This article discusses the recent discoveries at the sites of the former Indian Residential Schools.
In May, the Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc First Nation revealed that it had found the remains of 215 children at the site of the former Kamloops Indian Residential School. Only weeks later, the Cowessess First Nation announced that they had found 751 unmarked graves at the former site of Marieval Indian Residential School. While Indigenous people have long known that these and many other sites have harbored such confirmations, the widespread surprise expressed in the wake of these announcements speaks to the need, both today and going forward, to listen to the voices of Indigenous people, many of whom have found literary fiction and film useful for grappling with such difficult subjects. In The Marrow Thieves, which I have discussed before, Cherie Dimaline uses dystopian tropes and a post-apocalyptic setting to speak to the ongoing history of colonialism, while Jeff Barnaby speaks to this same ongoing history in Blood Quantum by portraying a zombie horde threatening a Mi’kmaq reserve.
To discuss these works and their larger implications, I am privileged to invite my colleague and friend Krista Collier-Jarvis to contribute to this month’s blog. Collier-Jarvis is a member of the Pictou Landing First Nation and a PhD Candidate in the Department of English. Her research focuses on intersections between the Gothic and Indigenous literature and film.
Michael Cameron – What is the “Indigenous Gothic,” and how does it differ, if at all, from Gothic literature as it’s traditionally been conceived?
Krista Collier-Jarvis – There are ongoing debates within the Gothic as to whether there is an Indigenous Gothic, so to simplify things and avoid falling into the trappings of genre debate, let’s just say there are Indigenous authors and filmmakers working in the Gothic and deliberately drawing on both Gothic tropes as well as Indigenous subtexts to interrogate the current colonial trappings of genre. According to Michelle Burnham, if there is an Indigenous Gothic it eschews settler mentality—that is, it deliberately rejects territorial borders and boundaries, it interrogates binary systems, and it questions Indigenous past, present, and future. The latter of these things is what piques my curiosity. While the Gothic has always been concerned with what Freud calls the return of the repressed, or history coming back to haunt us (ghosts), Indigenous Gothic is not rooted in the haunting itself, but in the ability to finally add Indigenous perspectives and voices alongside the national narrative. Indigenous Gothic does not rewrite history per se but rather writes another version of history alongside what is already there, but in doing so, seeks to reposition Indigenous peoples in a different haunting/haunted dynamic.
MC – Some of the works you study overlap the Gothic and the dystopian/post-apocalyptic. How do these genres relate?
KCJ – Absolutely, they overlap in many ways. In fact, both Jeff Barnaby’s 2019 film, Blood Quantum, and Cherie Dimaline’s novel, The Marrow Thieves, have been discussed through a Gothic lens as well as through a dystopian/post-apocalyptic lens. While it is perfectly fine to situate Indigenous narratives within traditional dystopian parameters, we must also acknowledge that the Gothic and dystopian classifications are Eurocentric and somewhat limiting when applied to Indigenous narratives. For example, a subgenre called Indigenous Futurism can more accurately be applied. Eva Greyeyes argues, “Indigenous Futurisms is a method of healing. At its core, the movement is about envisioning a future from an Indigenous perspective. It’s a way to step outside boundaries and imagine new possibilities.” Indigenous Futurism is a response to the dearth of Indigenous representation in science fiction. Indigenous Gothic operates along a similar vein whereby we take horror and Gothic narratives where Indigenous peoples are largely absent, and we include them—both as creators and characters. How does the narrative change when we do this? Are the parameters of the genre so tight that they cannot be disrupted? Essentially, because these works are so new, we don’t have answers to these questions yet, but I’m really excited to find out.
MC – Why are Indigenous authors/creators gravitating to these genres today?
KCJ – In one interview, Barnaby admitted that he went into filmmaking because he was inspired by Alanis Obomsawin’s documentary (Incident at Restigouche) detailing the events in 1981 at Restigouche (the year Blood Quantum takes place). He believed that this was the best way to educate people, so we can deduce that possibly Indigenous creators are gravitating to these genres partly to communicate and educate their audience, but also, simply to diversify and increase representation. In a different interview, Barnaby refers to Indigenous horror as an Indigenous form of reconciliation. Therefore, we could also deduce that they present a way of working through trauma, but the best way to really understand is to watch and listen to interviews with these creators. Dimaline has often spoken about how her literature responds to the suicide epidemic amongst Indigenous youth, and how she wanted to create a hopeful narrative—The Marrow Thieves—whereby Indigenous youth had something for which to fight, and non-Indigenous peoples experience high rates of suicide instead.
MC – Cherie Dimaline’s The Marrow Thieves engages with the ongoing history of colonialism by imagining a future dystopia where settlers harvest the dreams of Indigenous people in institutions modeled after the Canadian Residential School System. How do you read the novel and its speculative setting as engaging with this ongoing history?
KCJ – I want to start by acknowledging the recent confirmations of our stolen children. There are no words to describe the emotional impact, and I have to admit that I start crying every time I think about the 215, the 751, and the yet uncovered Indigenous children. I read The Marrow Thieves prior to recent confirmations, yet I didn’t see the schools in the novel as fiction really. I would most likely find the novel more traumatizing now, especially the scene with the death of RiRi. The most interesting thing about teaching this novel is that when students refer to the schools in Dimaline’s world, they call them “Residential Schools.” However, the schools in the novel are not Residential Schools per se but are “modelled after them,” according to the characters. What this says to me is that regardless of how much the schools in the novel may differ, that colonial narrative is not history—it’s now, and it’s ongoing, and we need to acknowledge the presence of it and do more.
MC – Recently, I heard you give a talk on Jeff Barnaby’s Blood Quantum in which you discussed the film as an example of “haunting back” and Indigenous resistance. Briefly put, how does the movie demonstrate this, and how might it speak to the possibility of justice and reconciliation?
KCJ – Firstly, thank you for attending my talk on Blood Quantum. The concept of “haunting back” was developed by Teresa Goddu, originally in reference to slave narratives, such as Toni Morrison’s novel, Beloved. Goddu posits that when oppressed peoples rewrite the stories that originally position them as ghosts or monsters or lesser, they are haunting back against the national narratives that created their oppression. As you might realise, this does not undo the oppressive structures but can powerfully disrupt them and force us to question the stability, the reliability, and ultimately the constructedness and vulnerability of these narratives (such as Canadian or American exceptionalism). Barnaby engages in haunting back in several respects throughout his film, but the one I touched on during my talk is the use of Shaney Komulainen’s “iconic” photograph called “Face to Face” from the 1990 Oka crisis, which constructs a narrative of Canadian courage in the face of the monstrous Indigenous warrior. In Barnaby’s haunting back of this image, he represents the same Indigenous warrior facing off against a zombified Canadian soldier, thereby positing the Canadian soldier as monster instead. This disrupts the national narrative of Canada as courageous and peacekeeping, and indeed, when I now see Komulainen’s original photograph, I see zombies.