All These Imperfect Emotions Vol 2. Part 1. I’m no Pocahontas (the accidental neocolonialists)

2014-10-Disney-Pocahontas-38If you’ve been wondering why I haven’t spoken much about the environmental or cultural implications of my trip, it’s because I don’t completely understand what they are yet. I was not an environmental warrior before I paddled the Peel. I was in denial. In the introduction to her latest book, This Changes Everything, Naomi Klein outlines the different cognitive strategies used by those of us who have been ignoring climate change. She nailed my approach, for sure. Maybe yours, too.

“Or we look but tell ourselves that all we can do is focus on ourselves. Meditate and shop at farmers’ markets and stop driving–but forget trying to actually change the systems that are making the crisis inevitable because that’s too much “bad energy” and will never work. And at first it may appear as if we are looking, because many of these lifestyle changes are indeed part of the solution, but we still have one eye tightly shut.”

PREACH. And although I saw incredible things and endured some hardship on the trip, I’m not suddenly an expert on the Peel or the people who make the Peel their home. I was a tourist, albeit a well-intentioned one, and that was obvious every single day of the trip. I’ve done this ass-backwards, dragged myself through a part of the world I was ambivalent about beforehand, hoping to connect with a culture I knew very little about, though perhaps more than my travel-mates. So now, as I write down memories, I’m adding the layers required to tell this story properly. And that can only be achieved by shutting up my opinion hole and doing some reading. I should also add that the environmental and cultural implications of my trip are inextricably linked, since the Nacho Nyak Dun, Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in, and Tetlit Gwich’in people are connected to the Peel. The people and the river are not two separate entities.

So, in my latest research, I’ve been surprised (though I shouldn’t have been) to learn how the FIrst Nations’ connection to their environment has been exploited by the neocolonialist narrative–that is, the social narrative that claims “hey, colonialism happened and really guys, it was for the best.” For this discovery, I can thank my travel-mates, and an unintentional gaffe that was made on the trip. It has to do with Disney, which should be no surprise to anyone. So read on, and keep in mind that this post is meant more as a sorting of ideas and impressions than a definitive voice. I am much obliged to Derek T. Buescher and Ken A. Ono for their article Civilized Colonialism: Pocahontas as Neocolonial Rhetoric. And I suggest you read it, since I am paraphrasing their work in this post.

Hoping to find myself in the landscape was naive. I realized that quickly, and now I feel like an idiot. Looking for myself in the canyon walls, emaciated black spruce, pock-marked beach stones–that was stupid. I’ve been here the whole time, inside my body. My poor broken body, with toes I can no longer feel, fingers that threaten to break off every time I stuff that fucking sleeping bag into its sack. I haven’t taken a shit in seven days, I just dig a hole and cry a little every morning. Twist and turn, stand up, walk around a little with three layers of pants around my ankles. Squat again. My body can’t even do the things it’s built for out here. “Squatting is the most natural way to go,” people keep telling me, solemn faced. God, I want to punch them when they say that. If you’ve grown up taking a shit on a porcelain throne in a Windexed, climate controlled room, then that’s the most natural way to go, right? Nature < Nurture.

So then, maybe I’m here not find myself, but to further define some fuzzy parts. Specifically, my Métis self, since that had been my original intention. But as the days pass it’s obvious that isn’t happening either, not the defining part. Doubt is happening though. Lots of doubt, mostly about whether I have the right to be here, using this trip for creative fuel, whether my puny voice will really convince anyone that they should save the Peel, and whether I have the right to consider my voice a Métis voice at all. Whether I’m mining the aboriginal niche market to try and convince anyone who might read the story that my blood line somehow makes me more of an authority on Canadian identity. I suspect Calder is counting on that–with the best of intentions of course–as my Métis-ness got brought up a lot in the film promo. Look at me, with my long, braided black hair and my tanned skin! And part Icelandic, too, truly a wild woman looking for a place to happen. What a joke. Forget finding a connection to the northern landscape. I can’t even relieve myself on it.

But doubt is useless–harmful really–and a trip like this doesn’t allow me much time or energy for useless pursuits. So when I finally catch my stride about ten days into the trip, I try to re-shape my anxieties into questions. Questions about concrete concerns, like, if I’m not aboriginal enough to call myself Métis, why does it make me so angry when my travel-mates sing songs from Disney’s Pocahontas over and over and over again? I’m sure they’re not riffing off the colonial implications of the film, not intentionally, anyway. But hang on a second here, do I understand the colonial implications of the film? Not really. Not enough to make an intelligent argument to my travel-mates about why I wished they would shut the fuck up. This is fine, me being out here, beating myself up for the cause, but without a proper education, I’m just some earnest schmuck using physical hardship and a tenuous blood link to position myself as a voice of authority on First Nations culture. What I needed… was the internet.

But I didn’t have the internet, and wouldn’t for another ten days, so I held my tongue on the whole “just around the riverbend” debacle. Wrote “Google colonial implications of Disney’s Pocahontas” in my journal.

What I love most about rivers is:
You can’t step in the same river twice
The water’s always changing, always flowing
But people, I guess, can’t live like that
We all must pay a price
To be safe, we lose our chance of ever knowing
What’s around the riverbend
Waiting just around the riverbend

So I guess we know what was actually waiting just around the riverbend for North American indigenous people. War. Assimilation. Genocide. It does make these words seem hideously insensitive, whether or not the Disney version of this (already hopelessly unreliable) story was meant to be historically accurate. As Buescher and Ono point out, Pocahontas was the first time Disney had adapted a historical narrative into a movie.

Call it artistic licence or effective marketing, but Disney turned the 10- to 15-year-old Native American girl … Pocahontas, into a woman; turned the middle-aged man, John Smith, into a young man and their “supposed” meeting into a romance.

A romance between who, exactly? The buxom and forward-thinking Pocahontas, oppressed by her traditional father’s ideas about arranged marriage, chooses Smith–the kinder, gentler and even heroic version of colonial domination by the Europeans. The evil, selfish, destructive colonial was of course played by Governor Ratcliffe. This is kind of like Don Draper giving two advertising options options to a client, one shitty, and one better than shitty, but still not great.

Part 2 next week!

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