Reviewed by Alix Shield
Katherine Palmer Gordon
We Are Born with the Songs Inside Us. Harbour Publishing, 2013.
In her sixth non-fiction book, Katherine Palmer Gordon presents a collection of sixteen stories composed from interviews conducted with members of British Columbia’s First Nations communities. These interviews, gathered by Gordon since 2004, reveal a diverse collection of First Nations individuals that all have in common a belief in the importance of cultural heritage. Gordon writes, “In many ways most of them are ordinary individuals, yet, given the vast cultural and social gulf that still yawns between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal communities and individuals in Canada, their stories, like all the others, are well worth knowing” (16). This text is as much about celebration as it is about increasing awareness.
While Gordon admits that she was tempted “to include many more individuals than the ones illustrating these pages” (13), the stories selected highlight a range of careers held by First Nations peoples in Canada today. They seamlessly integrate informative references to Canadian First Nations legislation, tracing the progress of Indigenous rights since the introduction of the Indian Act in 1876 and including more recent initiatives such as the “Idle No More” movement of 2012.
Rather than defining each person based solely on his or her First Nation affiliation, Gordon critiques the essentialized “Indian” stereotype and presents each speaker as a multifaceted and complex individual. The first interview, for example, introduces Lisa Webster-Gibson as follows:
Delaware Mohawk/Six Nations/Scottish Canadian from way back,
Environmental assessment professional
Spoken-word and visual artist, rock ’n’ roll drummer
Here, Gordon makes a subtle yet provocative statement about the ways in which we tend to classify people, urging readers to consider things we may share in common – and how, when written on paper, the simplicity of these common threads might surprise us. The foreword, written by Shawn A-in-chut Atleo (National Chief of the Assembly of First Nations), echoes this sentiment: “I believe that seeing us as human beings, as people with our own unique perspectives and lives, is a fundamental first step toward understanding who we are, rejecting false and imposed stereotypes, and ultimately reaching reconciliation” (8).
Dispersed between these narratives are shorter “Thoughts” from a range of influential First Nations figures, providing more concise meditations on key values and cultural beliefs. The postscript focuses on the topic of language revitalization, and surveys a number of First Nations figures from local communities to give a sense of the situation moving forward, particularly for today’s youth.
Many of Gordon’s stories focus on socio-political achievements on behalf of First Nations communities. In Tewanee Joseph’s story, we learn about his involvement in creating the Four Host First Nations initiative for the 2010 Olympic and Paralympic Games in Vancouver. His dedication to equality ensured that BC’s First Nations played a major role in the event, which led to increased cultural awareness on a national and international scale. Similarly, Gordon shares the story of Merle Alexander’s experiences working on the front lines of Aboriginal law and reflects on the positive legislative changes since the landmark Delgamuukw v. British Columbia decision in 1997.
Other stories, in contrast, resonate most deeply through the profundity of simplicity and uncomplicated approaches to equality. The story of Lisa Webster-Gibson presents the notion of genetics: “How can you be half something? Genetics is not divisive. It doesn’t split into fractions” (24). Instead, Webster-Gibson “sees herself as being an inseparable combination of two colours, or as wearing two skins at the same time” (24). Similarly, Lyana Patrick’s story shares her desire to see the peaceful coexistence of Western and Indigenous medicine and urges for a “holistic” approach to medical treatment (50). In fact, this notion of inclusivity serves as an undercurrent to Gordon’s text, as she strives to make connections between First Nations peoples and the rest of Canada.Gordon’s book gestures toward hopes for future generations of First Nations in British Columbia, placing a particular emphasis on the youth; through language revitalization initiatives and staying connected with one’s cultural history, Gordon believes that their future is hopeful. And, with First Nations as the “fastest-growing segment of the country’s population” (12), these cultural initiatives are extremely important. Most notably, Gordon’s book sheds any sense of a static notion of Aboriginality; by sharing the stories of today’s lawyers, athletes, teachers, and doctors, Gordon rebukes the stereotypes that relegate First Nations communities to the historical past. As Gordon’s text clearly articulates, Canada’s First Nations have stories to share and voices that demand to be heard. This book is a good place to start.
Alix Shield is a PhD Student in English at Simon Fraser University. Her research interests include West Coast First Nations orature and literature, versioning theory, and J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series.
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