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Thursday, January 11, 2007

Reader's Diary #217- Louise Bernice Halfe: Blue Marrow (up to p. 35)


Not long ago I watched Transamerica and found myself laughing at the name of Graham Greene's character, Calvin Two Goats. At the time I felt it seemed too much of a Hollywood "Indian" name. Then recently I was watching the news and there was a similar sounding name. I can't remember what the name was now but searching for it in the CBC archives, I came across a similar sounding name, Matthew Coon Come. Apparently such names are possible and not some Hollywood creation.
My point is that, despite my looming awareness that popular conceptions of First Nations, Metis, and Inuit peoples are often wrong, my own conceptions aren't always correct either. I know many of the "informed" Canadians have made the transition from "Eskimo" to "Inuit." But I wonder how many people know why the earlier term is no longer accepted? An often quoted reason is that "Eskimo" means "Eaters of Raw Meat" and that is no longer the case. Just like they no longer live in igloos, right? Wrong. While the igloo thing is true, raw meat is still eaten in abundance. I've gone to more than one feast where the main course has been a smorgasbord of raw caribou, char and whale blubber. So why the offence with "Eskimo"? It is my understanding that the main reason is that "Eskimo" is not their own word, it is not an Inuktitut word. I'd also like to believe that they don't want to be defined simply by what they eat. Though calling me Cheesey, wouldn't be far off the mark.
Novelist Thomas King has had a lot of fun with our confusions and stereotypes. Blue Marrow, on the other hand and for all my digression, seems blissfully unaware of a white man's misconceptions and xenophobia. It is probably why the latter book was a little jarring to me at first. Littered with such images as spruce, drums, moose, dancing, elk, wood, buffalo, mosquitoes and so forth, I was surprised to see how "stereotypical" it seemed. Alas I needed more reminders; just because First Nations peoples are often portrayed on T.V. as having close relationships to nature, doesn't mean it isn't true. It's so hard to tell what's a cliche and what's accurate. But Halfe's poems refer back to her grandmothers as a rule and so the more traditional way of life is probably fine. While King might have a lot of fun writing of modernized, urban "Indians", Halfe focuses mostly on the past. While occasionally she mentions modern tools such as printers, her reflection on history allows for more traditional (and perhaps predictable) tools such as bone scrapers. It's not that she is unconcerned with the present, it's just that she seems to want to show how they (the Cree) got here, to this time and situation.
I don't often comment on titles, but I love Blue Marrow so much, that I feel compelled. Of "Blue", it brings to mind the old standbys in terms of symbolism; sadness, sexual encounters and natural grandness (think sky, sea). And those are all accurate descriptions in the book. Sadness is found in poems that deal with loss of culture and broken trust, sexual encounters in poems dealing with rape at residential schools and between fur traders and Cree women, and grandness in poems which deal with nature. "Marrow" implies the core of our being and Halfe consistently makes history personal. It also implies life coming from bones, and her conversations with her grandmothers are reflective of that. Finally putting the two terms together reminds me of "Blue Blood" and while that terms usually refers to aristocracy and royalty, it seems to suggest pride of her culture in this case. It might just be one of my favourite titles ever.

2 comments:

Barbara Bruederlin said...

Somehow your description of Halfe's book reminds me of the piece I heard on Sounds Like Canada today. The topic was salvage tourism (seeing endangered places before they disappeared) and when he was told his area was considered a pristine wilderness, a northern elder looked bemused and replied that it wasn't wilderness to him, it was home. It sounds to me like Halfe has a similar matter of fact attitude.

John Mutford said...

That's a great comparison. Yes, the book feels like that. It's not that Halfe seems unaware of a potential white audience, it's that she doesn't care. It's irrelevant to the poems within.