Elmer's English 304 Magazine

First Nations Studies

by Elmer G. Wiens

In their works, aboriginal writers in Canada and the United States of America "address such pressing topics as tradition, identity, language, appropriation, assimilation, self-determination and sexuality" (Armand Ruffo). First Nations writers often reflect on how colonization has affected themselves, their families, and their communities, and on their future with de-colonization.

I wrote the following essays for Dr. Lorraine Weir's English 476 course, First Nations Studies, during the Fall, 2005 term.

Native and Western Cosmologies

The term "totalization," in "Structure, Sign and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences" by Jacques Derrida, can be exploited as a signifier for the desire of Christian religions and native myths to explain everything in their posited universes. Totalization implies a whole, an adding up, an entirety, completeness, and even an absolute. Derrida characterizes both attempts at totalization as "impossible" and "meaningless" (289). On the one hand, Western philosophy's logocentric belief that the world can be explained by words implies the existence of a transcendental signified, conditioning the belief of Western religious cosmology that the entirety of reality consists of God and the Universe God created. Everything can be "explained" with reference to God. On the other hand, in The Savage Mind, Lévi-Strauss uses the signifier, bricolage (16, 36), to describe how myths are assembled from the rudiments of prior myths and discourses. These elements are combined opportunistically to explain any extant phenomenon. Through myths, primitive science provides an understanding, a "coming-to-know," of everything within the awareness of the senses. Both attempts at totalization can be tracked down to the oral traditions of story telling from which Christian religion and native myths emerged, and to the sacred power of words.

Linguistic and Commodity Exchanges

According to Claude Lévi-Strauss, a society's system of linguistic exchange is the basis for all of its arrangements for exchanging items, such as goods and services. Linguistic exchange can be verbal or written, while goods can be exchanged by way of barter, or purchased and sold for money. In conversation, the participants' presence permits valuation of the words offered and accepted, as the verbal interaction proceeds. Similarly when items are bartered, the participants' presence permits them to measure the quality and the quantity of commodities prior to, and during trade, to ensure quid pro quo. However, with a recorded communication, participants deliver or receive the message by way of an intermediary, such as paper. While during barter exchange participants sell and buy commodities simultaneously, with monetary exchange participants sell or buy commodities in exchange for money. To ensure quid pro quo in the transaction between a buyer and seller with monetary exchange, commodities are transacted at agreed prices expressed in terms of money as a unit of account. An intermediary in linguistic and commodity exchanges necessitates an extra step in an exchange transaction.

Adaptations to Reality

A society's religious beliefs, culture, and traditions condition a person's conduct and behaviour. Upon their arrival in the Americas, Europeans upset most aspects of the lifestyle of its indigenous people. Christian missionary proselytizers, Spanish priests, European traders, white hunters and fishers, Government laws, and Government and Church schools destroyed the aboriginal ways of life. Consequently, the conduct and behaviour of natives disintegrated from their ancient, steady, stable patterns. These impacts on First Nations people reverberate in the prose and poetry of contemporary aboriginal writers, whose discourses root in their wounds. Their writing connects the heritage of diverse nations. The aboriginal authors' experiences are foremost the subjects of their books. By writing, they create their history. Struggling with the language of their oppressors, constrained by the imperatives of imposed culture and religion, they write their present, conditioning their future.

Works Cited

Derrida, Jacques. "Structure, Sign and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences." Writing and Difference. Trans. Alan Bass. Chicago: U. Chicago Press, 1978: 278-293.

Lévi-Strauss, Claude. The Savage Mind. London: Weidenfeld, 1966.

Ruffo, Armand Garnet. (Ad)dressing Our Words. Penticton B.C.: Theytus, 2001.


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