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Geniesh: An Indian Girlhood
J a n e Willis's autobiography, Geniesh: An Indian
Girlhood, deals with the author's experiences growing up in the 1950s as a
student resident at the St. Philip's Indian and Eskimo Anglican Residential
School in Fort George, Quebec and the Shingwauk Indian Residential
School at Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario.1 It locates a particular life story within
a larger—though, until very recently, occluded—narrative of Canadian history. Indeed, this autobiography is itself somewhat occluded, having received only passing notice from readers and critics of Canadian literature. Published in 1973, it has long been out of print. Only two short reviews of the book were published: one in Canadian Forum; the other in Chatelaine magazine. And although it is sometimes mentioned in surveys
of Native literature, such as Penny Petrone's Native Literature in Canada:
From the Oral Tradition to the Present (116-17), or histories of Canadian autobiography, such as Shirley Neuman's essay on "Life Writing" in the second edition of The Literary History of Canada (351), to date no literary critic has undertaken a detailed critical analysis of this text.
Willis's autobiography was published in the same year as Maria Campbell's Halforeed, but while Campbell has gone on to attain a substantial reputation, and her book is regularly read and studied in universities and elsewhere, Willis has fallen into relative obscurity, even within the Native writing community itself. Janice Acoose notes that several contemporary Native writers, including Jeannette Armstrong, Beth Cuthand, and Lenore Keeshig-Tobias, regard Halfbreed as a classic, and some even credit 03 Canadian Literature 156 / Spring 1998 Willis Maria Campbell with being an inspiration to them (Acoose 106). Jane Willis, however, doesn't seem to have made much of an impression on anyone.
Among reasons for the lack of critical attention paid to Willis's autobiography are that Halfbreed was published by McClelland and Stewart, an influential mainstream Canadian publishing house, intent on marketing the book to a general readership. Geniesh: An Indian Girlhood, on the other hand, was published by New Press, a smaller and more specialized publishing house with a more limited distribution network. Furthermore, no paperback edition was ever published, so the text was not popularized in the same way that Halfbreed was. As is the case with many autobiographical texts by Native writers, Willis's book has been valued more for its ethnographic and historical content than for its literary interest. It remains tucked away in the Native history and anthropology section of libraries.
Furthermore, literary critics have tended to be somewhat uninterested in Native writers who write only autobiographies. As Emma LaRocque pointed out in a paper she delivered at the 1995 Learned Societies conference, readers and critics of Native literature consistently focus their attention on a limited number of writers and implicitly privilege those who write fiction. With her single autobiographical book, Jane Willis was not deemed a significant writer by a literary and academic establishment which quickly moved to establish a new canon of Native literature consisting of a few rising stars whose works conformed, to some extent at least, to predetermined generic categories and standards of evaluation.
Penny Petrone's comments on Geniesh: An Indian Girlhood reveal a common critical bias against Native autobiography. Pétrone notes that "Willis's account of her early life and education does not rise above autobiographical protest because she has not moved beyond bitterness and the desire to condemn" (117). As Hartmut Lutz points out, to name Native writing "protest literature" is another way of dismissing it, for such writing is "not really considered part of Canadian 'literature' as defined by English departments and literary scholars in the mainstream" (2). Pétrone compliments the author on her "gift for remembering and recording and her sharp eye for detail" (117), but she seems to believe that autobiography is a rather immature form of writing and that Native writers have to "rise above" their personal experiences, as well as move beyond their anger, in order to be considered serious writers of literature.
84 Canadian Literature 1561 Spring 1998 Certainly, Willis's narrative represents a harsh indictment of a paternalistic government, which sought to manipulate and control Native children through agencies such as residential schools, but it is also a subtle and often humorous text, which explores the complex processes through which the Native child was turned into a subject of the Canadian state. A deeper reading of Geniesh: An Indian Girlhood, a reading informed by the insights of colonial discourse analysis, reveals a complex Native subject constructed in language. In writing her autobiography, Willis uses the language of colonialism, understood to be patriarchal and European and disseminated by various colonial agents (church ministers, school teachers, employees of the Hudson's Bay Company, the Indian Agent) in order to reveal how she was positioned as an inferior subject under settler colonial rule. However, Willis uses this language self-consciously and often ironically, as a way of undermining its power to capture and contain her subjectivity. Much of the language of the text is focused on the Native body, which is stereotypically represented as an alien, dirty, and corrupt body. Willis's representation of her body—how it was treated and how she herself related to it—signifies the violent rupture that the imposition of colonial ideology causes in the Native subject. Although Native life writing can be understood as an act of political agency, in that the Native writer represents her experiences and her subjectivity from her own perspective, the extent to which the Native autobiographer writing in English can distance herself from the discursive structures that have represented her as a "dirty savage" is necessarily limited.
Jane Willis was born in 1940 in a small island community called 'jisahseebee,' or Great River, near Fort George on the eastern shores of James Bay in northern Quebec. She is mixed blood, the child of a Cree mother and a Scots father, but she identifies herself as "Indian." At the time of her birth—and, indeed, until the relevant clauses were revoked in 1985 by Bill C-31—the Indian Act dictated that if a Native woman married a white man she and any children produced by the union lost their Indian status and their accompanying right to live on reserve land. Because her parents never married, Willis's Indian status was never in question, but this naming of her as an Indian is a legal designation with wide-ranging consequences.
The Indian Act of 1867 gave the federal government exclusive jurisdiction over "Indians and Indian lands." By granting Native people special status as "Indians" defined by the Act, the government sought to protect them from
85 Canadian Literature 1561 Spring 1998 Willis
European exploitation. However, as John L. Tobias argues, special status was supposed to be a short-term measure. The long-term projection and goal of the government was that Native people would assimilate into mainstream (i.e. white) culture through training in European values (Tobias 39).
The education system was a prime agent of this assimilationist policy:
it was assumed that Indianness could be—and should be—eradicated in Native children so that a new generation would grow up thinking of themselves as "Canadians" not as "Indians." It was also hoped, as Vicky EnglishCurrie notes, that these children would function as mediators between older generations and the state, thus serving as a catalyst to a more comprehensive assimilation (51).
The responsibility for Native education has historically been placed in the hands of the federal government. The government's commitment to establish schools on reserve lands was part of the package of promises made in many of the treaties negotiated between First Nations and the Canadian state in the nineteenth century. Precisely how that responsibility was to be met, however, has long been a source of contention and debate.
In the 1890s, the government set up day schools on reserves, yet some officials questioned the effectiveness of such schools on the grounds that parents and elders continued to have a significant (and, presumably, negative) influence on their children. Full assimilation was not readily accomplished.
As a solution to the ongoing "Indian problem," officials such as Edgar Dewdney, who was then minister of the interior and a former Indian commissioner, proposed that the government establish boarding or residential schools so that training in European knowledge and values could be more effectively achieved. This shift in policy is registered in remarks made by
Dewdney to the House of Commons in 1891:
The Indians say they have a sufficient number of children on the reserve to attend a day school, and we have had to establish one: but where those children go to school for a few hours and then return to their wigwams or houses, there is not much chance to improve them.... The sooner we can close the day schools and send the children to the boarding schools, the sooner we will be able to do something with them. (qtd. in Youngblood Henderson 252-53) Between the 1890s and the 1950s thousands of Native children were legally removed from their homes as early as age six and placed in Indian residential schools (usually kilometers away) where they would remain until they were sixteen. These schools were funded by the federal government, but 86 Canadian Literature 156 / Spring 1998 they were run by the various Christian churches. The schools operated according to three main objectives: to Christianize Native children; to teach them to speak English; and to give them a minimum education in both scholastic and practical matters.2 When Jane Willis attended The St. Philip's Indian and Eskimo Anglican Residential School, she inherited a history of Native education that was fraught with conflict. Native people generally recognized that education in the ways of the settler society would benefit the younger generation, and, as Barman, Hébert and McCaskill argue, "For a time, colonial and Indian interests coincided" (4). But no one could have predicted how insidious the effects of a thoroughly Eurocentric education would be not only on those who attended residential schools but also on later generations.
Individual accounts of the residential school experience vary, as, of course, did the particular beliefs, attitudes and behaviours of those white people who worked in them, but for most former Native students the experience was traumatic and the result was that they learned to be ashamed of their people and of themselves.
The hardships and injustices Native students suffered were numerous.
Once the children were at the residential school they became subject to a myriad of rules and prohibitions, most of which, because they were in direct conflict with indigenous social conventions, seemed illogical and arbitrary. As in any institution, rules meant the loss of certain individual freedoms, but in the particular context of Indian residential schools, many of those losses had profound and long-lasting consequences. One obvious loss was the ability to speak their own tribal languages. Students were generally forced to speak English, and although Willis and others report that this was a rule that the children consistently broke, they were generally severely punished if caught speaking "Indian." In the Foreword to Celia Haig-Brown's study of the Kamloops Indian Residential School, for instance, Randy Fred reports that his father was "physically tortured by his teachers" at the Alberni Residential School by having needles pushed through his tongue (15). Native children were frequently victims of overt verbal, physical, and sometimes sexual abuse. Children were routinely intimidated, humiliated, beaten, and incarcerated. To this day, many former students wonder why their teachers felt that they had to treat children so brutally.
Although some former students bear the physical scars of beatings on their bodies, much of the damage is not visible to the eye. Because they
87 Canadian Literature 156 / Spring 199S Willis
were denied access to elders, who are the traditional educators in Native communities, Native children who attended residential schools lost the opportunity to learn and live their own cultural knowledges. Attaining those knowledges later in life is, for some, an important part of the process of healing. Moreover, because they were separated from their families for ten months of the year, many former students bear the emotional scars that accompany neglect. Even within the same school, siblings were separated, and brothers and sisters became strangers to one another. Some people grew into adulthood unable to form healthy intimate relationships with others, often experiencing difficulty relating to their own children or becoming abusive in their turn, because they had not had the opportunity to learn positive parenting skills through observing their own families. In an interview in which he discusses his experiences at the Fort Alexander Indian Residential School, Chief Phil Fontaine comments on the long-term
effects of this alienation: