Comminglings of Law and Literature: Thoughts from the Yukon Territory

I am presently on a Fulbright in Whitehorse, Yukon (northwestern Canada) to write essays. Politics-wise, this year gives me a little window through which to watch Indigenous land claims unfold in the Yukon, and pedagogy-wise it gives me time to observe the special relationship that Yukon College (the future Yukon University) maintains with the territory’s fourteen Indigenous First Nations.

Though I’m researching/writing full time, I’ve also been thinking about the pedagogy of Indigenous literature. I’m wrestling with this question: in what ways can and should an Indigenous literature course engage local Indigenous politics?

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“Never Give Up – You Will Find Your Way” (2012, by Vernon J.M. Asp) alongside the flags outside Yukon College’s main entrance.

This question fits into a much larger one, of course. I.e., what are the special pressures—and the special opportunities—that local histories, local memories, and local politics present to instruction in the humanities? Particularly in a community-based, post-secondary teaching context?

I’d be interested in hearing more voices weigh in to that larger question. But this post stays local. First, some lightning-speed historic context. Then, a teaching example that combines a Yukon College English course, a long and ponderous political document, and a pink moose.

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Context Part One: The Yukon’s Entire Colonial History in Three Sentences

Colonial in-migration #1: Russian and British fur traders could be seen here and there during the nineteenth century, but it was less them and more their stuff (firearms, tea, cloth…and epidemics) that circulated among the Indigenous people of the Yukon’s boreal forests. Later, the Klondike Gold Rush stampeders on the trail of 1898-1899 made up the area’s major settler-colonial in-migration #2; it was an uproarious one, yes, but Indigenous groups who did not live directly in the path of the stampede did not yet have to contend with newcomers directly. It was during the 1940s post-war construction of the Alaska Highway that the third (#3)—and probably most devastating—wave of settler-colonial in-migration entered the Yukon, where it has been highly visible and active ever since (a mere how many generations ago? …not quite three?).

A bit of the Alaska Highway crossing…the Liard River, I believe.

Context Part Two: The Yukon’s Contemporary Political Landscape

The Yukon is home to fourteen Indigenous First Nations.

Kwanlin Dün settled their land claims in 2005. This is their welcome sign (and reminder of ownership) at the Fish Lake trailhead; the trail crosses their land and leads hikers into stunning alpine terrain just a minute north of Whitehorse, Yukon.

The Yukon’s First Nations, like Indigenous peoples just about everywhere are invested in a long-term legal battle to gain recognized control over their traditional lands. The process is called “land claims.” The Yukon’s 1990 solution to its First Nations’ land claims is a roughly 300-page legal document called the Umbrella Final Agreement. Once a First Nation signs on to the UFA, it can negotiate the terms of its self-government.

At present: eleven First Nations have signed the UFA and negotiated self-government agreements. Three remain in limbo.

The big picture: the Yukon is basically transitioning from three layers of governments to… seventeen interlocking governments. (My neighbor and I recently counted it out. Eleven self-governing First Nations is eleven, plus four municipal governments equals fifteen, plus the territorial government equals sixteen, plus the federal government makes: seventeen. And seventeen governments plus three more First Nations still in negotiations will eventually equal twenty governments in total.)

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How can and should Indigenous literature be taught at a place like Yukon College (which serves a student body of primarily Yukoners including: First Nations, the settler community, recent immigrants, and international students) at this particular historic moment (in which First Nations are negotiating land claims—read: their communities’ entire futures—and in which everyone and everyone’s projects are enmeshed in questions of how these seventeen governments can/should work together, including who’s eligible for what, which responsibilities lie in whose hands, which funding streams go into whose coffers, etc.)?

So the Yukon is a cutting-edge place for political scientists. And at the nexus of political science and the literary arts, I’ve encountered this: a hot pink, life-sized, papier-mâché moose.

Photo credit: Daren Gallo.

Artist Lianne Charlie (also an instructor of political science(!) at Yukon College) built a life-sized moose and papered it with torn sections of the UFA, that roughly 300-page document from 1990 that provides a legal framework for the territory’s First Nations land claims agreements. The UFA is, of course, a government document: it’s long and boring and hard to read. What Lianne has done as an artist is to build a sculpture that embodies the text as tactile, visual, philosophic, both funny and sobering in its layers of metaphoric play.

Only one page of the document is intact in this sculpture: page fifteen, the UFA’s “cede, release, and surrender” clause. According to this clause, First Nations signing on to the UFA agree to “cede, release, and surrender” their land—in order to get formal rights in return (to some of that land). Sound dicey to you? It sure does to Lianne. She used the cede, release, and surrender clause to paper the moose’s left shoulder, where three arrows protrude from it: this moose has been shot. The cede, release, and surrender clause is the site of its wound.

Artist Lianne Charlie discusses the moose with Drew Lyness’ First Nations Literature in the English Language class. Photo credit: Daren Gallo.

Drew Lyness, an instructor of English at Yukon College, currently teaches a course called “First Nations Literature in the English Language.” He brought his students to the art gallery and taught the moose as literature.

For Drew, the moose’s importance hinges on community involvement—on linking students’ literary study back to those students’ actual human communities, to the public events those communities support, and to the physical site of those communities’ public dialogues. For me, the importance of the moose hinges on a fascination with text.

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One thing a literature course can do is to read the major documents by which people in a society try to coexist and cohabit. I’m thinking of two main categories, here: societies’ sacred texts, for one. And two, societies’ government documents. Its laws.

Think about reading the bible as literature. What it means, roughly, to read the bible as literature, is to read it as a “questions book” rather than as an “answers book.”

The same might hold for a literary reading of the law. Along these lines, I’ve started thinking about reading government documents as literature. A society’s laws certainly raise questions—for starters, questions about the heart of that society, and questions about where it’s going.

Moose meat! Wild foods – hunted and harvested from the land – feed more than our bodies: many layers of spirit and history and tradition and philosophy converge in and around meals connected to the land. (“…who we are…”)

Yes, attorneys also read government documents for questions, and courts have to settle them. That is practical. Still, a complex and powerful text is likely to raise questions that outlive its answers. The pink moose is constructed to suggest exactly this—it suggests the document guiding the Yukon’s First Nations’ land claims raises more questions than it answers about who we are and where we’re going.

The Canada flag. The Yukon Territory flag. And a big box store. Democracy and capitalism are recent arrivals – and for now at least, they seem to be inevitable institutions of the Yukon’s future. (“…and where we’re going…”)

And so when a government is in the midst of a sea change, adopting and testing new flagship documents, new seminal texts—ones according to which we and our children will live ostensibly differently than we ever have in the past—citizens may well want to read those texts beyond their prescriptive/material dimensions. Citizens may well want to consider the questions their new legal texts raise about who they are and who they are becoming.

And so it occurs to me that one thing a literature course can do is to support students in developing a living relationship with legal documents.

The Carcross Learning Centre in Carcross, Yukon.

More specifically, as an observer of Yukon College’s programs and faculty and students, as an observer of its territory-wide partnerships, its relationship with the fourteen First Nations of the Yukon, its historic emphasis on trades instruction and its future transition to university status… As an observer of these dynamics, it occurs to me that in this time and place—and perhaps also at the time and in the place from which you are reading this post—an Indigenous literature course may be uniquely positioned to support students in developing relationships with the legal documents designed to fundamentally alter the futures and possibilities for their community’s Indigenous peoples.

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Teaching Japanese Internment Using Julie Otsuka’s When The Emperor Was Divine

PALS is happy to have a guest post from Jessica Thelen, who is an incoming PhD student in English at the University of Delaware. Thelen writes about teaching Japanese Internment in her Introduction to American literature classses and, in addition to providing useful teaching ideas, Thelen makes astute observations about what subjects are and are not taught routinely in American schools. 

Introduction

In a fall 2017 survey that I distributed to both of my sections of English 215: Introduction to American Literature, one student suggested that in teaching this course next semester, I include a unit on Japanese Internment since this was an era of American history that they wanted to learn more about. When creating the syllabus for my Spring 2018 iteration of this course, I recalled this student’s comments and decided to teach a mini-unit on Japanese Internment. I had not taught Japanese Internment before, but I believed it would be a fruitful topic for the course, particularly since some of the objectives of this course are to “cultivate an understanding and appreciation of the value of creative writing in addressing historical and contemporary questions pertaining to the outlined themes of the course (race, ethnicity, and identity)” and to “critically examine our own biases and positionalities while recognizing and taking different perspectives into account.” In order to introduce my students to this era of American history, I decided to use Julie Otsuka’s 2002 novel When The Emperor Was Divine, which focuses on an unnamed Japanese American family, the majority of which is interned at the Topaz Incarceration Camp for most of WWII. Although fictional, Otsuka deftly uses historical accounts to create her narrative and constructs an accessible text for high school and college students.

downloadSetting Up the Novel: Historical Contexts and Supplemental Materials

Since I teach at a small, predominantly white institution, I knew that bringing in historical contexts before starting Otsuka’s novel would greatly contribute to students’ understanding and engagement with the text. This was made clear when, on the first day of this mini unit, I asked my students if they had learned about Japanese Internment in school or in some other context, and only a handful of students raised their hands out of a class of twenty-eight. That class period I had planned to show a documentary on Japanese Internment, entitled Rabbit in the Moon, but unfortunately it was no longer available online, so instead I gave the class a general overview of Japanese Internment: anti-Japanese sentiment prior to WWII, Order 9066 (the executive order President Franklin Delano Roosevelt signed on February 19, 1942, which officially began Japanese Internment), as well as the FBI raids where many Japanese and Japanese American men were arrested prior to Internment beginning in earnest.

Since the documentary was unavailable, I decided to spend the next class having students listen to and answer questions on Chapter 1 (“The Roundup”) of a new podcast entitled Order 9066. In this podcast, scholars discuss Japanese Internment and internees share their experiences in the camps. Before listening to the podcast in class, I introduced it by distributing a set of questions for students to answer while listening, which included questions such as:

  1. What were some of the reactions of Japanese immigrants and Japanese Americans upon hearing about the attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941?
  2. What were some stereotypes regarding Japanese immigrants and Japanese Americans that were part of the popular consciousness (even prior to Pearl Harbor)?
  3. What was the FBI’s role in the beginnings of Japanese Internment? What were some reactions to the FBI raids on Japanese immigrant and Japanese American homes?
  4. What is your main take away from this podcast? What is something that your learned from it that you would like to discuss with the class?

This podcast and the related questions were very effective in encouraging student engagement, as seen in a survey I distributed at the end of this unit (two weeks after ending it). In completing the survey, one student wrote, “To hear the podcast and to hear what people went through is amazing.” After listening to and discussing this episode of Order 9066, I assigned two chapters (Chapters 10 and 11) of Erika Lee’s The Making of Asian America: A History (2015) that focus on Japanese Internment. I began that class with a Free Write, asking students to think about and do some writing on the following questions:

  1. How were Canada, Peru, and other Latin American countries involved in Japanese Internment in the U.S. and abroad?
  2. What helped to establish the premise of “military necessity” of Japanese Internment?
  3. How did some Japanese Americans resist orders before and during Internment?
  4. What was life like for Japanese Americans after they were released from the camps?

The students were, at that point, able to use their knowledge from Order 9066 and Lee’s book to discuss these questions, as well as possible reasons why Japanese Internment is not frequently taught in schools. Many students suggested that it was because the U.S. does not like to recall its wounds and shameful past, and would, rather, as they stated, “sweep it under the rug.” Once students had this context and had begun to consider such questions and their implications, we began to read When The Emperor Was Divine.

Teaching When The Emperor Was Divine

I taught Otsuka’s novel over the course of five 50-minute class periods. Since I run a discussion-based course with brief segments of lecture, I typically begin each class with a Free Write where students take some time to process their thoughts, answer questions, and come up with points and questions to discuss with the class.

Textual Analysis

For the first segment of the novel, I had students focus on (pages 1-22). One of the Free Write questions I asked students to focus on for that day was: “How are the unnamed daughter, mother, and brother, reacting to Internment (physically and psychologically)? Some students were able to then make connections between the characters’ experiences and those of past Internees who told of their experiences in Chapter 1 of Order 9066. Connections made included the destruction of any family artifacts connected to Japan, feelings of uncertainty and fear, as well as the fracturing of families, as many heads of households, like the father of the unnamed family in When The Emperor Was Divine, were arrested and interned months before their other family members were.

Over the course of the novel, students also focused on the symbolism Otsuka employs to emphasize that Internment had both psychological and physical effects. This symbolism often takes the form of animal imagery: wild horses underscoring the desire for freedom and escape, and the tortoise standing for the family and their loss of identity (in one scene, the son/brother carves the family’s identification number onto a tortoise’s shell that he keeps as a pet). A few students also brought up that symbols also took the form of plant life: a tulip grown in the internment camp symbolizing hope, growth, and renewal, the lack of trees in the camp signifying isolation, harsh conditions, and homesickness, and the rose bush as the desire for normalcy.

Incorporating Visuals

In one class period, as a way to break up the pattern of large class discussions and small group work, I pulled up a series of photographs and paintings related to Japanese Internment, made available by the Japanese American Digital Relocation Archive (JARDA). Along with printing out the images and displaying them on the projector, I also passed out a list of questions for students to focus on as we looked at and discussed the images:

  1. What are the noticeable differences between the paintings and the photographs?
  2. As a viewer, which has more of an impact on you (emotional, historical, etc.) – the photographs or the paintings? Why?
  3. What is left out of the photographs that is depicted in the paintings and vice versa?
  4. General thoughts and comments regarding the photographs and paintings?

The first photograph I started with, however, was provided by one of my students—her grandparents’ neighbors in Arizona own a fire hydrant that had been used in one of the Internment camps. The neighbor had been a firefighter and had come into possession of this fire hydrant as a retirement gift. When looking at this photo, students remarked on the everydayness of it. This image in particular was useful in helping students understand that artifacts related to Internment still exist, and that such artifacts include everyday objects—objects that we still use today.

In looking at this photograph, copied below, taken of the Amache Relocation Center in Colorado on December 9, 1942 by Tom Parker, one student remarked on how big the camp was—while reading Otsuka’s novel he hadn’t realized how many barracks there were. Another student remarked on the barren landscape and the monotony of the scenery— how it reminded him of a modern prison—once again making a connection between the past and the present.

Overlooking the Amache Relocation Center, near Granada, Colorado. In the foreground is a typical barracks unit consisting of 12 six room apartment barracks buildings, a recreation hall, laundry and bathrooms, and the mess hall. Photographer: Parker, Tom Amache, Colorado

When looking at the painting included below, entitled “Goodbye My Son,” by Henry Sugimoto, circa 1942, students were drawn to the facial expressions of the family in the middle—how sad yet resigned they look, as well as the fear about what could happen to their son once he is overseas. Another student pointed out the vibrant colors, which makes the scene depicted seem more immediate. And yet another student called attention to the words included, words that were commonly seen in Internment camps: “Mess Hall,” “WRA,” and “Block 23,” as well as the people in the background hanging laundry and talking.

Goodbye My Son

When asked to reflect on what they remembered from our mini-unit on Japanese Internment a few weeks after finishing this unit, many students stated that these images were incredibly helpful in beginning to understand this period of American history: “The photos…provide the visuals to the stories;” “I definitely enjoyed the visual aspect simply because I feel like when you see something[s], especially for what they really were, you sympathize more with it.” Another student wrote that “the picture[s] were hard to look at ‘cause you feel the pain through them.” Looking at the paintings and photographs worked in conjunction with Otsuka’s novel by helping students visualize objects and emotions focused on in her novel, such as the barracks and the sadness that those interned experienced.

Reflections – The Benefits of an American Studies Approach

In finishing up our discussion of Otsuka’s novel, students deftly connected course materials to the family’s difficulties post-Internment. What really struck the students was the indifference and cruelty aimed at Japanese immigrants and Japanese Americans post-Internment. One student brought up that this was also discussed in Chapter 11 of Lee’s The Making of Asian America: A History—how the fictional mother in Otsuka’s novel and the nonfictional parents that Lee mentioned struggled to find work post-Internment due to continued discrimination against the Japanese. Another brought up that the internalized racism experienced by the siblings in Otsuka’s novel was similar to that expressed by Gabe and Tomas, two of the main characters in Brian Ascalon Roley’s novel American Son (2002), our first novel of the semester.

In the survey distributed to the class a few weeks after finishing this mini unit, one of the questions I asked was if students enjoyed learning about Japanese Internment in our Introduction to American Literature course, and of the 25 of 28 total students who completed the survey, 23 students responded that they did, mainly because they did not previously know about it, that it was a big part of American history that people should have more knowledge of, and that they were interested in learning more about American history. The overwhelmingly positive, critical, and engaged response from my students when reading Otsuka’s novel and learning about Japanese Internment underscores my belief in the benefits of taking an American Studies approach when teaching American Literature courses (encouraging interdisciplinary thinking by using art objects such as paintings, visual artifacts such as photographs, first person accounts like the podcast, and historical analysis such as the chapters from Lee’s book), as well as my belief that effective teaching is a collaborative effort between students and instructors, resulting in a creative, nuanced learning environment.

Works Cited

Lee, Erika. The Making of Asian America: A History. Simon and Schuster, NY: 2015. Print.

“Japanese American Relocation Digital Archive (JARDA).” Calisphere, calisphere.org/exhibitions/t11/jarda/.

“Order 9066 Podcast | APM Reports.” APM Reports – Investigations and Documentaries from American Public Media, www.apmreports.org/order-9066.

Otsuka, Julie. When The Emperor Was Divine. Anchor Books, NY: 2002. Print.

Roley, Brian Ascalon. American Son. 2002. Print.

 

Bio:

Jessica Thelen is an incoming PhD student in English at the University of Delaware, pursuing their Race and Ethnicity research track. She taught as a Visiting Lecturer in the English Department at Westfield State University from 2016-2018, where she taught courses ranging from English Composition, Introduction to American Literature, and World Literature.