Injun, by Nisga'a writer Jordan Abel (Talonbooks 2016), won the 2017 Griffin Poetry Prize for which he received $65,000. This follow-up to Abel's Un/inhabited is comprised of 'found text' from western novels of the pulp fiction genre published between 1840 and 1950. By gathering all sentences with the word "injun" embedded, retrieved using the 'Find' function, Abel seeks to destabilize the colonial concept of the "Indian" as it was allowed to grow in the 'western' world of the so-called western world.

Jordan Abel received the Dorothy Livesay Poetry Prize in 2014 for his first book, The Place of Scraps, in which he revisits and re-examines the role of ethnographer Marius Barbeau. According to publicity materials: "The Place of Scraps revolves around Marius Barbeau, an early-twentieth-century ethnographer, who studied many of the First Nations cultures in the Pacific Northwest, including Jordan Abel's ancestral Nisga'a Nation.



Barbeau, in keeping with the popular thinking of the time, believed First Nations cultures were about to disappear completely, and that it was up to him to preserve what was left of these dying cultures while he could. Unfortunately, his methods of preserving First Nations cultures included purchasing totem poles and potlatch items from struggling communities in order to sell them to museums. While Barbeau strove to protect First Nations cultures from vanishing, he ended up playing an active role in dismantling the very same cultures he tried to save."

Jordan's second poetry project, Un/inhabited (Co-published by Project Space Press and Talonbooks 2014) investigates public domain to create an analysis of the interconnections between language and land. Abel constructed the book's source text by compiling 91 complete western novels found on the website Project Gutenberg, an online archive of public domain works. Using his word processor's Ctrl-F function, he then searched the document in its totality for words that relate to the political and social aspects of land, territory and ownership. Each search query represents a study in context (How was this word deployed? What surrounded it? What is left over once that word is removed?) that accumulates toward a representation of the public domain as a discoverable and inhabitable body of land. This poetry collection also includes a text by independent curator Kathleen Ritter.

Jordan Abel holds a BA from the University of Alberta and an MFA from the University of British Columbia. He has been an editor for Poetry is Dead magazine and PRISM international. While completing his PhD at Simon Fraser University, his studies focused on "digital humanities" and indigenous poetics. Both of Jordan Abel's grandparents attended the same residential school in Chilliwack. As an inter-generational survivor of residential school, he has written and assembled Nishga (M&S 2020) to present how colonial violence from the Coqualeetza Indian Residential School impacted his grandparents' generation, as well as father's generation, and ultimately his own, although he never himself attended residential school. See a review of Nishga below. It is Abel's first book from a large Ontario publisher. The spelling of Nisga'a as Nishga is not a typo.

BOOKS:

The Place of Scraps (Talon 2013) $19.95 978-0-88922-788-0
Un/inhabited (Co-published Project Space Press and Talonbooks 2015)
Injun (Talonbooks 2016) $16.95 978-0-88922-977-8
Nishga (McClelland & Stewart 2020) $32.95 978-0-7710-0790-3

[Alan Twigg / BCBW 2020]



 

REVIEW

NISHGA
(McClelland & Stewart $32.95)
by Jordan Abel

Review by Latash-Maurice Nahanee

Jordan Abel's NISHGA is not a poem, essay or a letter. It is the documentation of one man's life journey and it is the journey of thousands of young Indigenous people.

His story begins with the founding of Canada as a country in 1867 when over 150,000 children were forcibly removed from their homes by RCMP and clergy and placed in institutions called Indian Residential Schools. It set in motion a wave of destruction

The first Canadian prime minister, Sir John A. MacDonald was also at various times the minister of Indian Affairs. Abel provides an early quote from Sir John A. MacDonald:

"It has been strongly pressed on myself as head of the Department, that Indian children be withdrawn as much as possible from the parental influence, and the only way to do that would be to put them in central training industrial schools where they will acquire the habits and modes of white men."

This was the beginning of the Indian Residential school system. Abel points out that these Indian residential schools offered much more than a liberal education. They were run by men and women who sexually abused children, used corporal punishment as a measure to curb children from speaking their Indigenous languages, and allowed medical starvation experimentation on inmates.

Abel's grandparents met at Coqualeetza Residential School in Sardis, British Columbia. They were Nisga'a from the Nass Valley of northwestern B.C. Their formative years were spent without the love of their parents and extended families. Lacking the nurturing of a loving family, his grandparents began a dysfunctional life. The trauma of their life together was passed onto their son Lawrence Wilson, Jordan Abel?s father.

Many Nisga'a attended Indian residential schools far from their homeland. And many returned to their extended families where they began to relearn their culture and language. Leaders such as James Gosnell, Frank Calder and Rod Robinson, upon returning to the Nass, became part of a generation who would win the first modern treaty in B.C. They too attended the Coqualeetza institution.

However, Abel's grandparents did not return to the Nisga'a homeland. They moved to Vancouver. This change of trajectory would prove to be a devastating turning point for the family. Abel's parents split apart soon after he was born. This resulted in Abel moving to Toronto where he was raised by his single settler mother and was cut off from his Indigenous roots.

I can imagine what it was like for Jordan Abel being raised so far from his homeland by his mother. Her experience with Indigenous people and Indigenous culture was limited and negative. Abel also had to contend with being in an urban center like Toronto where, if you look different from other children, questions arise about what your ethnicity is! When you don't know, it is difficult to answer. Abel's school years were marred by racism.

At the time of this writing, Abel is completing his doctoral degree. He is in the top intellectual percentile of the Canadian population. He is an anomaly in many senses of the word. He identifies as Nisga'a because his father is Nisga'a. Since the Nisga'a are famous for their landmark treaty victory, he unwittingly becomes a target of many inquiries.

The Nisga'a are among the few celebrity First Nations in Canada. People are curious about the Nisga'a. From the 1980s until the signing of the treaty, they were big news and covered regularly in print and broadcast media. I was a journalist during this time and I wrote about their struggle to get a treaty. Closer to home, I married a Nisga'a; her name is Delgamha. Her father is hereditary chief, Simooegit Hymas. He was one of the main negotiators of the treaty. So, I learned firsthand about the Nisga'a people and their amazing culture.

One troubling aspect of Jordon Abel's NISHGA is the lack of research on available Indigenous sources. In 1993, the landmark volume Nisga'a (Douglas & McIntyre) was published with the assistance of hereditary leaders. It is the compelling story of a people determined to live in a distinct society based on the teachings of their ancestors. There is also the Nisga'a court case known as Calder v. British Columbia (Attorney-General) which is available to the public. And there are dozens of news articles, TV documentaries and news reports. I did a Google search and found many interesting facts about the Nisga'a. In short, there are scores of sources and written documents by and about the Nisga'a. And yet I find none of them referenced in Jordan's book. He does, however, quote Sir John A. MacDonald and anthropologists such as Marius Barbeau (1883-1969). These are not reliable sources.

The pain and suffering of thousands of displaced Canadian Aboriginal people is illuminated in NISHGA. Much has been invested in getting rid of the "Indian problem" in Canada. More funds need to redirected to working collaboratively with Indigenous people to provide the best possible life for everyone. This is not the "Indian problem;" it is everyone's problem. Canada is a land that is rich in resources. There is wealth that can be more equitably distributed for the benefit of all Canadians.

Injustice for one, is injustice for all.

BC BookWorld's Indigenous Editor Latash-Maurice Nahanee is a member of the Squamish Nation. He has a bachelor of arts degree (Simon Fraser University).



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