Review: Prison of Grass
|Book: Prison of Grass: Canada from a Native Point of View|
ZNet Book Page
Publisher: Fifth House Publishers
This book is an anti-colonial classic. Written by radical Métis scholar and Red Power movement veteran Howard Adams, its politics and writing place it in the tradition of the great national liberation texts of the mid-20th century authored by the likes of Fanon and Memmi.
Like other authors in that tradition, Adams roots his analysis in accounts of brutally painful personal experiences of living as a colonized individual in the context of colonial social relations. He grew up in a French Métis community in Saskatchewan. His internalization of the messages and values of the colonizers led him to flee, resist, hate his indigenous heritage as a young adult. Ultimately, though, he embraced his heritage and confronted the personal pain of colonization rather than futilely trying to escape it. He became an important leader in indigenous liberation struggle in Canada, particularly in the '60s and '70s, and a radical anti-colonial voice through his positions at the University of California and the University of Saskatchewan.
Much of the book focuses on retelling certain key aspects of Canadian history in a decolonized way. He talks about the origins of the fur trade and the ways in which it distorted and shifted indigenous ways of being in the central part of the continent long before the beginning of sustained settler colonialism. He talks about the role of Christianity and education, both past and present, in perpetuating colonization. He talks about the ossification of indigenous cultures -- how colonization can detach cultural symbols from actual power over collective ways of being and doing, and turns them into spectacle for the colonizer's consumption and for the colonized's entrapment. He particularly focuses on reanalyzing the uprisings of 1870 and 1885 in what was to become central Canada, rescuing them from the empty colonial stories that we learn in mainstream history classes and demonstrating the ways in which they were class and national liberation struggles. Particularly interesting to me was his insistence that in both instances there were moments of significant common cause between Cree, Métis, and white inhabitants of the prairies during these struggles -- ended by the Ottawa regime making concessions to split off important layers of the white settler population, and by the lack of functional unity among resistance forces.
He also talks about contemporary colonization during the period in which he was writing. This includes the significant role played by indigenous buy-in to the supposed superiority of white middle-class ideals with respect to everything from beauty to comportment to political culture, and the need for any anti-colonial struggle to work at rooting out that internalized self-hatred. He talks about the failures of indigenous leadership and the role of government funding in coopting radical struggle. He argues very strongly for nationalism as a potentially positive force. He recognizes that there are harmful versions of nationalism, which can co-opt and remove colonized people from political struggle, but he argues that a radical nationalism infused with class politics is key to anti-colonial struggle in Canada. It is particularly at this point, though throughout the book as well, that it would have been interesting to see more attention to issues of gender oppression and sexuality. He argues for indigenous militants mobilizing their communities in local struggles, which he envisions as eventually becoming connected to each other and to class struggles in the broader society, leading ultimately to an anti-colonial and socialist revolution.
Along with a welcome, energizing clarity about new-to-me aspects of Canada-the-colonial, this book also left me with considerable uncertainty about how exactly to relate to it in a lot of ways. It speaks historical truths that are no less relevant today. It speaks of then-contemporary realities that have shifted a bit in form in the intervening decades, but are largely the same in their fundamentals. Yet it is still a product of a particular moment.
Part of the power of this particular kind of national liberation politics in the 1970s, I think, was that it connected struggles on Turtle Island to struggles against colonization, capitalism, and imperialism around the world -- struggles and movements that were ongoing, that were alive, and that had the feeling of relentless momentum in the direction of victory. Though that is an important tradition for radicals anywhere to remain connected with, the context is vastly different today.
I also find it difficult to fairly evaluate some of the ways in which certain leftist political language and ideas are used in the book. Perhaps some of that is his deliberate revolutionary bluntness tweaking my still-middle-class sensibilities. However, part of it is that the book's use of certain notions around things like "class" and "revolution" feel kind of schematic. Which is to say, I have the sense that his use of those ideas convey vitally important things for anti-colonial struggle in North America, but I also get the feeling that there is more to say, more to understand, more to name in order to advance contemporary organizing, both in indigenous and in settler-dominated contexts. Certainly there is something very powerful in his vision of the necessary connection between indigenous liberation struggles and other struggles, but I think we need to deliberately hold onto uncertainty and questioning as we move forward rather than embracing some sort of doctrinaire blueprint, revolutionary socialist or otherwise. If we hold his particular usages somewhat loosely, we can learn from them; if we hold them too tightly, we will be trapped by them.
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