teacher and students continued to dominate the classroom. From their perspective, liberal dialogue and inclusion continued to favour the settler students’ interests” (183). The following year, Jones and Jenkins decided to split the class in two: one group of Māori, the other Pākehā (183). This time, the Māori students enjoyed the experience, while the Pākehā students “were resentful and alienated” and felt marginalized because another cultural framework was centred in their educational arrangements, and that they were being told they didn’t belong (183). Jones wrote two papers about the Pākehā responses, meditations on Settler discomfort, and she problematizes her desire to work with Māori colleagues (who eventually set up a separate Māori Education department at the university) “and the related liberal call for dialogue and unity” (184). That call, according to Jones, “is underpinned by a metaphor of space in which the indigenous subject is to be brought in from the margins so that her voice can be heard. However, the deconstructive focus of claims to indigeneity is in colonization; the aim is to dismantle colonial relations and the colonial identities of colonizer and colonized while maintaining the difference of indigeneity” (184). 

But the problem is not, as Povinelli observes, a lack of Indigenous voice; instead, it is a lack of ability on the part of Settlers to hear that voice (184): “When faced with an indigenous teacher speaking in her own voice/language/terms, the Pāhekā students couldn’t listen and couldn’t hear what was being said. Rather, they wanted the indigenous students and teacher to speak in their voice/language and on their terms” (184). Jones concludes that “the Pāhekā desire for dialogue involves a powerful colonizing romance of unity with the colonized other. Where this desire is thwarted . . . the underlying desire for mastery and unfettered access to the other is exposed. ‘Unity,’ it turns out, means consumption, the reduction of difference, epistemological violence, domination” (184). In addition, the desire to be taught by an Indigenous instruction “is a desire for redemption from the morally culpable position of the dominating colonizer” (185). In other words, “[t]he desire for indigenous inclusion turns out to be the desire for reassurance of settler liberality and redemption from the injustices of the past” (185).

Jones “doesn’t want to end up paralysed or to completely give up on the possibility of cross-cultural dialogue,” but that “cross-cultural understanding needs to begin with dominant group members developing the ‘ears to hear,’ a learning that does not require the embodied presence of the indigenous other in the dialogical classroom—and in fact seems to be impossible in such a classroom” (185). Rather, Settlers “need to both learn about their own histories and privileges, and about the value of the limits of their ability to know the indigenous other” (185). Jones advocates for the adoption of a “‘politics of disappointment’ that includes a productive acceptance of ignorance of the other” (185). The pursuit “of learning about difference should be tempered by an acceptance that others can never finally be ‘known’ and that we must maintain a self-reflexive and open relationship to knowledge” (185-86). According to Bell, Jones’s writing (while it doesn’t refer to Lévinas) is about “openness and reflexivity”; she doesn’t dismiss her Pākehā students, but rather “identifies herself with them and uses their challenge to her pedagogy as an opportunity for self-reflection and learning” (186). “Pāhekā discomfort at Māori autonomy” became, for Jones, an opportunity “for new learning about the white/settler/liberal settler relationships with indigenous others,” Bell continues. “And these suggestions—new learning about the inevitable complicity of the settler self, the ‘politics of disappointment’ and the ‘productivity of ignorance’—themselves echo Lévinas’s arguments for the responsibility ofd the self and the need for non-totalizing orientations to the possibilities of politics and knowledge” (186). I know that at some point in the last couple of years I’ve read at least one of Jones’s articles on this experience, but Bell’s summary has convinced me to return to those texts.

However, Bell tells us that Jones isn’t the only one to develop “such insights into the changes required of settler subjects committed to decolonization and transformed relationships with indigenous peoples” (186). Molly Blyth writes about “decolonizing pedagogy with indigenous Canadian students,” David Moore discusses “the practice of literary criticism and the ethics of reading in the face of ‘silences’ within Native American literature,” and Deborah Rose Bird argues for an “‘open anthropology’ that can include accounts of other-than-rational knowledge-based learning and transformations that occur in anthropologists’ relationships with cultural others” (186-87). Blyth, a Settler who found herself teaching Indigenous literature to Indigenous students, writes about “the ‘destabilizing’ experience of teaching in situations where she is the only white Canadian, or where white Canadians are a minority,” and notes that she finds herself in a “contradictory position” where “she is at once the ‘expert’ and also ‘outside the circles of cultural knowledge within these rooms’” (187). She learns about the importance of humility about her ability to master the texts she teaches (187). And humility is not easy, particularly for a university teacher who is called upon to know and to be in authority (187). She describes herself as “the ‘tool of the enemy’ that the students used for their own ends” (187). Other factors affected the work: she didn’t teach in a standard classroom, for instance (188). Her “lack of mastery in these pedagogical relations” and her “repeated passivity” act “as the necessary welcome” that left space for her Indigenous students (188).

David Moore, a Settler who reads Native American literature, “points to the limits of the knowledge of the white reader/subject,” and “the place of silence around aspects of indigenous knowledge within Native American literature” (188). He advocates for “an orientation of ‘unreasonable fallibility’ in approaching Native American literature, a concept that invokes both non-rational modes of engagement and awareness of the limits of settler ability to access indigenous knowledge in truth” (188). He also calls for “a ‘critical ethics’ for academic interpretation of indigenous literature” which is attentive to the values of uncertainty, ignorance, lack of domination, and fallibility as welcome elements “‘in mode of communication that would tolerate the unknown in a continuing, pragmatic process’” (qtd. 188). The outcome of an attention to “‘positive silence’” is, for Moore, “‘radical understanding’” of difference (188-89). 

Deborah Bird Rose’s work “intertwines a concern with the ethics of relationships between humans and the environment and the ethics of indigenous-settler relations” (189). She writes about the need for an “‘open anthropology’ that decentres epistemology to foreground the ‘ethics of experience’” (189). In her essay, Rose describes her relationship with an Aboriginal friend and teacher, and her experiences after Jessie’s death, including experiences that are more-than-rational (189-90). Rose’s description of those experiences echoes “the orientation to alterity that Lévinas calls for—action without intention, responsiveness to unknowable difference,” and to “the transformative power of such experience, which she calls “‘threshold learning’” (190). As a result of those experiences, she became more aware of the silences in the academy, “in which to speak outside of rationality and knowledge is almost impossible” (190). 

“The insights of each of these scholars reiterate and build on Jones’s arguments and connect with Lévinas’s philosophy,” Bell writes (190)—and I intend to read the texts she discusses in this chapter, including (I hesitate to say) Lévinas himself. “Like Jones,” she continues,

Blyth and Rose point to the inevitable complicity of the settler subject who is the “tool of the master” and “situated” by the histories they bring with them to the encounter with indigenous people. While the particular histories of settler complicity with colonial violence are not Lévinas’s concern, his insistence that we are all already obliged, we are all already responsible, and must act from this position, resonate easily with the situation of the settler subject. Each of the authors develops the theme of the limits of knowing in different ways, pointing to the need for humility, uncertainty, vulnerability in the face of indigenous peoples and knowledges, and the value of those limits. Paradoxically, there is much to be learnt from the acceptance of the limits of our capacity to know. Most importantly, abandonment of the expectation of knowledge as “product” as Moore puts it, shifts the focus of engagement to experience and non-rational modes of engagement and to relationship itself—Moore’s “truth as relationality,” Rose’s “methods for intersubjective encounter” and Jones’s “indigene-colonizer hyphen.” This shift acts as a welcome to difference that leaves space for indigenous agency in Blyth’s classroom and can recognize it at work in indigenous literature. Finally, Rose in particular, as someone who has had decades of experience in relation to Aboriginal people of the Northern Territory, gives us an insight into the transformations of the self that can result from this openness to indigenous difference. The welcome to difference is productive for both indigenous and settler subjects, enabling new forms of action and relation. (190-91)

Sami scholar Rauna Kuokannen argues for the need “to replace the problem of ‘knowing the other’ with that of ‘learning to “see” the existence of epistemes that have long been rendered invisible’” (191). Kuokannen’s “important and radical point,” Bell continues, 

is that indigenous epistemes co-exist with those of the west. Indigenous time exists alongside settler time. Indigenous relational ontologies and distinct temporalities, in which past and present are not divorced, co-exist with the realist ontology and linear temporality in which westerners continuously shed the past behind us striving relentlessly towards the future. The time of indigeneity co-exists with the time of capitalist modernity and crucially underpins indigenous modernities in the present. They are not the sign of the “primitive mind” superseded by our own sophisticated sciences and philosophies.  (191) 

I have a copy of Kuokannen’s book somewhere, and clearly I need to read it. And, frankly, this chapter of Bell’s book is the one I think I’ve been waiting to read; it’s a good thing I ended up buying this book, because I have a sense that I’ll be returning to it.

Bell also discusses the work of Te Kawehau Hoskins, which “provides a glimpse of the productive possibilities of such engaged, ethically informed relationships between indigenous and western/settler modernities” (192). Hoskins’s work brings a Lévinasian ethics to bear on arguments for decolonized Indigenous-Settler relations and “non-dominating forms of authority and relation that can support Māori desire to ‘live as Māori’ and provides insights into the ‘productivity’ of ethics in fostering new forms of engagement and possibilities for social life” (192). Hoskins’s PhD research was a case study of an urban school co-governed by a state-mandated Board of Trustees and a parallel Māori board; that school, Bell writes, “is an exciting and important example of what is possible when settler individuals and communities are able to interrupt their sedimented practices of mastery and control and welcome engagement with indigenous difference” (192). The co-governance structure, which has lasted 10 years, continues because of ethical relationships and a respect for autonomy (193). The intersection of ethics and politics at the school “produces concrete effects,” including “open relationships that valorize difference” and “the decentring of Pākehā/settler ways within the school” (193-94). 

The emphasis on face-to-face relations at the school might seem to contradict Jones’s argument “that settler/non-indigenous peoples do not—and crucially cannot—require the embodied presence of the indigenous other to develop the ‘ears to hear’ the voice of indigenous difference,” but Bell points out that each author is pointing “to a distinct phase in the development of a relational imaginary on the part of settler subjects”:

Jones’s analysis points to the need for settler peoples to spend time getting to know themselves and their own histories, uncovering the sedimented practices of domination and the imaginary that accompanies them, before they can engage in a different kind of relationship with indigenous colleagues and communities. Similarly, indigenous communities need their own separate time and space to pursue their projects of recovery and development. (195)

For Bell, Lévinas’s concept of proximity helps to explain this apparent contradiction. Proximity is not a spatial category; rather, it “refers to an ethical . . . dimension to the relationship between self and other. It represents the ethical concern for the alterity of the other” (196). So, when “Jones accepts the desire of Māori for autonomous pedagogical and institutional spaces, she is not severing her relationship with Māori, or ‘washing her hands’ of any concern for them” (196). Instead, “that spatial—and crucially, epistemological—distancing is compaatible with the notion of ethical proximity. Respect for the alterity of the other, which is the characteristic of relations of proximity, involves an epistemological ‘distancing’” (196). A recognition of “the unknowability of alterity” is foundational to that respect (196). “Hence relations of proximity can balance the tensions of distancing and relationality required for a relational imaginary,” Bell continues. “On the one hand, they preserve the epistemological distance necessary for indigenous autonomy and disrupt the categories of settler epistemological domination. On the other hand, they ground a relation of ethical concern for the other. Proximity thus combines a form of ‘distance’ (epistemological) with a form of ‘closeness’ (concern)” (196).

In the chapter’s conclusion, Bell argues for the applicability of Lévinasian ethics “to the situation of settler subjects . . . in calling for the interruption of the sedimented practices of domination that accompany the everyday practices of knowing and judging” (196). Such practices may be deeply rooted, unconscious and invisible (to us), and they “will not be easily dislodged,” but she suggests that her examples suggests it is possible to do so (196). The scholars whose work she has considered “escape settler/western frameworks of knowledge and practice and need to be related in ways that honour that reality” (196). “For settler/western subjects, relating to the difference of indigenous ways of being and living is unsettling,” she continues. “It means giving up on the idea of unity, of a day when we will all be ‘one people.’ It is challenging and discomforting—and exciting” (196). 

In her afterword, Bell cites Tully’s notion of “‘strange multiplicity’” (qtd. 198) “as a condition of co-existence with others” (198). “We need to give up seeking agreement at the level of principle and seek situated, local agreements over particular issues, where the different groups involved may come to agreement for completely different reasons, but agree on the particular at hand nonetheless,” she writes (198). Then, she turns to the idea that we don’t understand the effects of the “tendencies of the settler imaginary to equate indigenous ways of being and knowing with the past” (199). “The settler imaginary,” she continues, “is also a liberal imaginary and the double-sided nature of liberalism is worth focusing on” (199). On the one hand, the positive aspects of liberalism has made CANZUS countries “world leaders in recognizing indigenous rights”—really?—but the commitment to individual equality that is central to liberalism arguably led those states to shy away from signing onto the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples because that declaration arguably “demanded that they prioritize indigenous rights over those of other citizens” (199). “On the other hand, liberalism involves beliefs in universalism, progress and individualism, all of which have been powerful stumbling blocks in relating to indigenous difference,” Bell continues (199). 

Finally, she turns to identity theories and the way her discussion of these “has highlighted a range of strategies of resistance—and domination—that characterize what is known as ‘identity politics’” (199). “For indigenous peoples, maintaining a distinct identity that marks indigenous communities out from the surrounding society is crucial,” she writes. “For settler peoples also, identity politics are crucial to their claims to being and belonging” (199). But the project of Settlers becoming Indigenous is impossible (199). “Instead, acceptance of indigenous autonomy is the first step in unsettling the settler imaginary and moving towards a new, relational imaginary,” Bell states. “Rather than focus on an end to contestation and a final achievement of unity that will never come, a focus on the messy reality of relationality is more productive and a necessary step towards decolonization” (199-200). That “orientation to relationship” features “a shift in attitude to learning about indigenous difference,” she continues. “The settler propensity to accumulate knowledge to then mould into a fantastical image of indigenous authenticity and wield as a weapon of domination need to be replaced by an understanding that indigenous peoples, like all peoples, can never be finally ‘known’” (200). Indigenous peoples deserve the same freedom Settlers have “to change, to be contradictory, to be fully, annoyingly and fascinatingly human” (200). That freedom “is a necessary first step in a re-orientation to relation, to attending to the relationship that lies between (joining and separating) settler and indigenous modernities” (200).

Bell’s book is important for my work, particularly her descriptions of the settler imaginary and the relational imaginary. I’m glad I read it. It’s going to take some time—and more certainly reading—to come to terms with her arguments and to begin to formulate clearer responses to them. I do wonder about her use of Lévinas when there are Indigenous thinkers on relationality who could be brought alongside the French philosopher, but perhaps her reluctance to discuss those thinkers together is part of her notion (through Lévinas) of proximity. I’m not sure. I will have to think more about that point. In any case, completing Bell’s book feels like a step forward in my research.

Works Cited

Bell, Avril. Relating Indigenous and Settler Identities: Beyond Domination, Palgrave Macmillan, 2014.

Tuck, Eve, and Rubén A. Gaztambide-Fernández. “Curriculum, Replacement, and Settler Futurity.” Journal of Curriculum Theorizing, vol. 29, no. 1, 2013, pp. 72-89. 

Walking West, Once Again


It’s the middle of June, and the forecast is calling for a hot and windy day, so I get off to an early start. Sparrows are chirping, and I hear children playing in a park. On Elphinstone Street, a dead squirrel, dessicated and stiff, lies in the middle of the sidewalk. At the corner of 13th Avenue, the crosswalk light is broken. Mosaic Stadium looms at the end of a side street. Two robins seem to be responding to each others’ songs. Are they arguing? Is it a competition of some kind? Or is it a duet?


I’m not walking all that quickly, even though I’m not feeling particularly inspired this morning, and I think back to the day before last, and how quickly Christine was walking and how I had to work hard to keep up. It seems that this spring, because I’m walking slowly and taking notes and photographs, I’m not getting as fit as I might have done in previous years. Perhaps, like the writer Will Self, I’m not walking for fitness—that would be tedious, Self says—or for leisure, which would be “merely frivolous”; perhaps, then, like Self, I am walking “as a means of dissolving the mechanized matrix which compresses the space-time continuum, and decouples human from physical geography.”


An astroturf lawn I’ve walked past before looks even rougher now, with dandelions forcing their way up all around the edges. Plastic grass: a bad idea. I press the begging button at Lewvan Drive and wait to cross. To the south, a digital billboard near the airport glows bright red, then orange. I cross the Lewvan and turn north. A circular saw whines. I follow the footpath under the Canadian Pacific tracks, past sweet-smelling poplars and gophers whistling in the dry grass. Across the highway, I can see the convention centre where the Saskatchewan Health Authority is preparing a field hospital for the anticipated second wave of Covid-19.



Summer weeds—Canada thistle and goat’s beard—are growing everywhere beside the sidewalk. Outside a pink house with plum-coloured trim, I smell cigarette smoke. Dead cedar trees line a path to another house’s door. I walk past Luther College. A rabbit sprints across the road. A kid, sitting beside the sidewalk, nods hello. I start west, the long straight plod down Dewdney Avenue. It’s hot and humid, despite the wind, and I feel myself starting to sweat even though I’m walking in the shade of a row of half-dead Manchurian elms. A crow flies into traffic and somehow emerges unscathed. I notice a painting mounted on a bus shelter where an advertisement would normally go. At Wascana Creek, a red-winged blackbird clings to his perch in a tree despite the strong wind. Two geese and a clutch of goslings are swimming against the current.



The sidewalk ends at the RCMP training facility. I think about the recent case where Mounties struck an Inuk man with their truck as part of an arrest, and wonder what on earth recruits are taught inside. I step on a realtor’s business card. To the south, a train on the CP main line sounds its horn. A row of streetlights clicks and groans in the wind. I hear a meadowlark singing in the vacant field that seems to be part of the RCMP grounds. A rubber glove is lying in the grass—an artefact of an earlier phase of the pandemic—and a magpie perched on a stump cries or laughs, ignoring the “No Trespassing” signs. Red caution tape tied to the fence blows in the wind.




At Courtney Street, a cricket match is in progress in Sharp Park. Torn banners announcing homes for sale snap in the wind. The gusts are a lot stronger than the forecast I read this morning suggested; they threaten to tear my hat off my head, despite the strap fastened around my chin, and I take it off and stuff it into my bag. I duck behind the Westerra site office to take a pee. I’m hidden from the road, but then I realize I’m fully visible to everyone in a line of houses behind a wooden privacy fence. I hear another circular saw and catch the burnt wood smell that comes from using a dull blade. Tumbleweeds skitter across the road. Further west, the city’s bunker is silent for once. A baby crow, or perhaps a grackle, lies dead on the shoulder.


My friend Glenn passes and honks. I turn on Pinkie Road. Real estate signs advertising apartments in Westerra have blown up against a chain-link fence. The pile of grain I saw a few weeks back has disappeared; maybe it blew away. Passing vehicles raise clouds of stinging dust. Finally I arrive at my destination: the RIIS burial ground. A week ago, I drove here early in the morning, before the wind came up, to record the sounds of birds and traffic for another project, but I didn’t bring any tobacco and I didn’t pay my respects. I haven’t felt good about that. It was extractive, even though I was only taking away a digital sound file, and Settlers need to learn to stop taking without giving back. That’s the reason I walked here today, despite the wind, to make amends for that extractive behaviour.



The sign asking visitors to think about the children has fallen over and I set it back up. A rabbit leaps out of the ditch and scurries across the gravel road, and red-winged blackbirds fly towards me. I kneel on the ground and fish a pouch of tobacco out of my bag. I put some on the ground and am surprised that the wind doesn’t carry it away. I think about the children buried here, then I sit leaning against a fence post and drink some water. Across the road, a gas flare at the LNG terminal is blowing horizontal. The wind whistles in the power lines, but even so, it feels quiet and peaceful here. Maybe because I’m sitting instead of walking.


I stand up and turn for home. Now I’m walking into the wind, and it’s neither easy nor pleasant. I’ve been finding the constant wind this spring scrapes at my nerves. I think about other seasonal winds—the Santa Ana in California, or the mistral in France and the sirocco in Italy—and how they are reputed to cause emotional distress. Maybe the wind that has been blowing almost every day this spring is affecting me the same way. I surprise a flock of grackles, which fly up out of the ditch into the air. At the corner of Dewdney Avenue, a man walks past—he’s been collecting bottles and cans for the deposit, it seems—and we wave at each other. Wind gusts threaten to blow me off the shoulder into traffic. I decide to take shelter from the wind at the Tim Horton’s at the Saulteaux Crossing gas station. I order a sandwich—maybe I’m getting cranky because I’m hungry, not because of the wind—and sit at a table. Am I going to keep walking, despite the wind? I decide to call home for a ride, but there’s no answer. I can’t sit at this table all afternoon, I think, and I decide to keep walking.


The rest of the story of this walk threatens to become only about the wind. I stop taking pictures and notes and concentrate on holding my head so that the wind won’t tear my glasses away from my face. I walk past the industrial waste disposal facility and smell a chemical odour. What am I inhaling? I wonder. I turn onto 13th Avenue. Red-winged blackbirds flying above a slough are being blown backwards by the powerful wind. A train passes, heading east, hauling a line of double-stacked containers on flatcars that must be a kilometre long. A truck stops; the driver asks if I need a lift. I’m tempted, but I think about the pandemic and decide to walk instead of getting into a car with a stranger. “I’m okay,” I tell him. “But thanks for stopping.” I’m leaning into the wind as I walk, or stumble, up the gravel. My phone rings. Christine is offering to give me a lift. I tell her where I am and she says she’ll leave right away. I’m almost at the airport fence when she arrives. I realize I’m not that tired from the walk, or the wind, but that it’s just become too unpleasant to be out here. Without an alternative, I could keep walking, but it’s a lot easier to ride home in comfort.


I look out of the passenger window and think about the land I’ve been walking on over the past few weeks. The Global Transportation Hub, the Regina Bypass, the Regina Indian Industrial School—they’re all about the land: who owns it, who controls it, who profits from it. That’s easy to see when we think about the GTH and the Bypass, but because the Industrial School was supposed to help eliminate Indigenous cultures and languages, it was also supposed to erase Indigenous people from this place, to void their claims to the land so that Settlers could occupy it without worrying about those competing claims. After all, once Indigenous peoples could no longer claim to be Indigenous, then their claims to the land would be forfeited. They would be just like Settlers, with no claim to the land that would potentially take precedence over the claims Settlers make with property deeds and land titles. That’s the argument Patrick Wolfe makes in an influential article on the genocide of Indigenous peoples in the Americas. “The question of genocide is never far from discussions of settler colonialism,” Wolfe writes. “Land is life—or, at least, land is necessary for life. Thus contests for land can be—indeed, often are—contests for life” (387). Rather than genocide, though, Wolfe prefers the term “logic of elimination,” because genocide can happen outside of settler colonial states (387). The “primary motive for elimination” of Indigenous peoples, for Wolfe, is simply “access to territory. Territoriality is settler colonialism’s specific, irreducible element” (388). “The logic of elimination not only refers to the summary liquidation of Indigenous people, though it includes that,” Wolfe continues; that logic “is an organizing principal of settler-colonial society rather than a one-off (and superseded) occurrence,” and that elimination can include activities familiar to Canadians: “child abduction, religious conversion, [and] resocialization in total institutions such as missions or boarding schools” (388). “Settler colonialism,” Wolfe argues, “destroys to replace”: it destroys Indigenous cultures and social structures and languages in order to replace them with its own versions (388).


So the Indigenous presence on the land here, right here, was replaced—mostly—with farms and highways, with factories and an industrial waste disposal facility and a half-empty warehouse park. The Regina Indian Industrial School attempted to eliminate that presence in another way—by eliminating the Indigenous people themselves, by eradicating their languages and cultures, their spirituality and their connection to the land. It didn’t work, of course; the Saulteaux Crossing gas station, the Indigenous-owned Tim Horton’s where I ate lunch, the sign at the corner of Pinkie Road and Dewdney Avenue announcing that the land belongs to the Zakimē Anishinabek First Nation are all signs that the logic of elimination is imperfect and incomplete. But that logic is still in operation. Wolfe describes that logic, but he doesn’t explain how those of us who live in Settler states can break with that way of thinking, that ideology, and begin to make amends for our past behaviour. That’s the task ahead of us, though, if we’re going to live here in an ethical way.


Works Cited

Self, Will. Psychogeography, Bloomsbury, 2007.

Wolfe, Patrick. “Settler Colonialism and the Elimination of the Native” Journal of Genocide Research vol. 8, no. 4, 2006, 387-409.

Walking Down Rotary Avenue



When I started making these walks in April, spring hadn’t arrived yet; the trees were bare and the grass was still brown after the long winter. Now the city is green; the wild roses in our yard are in bloom, and our bur oak tree—always the last to leaf out—is bright green. Christine and I leave the house to walk to our allotment garden, and we notice a tiny bur oak seedling—probably from an acorn forgotten by a squirrel—is growing among the western Canada violet and solomon’s seal in the shade of the mature spruce tree in our front yard. Should we transplant it, or leave it where it is? Will it get enough sun? We discuss these questions as we begin our walk down the alley and through the neighbourhood to the pedestrian bridge over Wascana Creek. The neighbourhood smells of freshly mown grass. A Bobcat waits silently at the curb, and the elm trees create a lush canopy over the street. We hear a man whistling happily and tunelessly. On Hill Avenue, a city truck is watering the pavement, leaving behind a fresh smell, kind of like petrichor, but with an overlay of chlorine. We see a man sitting on the curb. He looks uncomfortable. “Do you need a hand?” we ask. Yes—he sat down to rest while waiting for a bus, and now he can’t get back on his feet. We take his hands and pull him up. He is grateful. As we walk away, conscious of the contact with a stranger, I open the small bottle of hand sanitizer I’ve been carrying in my pocket. “Don’t insult him,” Christine says. But it’s the pandemic—he would understand, wouldn’t he?


At the garden, a woman asks, rather officiously, whether we have a garden plot there. Because of Covid-19, visitors are no longer allowed—a rule that must be difficult to police. That’s the reason for her question. I’ve seen her many times, and we’ve talked to each other, but apparently I left no impression. “Yes,” I answer shortly, and I carry on towards our plot. The corn is only a few inches high, but the potatoes seem to be happy enough, as is the chard. It’s been a cold spring, and very dry, so it’s a lucky thing Christine loves watering. She finds it meditative. I find it a chore, so we have worked out a division of labour. I weed, she waters. There’s no point watching Christine water the garden, so I say goodbye and head off on my walk. I’m on my way out of the allotments when I hear a bird singing happily and loudly in a tree. It’s not a song I recognize, and I take out my camera, hoping it might be a Baltimore oriole. We put out oranges in our yard to attract orioles, but none has visited. I approach slowly, trying to see who is singing. Despite my caution, I frighten the bird, and I catch a flash of reddish brown and a long tail as the bird flies to a distant tree. A brown thrasher, I decide.




I cut through a parking lot to avoid walking on the edge of busy Pasqua Street—there’s no sidewalk, and it’s not a safe place for pedestrians—and notice a strange archaeological dig going on between the lot and the empty beach volleyball courts at the Rugby Club. What is happening? Why does there appear to be a barbecue grill poking out of the ground? I turn the corner and wait for the light to change so I can cross Lewvan Drive. I walked this way just a week or so ago. The billboards advertising the Harbour Landing development have not been repaired yet, and they continue to speak nonsense, but there are no picketers outside the Co-op supermarket today. Grasshoppers whir in the dry grass. I surprise two large jackrabbits, as big as dogs. Another lies dead next to the sidewalk—killed crossing the road. How did I miss that the last time I was here? A gopher whistles. Four more jackrabbits watch me, warily, from a field that seems about to disappear, if the heavy equipment parked on its edge is any indication. A grackle complains in a boulevard tree. I hear a turboprop taxiing at the airport. The neighbourhood is a strange mixture of things: houses, apartments, retail, a large business park—and, of course, the airport next door. I think about Garreau’s description of edge cities—the odd assortment of land uses assembled together—and realize that, in its own small way, Harbour Landing is an edge city.



I turn onto Campbell Street and head north, towards the airport. Another rabbit suns itself in a greening field. An abandoned farmhouse warns trespassers about video surveillance; perhaps the owners are concerned that bored neighbourhood kids might vandalize the property. Red-winged blackbirds trill in a slough, and lights flash atop two cell towers. A Bobcat rumbles in a farmhouse driveway. The same rooster I heard last time is crowing. I can tell which fields have been seeded now; after last weekend’s brief rain, they are beginning to turn green. I think about what it means to be walking in my own footsteps. For years Nan Shepherd walked repeatedly through the Cairngorms, a mountain range in the Scottish highlands, and through that repetition, she came to know that place intimately. Her book about the Cairngorms, The Living Mountain, is a powerful evocation of that place. Could walking in the same way on these grid roads give me that kind of intimate knowledge of them? Would this space repay that kind of attention? I’m not sure. The Cairngorms are a marvel, a sublime gathering of mountains and plateaus, burns and lakes and valleys, apparently unscarred by the extractive economic imperatives of contemporary civilization. The edge of Regina, on the other hand, has been devoted to those extractive activities. On one side of the road, industrial agriculture; on the other, the airport; and, in the distance, trucks move along the Bypass and along Highway 1. This space is bounded by those highways. But surely the space I’m walking through has its own rewards: the cloudless sky, the western meadowlarks singing joyfully on the other side of the airport fence.



It’s quiet: just the sound of my feet on the gravel, the birds, and the wind. Occasionally a vehicle passes. I notice a golf ball at the side of the road. It stands out from the usual empty coffee cups and beer cans. What’s it doing there? I kick a rusted pair of vicegrips off the road, mindful of the damage they might do if they were thrown up by a passing pickup truck. A killdeer tries to decoy me away form her nest in a field of stubble. A pair of grey partridges fly up from the ditch, and dogs bark at me from a farm just up the road—probably the same dogs I heard last time I walked this way. I hope they’re still tied up. Today the farmer is riding a quad around the yard, and we wave to each other. The old farmhouse that used to stand next to the new one has been torn down; just the basement is left. A dump truck is hauling in loads of dirt to fill in the hole. I can hear the Bypass now, a faint howl in the distance. There is a steady line of traffic heading south. Perhaps, as more people discover the new highway, it is getting busier; perhaps the Bypass is not an exception to the principle of induced demand. I turn on Centre Road and cross the overpass. A constellation of steel washers lies on the shoulder. Then I cross the road and walk down the offramp onto the highway.




I hadn’t planned to come this way today, but it feels inevitable, walking here. If I’m going to study the Bypass by walking, at some point I was going to have to step onto it—or its paved shoulder, at least. The highway is now empty; that earlier traffic may have been an anomaly. The wind is getting stronger, and the sun is hot. Grackles creak. I pick up a galvanized nut belonging to a large bolt as a memento of my first steps onto the Bypass. Meadowlarks are singing above the wind. I stop to drink some water, and inhale the smell of a large manure pile in a pasture next to the road. A flock of red-winged blackbirds is sitting on the fence that surrounds that patch of grass. On the other side of the highway, a cyclist is heading north, slowly climbing the incline up to the bridge over the Canadian Pacific tracks, the only hill for miles. Two more cyclists follow. A grey partridge lies dead on the shoulder, its feathers blowing softly in the wind.



I leave the highway at the Rotary Avenue onramp. Rotary Avenue is the main east-west street at the Global Transportation Hub, and there is an interchange on the Bypass to funnel traffic into and out of the development. The fields beside Rotary Avenue are empty but for dead grass and dandelions. Stubs of roads, blocked by concrete barriers, lead nowhere from Rotary Avenue. To the south, a locomotive shunts a few cars hauling containers onto the siding that serves the Canadian Pacific Intermodal Yard. The fields are crossed by deep drainage ditches, and a temporary sign announces that the land is for sale. Half of the land in the GTH has already been sold, it proclaims. I walk past the Loblaw warehouse and across Fleming Road. A sea of trash surrounds the Enterra waste transfer station. I thought there were rules about the kinds of businesses that were allowed to locate in the GTH; apparently, when the land didn’t sell, those rules must have been abandoned. Why else would SaskPower have been encouraged, or ordered, to buy land here? A row of concrete barriers blocks Rotary Avenue, and I walk past them to the end of the road. Rotary Avenue could continue further west. I’m surprised at the size of the GTH. When I walked here before, I crossed the north-south axis, on Fleming Road; the east-west axis, on Rotary Avenue, is three times as long, at least. It’s taken me some 45 minutes to get this far, and it’s clear that the GTH land goes even farther, past the end of the road: a right-of-way has been constructed, heading further west. I turn back and sit on one of the barriers to rest. The map on my phone tells me that Rotary Avenue—the part I’ve walked—is three and a half kilometres long, and I wonder how much farther the GTH goes. The official web site says that the development is 1,800 acres, and I’m starting to get a feeling for just how big that is.




I finish eating the apple I brought for lunch and start walking again. On the way out of the GTH, I stop to look at the map posted on the sign at its entrance. Last time, I thought that map just exaggerated where companies were located, that it made them look closer together than they actually are, but now, after walking the length of Rotary Avenue, I realize that it indicates not just where companies are located, necessarily, but where they have bought land. There’s no sign of the SaskPower warehouses that supposedly sit where Rotary Avenue and Sharp Bay meet, nor is there any sign of Morguard’s building across from the Loblaw warehouse. SaskPower and Morguard might have bought land here, but they haven’t done anything with it. Is the purpose of that map to indicate which land has been sold, or to suggest what activities are going on at the warehouse park, who its occupants are and where to find them? If it’s the latter, then it’s extraordinarily misleading, and a worse attempt at deception than I had previously thought.




I turn east on Dewdney Avenue. There are so many meadowlarks singing today, perched on wires or power poles. A hawk—maybe a Swainson’s, although I don’t know enough to be able to say for sure—is hunting gophers in a field next to the LNG storage facility. A cyclist passes, heading towards the city. I notice a jackrabbit, dead since last summer, on the shoulder. How did I miss that when I walked here before? I think about Nan Shepherd again, and the importance of repetition in getting to know a place, and realize that, in a small way, I am coming to know these roads by walking on them. My feet are sore—I’m not walking enough to toughen them up—so I head for the Tim Horton’s in the gas station at Saulteaux Crossing. I order an iced cappuccino—too sweet, as always, more like ice cream than iced coffee—and call Christine for a ride. She’s not home, and I wonder if I’m going to end up trying to find the capacity to walk another six or seven kilometres. Then, finally, she answers, and agrees to pick me up. I wait outside, on the concrete block that anchors the Esso sign. My friends Mark and Vonda stop to say hello; they are buying gas and then heading to Ogema, two hours southwest, to get one of the pizzas that village is famous for. A road trip: what a good idea.

Works Cited

Nan Shepherd, The Living Mountain, Canongate, 2011.


Trevor Herriot, Grass, Sky Song: Promise and Peril in the World of Grassland Birds

grass sky song

I bought this book when it came out eleven years ago—I know that’s true, because my copy is a hardcover edition—but I haven’t read it until now, perhaps because I was afraid of what I’d learn. It’s an important book—I can see the way it is going to influence my current research—and it’s a good thing I finally put aside my fear and opened the book. It’s essential reading. All of us who make our homes on the prairies ought to read it.

Strangely, though, I already knew part of this book: the introduction is in the anthology I use to teach first-year English courses, and I’ve taught that essay, “A Way Home,” several times. It tells the story of how Herriot became interested in grassland birds, and what those birds mean to his conception of southern Saskatchewan. They are, he writes, “the presiding genius of the northern Great Plains . . . a presence that animates the grass and sky in the absence of the bison” (13). Bison, of course, are grassland obligates, like the songbirds, although their numbers today are a fraction of what they once were, after being nearly driven to extinction in the nineteenth century; we might have considered the bison the “presiding genius” of the grassland, except that bison now exist behind fences, on ranches and in parks and refuges. Herriot’s use of the word “genius” is slightly anachronistic; in this context, it means a guardian spirit associated with a place (O.E.D.). 

If you hear a sense of the sacred in Herriot’s words, you would be absolutely correct. Grassland birds are “the embodiment of a spirit” one can feel “as an almost imperceptible tug” (13); there is something “good and holy in these birds,” which he hopes we will discover before it’s too late, before those birds (like so many other species) are extinct (3). “True grassland birds—species that cannot tolerate trees or cropland—bear witness to the world in their own particular way,” he writes. “It is a testimony as worthy as any other in Creation; not loud enough to attract busloads of tourists, perhaps, but all the more rewarding for the attention it cultivates in any who try.” (13). The word “Creation” is used repeatedly in Grass, Sky, Song; not in an orthodox Christian way, but rather as a way to imbue the world with a sense that it is sacred. He employs the word “mystery” for the same reasons, I think. Unlike most of us môniyâwak, Herriot has a sense of the land as sacred, and also unlike most Settlers, he has come into a relationship with it. 

Those notions of sacredness and relationship are connected to belonging. Coming to know grassland birds is a way “to find out how we might belong to a place, to find a way home” (4)—to come into a relationship with the grassland. He advocates lying down on a patch of wild grass and looking up at the sky: “With grass blades waving overhead and the sky beyond, the human spirit has half a chance to come to its senses. If there are birds singing in the air, all the better. They will tell you where you are and, if you listen long enough, they may tell you who you are in the bargain” (4). Even though he was born in southern Saskatchewan, Herriot suggests that he did not truly know the place, or belong here, until he began to learn about the beings that live here—that can only live here: to know their names, not as a way to possess them, but rather as a way “to call things forth from generality into a particularity that allowed for admiration, familiarity, even wonder” (12). “The influence of beings as unprepossessing and elusive as grassland birds is something like gravity, a weak though persistent mystery that holds us in place,” he concludes. “The heart recognizes such a gentle force, knows that in simply becoming aware of its pull we take a small step toward belonging here ourselves” (13). My students are, I think, shocked to read those words; the idea that knowing something about a place, that apprehending something of its mystery, is a way to belong to it surprises them, because most of them know little about the creatures we share the prairie with, or that the prairie is more than a flat horizon, that it is a complex ecosystem that is in grave danger.

That grave danger resonates throughout Herriot’s book, and it is what makes Grass, Sky, Song such a difficult read. One of the things that is in danger is the prairie: that treeless landscape defined by grass. “I live in one of the only prairie cities built upon utterly treeless grassland,” he notes. “Most cities on the northern Great Plains were founded on large rivers, where ravines sheltered a few poplars and willows, but the stretch of Wascana Creek where Regina sprang up did not incise deeply enough into the tableland of its glacial lake bed to allow woody growth of any kind” (17-18). Every single tree in this city has been planted; Herriot describes the neighbourhood where he lives—not far from our house—as a place “where seventy-foot-high white spruce host red-breasted nuthatches and red crossbills year round. These birds think they are in a forest and they are right. To see the prairie and its birds I have to get out of town” (18). The “woody growth” that has encroached on the grassland here has led to many changes: the arrival of mountain bluebirds, for instance, is the result of the planting of trees (and fence posts) here, although most of us now accept that species as a prairie bird (18). Many common birds around this city are species that “live in tree and shrubland: house wrens, flickers, least flycatchers, orioles. These are all wonderful creatures worthy of anyone’s attention, but they are the common woodland species you can find almost anywhere in the populated regions of North America,” Herriot writes. “The birds that are distinctive in this part of the continent, having come to their place in the sun along with the buffalo and the grasshopper,” require grass, not trees (22).

But that grass is almost gone: a recent study suggests less than 14% of the original grassland of southern Saskatchewan remains (Sawatsky). Herriot describes “[t]he unparalleled destruction” that has come to the world of grassland birds since the arrival of Settlers in the 1880s:

When I am on a jet flying over the prairie, I search for fragments of grassland below and try to extrapolate them into the original horizon-to-horizon world of grass that once covered the plains. I wish away all the scars and uniformity of the drawn-and-quartered farm landscape and try to imagine flying north like a hawk in spring over the whole of the Great Plains in their pre-settlement splendour. High enough to view thousands of square miles at a glimpse, the journey begins above the Gulf Coast grasslands of Texas, then takes in the oak savannah of hill country north of San Antonio. Next comes the tallgrass of Oklahoma and Kansas, the bisected plateaus of Nebraska, the drier plains and badlands of the Dakotas, the vast wheat grass and June grass prairie drained by the Missouri, the Oldman, the Saskatchewan, and the Qu’Appelle Rivers, and finally the northern fescue prairie on the flanks of the Peace River Valley. The vista below unfurls in softly shaded wrinkles, folds, and dimples that shift without visible boundaries from one texture or colour to another in an impossibly complex and subtly brocaded fabric. But more than fabric, the earth shimmers and vibrates like something lit from the inside, as erotic and radiant as any living thing. (22-23)

That sea of grass now exists in fragments. The largest fragments are in the southwestern part of the province, “in big ranches, community pastures, and conservation land,” Herriot writes (23). The land where Herriot shares a country property with several other families, south of Indian Head, is on the borderland between two eco-regions—aspen parkland and moist mixed-grass prairie—“on the rim of the Great Plains,” and that is where he conducts much, but not all, of his birdwatching research (23). It is, he writes, “a good place to be: in the shifting, indeterminate territory that eases us out of the trees and into the dream of a grassland that is all but forgotten, and awaiting its chance to return” (24). The survival of grassland birds will depend on that dream becoming a reality—among other things.

  The boundaries of grassland ecosystems are “particularly mobile,” growing and shrinking as woody species encroach on the grass, and as fire pushes them back. Herriot imagines an invisible weaver using “four primary tools” to make the grassland’s tapestry: “soil variability, climate, grazing, and fire” (25). Soil quality differs from place to place, “according to geological history, drainage, elevation, parent material, and so on, but it takes centuries to change significantly in any one location” (25). Climate—precipitation and temperature—moves within a certain range (25): until the onset of anthropogenic climate change, that is. Those factors are relatively stable. However, before Settlers arrived here, “the remaining two factors—grazing and fire—responded to opportunities presented by weather and soil in creating brief disturbances at random intervals. Fire and grazing events in turn fostered a complex mosaic of irregularly shaped patches of various grassland habitats” (25-26). Those various habitats became “ecological niches in large and small patches, determining which creatures would live where for this or that season” (26). “The spirit of the plains, its air of motion and freedom, has always depended upon this dance choreographed by the rhythms of earth, weather, fire, and buffalo,” he continues (26). 

Those disturbances are necessary if grassland is to remain healthy. Herriot describes standing “next to a pile of lichen-covered boulders on a little knoll on the neighbour’s pasture south of our place” (35). Those boulders are the remnants of buffalo drive lanes, one of the ways that Indigenous people hunted bison (35). The land has never been ploughed, “but without the disturbance patterns that buffalo and fire provide, weeds and brushy vegetation have moved in and are taking over large patches” (35). That invasion makes this particular prairie remnant unsuitable for most species of grassland birds. Nevertheless, Herriot continues,

While it is sadly diminished and more difficult to see today without the roaming herds and wildfire, the life of grasslands from season to season and from macro-habitat to micro-habitat retains something of its original spirit, the old dance of grass and earth, vagrant and free as the clouds passing overhead. It moves through the air in the flight and song of the birds that still dwell within the graces of whatever comes on the wind. (36)

The language here is worth noting: Herriot’s use of words like “spirit” and “graces” is a sign of the way he understands the grasslands as a sacred space.

But even without grazing and fire, the grassland continues to provide habitat for its birds. Herriot describes reports he has received about the dickcissel, a grassland songbird that suddenly began to appear in Saskatchewan in greater numbers than before. “The miracle of the dickcissel is that it has adapted enough to survive the loss of the prairie it loved best and has figured out how to use other kinds of grass, native and introduced,” he writes (46). Because the dickcissel lacks any attachment to the places where it was bred, it “testifies to the liberty at the heart of grassland ecology” (46). “When. fire and bison were still choreographing the dance, dickcissels may have arrived here on the northern plains in years when drought, grazing, or fire in the core of their range south of the forty-ninth parallel forced them to wander in search of taller grass,” Herriot suggests (46). The appeared here during the droughts of the 1930s, for instance. But in 2006, after heavy spring rains produced “thigh-high alfalfa,” these birds were seen in greater numbers, particularly in southeastern Saskatchewan, than ever before. “What are these birds trying to tell us?” Herriot wonders. “With many species thinning out and disappearing from apparently suitable habitat across the northern plains, believing in the restorative powers of prairie requires a faith that is getting more difficult to make as the years go by. Then we get a summer of dickcissels, prairie evangelists canvassing for believers” (47). Those birds are doing their best “to show us that the dance is not over yet” (47). 

Herriot cites the eco-philosopher David Abram’s book The Spell of the Sensuous to suggest that becoming aware of birds, “life that moves in the invisible realm of air,” might have been “the very exercise that led to human consciousness” (52). “Though it is articulated here in fresh prose, this kind of philosophy is what we expect from the Aboriginal peoples who came into their identity within the open, airy landscapes of the west,” he continues. “The surprise in Abram’s account comes when he goes on to demonstrate that deep in our own religious traditions there is a similar reverence for the air, though lately it has been reduced to the symbolic or merely metaphorical” (52). The sources of words like spirit, psyche, soul, anima, and atmosphere, Abrams argues, suggest that even for our civilization “the air, in breath and holy wind, has been the very medium of our interconnectedness and the source of our awareness” (52). “Is it possible that we first became aware of that communion”—that interconnectedness—“by seeing it manifest in the creatures that live in the air and give it a voice?” he asks (53). Birds, Herriot contends, 

put flesh upon, incarnate the soul of the land they inhabit, bringing it to our senses in ways that mammals, insects, or reptiles cannot match. Remove the forest’s warblers, thrushes, and owls, and the truth of what a forest is, and the wisdom it offers is rendered insensible. In the presence of birds, something in Creation keeps us back from the brink, mindful of a spirit that is ascendant and yet available to our ears and eyes. What happens to a civilization that loses contact with birds? Will we forget what we ever meant by soul and mindfulness? (53)

He considers flight itself, but more importantly, flightsong—“the spiralling notes of a pipet three hundred feet into the sky, the rapid windchimes of longspurs fluttering above their brooding mates”—which, like all music, “bypasses our reasoned categories and comparisons and plays directly to the heart, where desire and imagination offer the deeper witness that makes us human” (54). Flightsong is also known as “skylarking,” and Herriot recalls his first experience standing in a pasture full of skylarking birds. Above the songs of the Baird’s sparrows and meadowlarks, “the swirling song of Sprague’s pipits fell to the earth in streams. I lay in the grass beneath a sky that was inhaling and exhaling song” (55). Herriot was “immersed in sound more than hearing it, powerless to name the truth it bore” (55).  “Consider the birds of the air,” he writes:

They fly over the prairie, bearing messages to the Creator, and promises to all creatures below. Just now, their voices hand briefly on the wind, each song a passing testimony to the sacramental presence that rises and falls in every living thing. Should we ever set aside our sowing and reaping long enough to listen, might we remember that we too share in the spirit that animates all life? And, what is more, that we are bound by its daily promises? (56)

The spirituality here, the sense of the land as sacred, might have its roots in Christianity, but it seems (to me) broad enough to encompass other faiths, and, more importantly, to suggest that Herriot’s love of the land is perhaps close to that expressed by Indigenous peoples.

Herriot is not alone in his efforts to build relationships with birds. As the host of the local CBC Radio One show Birdline, he hears stories of people who love the birds that live beside them. One fellow tells Herriot that if the barn swallows who share his workshop disappeared, he would miss their friendship (66). But grassland birds have a harder time coexisting with humans. It would be easy to give up on those species, Herriot writes, to “write them off as the collateral damage of our civilization’s blitzkrieg advance” (68). But every spring, he is “amazed that the birds themselves have not given up. They come back, set up on a patch of grassland, sing, court, build nests, lay eggs—even if the grass is all wrong, the grasshoppers are scarce, and there isn’t the right kind of cover to protect nestlings from predators. They fail, re-nest, fail again, then leave for the winter” (68-69). For Herriot, the birds express the same thing farmers always say: “Next year, next year. There is always next year” (69). In this, he sees the power of writer Wallace Stegner’s adaptation of Jesus’s statement that if a sparrow falls to the ground, God knows and cares about it (69). “The power of Stegner’s adaptation is in the shift it makes from God to land,” Herriot writes. “Not only God, but the land itself keeps watch, keeps faith—for in prairie we sense an abiding awareness and attention that may be more obscure in other landscapes. God knows the sparrow. The land knows the sparrow. The trick of remaining here is to become a people who know the sparrow too, who will not give up on creatures who ask only for a place in the grass” (69).

But most of us don’t know about those creatures, let alone care about them, and their numbers are plummeting. Herriot thinks about William Spreadborough, a naturalist who travelled with naturalist-explorer John Macoun’s 1880 expedition across the northern plains. Spreadborough and Macoun kept notes about the vegetation and birds they saw. Their assignment, Herriot notes, “was to determine once and for all whether the grasslands between the forty-ninth parallel and what was then known as ‘the fertile belt’ (a band running south of the forest roughly from the North Saskatchewan River in Alberta to what is today southwestern Manitoba) were suitable for farming and settlement” (79). With his birding mentors, Stuart and Mary Houston, Herriot travelled the route Macoun and Spreadborough took through Saskatchewan. But even before they departed, a comparison of the range of species Spreadborough recorded, and the ones Herriot could see on the pastures where he goes to see and hear birds, was sobering:

I was sure that a patch that size would still be holding onto a relatively healthy bird community. After three mornings of good weather for birdsong, though, I had to face the truth: the pastures had a few Baird’s, savannah, and grasshopper sparrows, two or three pair of upland sandpipers, some meadowlarks and horned larks, and a handful of Sprague’s pipits. Not a single longspur, no burrowing owls, long-billed curlews, or shrikes. Once again, the birds that I depended on for a sense of home were losing their grip on the land. (80)

Following Macoun’s trail, which ran further south, closer to the birds’ breeding ranges, could take him “to grasslands where there were better numbers,” but he wanted to know why the birds closer to home were suffering (80). “On the trail of Macoun there would be the past, with its abundance and the irrevocable decision to hand the prairie over to ploughmen,” he writes. “But there would also be the present: human and ecological communities damaged by our engagement with the land, and farmers and biologists trying to make sense of it all. Looming over every fragment of wild grass, there would be a future no one talks about, a prairie where no birds sing” (80). Much of the second part of Grass, Sky, Song follows Herriot and the Houstons on their journey. 

Herriot has a sense of the miraculousness of these birds. Sprague’s pipits, for instance, make a sound that resembles what we might imagine a UFO would make as it flies—or, rather, plummets: “A male pipit comes to earth in a reckless freefall, an all-out wings-folded dive that must be seen to be believed” (86). The bird will fall hundreds of feet through the air, “plummeting toward the land in utter surrender to gravity,” and then, “at the last second, the pipit suddenly opens its wings, braking on the air and arcing gracefully to disappear into a tussock of spear grass” (86). “From bird to stone to bird again in a long line with a J-hook at the bottom, the pipit in this way stitches heaven and earth,” Herriot writes, “marking ever so lightly its small claim upon sky and grass” (86). Naturalists like Macoun and Spreadborough tended to miss these birds, though, because they are difficult to see (89-90). It wasn’t until a later expedition, in 1894, that they finally identified the bird making the strange noise they had been hearing (90). “All things considered, Macoun’s inability to see or hear the pipit is more symbolic than anything else,” Herriot writes. “He was, quite literally, the last naturalist to see the northern prairie as an uninterrupted sea of grass. Upon his return east, his recommendations sealed its fate, bringing the railway to the south and with it the ploughmen who began tearing at the ancient sod” (90).

Settlement had a dramatic and immediate effect on grassland birds. A.C. Bent, a field naturalist who travelled through southwestern Saskatchewan in 1905 and 1906 to study the area’s birds, noted that even during the two years of his study “‘the change was so striking as to indicate the passing away within the near future of nearly all the great breeding resorts of this interesting region’” (qtd. 88-89). The reason was cultivation—the ploughing under of the grassland by Settlers, and the conversion of that grassland to cereal agriculture—which was destroying the birds’ breeding grounds (89). Herriot imagines what might have been if Macoun had, “by some miracle seen the intrinsic value of vast stretches of natural grassland, had he even recommended it be used only as cattle pasture,” but he knows that “sooner or later the pressure to grow grain on every arable piece of land would have had its way” (90-91). Macoun, he continues, “was merely the instrument of a particular moment in history ordained by choices our civilization made long ago in taking up the plough” (91).

Herriot notes that he is not alone in his apprehension of the grassland as a place of sacred mystery. Ornithologist Stephen Davis, for instance, who works at the bird sanctuary at the northern end of Last Mountain Lake, reminds Herriot of grasshopper biologist Stephen Lockwood, who “talks about the need for reverence in his field research, and says that the prairie brings him to a kind of prayerfulness, in which he is forever petitioning for a question worthy of his life’s work” (92). I was moved by Herriot’s description of Lockwood’s essay, and I ordered it through interlibrary loan. It begins with a surprising statement: “I converse with grasshoppers” (Lockwood 14). Using recordings of grasshoppers, he would listen for their response “to decades of our blanketing the grasslands with broad-spectrum insecticides” (Lockwood 14). In doing so, Lockwood is developing a relationship of respect with these insects, typically reviled by farmers. “For an ecologist to relate to a prairie as a living being worthy of deep respect is to push the limits of modern science,” Lockwood admits. “I surely risk my professional credibility when I claim that I hear the creatures of the grasslands. Their speaking is neither literal nor metaphorical, but it is true in a way that transcends mere sensation and abstraction, reaching through and beyond the objective facts of ecology” (14). Moreover, Lockwood claims that he converses not only with grasshoppers but also with “the soil, grasses, and birds. I speak to the prairie and God answers. Well, sort of” (14). “The notion of transcendent ecology implies a complex relationship with the divine that can be troubling for both conventional science and theology,” Lockwood admits (14). He cites William James’s notion of divinity “as that which is enveloping and real, to which the individual responds solemnly and tenderly” (15). There’s another book I’m going to have to read, I think.

Lockwood suggests that “the hazards of excluding the divine from the scientific method are grave indeed,” and that by not “infusing scientific inquiry with meaning, we risk continued moral failure” (15). “For science to become a moral enterprise, it must subordinate itself to concerns that are larger than its own, concerns that cannot be heard without extending beyond its own limits of rationalism,” Lockwood continues. “If I can truly perceive biotic communities (including farms) as enveloping and real, if I can respond to ecosystems (including cities) with solemnity and tenderness, then my science is infused with the divine” (15). Practicing ecology might be a way of discovering “a gateway to the divine,” in which the ecologist “is guided—whether knowingly or unconsciously—into a dissolution of the self, of permanence, of separateness from the world” (16-17). “Ecological love is as much an act of humility as affection,” according to Lockwood:

The ecologist becomes mindfully connected to powers that shall never be comprehended or controlled. Like the mind of a lover, a grassland is complex beyond our capacity to imagine, let alone understand. Lovers and lands are forever mysterious, but they can be engaged and explored, touched and tended. We can enter into dialogue, find the right questions to ask, and thereby come to know more of both them and ourselves. (17)

But the love Lockwood feels is perhaps more than the analogy of a physical lover reveals, although he admits to having a passion for grasshoppers (19). “Upon returning to the grasslands after a winter of windchill and whiteness, I find myself engaged in a prayer of adoration,” he writes. “Walking through the brief blush of green in late May, searching fervently for early hatching of grasshoppers in order to delineate our field sites, it feels good to stop and be still. There is a rightness in lapsing into moments of hushed reverence, becoming keenly aware of the Place” (17). He experiences both ecstasy and objectivity in his work, and argues that “good science and deep prayer become a matter of seeing the essence of the world” (17). Lockwood describes himself as “a seminarian of the grasslands” (19).

For Herriot, scientists like Davis and Lockwood are like “the mendicants of old”: “their abbey is in the open air,” and they “beg questions not food, arming themselves to tend the mysteries of soil and leaf, grasshopper and bird” (92). Each question, he continues, “if it is worthy, is like a prayer, a respectful inquiry into a unity that will never yield enough answers to be completely possessed in the mind” (92). Of course, as a natural historian and avocational ornithologist, Herriot is one of those mendicants, I think; Grass, Sky, Song is the result of that kind of “respectful inquiry.” But along with that respect comes complicity, “for the millions of birds we sacrifice every year in the New World”:

in the south, where the coffee and banana plantations destroy millions of acres of rainforest, where slash-and-burn agriculture in the Amazon basin trades in the world’s richest avifauna for a few years of cheap beef, where the pampas of Patagonia are ploughed under and poisoned with pesticides long banned in northern nations; and here in Canada and the United States, where we do nothing to halt the commerce that drives destruction in the south, and where we continue to extract energy and resources, build our cities, and grow our food in ways that destroy marshes, grasslands, meadows, and forests. (96)

That destruction can be seen in the differences between the numbers of birds Spreadborough recorded and those Herriot sees. For instance, Spreadborough suggested that the chestnut-collared longspur was one of the most common birds around Indian Head, where Herriot’s country property is located; there are none living there today. The same is true of McCown’s longspurs, ferruginous hawks (now a threatened species in Canada), long-billed curlews, loggerhead shrikes, and burrowing owls (an endangered species) (101). “Other more resilient grassland species hang on for the time being,” he writes: Baird’s sparrows, grasshopper sparrows, Sprague’s pipits, Swainson’s hawks, bobolinks, short-eared owls, sharp-tailed grouse, horned larks, western meadowlarks, and upland sandpipers can still be found on the pastures south of Indian Head, “but roughly half of the grassland species that were common here in Spreadborough’s time have been extirpated from the area” (101-02). “We may find it hard to imagine the abundance of bird life that greeted prairie naturalists like Spreadborough—the fullness of song reigning over long miles of grass—but we are heading for a day when it will be hard for anyone to imagine that prairie skies were ever anything but silent,” he writes (102).

That vision of the future leads to the question of whether there is any hope. “By ‘hope’ most seem to mean the calculated odds of a particular strategy of program succeeding, as though we need to know whether our efforts will be rewarded before we commit ourselves to anything,” Herriot suggests. “This is a tawdry kind of hope masking a wider despair that keeps us mired in the status quo, averting our eyes form the carnage all around, shrugging off responsibility with a sighing, ‘Well, what can you do?’” (102). However, another kind of hope exists, “one that sees things as they are”:

It bears witness to the complicity encompassing not only the way we feed and house our families, how we travel and make a living, but the whole history of our civilization’s engagement with the landscape—sees all of it and then, without knowing outcomes, gets down to the good work of setting things back to right. 

In the community of bird conservationists you will sometimes meet people who live out this hope, enacting an altogether unjustifiable faith by lending their labour to study and advocacy that come with no guarantee of success. Over the years of work they become creatures as rare and astonishing as the ones they serve. (102)

For Herriot, his friends Stuart and Mary Houston are examples of such people. Would that there more more like them; would that the rest of us could overcome the despair that books like this one tend to engender, despite Herriot’s emphasis on hope, on the argument that the future he imagines has not yet arrived.

Macoun’s journey across the prairie took place 60 years after naturalist John Richardson’s similar trek. “In that interval the great bison multitudes had been reduced to a few scattered herds, which were to disappear entirely by 1890,” he writes. “[T]he loss of the prairie’s largest animal, still fresh in Macoun’s time, was written in every landscape” he and the Houstons passed through in 2005 (109). Herriot notes that Macoun’s journey took place in unusually wet years, while Captain John Palliser’s 1857 expedition took place during a dry decade and led him to the conclusion that the land was unfarmable (109). Macoun was determined to prove Palliser wrong, and he “maintained that the precipitation was adequate and the soil fertile” (109-10). The result was the destruction—or perhaps near destruction—of the grassland ecosystem. As a result, populations of grassland birds have been in decline for more than 50 years, since the first Breeding Bird Survey took place in 1966 (116-17). Herriot describes the graphs published on the BBS website, each one showing a line sloping downwards from left to right. “In the simplifying logic of a graph, any downward slope points towards a future zero, but with certain species that future appears to be shockingly imminent,” he writes (117). “For a naturalist faced with the diminishing beauty of a beloved world, the job of seeing does not end with counting one bird instead of twenty,” he argues. “Seeing means opening your eyes to witness the mechanism behind the horror; lifting the veil of our myths—from blaming to denial to despair—long enough to glimpse the disfigurement and decay for what it is” (119).

What is causing populations of grassland birds to fall so dramatically? Biologists don’t know. It can’t be habitat loss, because a lot of grassland was destroyed before the BBS counts began. “We continued to have some land conversion [ploughing native grassland] in the seventies and eighties, but not enough to account for the changes in bird population we’re seeing,” Davis told Herriot. “Like anything else in ecology, it’s probably a number of interrelated factors contributing to the decline” (125). Other bird researchers told Herriot the same thing:

bird decline is accelerating even though habitat loss has slowed down. No single factor is responsible. It’s a combination of the original habitat loss, abetted by improper grazing and management, including fire suppression, which brings on invasive plant species and shrubby growth. Then you can throw into the mix a few other factors: toxins in the environment, West Nile virus, urban sprawl, damage caused by energy-extraction industries, and the compounding effect of drought brought on by global climate change. Most if not all of these destructive forces are also present where grassland birds winter in the southern states, Mexico, and the South American grasslands. (125-26)

I was surprised by Herriot’s inclusion of West Nile virus in this list, but it may be an important factor in the decline of sage grouse populations (206). 

“The steep declines we see now may be ripples echoing from that primary catastrophe”—the destruction of most of the grassland when Settlers arrived (127). The result is a “barely functioning environment that has become unnaturally vulnerable to local and short-term weather events: a late-spring snowstorm, drought, flood” (127). Fragmented habitats have powerful effects on birds (127-29). Grassland birds “need enough habitat to maintain a neighbourhood and, what’s more, they need enough neighbours to provide a functioning community in which pair formation and mate choice can foster a healthy, stable population” (130). A fragmented habitat, in which pieces of remaining grassland have a “high ratio of edge to interior,” will give an advantage to predators, “but when a community of longspurs has dwindled down to a lone male singing out to the sky, predation, food supply, disease, climate, and all the other limiting factors that play into population dynamics of grassland birds do not tell the whole story,” Herriot writes. “The very suddenness of the collapse may simply be a matter of females giving up on the pasture and moving out to a place with a larger population of males to choose from” (130). As that happens, population declines will accelerate (130). “That may sound bleak,” Herriot admits, “but discovering the reason why birds disappear from seemingly suitable habitat is a vital step toward knowing which fragments are the most important to conserve, as well as what must be done to restore, expand, and maintain the right mix of habitat within and between fragments so that a diversity of bird communities will be able to thrive” (130).

Recent innovations in farming which “depend on heavy herbicide use and larger machinery,” are making the situation worse (135). “These new weed control and seeding techniques, which now dominate conventional agriculture on the prairie, are having an indirect but very real effect upon a guild of grassland birds that until recently were thriving on and around cultivated farmland,” Herriot writes (135). Those species, more adaptive than others “and therefore able to subsist in the weedy margins of cropland,” include some waterfowl and raptors, and songbirds like the barn swallow, horned lark, savannah sparrow, western meadowlark, and bobolink; populations of all of these species have been in precipitous decline since 1980 (135-36). Stuart Houston told Herriot that the changes in farming he has seen during his long life—“the shift from human-scaled farming to industrialized agribusiness, with the labour of people and animals supplanted entirely by petrochemical-intensive machinery, fertilizer, and insect and weed control”—are “driving farmland birds from the prairie” (136). Road allowances—those sixty-six-foot-wide strips of land where roads would go if they were ever constructed—used to be left to grass, and meadowlarks and other species would be left with places to feed and nest as a result. “But now, with the cost-price squeeze farmers are under, they need to maximize and seed every inch of land so even the road allowances are under crop,” Houston stated. “And where there are roads on an allowance, the crop goes right to the edge of the road” (136). Practices like zero-tillage, which rely on herbicides and applications of artificial sources of nitrogen such as anhydrous ammonia, allow farmers to improve the fertility and productivity of their land “without having to rest it as summerfallow or keep animals for manure” (137). But the specialized equipment needed for zero-tillage means farmers have to crop several sections of land. The expenses involved—new machinery, fuel and chemicals, and land—“force more farmers out of business every year and drive those who remain on the land to increase the scale and ‘efficiency’ of their operations” (139). “These pressures lead to further changes in farming methods that, taken together with continuous cropping, are creating a landscape that is becoming hostile to any life form that does not contribute directly to the bottom line,” Herriot notes (139).

“Meanwhile, a lot of bird habitat on the edges of fields, aspen bluffs, sloughs, and rocky hilltops is being ploughed under in the efficiency compromise that happens when you have to manoeuvre large equipment around obstacles,” he continues. “Conservationists shake their heads when they see a farmer bulldozing bush, filling a slough, or levelling a grassy ridge, but the economics of large-scale grain farming have turned any natural land in the path of machinery into a drain on cash” (140). Together, all of these practices are “a net loss for wildlife despite the benefits they may bring in soil and water retention and in providing nesting cover for a few ducks,” and “these new agricultural practices are eliminating some of the last vestiges of habitat within and around cropland” (141). In addition, nobody really knows what the effects of herbicides, pesticides, and chemical fertilizers might be on the soil—on “the small living things it contains, the microbes that everything else depends on”—or “the insects and other creatures the next level up” (141). Glyphosate herbicides in particular have toxic effects on soil microbiology (141-42). “It may be decades before we know what glyphosate and other chemicals are doing to the overall health of the prairie, but I know what I have seen as the land around Regina has been given over to zero-till practices,” Herriot writes. “Yes, it is ‘merely anecdotal,’ but where I once saw meadowlarks and vesper sparrows on the edges of every field and McCown’s longspurs and horned larks singing above black summerfallow, the land today is alarmingly empty and silent” (142). 

All of this constitutes what an ornithologist working for the provincial government once described to Herriot as “‘a pathology in the landscape’” (142):

Not naming or even describing that pathology in any way keeps the peace in a place where agriculture provides the founding myth of our very entitlement to the land. That foundation spans the moral divide between what farmers want to do (grow food and make a living) and how they do it (with industrial technologies, methods, and marketing systems), convincing them that they have a responsibility to “feed the world,” that the land is properly to be used as its owner sees fit, and that nature is an obstacle, or at best a fringe benefit of farm life. (142-43)

“Hidden by that founding myth, a malignancy threatens the very wholeness and health of the prairie,” Herriot continues. “Its causes are multiple and masked by a complex interplay that compounds their effect. No one can say conclusively how it operates, and the most insidious factor in the pathology is also the most difficult to bring into the light of day” (143).

The word “malignancy” is deliberate, because the next chapter discusses Herriot’s wife Karen’s experience with breast cancer, an illness she shared with many farm women. The farmers in the hospital waiting room talked about the insecticides they were using to kill pests in their fields; the women were wondering about the effects of all of those chemicals. “I felt like I was watching a badly written docudrama on pesticides and cancer,” Herriot recalls. “There were the two sides in front of me: the men who believe the chemicals are harmless and the women who are not so sure. I decided I was not so sure, either” (152). 

The freefall in the populations of grassland birds, Herriot continues, began after 1987. The 1980s were a bad time for farming on the prairie, a time of low prices and drought. In 1985, plagues of grasshoppers devastated grain crops. The response: spraying pesticides. “It was 1987 before I heard anyone suggest that burrowing owls and perhaps other birds were being hurt by grasshopper sprays that were popular at the time,” he remembers. “Burrowing owls, like sage grouse and loggerhead shrikes, eat larger grasshoppers and, in particular, feed their young a lot of grasshoppers” (155). The pesticides that farmers used in their war against the grasshoppers, Herriot suggests, were part of a war on “nature itself” (155). Provincial governments provided rebates to help farmers poison grasshoppers. In Saskatchewan, the provincial minister of agriculture assured his citizens that almost every inch of public land would be sprayed with grasshopper poison, including highways, ditches, railway rights-of-way, road allowances, and provincially operated community pastures (156). Farmers sprayed places that had nothing to do with crop production, such as pastures, on the grounds that they were breeding grounds for grasshoppers (156). 

“As I read through the history of the grasshopper outbreak and the accounts of pastures being sprayed—some entirely, others only at the margins—I thought about the pipits, sparrows, longspurs, owls, and shrikes using that land and feeding tainted grasshoppers to their nestlings,” Herriot writes (157). One of the most popular grasshopper poisons was carbofuran, a powerful neurotoxin (157). “A quarter teaspoon of the liquid form is enough to kill a human being,” he notes; “a single grain of the granular form will kill a songbird” (157). The granules of carbofuran are the same size as the grit birds swallow to help with their digestion (157). A document prepared for Agriculture Canada reported that a single cornfield in Utah was treated with carbofuran; researchers found 479 dead horned larks in those 160 acres, and “[t]he median number of granules in the birds’ gizzards was two” (158). That field, Herriot notes, was just one “out of the millions of acres of canola on the northern Great Plains treated with carbofuran to protect against flea beetles—in addition to the millions of acres treated to kill grasshoppers” (158). “When Canada’s Pesticide Management Regulatory Agency (PMRA) finally got around to searching for carcasses on sample fields and extrapolating the results, the estimated annual kill of songbirds on prairie farms was staggering,” he continues—as many as one million birds every year (158). Meanwhile the liquid form of carbofuran “was killing birds and reducing nest success throughout the region” (158). 

Granular carbofuran was finally phased out in the 1990s, and the liquid form was banned for some but not all applications (159). Supplies remain on farmers’ shelves, though, in case the grasshoppers return—not surprisingly, “there has not been a major outbreak since the 1980s” (159). “Meanwhile, other highly toxic insecticides remain on the market, registered by the very American and Canadian agencies that originally approved carbofuran despite the manufacturer’s own supervised field trials in which at least forty-five species of birds died,” Herriot writes (159). One chemical, terbufos, is half as lethal as carbofuran, which means that only half of birds die after ingesting a single grain of that poison (159). “Eating two grains of terbufos evens the score, yet until 2004 it remained a registered pesticide legal for use on canola where migrating flocks of longspurs, horned larks, and sparrows congregate to feed in spring,” he points out (159). In addition, “songbirds often eat the small canola seed itself, which, until recently, was treated with another powerful chemical, lindane,” an “older, very persistent toxin that has made its way around the globe by travelling in the atmosphere. It can now be found in water in the remotest regions of the Arctic. It occurs in everything form polar bear fat to human breast milk, and has been linked to breast cancer” (159-60). Lindane was deregistered in Canada as a treatment for canola seed in 2001, but the manufacturer, Crompton Corporation, appealed (160). Herriot notes that it took almost 20 years to get carbofuran partially deregistered, partly because the PMRA and other agencies exist to assist the processes of conventional agriculture—but they aren’t alone in their responsibility: “For every scientist who says he is just doing his research, there are hundreds of farmers who will say they are just growing food, and millions of consumers who will say they are just buying and eating it” (161). “I thought again about the risk-benefit trade-off that secures our modern comforts, the gamble we forget but which comes to mind whenever someone is diagnosed with cancer,” Herriot continues. “I began to feel for the first time that the gamble is not mine to make or unmake on my own. In effect, government agencies are quietly rolling the dice on my behalf, justifying the risk of cancer and the killing of birds and other creatures to ensure that high-yield agriculture continues on its inexorable path” (161). 

That form of agriculture exists to make sure that food prices are low: “This is the moral compromise that since World War II has kept us going to the supermarket and the restaurant instead of to the garden or the cold room. If it has brought us any security, it is the dubious sense of ease that goes with having been liberated from our responsibility for the quality of our engagement with the earth” (162). Herriot notes that one document he discovered calculated crop losses and additional costs to farmers of $17 million per year if farmers were prevented from using carbofuran (163). Not surprisingly, the millions of birds killed by the pesticide were not assigned a dollar value (163); they were mere externalities, as I learned in my first-year economics course. “I felt as if I had been fogged by an elaborate smokescreen of reasonability that showed costs and benefits being carefully balanced, but obscured the cold truth no one wants to face,” Herriot writes: “specifically, that human beings receive the benefits by enjoying relatively cheap food grown by a few farmers who do the dirty work on our behalf, while the real costs are borne entirely by the wild creatures we keep out of sight and out of mind” (163). He admits that he is one of those consumers who depends “on industrialized systems to grow, process, package, and deliver much of my food, taking advantage of the big machine that keeps agricultural decision making in the boardrooms and laboratories of people who can legitimately claim to be serving the public interest by ensuring food systems security” (164). However, he continues, “[b]eyond the smokescreen of pesticide review, we all have to answer for the agriculture that is destroying the grasslands of this continent and contaminating our food” (164). Without that kind of agriculture, more of us “would have to be willing to leave the city to grow food” (165). 

The near extinction of burrowing owls is one of the legacies of the use of carbofuran. “Before the crash in the 1990s, the level plains south of Moose Jaw and southwest of Regina still had good numbers of burrowing owls in colonies ranging from two to twenty-five pairs each,” he recalls (165). Then they disappeared. During his 2005 trip with the Houstons, Herriot learned that much of the land where the burrowing owls had nested had been cultivated and planted to crops. Despite programs intended to facilitate their return, they appeared to be gone for good. Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, a book about the effects on birds of one particular pesticide, DDT, was published in 1962, the year before I was born. We seem to have taken the wrong lesson from that book: not that pesticides are destructive and kill forms of life other than those they are aimed at, but that DDT itself was the problem. Indeed, DDT was a problem, but so are carbofuran, lindane, and the rest of the horrors Herriot describes in Grass, Sky, Song.

One retired geologist who has been surveying birds on a BBS route told Herriot that the disappearance of grassland birds might just be part of the planet’s sixth extinction. “Geologists take the long view,” he told Herriot. “The earth has had big extinctions before. This could be another one. No one knows for sure” (171). “I had been hoping for a more encouraging response, but I appreciated his candour,” Herriot writes. “At least he is out there looking and listening. There are naturalists on the prairie who would rather avoid the unpleasantness of grassland bird decline altogether. After a few depressing outings at increasingly silent pastures, birdwatchers just stop going. There is more to see in the city with its artificial woodlands and wetlands” (171). 

Herriot talked to an entomologist, Dan Johnson, who is the Canada Research Chair in Sustainable Grassland Ecosystems at the University of Lethbridge. He pointed out that there are many species of grasshoppers, many of which don’t affect crops, and noted that he was trying to educate farmers to distinguish between destructive and benign grasshoppers (172). After a career at Agriculture Canada, Johnson felt freer in a university setting, but it was difficult to get funding for his research: “Agribusiness is not interested in studying the effects of farming on grassland ecologies, and Agriculture Canada is reluctant to sponsor any program not endorsed by the industry” (173). Johnson told Herriot, however, that he has been able to study the way pesticides affect “non-target species,” such as grassland birds (174). “This got my attention,” Herriot writes, “along with some research he has been doing on the ‘sublethal’ and indirect effects of pesticides”:

For many years I have been hearing from the anti-pesticide lobby that one of the great shortcomings of the PMRA and its American counterpart in the Environmental Protection Agency is that when they study the risks of a pesticide, they restrict themselves entirely to direct and lethal effects. If sixty-three sage grouse die in a small Idaho alfalfa field sprayed with dimethoate, as they did in 1986, the kill gets duly noted. Meanwhile, several hundred more sage grouse and other animals in the area may fail to breed successfully; their young may die at unusually high rates before fledging; both young and adults may become more vulnerable to predators for a period; they may experience a serious disruption in their endocrine and immune systems; and all of these effects may be compounded by the chemical’s conjunction with other toxins in the environment. Some or all of this may happen, but no one notices. Long-term population decay caused by pesticides is never even considered by the approving agencies, let alone studied. (174-75)

“There are reasons for this omission,” Herriot continues:

Sublethal effects and population decline from pesticide use are notoriously difficult to prove, especially with modern chemicals that break down faster than first-generation organophosphates such as DDT and dieldrin. Dan told me that a bird can die of poisoning but show no trace of the chemical that killed it, unless the carcass is found quickly. Even so, the dose required to kill is many times greater for the modern, fast-degrading poisons used today. (175)

And yet, it seems fair to assume that the chemicals currently on the market “have some serious sublethal effects on birds who eat contaminated insects or who are sprayed directly”:

Summer is short and the life of a prairie bird is unforgiving. One or two days of impairment—the typical dizziness, nausea, blurred vision, and shaking caused by these pesticides—might be enough to give a predator the upper hand or to chill neglected nestlings in cool or wet weather. (175)

In addition, we have no idea what long-term exposure to these chemicals will do to a bird’s endocrine function or immunology (175). We don’t know what such exposures do to humans, let alone other creatures:

No one is studying what happens to the health and reproductivity of birds after officially approved farm chemicals go through their bodies, which are already carrying a load of the same cocktail of DDT, PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyls), lindane, benzene, and other persistent wonders of modern chemistry known to be causing tumours int he one species with access to cancer treatment facilities. (176)

Then there are the indirect effects of herbicides and pesticides, Herriot continues: “Eliminating the insects and weeds that birds use as food and habitat is the most obvious direct effect, but what are farm chemicals doing at the foundation of prairie life, where soil microbes create mysterious webs of interrelationship with invertebrate and plant communities that we cannot begin to comprehend?” (176).

If we are going “to choose technologies worthy of our goal of feeding ourselves without passing on undue costs to grassland communities,” we need to consider these sublethal and indirect effects (176). However, the results of the research have been inconclusive, partly because “there are limits to what science can say conclusively about cause and effect within chaotic systems” (176). “Science is good at proposing reductive, linear, cause-and-effect scenarios and at making predictions that can be tested under laboratory conditions,” Herriot writes. “Yet most scientists know that at some level this is all a charade. The actual, multi-dimensional mystery in which birds live, rear their young, and die is nothing like a laboratory, and the very act of eliminating factors guessed to be extraneous to the question at hand renders the results suspect” (176-77). Unlike a laboratory, “[e]cosystems are borderless, chaotic, and ultimately unfathomable” (177). “Do I want to rely entirely on technology for my wisdom, my judgment, my understanding of what it means to be alive?” Herriot asks. “Should I expect science on its own to regulate the relationships I believe to be holy—between the individual and the community, between the body and the earth, between creatures and the rest of Creation?” (178). 

“Science provides some of the testimony, gathering the evidence of bird decline and examining the mechanisms of decay and dysfunction in a species’ population,” Herriot writes,

but if we choose a comfortable blindness over moral courage, the data, no matter how impressive, cannot make us see. Beneath the aspirations of biology, of all science, there is the power of a deeper way of knowing, a knowledge that has intuitive and moral dimensions too important to abandon merely because science is unable to provide incontrovertible evidence. Each of us knows that it is not good to kill creatures wantonly. Each of us knows that it is not good to pour poison on the land that feeds us. Any child can tell you these truths. (181).

“We have made this land and ourselves unhealthy, justifying immoral means—pesticides and other abuses of the earth—by pointing to the ends: high-yield agriculture, low-cost food, and the economic growth these offer,” he continues. “Questions worth the intelligence and time of our biologists and ecologists would fall out of the larger moral questions we have been avoiding as we push the prairie towards its own lethal-dose rating. How do we live within the limits of the prairie? What can we do to restore our health and the health of the land that welcomed our ancestors?” (181).

Herriot is not interested in assigning blame, however. After the Macoun trip, he recalls, “I had lost the knack for blaming the ‘agri-industrial complex’ and the comfort that comes with being able to point at something specific and say, ‘This is what is destroying the land’” (212-13). Instead of such misplaced certainty, he continues, “was the sad confusion of history, imperfectly recollected and interpreted, the inadequacy of science, and a hunger for ways of knowing that we are worthy of this land” (213). He recalls a visit to an abandoned homestead, where he thought about what drove those Settlers from the land, and the failure of the myths of settlement that have shaped the Settler imaginary (214). “Seven thousand years of living with the grassland and its creatures has been sacrificed to make way for a civilization that skins the earth alive,” he laments. “Like most people, I can only take small draughts of my anterior responsibility for that founding sacrifice, my ancestral connection to it, and my continuing benefit from it” (214-15). “In the end, the trail of our exploring and colonizing testifies that everything in nature that suffers from human agency is a victim of our desire to accuse the other and deflect blame from ourselves,” he continues (217). We blame nature, we blame the land, we blame each other—everything except ourselves: “The sooner we admit that we have all been living off the avails of the original violence done to these plains, the sooner we might begin to accept that we have to learn new ways of drawing life from a land where grass likes to grow” (217). I think that’s true, but that phrasing downplays the fact that part of that “original violence” was the dispossession of Indigenous peoples, who by and large have not profited from the destruction of the grassland, by Settlers, the way that Settlers have done. I know that Herriot is aware of this fact, and I’m not criticizing his desire to move from accusation to community, but I wonder how difficult that kind of move would prove to be. Indeed, as I read this book, I wondered why Indigenous peoples don’t express a more certain hatred for Settlers—not only for what we have done to them (residential schools, deliberate starvation, the Pass System, incarceration, the apprehension of children) as for what we have done to the land that sustained them for so many thousands of years. 

Herriot believes that if we step away from blaming each other, we might discover “a humble re-entry into community and creation. There is a healing, gathering force in grassland, and in all natural landscapes, that can bring us together into a circle of shared responsibility for one another and for the health of other beings” (218). The land doesn’t require our management—in fact, it resists our attempts to manage it—but it asks “that we receive and honour it as an invitation to set aside our orientation toward death so that we might open ourselves to participate in the livelihood of this place. Were we ever to undergo such a transformation, imagine what might be achieve in us, breathed into us, quickened and declared in the life we draw from prairie” (218-19).

The last section of the book sets out to provide readers with some sense of hope that all is not lost. “I want to believe that if enough people are moved by the faithfulness of grassland birds, by the way they continue to follow the promptings in their blood to make more of ourselves, we might find ways to lay out a proper reception for them, to spread a banquet of grassland as near as possible to the original bounty prepared by the traditional masters: buffalo, fire, soil, and weather,” he writes. “It would begin with protecting all the different kinds of native grassland we have, restoring them to health, and then making room for a lot more grass, the closer to native the better” (229). Note the conditional phrasing of this desire; I could be wrong, but I sense a struggle between hope and despair in this part of the book. Herriot does point to efforts to protect and restore grassland: the Old Man on His Back Plateau in southwestern Saskatchewan (229), Grasslands National Park (230), the scientists working towards these goals (230-31), the Northern Mixed Grass Transboundary Conservation Initiative (231), the popularity of bison as food (232), the possibility that consumers might purchase grass-fed beef as a way of protecting grassland bird habitat (232). The growing importance of Indigenous people is another sign of hope, particularly if they are able “to bring something of the ethics, grounded wisdom, and reverence of their traditions into modern economics and agriculture,” which would “help us all to discern what kind of prairie we want to leave our children and grandchildren” (237). Some farmers in areas with lighter soils, he continues, are seeding cropland back to native grass, although rising grain prices would put a stop to that movement (and probably have) (238-39). Herriot acknowledges that there are considerable obstacles facing these possibilities, but suggests that “[t]he two sides, of opportunities on the one side and obstacles on the other, hang in a rough and uneasy balance that may shift in the coming years” (241). 

One initiative he praises is the Longspur Prairie Bison and Beef cooperative, a group “made up of private landowners, consumers, livestock producers,” and the Carry-the-Kettle Nakoda First Nation, which is restoring grassland, in part through the efforts of people who join the coop and exchange labour for meat (251-53). The cooperative’s work gives Herriot hope. “To live in honest hope is to live well in your own body, in your family, in your community, and in the land that feeds you,” he writes. “It begins in sensuous contact with the world as you find it—whole and broken, familiar and strange, resilient and imperilled. From there, hope feeds advocacy, the passionate defence of the life beloved, and that experience inevitably leads to an encounter with the forces, inside others and yourself, that threaten to bring you crashing back to earth” (253-54). Hope can survive that fall “by joining itself to a wider forgiveness and becoming something more grounded,” he continues (254). “If I eat and take for the earth in ways that keep faith with it, I replenish myself and the earth in the same movement,” he concludes. “The truth of this harmony eludes us most days but lives within every small gesture of forbearance, generosity, and care, from the decision to eat healthy and local food to the farmer who sets aside his pesticides for the last time” (254). We need to become more like our prairie surroundings: “Listen. The grass accuses no one, the sky bears no grudge, and the song—forsaken, repudiated, still waiting to be received—is a timeless benediction welcoming us into a freedom, a community, and a landscape that may yet bring us home” (255).

hope in the dark

I want to believe in the hope with which Herriot ends his book, although at the same time I find myself overwhelmed by the story he tells about carbofuran and other poisons and their effects, and I am prone, for good reasons and bad, to see darkness and futility where others see light and possibility. So I turn to a book I read, or at least started to read, a year ago, Rebecca Solnit’s Hope in the Dark: Untold Histories, Wild Possibilities. “It’s important to say what hope is not,” Solnit writes: “it is not the belief that everything was, is, or will be fine. The evidence is all around us of tremendous suffering and tremendous destruction” (xiii). Instead, she says, “[t]he hope I’m interested in is about broad perspectives with specific possibilities, ones that invite or demand that we act. It’s also not a sunny everything-is-getting-better narrative, though it may be a counter to the everything-is-getting-worse narrative. You could call it an account of complexities and uncertainties, with openings” (xiii-xiv). “Hope locates itself in the premises that we don’t know what will happen and that in the spaciousness of uncertainty is room to act,” she contends. “When you recognize uncertainty, you recognize that you may be able to influence the outcomes—you alone or in concert with a few dozen or several million others. Hope is an embrace of the unknown and the unknowable, an alternative to the certainty of both optimists and pessimists” (xiv).

Hope, Solnit continues, is “the belief that what we do matters even though how and when it may matter, who and what it may impact, are not things we can know beforehand. We may not, in fact, know them afterward either, but they matter all the same, and history is full of people whose influence was most powerful after they were gone” (xiv). She quotes the theologian Walter Brueggeman: “Memory produces hope in the same way that amnesia produces despair” (qtd. xix). “It’s an extraordinary statement, one that reminds us that though hope is about the future, grounds for hope lie in the records and recollections of the past,” she states (xix). We can tell a story about incessant defeat and loss, or one about a golden age now lost, “or we can tell a more complicated and accurate story, one that has room for the best and worst, for atrocities and liberations, for grief and jubilation. A memory commensurate to the complexity fo the past and the whole cast of participants, a memory that includes our power, produces that forward-directed energy called hope” (xix). Amnesia, on the other hand, forgets the progress that has been made, the changes that have taken place (xix). “One of the essential aspects of depression is the sense that you will always be mired in this misery, that nothing can or will change,” she suggests. “There’s a public equivalent to private depression, a sense that the nation or the society rather than the individual is stuck. Things don’t always change for the better, but they change, and we can play a role in that change if we act. Which is where hope comes in , and memory, the collective memory we call history” (xix). 

Perhaps I need to reread Solnit’s book, and to take the hope Herriot searches for in the last section of Grass, Sky, Song seriously. It’s hard to imagine, say, conventional agriculture moving away from its reliance on poison. But anything can happen. Two weeks ago, I would have said that it was impossible to imagine, for instance, the NFL saying that was wrong for it to refuse to allow players like Colin Kaepernick to protest, too, and that’s happened (“Colin Kaepernick”). Solnit’s point seems to be that the future is unwritten, and that hope is an acceptance of the possibilities that idea implies. I need to hold onto that, especially when I look at the destructions wrought by Settlers on this place and its inhabitants. 

Works Cited

“Colin Kaepernick: How the NFL Made Its U-Turn.” BBC Sport, 6 June 2020.

Herriot, Trevor. Grass, Sky, Song: Promise and Peril and the World of Grassland Birds, HarperCollins, 2009.

Lockwood, Jeffrey. “Prayerful Science.” Earthlight: Journal for Ecological and Spiritual Living, no. 52, 2005, 14-19.

Sawatsky, Katy Doke. “The State of Native Prairie in Saskatchewan,”, 1 October 2018.

Solnit, Rebecca. Hope in the Dark: Untold Histories, Wild Possibilities, 3rd edition, Haymarket, 2016.

Walking to the Canadian Pacific Intermodal Yard


I head west again. I’m trying out a different route today, walking south of the airport rather than north. I leave the house and startle a pair of mourning doves in the alley. A bold robin issues a challenge. In a sunny corner, ostrich ferns are poking out of a planting of juniper. There are signs of gardening everywhere, a side-effect of the pandemic. A passing driver smiles at me. Near the pedestrian bridge, I say hello to our neighbours, Brian and Judy. A cyclist is waiting at the other end of the bridge for me to finish crossing. I continue walking south. Thick drifts of elm seeds lie beside the curb. The sound of hammering echoes from both sides of the street; the pandemic is a time to renovate. A girl wearing a red bikini pulls the cord to start a lawn mower. In the playing field behind Lakeview School, little kids are playing a game together, cheered on by one supervising adult. Is this one of the few daycares still operating during the pandemic?



In the front yard of a house, someone has built a small dirt track for mountain bikes; there are banked curves and moguls. I hear more hammering; an addition is being built onto the back of this house. A Bobcat waits silently in the backyard. Across the street, a leaf blower cuts through the quiet. A dog barks. I turn a corner and walk down an alley. A family cycles past. Two yellow warblers fly between the garages. A wheelie bin has been bandaged with gaffer tape. A plastic fence is broken, and a ruffled crow perches on a telephone line. A lawn is covered in dandelions; their seed heads are white in the sun. I walk past a fence, which smells like stained pine. Next door, I notice a curious homemade trailer, built around an upturned rowboat, as if someone had been inspired by the Peggotty house in David Copperfield. It has a flat tire. A man who smells like hand sanitizer walks past.



I’m crossing at an intersection when I’m almost hit by a jeep; its driver isn’t paying any attention. He sneers, as if I’m to blame for his carelessness. A grey partridge scuttles across a lawn. A flock of grackles scolds a crow. Down the street, a pink pool noodle has been wrapped around the trunk of an ash tree on the boulevard. The sidewalk ends, and I start walking on the edge of the road, past empty playing fields and beach volleyball courts at the Rugby Club. Next to Lewvan Drive, a meadowlark is singing.



It was calm earlier this morning, but now the wind is stronger and I’m walking right into it. Billboards, perhaps damaged by the strong winds, speak gibberish: “Now selling the final PhD.” Unifor members are picketing outside the big Co-op supermarket, and I stop to chat with one of them. I ask how long the lockout has been going on: six months. “I’ll never shop there again,” I say. “It’s no longer a cooperative,” the picketer replies. “It’s just another corporation.” I wish him good luck, and keep walking. A rabbit runs across the road, dodging traffic; in a vacant lot, it examines a stack of plastic sewer pipes and then hops away. Unconvincing plastic boulders have been placed in front of a new apartment building. A black pickup speeds past and makes a careless left turn. The sidewalk ends and I turn to walk down Campbell Street, a gravel road at the western edge of the Harbour Landing development. On the horizon, a red semi glides silently along the Regina Bypass. I walk past a farm. The road has been sprayed with oil here, to cut down on the dust from passing vehicles; there is a strong smell of tar. A rooster crows. The fields next to the road look like they haven’t yet been planted; are they about to be developed? A barn swallow flies low across the road. One of the native sage species—artemisia ludoviciana—is growing in the ditch. Gophers whistle and a killdeer cries. Birds sing in the windbreak around the farm; I smell lilacs but don’t see any.



The road makes a hard left turn to skirt the south side of the airport. A city worker is sleeping in her idling truck. A meadowlark flutes beyond the airport fence. A tiny plane lifts into the air. I stop to look at a roadside memorial shrine: a stone cross; plastic flowers, animals, and birds; a beer glass; and one boot. I taste the dust raised by passing trucks. To the north, past the airport, a train sounds its horn: a long line of containers, heading west. At Courtney Street, the road is marked as Hill Avenue. The airport ends. The city ends. To the south, Courtney Street becomes a dirt road; a sign informs me that it’s “impassable when wet.” That’s not really a concern this dry spring. The fields on either side of the road have been seeded. There’s a farm ahead, and I hear an angry dog barking. Is it tied up? I hope so. Signs at the end of the driveway warn passersby to beware of the dog, but now it has fallen silent. Shrubs in the shelterbelt around the old farmhouse are in bloom; I look at their pink and white blossoms and wonder what they are.



I’m getting closer to the Regina Bypass. I see the bridge over the highway that I’ve crossed so many times. The Westerra development is on the northern horizon. I see a sign marking the old Center Road; before the Bypass was constructed, this was the corner where I would turn towards the village of Pense, 25 kilometres west. A meadowlark is singing nearby. Beyond the Bypass, I can see the big white Loblaw’s warehouse at the Global Transportation Hub. I pause to drink some water. Over the rushing wind, I can hear trucks on the highway. To the north, an eastbound train is hauling potash.




I cross the Bypass and trudge west. I can see stacks of containers in the Canadian Pacific Intermodal Yard. A pile of ashes lies beside the road. I turn north at Range Road 2210—otherwise known as Fleming Road—another dirt road that would turn to mud when it rains. This place is grimly unattractive; the fallow fields on either side of the road are the same colour as the dirt road I’m walking on. A dusty robin hops around. “tânisi, pihpihicêw,” I say. At the intermodal yard, I can see two large forklifts—they’re called “container handlers,” according to Google—jockeying containers around. A truck honks its horn, and the forklifts beep loudly as they carry their burdens from one place to another. They are tall and ungainly looking machines; they lift the containers from the top, using a giant claw. The constant beeping noises must drive their operators crazy. Without gantries, the Canadian Pacific Intermodal Yard looks temporary, even fly-by-night; there probably isn’t enough traffic here to justify the expense of building gantries. Containers are stacked three-high in a long line beside the railway tracks. There is a line of empty flatcars on a siding. A fence at the end of the road deters but doesn’t block access to the yard; I could easily walk around it, cross the tracks, and wander into the yard. A sign on the fence warns of video surveillance. I sit on a concrete barrier dropped in the road to deter drivers from getting too close to the yard and eat the apple I’ve brought. A red-winged blackbird trills and I hear another meadowlark. One of the forklifts drops a container onto a truck trailer with a screeching noise. I wonder what’s in those containers, whether they are full or empty, coming or going. There’s no way to tell from here. Trucks are picking up loads, then driving off. I try to record the sound of the yard, but it’s too windy, and I end up with nothing but a low rumbling noise. The forklifts move to a different part of the yard, and it becomes surprisingly quiet; the sound of the machinery blends in with the wind and the birds. The sun is warm. It’s peaceful.




Then the forklifts move back closer to me, and the spell is broken. I drink more water, then turn to retrace my steps. My legs are stiff after my rest, as always. I notice wells for testing ground water. Discarded bottles of coloured dye suggest there’s been some kind of Easter egg party here. To the south, traffic is moving silently on Highway 1. I turn east. The only sounds are the wind and my feet on the gravel road. I can see the city on the horizon, with the Bypass in the foreground. A raven hovers on the wind. Two pairs of mourning doves fly up from the ditch, their wings squeaking, followed by a pair of grey partridges. I walk across the overpass. A police car speeds past, lights flashing and siren screaming. I hear another meadowlark. A flock of red-winged blackbirds is singing in an overgrown dugout. There are so many of them; every slough and dugout has its own population. I surprise a pair of ducks, which splash into the air. I cross the Canadian Pacific tracks. A towmotor is grumbling in the yard at Brandt Industries. I pick up a quartz crystal from the shoulder—discarded, perhaps, because its medicinal powers were exaggerated. An abandoned shoe lies next to the road. A plastic bag in a dry slough moves in the wind like a wounded bird.




Nicholas Luard, The Field of the Star, and Alicia Elliott, A Mind Spread Out On the Ground

When the pandemic began, I began finding it difficult to finish books. I would start reading something and then get distracted and put it aside. I just didn’t have the concentration to read anything longer than an article in The Guardian or The New Yorker. It was surprising, and worrying, and I suddenly found myself wondering if I was sharing this experience with my students, many of whom find reading books next to impossible. Attention spans have changed, it seems, and although I’m no expert on the phenomenon, I would guess that those changes are related to the ubiquity of ways of getting information and entertainment other than reading books. Like anything else, reading books takes practice; the more books one reads, the easier reading books becomes.

In any case, as the stress of the pandemic’s first days has receded, I’ve found myself able to read books again. In the past couple of days, I’ve finished two very different books: Nicholas Luard’s The Field of the Star, an account of a walk on the Camino Francés in the early 1990s, and Alicia Elliott’s collection of autobiographical essays, A Mind Spread Out On the Ground. Little connects these books, or their authors, except my interests in walking, pilgrimage, and colonialism, and one formal quality that might hold true for most memoirs that are worth reading.

field of the star

The Field of the Star is, as I suggested, Luard’s 1998 account of a 1,000 mile walk from Le Puy, France, to Santiago de Compostela, Spain, on the Camino de Santiago or, in France, Le chemin de St. Jacques. I ran across a mention of this book in The Vintage Book of Walking, edited by Duncan Minshull—one of the books I started in the pandemic’s early days and then put down—and the excerpt I read was so compelling that I decided to read the book from which it was taken. That excerpt doesn’t appear until the very end of Luard’s memoir, in an appendix that gives advice to those who would embark on a long journey on foot:

Give your feet tender loving care both before you begin and along the Way. The soles, the heels and front pads don’t need to be hard. Paradoxically as it may seem, hard feet on a long tramp are a hazard—the skin tends to crack and bleed. What one needs is an underpinning of skin that is soft and supple, that can bend with the rocks and absorb their impact. The best way to achieve it is with lavish applications of a good lanolin cream. (237)

That’s pretty good advice, and although I have no idea where to find “a good lanolin cream,” I have used both petroleum jelly and Vick’s Vaporub on my feet with good results. But that advice is only a tiny part of Luard’s book. The bulk of it is an account of his journey, which he undertook with his sister, Priscilla, and his sister’s friend Hillary, over three years. They are part-time pilgrims, according to Nancy Louise Frey’s definition, walking for a couple of weeks at a time when they can free themselves of other obligations, rather than making the entire journey in one go (see Frey 20). That journey is juxtaposed against the reason Luard is walking to Santiago—his eldest daughter, Francesca, has contracted HIV/AIDS and, in a time before antiviral drugs, has a short time left to live. (She dies partway through Luard’s pilgrimage.) It might seem strange that his reaction to Francesca’s illness is to walk in France and Spain rather than making arrangements to be with her during the time she has left, but Luard’s relationship with Francesca is rather fraught, and she sounds, from his description of her, like a talented but difficult person. One might say the same of Luard himself. I had never heard of him, but I found an obituary published after his death in 1994 which explained that he was a soldier, that he started a satirical nightclub with Peter Cook in the early 1960s, and that he was a professional writer throughout the 1970s and 1980s. The Field of the Star was his last book. The story of his walk is sometimes interrupted by Luard’s ruminations on political and theological topics. He is a rather cranky old Tory, unhappy with the changes in politics and the Anglican Church he has experienced during his lifetime, and despite (or because of) his experiences as a traveller and explorer in Africa, prone to casual expressions of racism. He dislikes Germans on principle because of the Second World War; he is apparently a supporter of Margaret Thatcher, even though he is also a conservationist; and he dislikes the European Union and complains about bureaucrats in Brussels, which suggests he might’ve been a Leave supporter if he were alive today.

Luard’s account of his journey reinforces something I’ve learned from similar books: the more miserable and difficult the journey is, the more engaging and interesting the writing about the journey will be. During the first leg of their walk, for instance, Luard and his companions experienced long, difficult days of walking in pouring rain; they got lost frequently; and Luard himself had to go home early when he contracted pneumonia. And yet his account of this part of their pilgrimage is much more alive than his narrative of the last part of the journey, which Luard finished by cadging rides from truckers and cab drivers. He had good reasons for taking those shortcuts—he was in mourning for his daughter, and he was physically exhausted by the pilgrimage, interrupted though it was—and yet, it makes for rather dull reading.

a mind spread out on the ground

One reason I enjoyed Luard’s book is that it has little to do with my academic research. I can’t say the same about Elliott’s A Mind Spread Out On the Ground, which I read partly because I’m looking for a memoir that might be appropriate for a class of first-year students at my university, and partly because I was curious about what she has to say about colonialism in Canada—a lot, as it turns out. Unlike The Field of the Star, there is no through line or narrative in Elliott’s book; it’s a collection of essays, primarily autobiographical, but after reading the book, I have an understanding of what life was like for Elliott growing up as a white-looking, half-Tuscarora kid whose impoverished family was sometimes homeless, whose white mother suffers from uncontrolled bipolar disorder, and who, after moving to be near her father’s family at the Six Nations of the Grand River reserve in southwestern Ontario, lived in a trailer without running water. For Elliott, her family’s poverty wasn’t just the result of her mother’s illness or her father’s tendency to relocate the family; it was the result of the racism and white supremacy that are part of colonialism, and that tends to limit economic opportunities for people whose skin is black or brown. We might understand that in a general way from statistics about income and unemployment, but A Mind Spread Out On the Ground puts flesh on those dry bones. For instance, until she moved away from her family’s trailer, Elliott had head lice—years and years of scratching—because there was no running water for shampooing, and no money for medicated shampoo, and no washing machine for sheets and pillowcases, and no time to vacuum the trailer’s carpeted floors. She also had to hide the infestation from teachers and other authorities, because of the chance that social services would apprehend the children (Indigenous children are taken into foster care at astounding rates, because poverty is considered to be parental neglect rather than an effect of colonialism). Elliott also describes her own struggles with depression, which she might have inherited from her mother, and her efforts to escape poverty and mental illness through education and writing.

Elliott now lives in Brantford, my home town, and she might have attended Pauline Johnson Collegiate while my sister Pam was teaching English there, but in every other way we come from different worlds. My grandparents were not rich, and they struggled, but they weren’t sent to the local residential school, the Mohawk Institute (also known as the Mush Hole because of the food served to the children incarcerated there), nor was my grandfather murdered by a white man (as Elliott’s grandfather was). Nothing Elliott says in her book should be a surprise, given what we know about the effects of colonialism, but it’s a testament to the power of her writing that I found myself sometimes catching my breath at the truths I found in this book. For example, she explains the connection between colonialism and depression in a way that helps me to understand the suicide epidemic on some First Nations:

“Can you imagine going to a funeral every day, maybe even two funerals, for five to ten years?” the chief asks. He’s giving a decolonization presentation, talking about the way colonization has affected our people since contact. Smallpox, tuberculosis, even the common cold hit our communities particularly hard. Then, on top of that, we had wars to contend with—some against the French, some against the British, some against either or neither or both. Back then death was all you could see, smell, hear or taste. Death was all you could feel.

“What does that type of mourning, pain and loss do to you?” he asks. We reflect on our own losses, our own mourning, our own pain. We say nothing.

After a moment he answers himself. “It creates numbness.”

Numbness is often how people describe their experience of depression. (6-7)

She continues:

Both depression and colonialism have stolen my language in different ways. I know this. I feel it inside me even as I struggle to explain it. But that does not mean I have to accept it. I struggle against colonialism the same way I struggle against depression—by telling myself that I’m not worthless, that I’m not a failure, that things will get better. (12)

She writes about the privilege of being able to pass as white (22) and about the way racism, sexism, and colonialism keep Indigenous women out of the literary community (25-26). She considers the connection between colonialism and gentrification, the way that early settlers looked at the land “with the eyes of enterprising tourists,” forcing out “the lands’ native inhabitants” and then going about “realizing this land’s ‘potential,’ laying roads and constructing buildings, later putting up condos and converting old restaurants into cafés” (49). She reflects on Colten Boushie’s death and how she felt when a Saskatchewan jury found his killer not guilty of anything, not even manslaughter, and how she felt when Tina Fontaine’s killer was allowed to walk out of a Winnipeg court, a free man. She compares racism to the physicists’ dark matter:

Racism, for many people, seems to occupy space in very much the same way as dark matter: it forms the skeleton of our world, yet remains ultimately invisible, undetectable. This is convenient. If nothing is racism, then nothing needs to be done to address it. we can continue on as usual. . . . We can keep our eyes shut inside this dark room we’ve created and pretend that, as long as we can’t see what’s around us, there’s nothing around us at all. After all, there’s no proof of it. (70)

She recalls the aftermath of being sexually assaulted and the way that “[u]nder capitalism, colonialism and settler colonialism, everything Indigenous is subject to extraction”:

Words from our languages are extracted and turned into the names of cities, states, provinces or, in the case of Canada, an entire country. Resources from our traditional territories are extracted and turned into profit for non-Indigenous companies and strategic political donations. Our own children are extracted so that non-Indigenous families can have the families they’ve always wanted, so our families will fall to ruin and our grief will distract us from resisting colonialism.

Then, after all of this extraction, the nation-state has the audacity to tell us we should be glad, that the theft was for our own good. Or, more recently, politicians will admit that awful things were done, but that they happened in the past and should be forgiven, despite modern-day equivalents still taking place all around us. (213-14)

Elliott’s book is tough, but it’s an important and even necessary read, I think. It won’t matter if you don’t read Luard’s story of his long walk; but it will matter if you ignore the truths Elliott has to tell.

It almost goes without saying that Elliott and Luard have almost nothing in common; he would dismiss her work as political correctness, and she would see him as yet another colonizer despite (or even because of) his honorary membership in the Zulu Nation and his support of the San people of the Kalahari Desert. And I think she would be right. However, both books have something to teach about writing creative non-fiction, about writing memoir: one’s own story needs to be placed alongside another story, another context. For Elliott, that context is Canadian colonialism and racism. For Luard, it is the story of his daughter’s short life and painful death. One might accuse him of constructing a hagiography of his daughter, although surely that is a grieving father’s privilege, but the letters to Francesca that interrupt his account of walking to Santiago de Compostela are essential; they lift his book above mere travelogue, and his walk becomes an expression of sorrow. Other works of creative non-fiction I’ve read recently—Don Gillmor’s To the River: Losing My Brother is another example—all juxtapose the personal against something larger in a similar way. I need to remember that as I write about my walks to and near the Regina Bypass.

Works Cited

Elliott, Alicia. A Mind Spread Out On the Ground, Doubleday Canada, 2019.

Frey, Nancy Louise. Pilgrim Stories: On and Off the Road to Santiago, U of California P, 1998.

Gillmor, Don. To the River: Losing My Brother, Vintage Canada, 2018.

Luard, Nicholas. The Field of the Star: A Pilgrim’s Journey to Santiago de Compostela, Penguin, 1999.

Minshull, Duncan, ed. The Vintage Book of Walking: An Anthology, Vintage, 2000.


Walking West, Again



It’s a breezy, cool, sunny day and I’m walking towards 13th Avenue. I notice a miniature Adirondack chair at the foot of an elm tree next to the sidewalk, and I’m reminded of the tiny chairs at the beginning of The Friendly Giant. Down the street, a lawn is entirely occupied by large rhubarb plants; a lot of pie gets eaten in that house. At 13th Avenue I turn west. A man is sitting on the library steps with his laptop, probably using the wifi. Across the street, a transformer on a power pole hums. Chokecherries are in bloom everywhere and the air is filled with their heavy, rank scent.


The sidewalk is narrow, and I wonder if it would have been wider several generations ago, when my parents were young, before there was a demand for on-street parking. A robin sings. A volunteer Manitoba maple rubbing against a house makes a sound like a trapped animal. A scrap of cardboard, propelled by the wind, skips down the street. The wind seems to be coming from every direction. Creeping bellflower—this city’s buddleia—is everywhere it’s not supposed to be. As a gardener, I hate that plant, which is moving into the tiny prairie I planted when we bought our house, but at the same time, I have to admire its life force.


I know where my walk today is likely to take me, so I’m wearing the high-visibility vest I bought at Lowe’s the week before. A woman waiting at a bus stop sees me and nudges her companion, and they both laugh. I guess the vest looks funny. A garage next to the sidewalk has colourful stucco, with shards of green and brown glass from broken bottles added to the stones. At Lewvan Drive, the light is green, but just after I step into the road it turns red. I’m not chancing the river of traffic here by jaywalking, so I turn back and return to the sidewalk’s shore. I push the begging button and wait.


After I cross Lewvan Drive, I keep heading west. A man is cleaning windows, standing astride his step-ladder like a squeegee Colossus. At the edge of the city, the wind seems to pick up. It’s decided on its direction, blowing steadily from the west, and it carries the rotten egg smell of the creek. The off-leash dog park is almost empty. Grackles whistle and creak. The wind now smells like tar. A rusting bicycle wheel next to the creek that I photographed a couple of weeks ago is gone. Where did it go? Who would want such a thing? The freewheel has been left behind. I turn to continue walking and am surprised by my friend Mark, who has stopped to say hello. He was on his way to the Federal Express office near the airport when he saw me taking notes on the bridge over the creek. We walk together back to his car. “I thought you already walked this way,” he says. Yes, but I’m planning to turn south at Pinkie Road this afternoon. He asks where the Regina Indian Industrial School burial ground is, and I explain. Then he continues on his journey, and I on mine.


Walking into the wind is like walking uphill, and I realize how unfit I am. Every winter I promise myself that I’ll go to the gym, and every winter I break that promise. I hate going to the gym, but I’m going to have to get over that feeling if I’m going to be able to keep walking. I walk past the garden centre. Its parking lot is full, as usual; everyone is gardening this spring. A train is approaching, a long, ponderous line of double-stacked containers slowly heading east. It has hardly passed when another eastbound train, this one pulling covered hoppers from the potash mine to the west, rumbles by. On the western horizon, trucks are silently gliding along the Regina Bypass and across the new bridge over the train tracks. A stack of railway ties on the other side of Pinkie Road fills the air with the smell of creosote. Swallows cast shadows across the road.


The wind comes to define today’s walk. Its roar fills my ears. I get tired of holding onto my hat, and I take it off and put it in my bag. I bought it in Glasgow, and although it’s starting to show its age, I don’t want to lose it yet, and if the wind takes it, I’ll never see it again. Without the hat, though, I the top of my head sunburns: one of the dangers of walking while bald. Tumbleweeds blow past. Passing vehicles throw up clouds of dust and grit which the wind flings into my face. The wind gets stronger. The sand and grit stings. A pair of red-winged blackbirds plays in the wind, hovering and chirping. This isn’t Shelley’s west wind; neither destroyer nor preserver, it’s just a constant force, changing nothing.



I turn south on Pinkie Road. The walking is a little easier, now that I’m not heading into the wind, but the gusts shove me towards the ditch. I’m leaning sideways. Someone has dumped a bushel of corn mixed with fertilizer on the shoulder. A blue plastic storage bin has blown into the ditch. When Pinkie approaches Centre Road, it arcs west, and I find myself walking into the wind again. On the overpass that carries Centre Road over the Bypass, the wind pulls at my glasses; it wants to tear them away and throw them onto the highway below. I’m bent double as I walk, like a wingwalker in a barnstorming show. I had thought that I would head up Fleming Road and take a look at the Canadian Pacific Intermodal Yard from the south, across the main line, but I decide I’m not going to walk into the wind any longer than I have to, and I turn south on Condie Road, towards Highway 1. The road is a gravel berm laid across the landscape, flat and straight. In a momentary lull in the wind, I hear a meadowlark singing.



The wind is tiring, and I start singing to keep up my spirits. I startle two grey partridges, which scuttle into the air, complaining. Excess grain rots in a field beside the road; its plastic storage tubes have been torn open. A truck passes and I exchange a wave with its driver. I sit in the grass beside the road to rest for a minute. The city sits on the horizon: the glass towers of the downtown, the bronze dome of the Legislature, the university. Between here and there, in the middle distance, trucks move along the Bypass. A field of stubble is in the foreground. When I stand up to keep walking, I put my hand firmly on a thistle hidden in the grass. I keep walking. I pass the right-of-way of the Keystone pipeline and startle a jackrabbit.



Earlier this week, I drove to Eastend, in the province’s southwest, to help a group of people maintain the markers that identify the route of the Northwest Mounted Police Trail, which ran between Fort Walsh and Wood Mountain Post between 1875 and 1912. My friend Hugh is the trail convenor, and he organized the work bee. As I drove out of the city, I realized that I hadn’t walked out to the complicated interchange where the new Regina Bypass meets Highway 1 west of Regina. That interchange is my goal today. That’s why I’m wearing the high-visibility vest: I know I’m going to end up walking on the shoulder of the highway, and the vest is a gesture towards safety. Condie Road doesn’t quite reach the highway, and I’m going to have to cross a ditch. I wonder how dry that ditch is going to be. When I get to the highway, I see that the ditch is wet. I can’t tell how deep the water is, and I walk along the edge of the field next to the road, hoping to find a place where it’s shallow. I give up and splash across; the water barely covers my boots. I walk east on the shoulder of the busy road. Two ducks fly out of a slough, and over the sound of the wind I can hear frogs singing there. Red-winged blackbirds and yellow-headed blackbirds chase each other.




It takes a while to get through the interchange, mostly because I keep stopping to take pictures. The wind jostles me and it’s hard to keep the horizon straight in the viewfinder. I like a level horizon line, especially in this flat place. I notice a borrow pit—a hole where the soil used to build the overpasses was dug out—behind a fence; it’s filled with water. A remnant of the old highway is still standing between the onramps; it looks like a miniature asphalt-covered butte. Traffic roars past. Finally I’m clear of the interchange. Beside the highway, blue twine follows the shoulder for hundreds of metres. I wonder why its there. It comes to an end, eventually, but at the foot of a road sign, I see a large coil of it, and the trail begins again. I wonder what Theseus left a trail through this straight, flat labyrinth, and where the Minotaur might be hiding along these twin ribbons of pavement. Phil Smith’s mythogeography comes to mind, and I wonder if the Spectacle he writes about is a disembodied Minotaur. Later, I e-mail him to ask. No, he replies, the labyrinth is the Spectacle idealized, but it contains Minotaurs. I’m going to have to read Guy Debord if I’m going to understand mythogeography; that much is obvious. There are dark clouds on the horizon and I wonder if it’s raining in the city.



I’m getting closer to the city’s new southwestern suburbs now. Each step I take is about a metre, so each kilometre I walk takes about 1,000 steps. I’m getting tired and I wonder whether counting my steps is reassuring or discouraging. Finally I’m at the city’s edge. Across the highway, earth-moving machines are flattening the already flat ground. At the foot of Campbell Street, or perhaps Courtney—the maps give one name, but the street signs another, not that there are any signs where I’m walking right now—somebody has driven through the signs and barriers that tell motorists that the road, which used to meet the highway, is closed; they’ve been smashed into fragments. I cross the ditch—dry, this time—and walk north. A wooden fence groans in the wind. I duck into the development: vacant lots beside new houses, with old-fashioned-looking carriage lamps for streetlights. Few contractors are working today. I’ve never been here, and I wonder how I’ll find my way into the city. Home is at least six kilometres away; do I have that much walking left? In a few minutes I’m in a different neighbourhood—at least, the streetlights are different—where all the houses are occupied. I cross the pipeline right-of-way again—it cuts right through the neighbourhood beside a park edged with boulders, where I consider taking a rest—and carry on walking east. I have no idea where I am, and I’m certain that I’m going to have to call home for a ride, which means I’m going to have to find a landmark where Christine will be able to find me. Then I see the roofs of the big-box stores on Gordon Road, and I walk through a linear park, built alongside a drainage ditch, to get there. Now I know where I am. I call home, and Christine agrees to pick me up at Lowe’s. I stand outside the store, watching two men rearrange a row of riding mowers, laughing and teasing each other. I realize how much I miss going to work, the casual encounters that used to shape my day. I count the number of shoppers who are wearing masks. Most aren’t. This city hasn’t been struck by Covid-19 the way Toronto or Montreal or New York have been, but we might end up being sorry for our carelessness.




Walking to the Western Edge of the City and Back


It’s a cool Sunday afternoon. I smell woodsmoke as I begin my walk. A family riding their bicycles on the sidewalk forces me into the street. I stop to admire tulips in bloom beside a mailbox. The same gardener has placed red flowers in an old, broken wheelbarrow. I wonder if they are impatiens—Christine has been looking for red impatiens at different garden centres but can’t find any—and recall the William Carlos Williams poem about the wheelbarrow glazed with rainwater. There is no rainwater here—it’s been a very dry spring—and if there were any white chickens, they would be in the back yard, behind the fence. The suspicious homeowner approaches and wants to know what I’m doing. “What are you writing down?” she asks. My answer doesn’t satisfy her. I turn away from her stare and keep walking. I’ve always wondered who lives in this bright pink house with the bright yellow chairs out front, and now I know.


The heavy scent of chokecherries in bloom fills the air. I walk over the wide lawns of the park towards the creek. A northern flicker is in the grass underneath a spruce tree. Is it injured? I fumble for my camera and the bird flies up into the tree. Not injured, then. Few people are walking on the path running alongside the creek. Two male mallards land together in the water. A pair of kids is rollerblading awkwardly. Cyclists pass. A crow hops in the grass. In the willows where I once saw a hawk, sparrows and a red-winged blackbird are roosting. The dog park is now open, but there aren’t many people inside the fence. A train passes on the line that runs north of 13th Avenue and sounds its horn at a level crossing, heading west towards the coast. A gopher whistles. A handful of people are working at the community garden across the street. Another train approaches, heading east: a long line of empty covered hopper cars, marked with the logo of the federal potash exporting corporation.


A group of men are playing softball at a groomed diamond; the clay infield is completely free of weeds. The garden centre where I bought tomato plants the week before is busy, the parking lot filled with cars. There is a sad line of chokecherries in front, next to a dead tree and two dead dwarf cedars—it’s too dry here for cedars—and a portapotty. Golfers are practicing at the driving range across the road. The province is reopening, and golfing is now allowed. I notice footprints in the soft gravel at the edge of the road. The wind rustles the leaves of a poplar tree. Someone has thrown packages of ketchup onto the shoulder. A runner passes me and we wave. The road is busy and I taste the dust of passing cars.


I hear the first meadowlark of the day as I walk past the north edge of the airport. At Courtney Street, the city ends, and the road becomes a little quieter. I can see the Westerra development on the northern horizon. There is a farm between here and there. The wind picks up and the sky begins to clear. I listen to the rhythm of my feet crunching on the gravel. To the west, I can see the Regina Bypass. An injured bumblebee—perhaps stunned by a car—is crawling among the stones. A red-winged blackbird rests on the signal lines beside the train tracks. The wires are broken and some are touching the ground; I suppose Canadian Pacific doesn’t use them any more. Perhaps everything is wireless now. I stop to take a picture and startle two grey partridges, which scramble into the air.


At Pinkie Road, I turn north into the wind. I pass the Agricultural Products Division of Brandt Industries Ltd. There is a heavy smell of rubber in the air. Is it coming from the farm equipment in Brandt’s fenced yard, or is it from the industrial waste management facility next door? A stumble over a truck mudflap lying on the paved shoulder of the road; it is surprisingly rigid. A stand of trees and a dugout mark the windbreak of an old home quarter next to the Saulteaux Crossing gas station. A pair of RCMP cruisers are filling up. Across the road, a Quonset and some grain bins wait to be demolished for the extension of Westerra. Behind me, I hear another train passing.


North of Dewdney, Pinkie Road becomes gravel. Passing cars and trucks raise clouds of dust. I pick up what I take to be a hawk’s pinfeather. I see footprints again. They are my size. Am I following myself? A truckload of wheat has been dumped in a field of stubble; is it too weathered to sell? I walk over to look more closely at the golden hill. The dusty road allowance is marked with the footprints of animals and birds.


I’m walking towards the Regina Indian Industrial School burial ground again. I wanted to try recording the songs of western meadowlarks again for another project, and since the last time I was here I heard them very clearly, I figure they’ll be here again. I’m disappointed; today the meadowlarks are silent, or elsewhere. The sign marking the burial ground has fallen over and I set it right. I put down tobacco and sit and listen to the red-winged blackbirds and grackles and the wind. The day before, I started reading Alicia Elliott’s memoir, A Mind Spread Out On the Ground, and I think about something she says about empathy in the essay “On Seeing and Being Seen”:

Empathy has its limits—and, in contrary to what some may think, it is possible to have empathy for a person and still hold inherited, unacknowledged racist views about them. How else to you explain the Canadian government’s apology for residential schools and pleas for reconciliation coexisting with its continued, purposeful underfunding of Indigenous children? (29-30)

Empathy isn’t enough, Elliott contends. Love is required, particularly if you are writing about a community (30). I think about the children buried here, and the distinction Elliott is making between empathy and love. Do I even have the right to come here, to apologize to these children, whose deaths were the direct result of colonialism and racism—both, as Elliott points out, characteristics of this country. After all, I’ve benefitted from that ongoing history. Every Settler has.


I ask myself whether Elliott’s argument applies to places as well as communities. Do I love this place enough to write about it? I think I do, but it’s good to ask the question, to avoid becoming complacent about my relationship to the fields and the birds and the sky.


I get up and start walking back south. I turn east on Dewdney Avenue. The city’s concrete bunker is still howling. A combine travelling west takes up the entire lane of traffic, along with the shoulder, and I step into the ditch to let it pass. The school bus that carries workers to the Global Transportation Hub goes by. I wonder what the workers at the Loblaw’s warehouse are paid if the company expects that they can’t afford to drive out to the GTH. At Courtney Street, the city begins again. I walk along the sidewalk. It’s quieter here, perhaps because the trees absorb the sound. A robin scolds me, and ahead I can hear an ambulance’s siren. I smell cooking and mown grass. At the bridge over the creek, a female red-winged blackbird is singing in a tree. I head south towards the footpath under the railway tracks. Lilacs fill the air with their hot scent. There are blossoming trees everywhere, it seems, along with robins keeping a wary eye on me. I smell someone’s Sunday evening barbecue: roasting meat and smoke. The pandemic can’t keep people from enjoying a sunny Sunday.


Work Cited

Elliott, Alicia. A Mind Spread Out on the Ground, Doubleday, 2019.

Walking to the Global Transportation Hub



I’ve spent a couple of days researching and writing about the Regina Bypass. From the outset, the purpose of this road, it seems, was to get truck traffic to the Global Transportation Hub. That’s it. Construction on the Bypass started in the west, in stages, before the government decided to build the southern portion and then, even later, to fold improved interchanges east of Regina into the project. The expansion of the Bypass helps to explain how the cost ballooned, from $100 million at the very beginning to $2 billion now—but only helps. At least $600 million is going to VINCI, the French company responsible for  operating and maintaining the Bypass for the next 30 years. Is that a good deal? From what I’ve read, nobody can tell. The point is that if I’m going to study the Bypass, I’m going to have to learn as much as I can about the Global Transportation Hub. I’ve been doing some research, but this morning I decided to walk out there and see what there is to see.



It’s a good thing I’m walking this morning. I woke up out of sorts, and I’m hoping that a walk will improve my disposition.Once again, I commit an unpsychogeographical act: I check Google Maps to see how far I’ll be walking. Not only does it tell me the distance, but it directs me to a route I would never have thought of, through a neighbourhood where I’ve never walked. I put on my boots and set out. After the past week’s cold weather, this morning’s warm sunshine was a revelation. The elm trees are leafing out; there is a scrim of green on their branches. An old woman is raking straw at the vegetable garden in front of the Anglican church, and a bumblebee is fumbling about on a lawn covered in dandelions. A spindly shrub is starting to put out pink blossoms. Next to the sidewalk, I see a plot of rhubarb, raspberries, and horseradish.



I turn down an alley, but it’s blocked by a Bobcat dumping dirt into a truck, so I turn back. A train horn sounds at the level crossing on Elphinstone. I decide to try a different alley. I see an old AMC Rebel, not much different from the one my mother drove when I was in high school. I see a baby robin in its nest waiting for a snack. On the corner, three men are tearing down an old wooden fence and loading it into a truck. Grackles creak. Robins sing. A house sparrow is resting on a purple martin house. A letter carrier climbs into his van and drives away. Dogs bark at my presence. In the back of a pickup truck is a pile of red tomato cages. A pair of jeans lies beside the curb.



A red-winged blackbird trills behind me. I see an abandoned pair of winter gloves on the sidewalk and hear another Bobcat digging behind someone’s garage. A guy is fixing a flat tire. Dandelions are poking up next to a yard covered in Astroturf. I push the begging button at Lewvan Drive and wait to cross the highway. When the light turns, it gives me less than 30 seconds to walk across six lanes of traffic. I turn north and follow a sidewalk under the railway tracks next to the busy road. I had no idea that sidewalk existed. I stop under a poplar and inhale its scent. A cyclist passes. Later, I see the same cyclist come up off the Bypass and head back into town along Dewdney, and I wonder if he rode all the way around the city.



At the corner of 11th Avenue, a portable sign directs people to a Covid-19 testing site. A woman standing in an alley blows her nose. Three men are roofing a garage across from a large seniors’ complex. A sign warns of slow moving equipment, and as if on cue, a Bobcat trundles towards me. A robin scuttles past a “No Trespassing” sign; it doesn’t apply to him. In the other direction, a city crew is patching potholes. A jogger runs past with a border collie on a leash. A mother and her two children cross the road. The infield of a baseball diamond is yellow with dandelions.



I turn west on Dewdney, a long straight plod towards the Global Transportation Hub. I cross Wascana Creek; red-winged blackbirds are singing in the willows on the bank of the creek. A train sounds behind me. A single goose floats on the water. At the RCMP’s Depot Division, the sidewalk ends, but I keep walking on the lawn, green from recent rain. I notice the beginning of a desire path and think of Richard Long’s A Line Made By Walking. In the ditch, a crow pecks at something red; when I fumble with my camera, it flies off to join another, complaining. A sign from last year’s election is lying beside the road.



At Courtney Street, the grass ends and I start walking on the paved shoulder. There are no more mature trees and the traffic seems louder here. There’s a park to the left, but a sign announced that the city has received an application to turn it into a “mixed use neighbourhood,” whatever that means. In the park, a fellow is practicing his golf swing and a woman is walking her dog. I see small footsteps in the wet gravel beside the paved shoulder. Meadowlarks and red-winged blackbirds are calling, and a family cycles on a path through a fallow field between the park and the new Westerra development. A sign invites me to build my freedom. Someone is throwing dirt over a fence into the ditch; at first I mistake the flying dirt for birds. I see the flattened remains of a rabbit in the road. Ducks take to the air. Another cyclist heads west.



The strange windowless bunker that belongs to the city is still howling. I can see the Bypass now; the traffic on the horizon, the overpass ahead, just west of Pinkie Road. I notice a sign announcing the Saulteaux Crossing Business Park, which is owned by Zagimē Anishinabek First Nation. A liquid petroleum gas storage terminal is on the other side of Dewdney Avenue. Meadowlarks are singing; their song accompanies me for the rest of the walk.



From the overpass, I can see that an interchange has been built to funnel trucks right into the Global Transportation Hub without having to travel on Dewdney. I can see the massive Loblaw warehouse facility in the Global Transportation Hub, too. Frogs are singing beside the Bypass. I look down at the highway. There seems to be as much traffic on Dewdney as there is on the Bypass. A raven croaks. Next to a cell tower, a strange black steel contraption sits; there are straps with heavy steel hooks on the end suspended from its vertical pipes, and the wind catches them, banging the hooks against the pipes with a clanging that sounds like church bells in Spain. I turn and look back towards the glass towers of downtown.



I turn right and walk into the Global Transportation Hub. There is a lot of vacant land here. I realize that I’ve never liked the use of the adjective “Global” to describe this project. There’s a naive Babbitry in that word, a foolish boosterism, even a kind of ignorant hubris. In a globalized world, every transportation hub is global; every place is connected to every other place. A gopher whistles. Some politician came up with that name, someone who imagined that the word “Global” has some kind of talismanic power—someone who saw Field of Dreams too many times and thought, if we build it, they will come. Mostly they have stayed away. I think about Jane Jacobs’s description of “depot centres.” Regina has always been a depot, taking things made elsewhere off of trains and putting them in storage. How is the idea of the GTH an improvement on that notion? At the entrance, I see a sculpture: a tan shipping container stacked on a white one, its plinth. It announces the purpose of this place more eloquently than the sign, which announces “Canada’s Premier Inland Port.” I take a closer look at the sign. It includes a map of the development. Empty lots are coloured in to look like they are occupied. Maybe it’s just that the scale of the drawing is way off. I can’t be sure. Anyone looking at the sign could see all around it the empty lots it identifies as warehouses. It looks like a childish attempt at bending the truth.


The warehouses here are featureless boxes without windows. They look temporary. Perhaps they are: structures that are bolted together can be unbolted again. When warehouses were built downtown, before the First World War, they were sturdy buildings made of brick and stone. Those buildings made an implicit statement: we are here to stay. Now that kind of brand identity is unnecessary. The point is to keep construction costs low. Besides, few people will ever see these buildings. Outside the Global Trade Exhibition Centre, a guy takes a handcart out of a van.



There are dozens of trailers parked in the loading bays at the Loblaw Distribution Centre, and a row of white semis waits by the road. That building seems to house the only going concern here. Occasional trucks pass. It’s quiet. Maybe that’s because of the pandemic. A truck repair shop sits silently. A killdeer warns me away from her nest. On the other side of the Canadian Pacific Intermodal Yard, a long train loaded with containers is heading west, towards Vancouver. Geese sit in the empty fields of grass. Unlike the Intermobil terminal on the other side of town, the Canadian Pacific Intermodal Yard has no gantries. Instead, large tractors—like forklifts, except that they grab containers from the top with a giant claw—are moving cans around. Perhaps there isn’t enough traffic here to justify building a gantry. The road ends at the yard. Signs warn against trespassing. I think about the stories I’ve heard about railroad bulls and decide to turn around. I start walking north. Another tractor is moving cans around outside the Loblaw warehouse. A goose rests on the shoulder of the road.



I turn back towards the city. Grackles are poking around on a recently seeded field. A dead jackrabbit, wearing its white winter fur coat, has been thrown into the ditch. The meadowlarks are still singing.


Walking from León to Somewhere West of Astorga

The virtual walk through Spain continues. The sky looks like it might clear this morning, and if the rain stops, I’ll try to walk a few kilometres west to León.

Here are a few photographs I took on the actual journey several years ago.







We met on Zoom Monday night—Tuesday at noon for Neil, who is in Australia—and we agreed where we would stop this week, but I can’t remember what we said! I hope my photographs haven’t gone too far ahead on the journey. Once again, I’m surprised by how few photographs I took. Even fewer were successful or worth sharing. I take more pictures now. I’ll take that as a lesson learned.