96. Warren Cariou, “Haunted Prairie: Aboriginal ‘Ghosts’ and the Spectres of Settlement”

by breavman99

cariou haunted prairie.jpg

I took a break this afternoon from putting together notes on Frantz Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth and did a little searching for material on hauntings and settler colonialism. One of the texts I discovered was this short essay by Warren Cariou, whose memoir, Lake of the Prairies: A Story of Belonging I blogged about here some time ago. Cariou begins with a speculation that parallels my own sense of what ghosts and spectres might mean for Settlers:

spectral native figures have long been a part of the iconic vocabulary of Euro-American Gothic romances, but it seems that in recent years there has been a resurgence of the Aboriginal ghost motif in descriptions of land on the prairies. This reflects a widespread and perhaps growing anxiety suffered by settlers regarding the legitimacy of their claims to belonging on what they call “their” land. This fear can be described in Freudian terms as a kind of neocolonial uncanny, a lurking sense that the places settlers call home are not really theirs, and a sense that their current legitimacy as owners or renters in a capitalist land market might well be predicated upon theft, fraud, violence, and other injustices in the past. The driving psychological force behind these Aboriginal hauntings as they are imagined by non-Native writers, then, is as in most ghost stories the return of the repressed. (727-28)

Cariou refers to Freud’s essay “The Uncanny” as a source, among others; I’ll have to dig out those Pelican paperbacks of Freud’s writings if I intend to pursue this notion any further.

Cariou finds this phenomenon in Sharon Butala’s The Perfection of the Morning, where the author visits a circle of stones on “her” land “and is confronted there by the ghostly figure of a Native man,” a shaman, apparently; she feels pushed away from the place, and she hears a voice inside her head that says, “Because you are not worthy” (qtd. 728). For Cariou, that figure is “a reminder that the legitimacy of her belonging on the prairie is open to challenge by prior claims. The charge of unworthiness that she is confronted with is not so much a personal accusation as a condemnation of the entire settler tradition” (728). Butala, he continues, 

is not allowed to forget that there has already been an expulsion of sorts, under the auspices of the Indian Act. There is no talk of redress here, perhaps because there are no living Native people present in this prairie. They are all ghosts, denizens of a half-forgotten and sacralized past. (728-29) 

“The narrative suggests that the best thing a settler can do is respect the wishes of these spirits,” he concludes (729). The Perfection of the Morning could easily be on my reading list, and perhaps given Cariou’s discussion, I ought to include it.

Another haunted Settler text is Maggie Siggins’s Revenge of the Land. There is no ghost in that book, “but the parcel of Saskatchewan farmland in question is clearly haunted by an avenging poltergeist” (729). “While many of the farmer/settlers who live there over the years claim to love this land and want to hand on to it at any cost, Siggins portrays the land itself enacting revenge upon these settlers, causing financial ruin, marital discord, personal misery, and even indirectly the deaths of the owners,” Cariou writes (729). Why is this land so vengeful? “Revenge is of course the return of something: an injury for an injury. It has an economy which is fundamentally uncanny: misdeeds of the past create a climate in which dangerous symptoms must erupt into the present” (729). On the piece of land Siggins writes about, “injuries and injustices pile up over the years, and even though these are forgotten by successive generations of owners, the land itself seems to remember, seems to be keeping an account” (729). Two injuries or injustices stand out. The first is the breaking of the land, “the quintessential act of homestead settlement,” initiates this curse (729), but in a more directly political way, there is also “the fraudulent means by which much of the land comes to be in the settlers’ hands at all”: the cheating of Métis people out of their “government-appointed scrip land” by “unscrupulous white speculators” (729). Cariou suggests that

this colossal injustice in the settlement of the West has been successfully repressed by settler culture. But like anything in the Freudian economy of repression, for Siggins, this willed forgetting always eventually finds its way out into the light of consciousness, often dragging horrid consequences along with it. The effect of this geographical revenge is to make all of settler culture feel more than a little unsettled. (730)

That’s very close to my sense of how past (and present) injustices are repressed, and how such repression leaks out into behaviour and beliefs. 

Can “such uncanny fear be productive in any way,” or does it create “only a horrified sense of inevitability, a passive conviction that colonial sins will be punished, and [that] therefore it is not necessary to work towards reconciliation with those who have been wronged?” Cariou asks (730). “This is where contemporary Native writings about spirits on the prairies can be particularly useful, because these writings tend to focus more on the necessity of present action” (730). “Of course,” Cariou continues, “for Native readers and writers, there is no reason that these Indigenous ghosts or spirits should be frightening. Native people already have plenty of evidence in their daily lives of how the legacies of colonialism have been passed down through the generations; they do not need to summon spectres to fulfill that action” (730). Thus, although Indigenous writers do represent spirits in their work, “these spirits are not necessarily figures of uncanny terror”: they might be the wihtiko “or the skeleton-spirit Pahkakos,” but “they may also be figures of healing, ceremony, or political action. Or they may simply be ancestors. And while many such spirits do seem to address the transgressions of the colonial past, they usually do so as part of a call for some kind of redress or change in the present” (730).

For instance, Louise Halfe’s book-length poem, Blue Marrow, “is marked in several ways by the legacy of the Ghost Dance”; the book is not just a poem “but also an elaborate ceremony, designed to call the spirits of the Grandmothers to come forth and tell their stories in order to heal the present generation” (731). Much of the poem is narrated by these “unnamed ancestral spirits, who recount their stories of the settlement of Canada’s northwest” (731). These spirits “simply tell their stories and leave the rest to the narrator and the reader” (732). Another example is Thomas King’s novel Truth and Bright Water, which begins with an uncanny scene—a woman’s disappearance over the edge of a cliff (732). That figure isn’t a woman, however, nor is she, or he, “hiding the results of some terrible crime” (733). Rather, that figure, the artist Munroe Swimmer, has liberated bones of Indigenous ancestors from museums around the world, “and he has taken them back to his home to return them to the earth” (733). In this way, that first uncanny scene in the novel “becomes transformed into an aesthetic of action rather than one of fear” (733).

Cariou’s essay is short, and while it is literary criticism (and thus not quite the kind of work I’m looking for), it’s useful, if only because it confirms my suspicions about the settler colonial repressed and its return. I’ve found several other essays on this topic, and over the next few days I’ll write about them here. Even if this particular strand of inquiry is somewhat off-topic, it’s still interesting and potentially fruitful.

Work Cited

Cariou, Warren. “Haunted Prairie: Aboriginal ‘Ghosts’ and the Spectres of Settlement.” University of Toronto Quarterly, vol. 75, no. 2, 2006, pp. 727-34.