"Liminality and the “Hybrid Potential” in Literature by Some Contemporary Mixed Blood Canadian Writers" by Judit Ágnes Kádár
Judit Ágnes Kádár obtained her PhD in comparative literary studies and taught American and Canadian culture studies at Eszterházy University of Eger for 25 years, with a focus on ethnic and multicultural studies. She published a textbook (Critical Perspectives on English-Canadian Literature, 1996) and Going Indian: Cultural Appropriation in Recent North American Literature (2012). She held a temporary lecturing position at GCSU (Georgia, US, 2009), was a Fulbright professor at UNM (Albuquerque, US, 2012-3). She obtained her habilitation at ELTE, Budapest (2013). Currently she explores mixed blood narratives and identity negotiation in the SW literature and Canadian Métis writing respectively. She has worked in internationalization for years, as the director of international relations at Eszterházy University and the University of Physical Education, Budapest. She has been the country representative of the Central European Association for Canadian Studies (CEACS). She worked as the educational expert of the Central Bank of Hungary and from 2017, she is the co-chair of the International Committee of the Hungarian Rectors’ Conference.
Historically, being born into mixed heritage families was mostly considered as an act and effect of miscegenation, a racist term that Colonial discourse has emphasized in a tricky way. Musing with the idea of “racial mixing” had been a widespread practice in the English-speaking world, reiterated by literature and other artefacts. Important critical treatise on that aspect of intercultural exchange have been created in for instance in Robert Berkhofer’s The White Man’s Indian: Images of the American Indian from Columbus to the Present, Philip Deloria’s Playing Indian and Dagmar Wernitznig’s Europe’s Indians, Indians in Europe. Nevertheless, for individuals, it has been a rather disadvantageous heritage, often entailing stigmatized ethnic identity, assimilationism or other social practices of shifting out of hybridity. What seems to be an extremely interesting aspect of mixed blood identity is the ethnic choice made, conscious or unconscious, as explained in Marie Waters: Ethnic Options: Choosing Identities in America and Michael Hecter’s “Ethnicity and Rational Choice Theory”. I explore how characters in mixed blood/ Métis narratives (re)create their identity, and I apply Hecter’s theory in the study of these narratives. Hecter argues that the choice of distancing of affiliating with a particular ethnic group is available for the individuals, including mixed heritage persons, and this choice entails some “net benefits” (90). Sean Hier’s “The Negotiation of Difference” B. S. Bolaria’s Identities and Belonging: Rethinking Race and Ethnicity in Canadian Society expand Hecter’s theory in the context of recent Canadian fiction.
At this point, perhaps we should settle the terminology and fundamental related criticism applied: both in the US and Canada, mixed national and ethnic origins and identity have been discussed in academic studies to some extent. While hyphenated, i.e. not necessarily racially mixed, but multiple ethnic and national heritage received substantial attention mainly with regards to naturalized immigrants, mixed blood, i.e. individual born into a bi- or multiracial family has only recently lost its derogatory implication (“half-breed”), with a parallel process of the Canadian Métis revival that has made Indigenous North American of mixed race (mostly that of an Indigenous mother and a Western European father) proud of their heritage and eager to seek social recognition. Hybridity, the cross (mix) between two separate races or cultures, emphasizes the combined and complex nature of mixed heritage. Hybridity as a special post-colonial discourse has been analyzed by Homi Bhabha’s seminal work (The Location of Culture), followed by N. G. Canclini, Steward Hall, Gayatri Spivak and Paul Gilroy, established the critical understanding of the liminality of hybridity as a paradigm of colonial anxiety, more recently explained in the context of Post-Colonial ironies in Gerald Vizenor’s Narrative Chance: Postmodern Discourse on Native American Indian Literatures. Louis Owens also greatly contributed to our understanding of mixed heritage and its narratives not only through his fiction, but also in his critical writings, for instance his 1992. Other Destinies: Understanding the American Indian Novel American Indian Literature and Critical Studies and “The Syllogistic Mixed Blood: How Roland Barthes Saved Me from the Indians” of 2001 (in Louis Owens: I Hear the Train, 90-104).
As for the liminality of hybridity as a paradigm of colonial anxiety, Andreas Ackermann’s essay entitled “Cultural Hybridity: Between Metaphor and Empiricism” argues that the biological model of miscegenation in this new paradigm is shifting towards the linguistic construction of the “subversive potential of a hybrid counter-culture” (5), and the literary texts discussed here seem to express this shift. In fact, Owens highlights this very potential in his aforementioned criticism, too.
Actually, the texts presented below can be read as social satires, black humorous or grotesque mirrors to the supposedly nonracist contemporary North-America, where race seems to remain a lingering issue for a too long while (see also Kádár: “Humor in Contemporary Mixed Blood North-American Writing: Nanabush’s “Pandora’s Box of Possibilities”). Their liminality and social, psychological transformation is explained by for instance Janice Acoose and Natasha Beeds in their essay about mixed Cree womanhood entitled “Cree-atively Speaking”: “they [Cree mixed blood women] have been de-Cree-d and banished from the so-called Reserve-d Place of Indian culture and story- telling. Fallen between the cracks of mainstream and Cree culture, the urban mixed-bloods become prisoners tangled in the red tape of bureaucracy” (Acoose and Beeds in Taylor, MF 90). An additional gender factor in these transformations is further explained as: fictional character Cree woman marries a white man, loses her status, but then “instead of hanging her head in shame" when she is exiled from the Rez, she re-Cree-ates her own status by becoming a “registered” healer who nurses the ever-increasing community of mixed-bloods and urban orphans” (Acoose and Beeds in Taylor, MF 94). The return to tribal roots and affiliation, or to Indigenous spirituality seems to be a general patter we can observe in many mixed blood and Métis narratives. Meanwhile, all that happens in the context of the shifting paradigms of Colonialism and Post-Colonialism, identity politics and Native revival emerging since the 1980s both in the US and Canada, that for instance Alberto Melucci discusses in “The Post-Modern Revival of Ethnicity.” Melucci claims that
there is a growing plurality of social roles in which the individual is called upon to act. Yet none of these roles is able adequately to offer the individual a stable identity. Selective mechanisms of de-differentiation thus come into being to provide identity via a return to primary memberships. Thus ethnicity is revived as a source of identity because it responds to a collective need which assumes a particular importance in complex societies. (368)
Melucci’s argument implies that Native revival is a tool and outcome of de-differentiation, where we can observe a return to an occasionally less tribal-bound and more Pan-Indigenous spirituality and tradition in the specific literary texts. The narratives focus on change, identity de-stabilization in a discomfort zone of action, followed by a re-definition of identity now uniquely bound to an individual sense of Indigeneity. The complexity of the characters under change reflects the complexity of the society, in addition, the protagonist’s own unstable foundations of ethnic identity, upbringing and social connections.
Accepting the axiom that ethnic identity is not given but constructed through an often painful and challenging process, never fixed, more of a fluid nature, I suggest a closer examination of this liminality, i.e. how mixed heritage protagonists reflect, de- and reconstruct the negative and outer-imposed aspects of mixed-blood existence, how they tend to overcome the socio-psychological crisis they may suffer and how they tend to come up with a newly gained understanding of themselves and their heritage. What Paula Gunn Allen, a mixed-blood Southwester American writer calls “conflicting blood strains,” (“Dear World” in Skin and Bones, 56) i.e. the combination of previous colonized (Native American) and ex-colonizer (Euro-American) cultures in the person’s ethnic repertoire, However, what seems as a tendency among writers and visual artists of the last four decades is that through a kind of healing narrative, this previously stigmatized identity is turned into a kind of “hybrid potential,” to refer to Owens’s argument based on his own mixed heritage experiences and writings (Syllogistic, 2001).
As for the literary context, mixed heritage writers in the United States and Métis writers in Canada, there is no clearly visible pool of those who identify with that label. From Salish and Cree Métis D’Arcy McNickle’s The Surrounded (1936) and the Métis Canadian Howard O’Hagan’s Tay John (1960), where ”mixed” is getting more attention, the Blackfeet and A’aninin James Welch’s Winter in the Blood (1974), The Death of Jim Lonely (1979) and Fools Crow (1986), where being born as a mixed-blood is getting problematized, through Laguna Pueblo and Anglo-American and the Leslie M. Silko’s highly acclaimed Ceremony (1977) and less well-known The Storyteller (1981) and the Laguna, Sioux, Scottish and Lebanese Gunn Allen’s The Woman Who Owned the Shadows (1983), most writers tackle the existence in the vacuum of cultures, the frontier of those and the need to reconnect with Indigenous heritage for spiritual, psychological and social reasons. More recently the Choctaw, Cherokee and Irish blended Owens in his series of Southwestern novels entitled The Sharpest Sight (1991), Bone Games (1994), Nightland (1996) and Dark River (1999) establish the protagonist as an individual who learns to take a good use of his mixed heritage and avoids the vacuum with the help of a newly established sense of identity that is mostly based on re-Indigenization. The US and Canadian affiliate the Cherokee and Greek heritage Thomas King’s Green Grass, Running Water (1993), and the Southwestern US writer of Native foster-parenthood Greg Sarris’s Watermelon Nights (1998), the Chickasaw and Anglo-American Linda Hogan’s Solar Storms (1995) and The Woman Who Watches Over the World (2011) and the Cherokee, French, and Irish heritage Joy Harjo’s Crazy Brave (2012) do not necessarily centralize mixed heritage that the authors possess as a life experience.
Neither would contemporary Canadian texts, like the Cree and Métis blended heritage Tomson Highway’s Kiss of the Fur Queen (2000), the Irish, Scottish and Anishinabee Joseph Boyden’s Three Day Road (2005), Ojibway born and Anglo-Canadian adopted Richard Wagamese’s Ragged Company (2008) or the Ojibway and Caucasian mix Drew Hayden Taylor’s Motorcycles and Sweetgrass (2011) reflect a direct observation/reflection of mixed heritage. Nevertheless, what we can surely see in all these narratives is a fluid racial Frontier, where the characters shift among social roles and keep re-establishing their own ethnic identity as a result of significant conflicts with their social environment. Highway’s Cree brothers in his The Kiss of the Fur Queen keep bouncing between traditional community and white man’s world, between social and gender roles. Two of Wagamese’s four homeless characters in Ragged Company are of mixed heritage, but it is not their perceived racial identity but the social vacuum that keeps them dynamically shifting among several social roles. Vacuum here means isolation, lack of proper identification with a particular social group, refusal and distancing, self- or alter-imposed. This vacuum implies a liminality between social positions, a dynamic process of constant identification that the literary texts depict. Boyden’s Cree comrades of Three Day Road in the war-ridden Europe are both born “full blood” Native, but apparently chose two different roads: attempted assimilation combined with a stereotypical Indian role as survival on the one hand, and a (re)connection with tradition on the other. Finally, Taylor’s mythic-ironic tale in Motorcycles and Sweetgrass reflects constant motion, the dynamics of rez world on the brink of white Anglo-Canadian society, the opportunity to shapeshift and move between reality and myth, between identities of alter-ascribed and self-imposed nature.
In the following, I explore recent Canadian fiction, more particularly some texts written by mixed heritage/Métis writers, who generally consider themselves as “Indigenous,” “Indian,” “First Nations” artists. The problem of “race” and the “narrative chance” are tackled here, to reconceptualise, deracialize and decolonize their narrative: Joseph Boyden, Drew Hayden Taylor and Richard Wagamese, Tomson Highway, Thomas King and Richard Van Camp offer us their rich ethno-cultural experiences in the form of wonderful pieces of fiction that is born on the borderland of various cultures.
This paper addresses the protagonists’ ethnic positioning, his negotiating of the terrain in between (see Chris LaLonde: Clear-Cut: The Importance of Mixedblood Identities and the Promise of Native American Cosmopolitanism”), the way many of the characters overcome the ”halfbreed,” ”(white) Indian” and ”trapped between two worlds” stereotypes and renegotiate their individual sense of identity, that seems more homogeneous, less racialized and certainly more positive overall. Most writers reflect significant, such as cultural assertion, ”authentic Indianness,” stereotype and stigma, the gap between alter ascribed versus ego recognized identity and various forms of trauma and reconciliation.
What these texts call for is a broader critical investigation of some related features, such as the narrative and psychological coping strategies, processes and models; ethnic positioning and the liminal space; problematizing ”authentic Indianness,” the stereotype and the stigma; the mixed blood perspective: the capacity to observe and understand reality from an indefinite intercultural space; depicting the cultural assertion process; alter-ascribed and ego-recognized identity notions often in conflict; self-definition, transformation, fluctuation between more social identities, ethnic choice and de-stigmatization; the transition from the “contradictor zones” and conflicted notions on the threshold of mainstream Anglo-Canadian and marginal ethnic culture; renegotiated identity (partly/ increasingly conscious); merging Indigenous and Western cultural traits (e.g. spirituality, life cyclic structure and character choice/ development) and last but not least the way many of the protagonists transform their confusion and frustration into a complex, sophisticated and fluid sense of identity. Obviously this paper cannot facilitate all these investigations, but can attempt to present the exciting palette of possible attitudes to ethno-cultural challenges depicted by these novels and also to relate the earlier research on Colonial ironies of “going Native”/ playing Indian (Kádár: Going Indian: Cultural Appropriation in North-American Literature and ”Authenticity” in The Routledge Companion to Native American Literature), too.
Turning our attention to the way the novels treat mixed heritage, we can observe three possibilities as of the extent of focus given to it. In the first subtype, mixed heritage is central as of the reality of being mixed-blood. Some socio-psychological problems are highlighted in the texts, such as the difference between alter-ascribed and ego-recognized identity, or the problem of being ”not Indian/white enough”. The former implies that the protagonist’s social environment tends to pose easy-to-grab judgement and identity on the person, as of “white” or “Indian”, but the same person might not identify with these definitions or might develop a more complex sense of ethnic identity. The latter, i.e. the problem of not being white or Indian enough refers to the colonial ideology of blood quantum and mixed heritage persons’ inability to access any clearly definite social identity, while it also refers to their struggle for either a simple and beneficial ethnic definition, or an acceptance of the complex one they come up with. In this group of literary texts, the protagonist faces the challenge that his/her social environment not necessarily identifies him/her the same way s/he feels and social norms, expectations and prejudice influence attitudes s/he encounters. Even more so with those who are somehow related to Indigeneity. Taylor’s nonfiction piece entitled Me Funny (2005) could exemplify it. In the second subtype mixed heritage is less overtly thematized and discussed. The writer’s mixed ethnic heritage appears only as implied through his ethno-cultural experiences/ sensibility /sense of living between two cultures. Boyden’s Three Day Road, Highway’s Kiss of the Fur Queen and Taylor: Motorcycles and Sweetgrass stand for examples. Finally, in the third subgroup, some mixed heritage characters do appear in the text, they are central, but their mixed heritage matters only as much or less that their shared Indigenous experience with the rest of the other power-deprived characters. Wagamese’s Ragged Company surely shows us an ample example.
Now let’s take a closer look at these subtypes. Mixed heritage is central for the sandy blond, blue-eyed Caucasian (MS 50) Taylor in his Me Funny, which in contrast with his Motorcycles and Sweetgrass, makes the reader face his/her own possible racial prejudice in a funny way: “people tell me I don’t look Native. I believe the politically correct term is “pigmentally challenged.” I am “melanin deprived” “(MF 55). Being “half” “on occasion” (MS 3) is actually fun, though it also means “half out of love and half out of necessity” (MS 27). He knows he is often taken as a “crazy Ninja Indian on the mysterious island” (MS 71), but argues: “We’re not exactly from another planet, though I can’t vouch for all Aboriginal people…. forty-two years as an Ojibway—or, since I’m a halfbreed, technically maybe that should be twenty-one years as an Ojibway and twenty-one years as a white person” (MF 2). I believe that there is a reason why most mixed writers are less overtly expressive on their heritage, consider it almost irrelevant as compared to the strong indigenous component of their cultural background, and why Taylor find irony as the best conveyor of making a statement about mixed heritage. Irony is a powerful strategy to reconfigure and reshape identity, as explained in Kádár: “Humor in Contemporary Mixed Blood North-American Writing: Nanabush’s "Pandora’s Box of Possibilities” " in detail.
The second subgroup is where mixed heritage is less overtly thematized, where mixed blood protagonists are not central in the text and where the writer’s mixed ethnic heritage appears only as implied through his ethno-cultural experiences, sensibility and sense of living between two cultures. To take an example, Boyden’s Three Day Road tackles some central questions, such as the dissolution of binaries and oppositions of Aboriginal and Anglo Canada, good and evil, tradition and modernity and values and devaluation; how to cope with external change (boarding school, urbanization, modernization in Canada and the war in Europe); how to locate one’s ethnic identity in the context of (post)colonial society; the pressures to assimilate and/or to act out the Indian stereotype; masking; and finally, to kill the archetypical Windigo in a multilayer narrative. There are two roads taken by the central characters. Elijah stands for extreme in-betweenness with his borderline personality, violence and assimilationism, while Bird is the traditionalist who reconnects with Indigeneity in the course of a healing narrative.
I would like to call attention to a wonderful novel, Highway’s Kiss of the Fur Queen, and offer some special approaches that all indicate the high sensibility to racism of all forms as well as the liminal nature of the characters. The first one is the socio-critical Indigenous approach. The two brothers, who have left their Indigenous community and family to join the boarding school, end up in a western Canadian urban setting and try to redefine who they are in various senses of the word. They stay in a special touch with Christianity that they have experienced mainly the negative side of under the institutionalized assimilationist mission school regiment run by priests and nuns. In a scene, Jeremiah is observing the Pan-Indian show at church (Ch24), trying to position his heritage against what he sees. In a way, he also observes townspeople’s ignorance about aboriginal people sustained by the Indian stereotype, signalled by for instance the “drunken Geronimos” (KFQ 211) reference. For Gabriel, the church represents a (Ch25) game of make believe world of false music, false communion, and he fantasizes about the priest in Superman leotard (KFQ 180), the latter related to his modified sexuality due to the traumatic childhood harassment experiences. Indigenous body politics becomes central here, in the context of the infamous colonial practices related to the role of the church in ideological colonization. There is an extremely sensitive depiction of power politics of various forms (abuse, sexual harassment, neocolonialization practices) here, similar to those in Taylor: Motorcycles and Sweetgrass.
The second approach worth considering is the closely related critical Indigenous one. Taylor’s novel provides that approach for instance in a purely critical and ironic way: “But colonization has its nasty way to work itself into the DNA” (MS 83), referring to fake Indian cult (MS 124), and expanding it with Tonto talk: ” ”The great iron horse approaches” said the man, in his best Hollywood Indian voice” (MS 77).
The next approach offered is the intercultural one and the fluctuation between red and white paradigms. Giving some examples from the same novel, the contrastive imagery of Christianity and profane reality that reoccurs in the text, and the John/ Nanabush and Jesus dialogue exemplify that contrast: “I thought you are shorter, your biography [the Bible] needs an editor, no offence, blame free will (MS 267).” The corn soup the English teacher calls „Native chicken soup” (MS 26), seemingly bridging the gap between cultures through mock-translation, but actually signifying and deepening the distance through referring to the socioeconomic difference between red and white world. In addition, there are silly jokes for instance about Native vegetarians (MS 26).
Finally, as for the power and identity politics approach, I offer two aspects to consider in such texts: that of Indigeneity on the one hand, and the Post-Colonial agenda on the other hand. Historical injustice (treaties, mission schools), political power games and ironic rez sociography characterizes Taylor’s novel. There are similar historical references to the impact of boarding schools and the responsibility of the church for mental and spiritual deprivation of the young in the Colonial agenda (MS 267) to those in the Kiss of the Fur Queen. In a lighter, more ironic fashion, Taylor’s satirical tone aims at land claims and rez politics today: tribal folks come up with funny ideas about what to do with the repatriated land near Otter Lake, for instance turning it into a gigantic studio (MS 124). Taylor’s stinky humor works on the magic realistic/mythic level of the text, too: John/ Nanabush goes to the local museum at night and collect bones from various ages in order to confuse folks about the Otter Lake land for a while and thus save it as Native land (MS 239). When asked about it, he says: 90% is “pure Anishnawbe” bones, the rest is a bit “eclectic mixture,” “skeletal potpourri” “just to keep things interesting” “just to keep them guessing for a while” (MS 315). If tribal people are unable to handle power politics, Nanabush is there to help in his own way…
Next, we can have a close up on the texts of the third subtype, where mixed heritage characters are central, but their mixed heritage matters only as much or less that their shared Indigenous experience with the rest of the other power-deprived characters. Wagamese’s Ragged Company serves as a great example for us: out of the writer’s Indigenous heritage, Native spirituality provides the cyclical form of the narrative, based on four parts, four main characters representing the four main directions. Among these street junkies, whose life changes along with the fortune they win and share together, Digger stands for light coming from the East, Double Dick stands for growth rising in the South, Timber for teaching coming from the West, and One-For-The-Dead stands for spirituality that has its home in the North, according to tradition. The rough urban setting tests severely the underdogs of the society, and the patter of their fates seems to underline the relevance of a firm understanding of heritage, childhood and socialization.
Two of the four main characters, Double Dick/ Richard Richard and Diger/ Mark Haskett are Canadian Métis persons who seem to have a conflict and resolution both deriving from the various components of their racial heritage: Dick explains: father “wasn’t like a real Indian. He wasn’t even half, he said. But he looked like it. Me, I don’t, but Dad did” (RC 288). “We was moose milk Indians” (RC 289), not like those in the movies. “On accounta my dad was a half-breed we never had no land or nothin’ “(RC 299). Dick seems to have made peace with his origins, unlike Digger, who has always been angry with the world, including his parents and people representing the majority in his minority eyes. His father, Clint Haskett was a railroad worker. “Don’t make me half-breed don’t make me half-breed, don’t make me Indian. It don’t make me nothing but the lazy son of a bitch” (RC 115), Digger says, and adds: “My mother’s mother got tired of the half-breed label and married white” (RC 115). His Métis heritage does not give him any firm statement about who he is, what is his position in the world, perhaps that’s why he is so upset all the time, that his argo language signifies as well. Granite says about Digger: “meeting you is like trying to pet a cornered cat” (RC 56). There are two important symbolic spaces for him: one is the Ferris wheel, the means of elevation and magic (RC 181), and the hotel room with its entrapping walls (RC 178), where his in-betweenness is physically embodied. Interestingly, while Double Dick of alcohol overdose in Hilton (RC 325), dreaming of going to Tucumcary, NM, a culturally liminal frontier space, Digger suffers a similar death of come caused by alcohol problems. In contrast to their fate, for the only female character One-For-The-Dead, healing is possible through keeping in touch with Indigenous spirituality.
In conclusion, above an attempt was made to present the relevance of Métis heritage of some Canadian writers; and how Gunn Allen’s problematized notion of “conflicting bloods” turns into Owens’ notion of the “hybrid potential and then Taylor’s understanding of “special occasions.” An attempt was made to present the correlation between this hybrid potential and liminality, through the protagonists’ recognition of both as their special social reality and asset. We could observe in a literary context how a mixed heritage person may dissolve his/her vacuum existence, the lack of strong and tangible identification with one particular social group, while sustaining the liminality and fluidity of the ego-recognized identity, taking image control over from the alter-ascribed, and obtaining a more empowered sense of self/identity. These narratives tackle important challenges that beyond the world of fiction, millions share in reality: cultural assertion, “authentic Indianness”, trauma and reconciliation. These novels can be read as narrative of reconciliation, healing, empowering, too, that introduce and invoice the earlier ignored mixed blood/Métis perspective. These stories show us the cultural assertion process, the gap/conflict between alter-ascribed and ego-recognized identity, the fluctuation between more social identities, ethnic choice, de-stigmatization and renegotiated identity, the merging of Indigenous and Western cultural traits and a sophisticated, fluid sense of self the characters develop, revealing a complex renewed approach to identity.
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