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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Becoming an Archival Expert

When I teach nineteenth century American literature, I always want students to delve into the archives, and so I demonstrate a few digital searches in class and make it a requirement to include at least one archival source in the final research paper. But I wanted more investment, and not just for their papers. I felt that despite my commitment to bringing archival elements into the classroom, students were not getting totally immersed in the time period in the way that I wanted—in a way that would help them understand how nineteenth century readers might’ve approached the works we were studying, rather than reading everything through a twenty-first century lens.

With a class on nineteenth century American poets coming up (a class I hadn’t taught for four years), I had a great opportunity to make a change in this direction. So I thought, well, what’s one way to get a feel for daily life in the nineteenth century? I hit upon the idea of having students read nineteenth century newspapers. (I’ve written elsewhere about using digital archives in teaching nineteenth century African American writers. The archival expert assignment grew out of things I was noticing about working with newspapers in that class.)

What does poetry have to do with news? For one thing, in the nineteenth century, most newspapers had a poetry section, unlike newspapers today. But that wasn’t even the initial reason I wanted students to try this assignment. I wanted them to see if they saw any connections between the issues making headlines in the newspapers and the issues that poets like Jane Johnston Schoolcraft, Walt Whitman, and Paul Laurence Dunbar (among others) addressed in their poems. We read the news today to get a sense of what is going on in the world, what is deemed important; conversely, if something doesn’t make the news, we feel that it may not be as important, or we may feel frustrated because the media seems to dismiss something that feels important to us. (In our own era of “fake news,” of course, all of these issues feel very fraught, and I think students were aware of that as they did this assignment.)

What we did: the assignment sheet

What follows is the text of the assignment sheet I gave the students. If you like it, please feel free to use as-is or to adapt.

This term, you will be in charge of leading one class as the “archival expert.” Your assignment is simple: I want you to read the newspaper. Using three of the library’s electronic databases—America’s Historical Newspapers, African American Newspapers, and/or Accessible Archives—you will make use of digital archives to provide historical context for the day’s poetic selections.

Here’s what to do for prep work, step by step:

  1. On the date you’re signed up to be the archival expert, look at when the poet published his or her book of poems. (So, for example: Frances Ellen Watkins Harper published Poems on Miscellaneous Subjects in 1855.) If there’s no publication date, as for Schoolcraft and Dickinson, then try as best you can to determine a year when these poets would’ve been writing poems.
  2. Determine a location that is relevant to the poet, if possible. For Harper, this could be Baltimore (where she grew up), Philadelphia (where she lived and worked as an adult), or Boston (where she frequently lectured).
  3. Now choose a newspaper that is relevant to the date and the location of the poet. If you want to get even more specific, you can (for example, you could look at an abolitionist newspaper for Harper or a Civil War newspaper for Melville; you could even look at some of the newspapers for which Whittier served as editor). If you can find one, you can also choose a newspaper where the poet published.
  4. Select an issue of the newspaper and read the whole thing: news, editorials, poetry, even the advertisements. (Be forewarned, the print is tiny and there’s a lot of text.) As you read, make note of anything at all—newspaper poems, news items, even weather—that you feel gives interesting context to the poems the class will be discussing.

From here, you have the tools to give the class some interesting historical contexts. During class, be prepared to give us around 20 minutes of historical context, drawn from what you read. Feel free to read us excerpts from articles or poems. Don’t feel like you have to cover everything in the newspaper—two or three things will be enough. Make a Powerpoint, Prezi, or handout to share a few images with us. Give us your reading of both the culture that produced this poet (particularly how the poet fits, or doesn’t fit, into the historical context) and anything you notice about how historical context informs one of the poet’s poems, or a section of the poem. (Don’t feel like you have to force the poet to neatly fit into the contexts the newspapers provide. Even the absence of the poet’s concerns from the newspaper will tell you something about the poet and their poems.) To facilitate a good discussion on what you’ve found, be prepared to ask the class a few discussion questions to get the conversation going.

Written component

You don’t have to write anything formally for this assignment, but I would like a works cited page (in MLA style) and a copy of your notes / outline / Powerpoint / handouts. Emailing all of this to me is fine.

Archival expert assignments will be graded according to how well they:

  • Thoroughly they give us historical context to the poet and their poems (50 points)
  • Demonstrate archival research skills (30 points)
  • Engage the class in discussion (20 points)

How it worked: connections students made

I’ll use three examples from three different presentations to give you a sense of what students did with this assignment. (Other poets we covered in this ten-week class were Jane Johnston Schoolcraft, Frances Ellen Watkins Harper, Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson, Herman Melville, and Paul Laurence Dunbar.) Wherever possible, we read complete books, or book-length poems, by these poets, rather than reading selections from anthologies. Schoolcraft and Dickinson were the exceptions, since they did not publish collections in their lifetimes.

The Boston Evening Standard and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s The Song of Hiawatha (1855)

Overall, my students hated The Song of Hiawatha, as I figured they might; although they admitted they found the trochaic meter fun to read (and to imitate), they were angered by what they saw as Longfellow’s clueless paternalism with respect to the Ojibwe characters he creates (adapting them, of course, from tales from Henry Rowe Schoolcraft’s Algic Researches [1839] that were themselves adapted from oral stories from Ojibwe poet Jane Johnston Schoolcraft, Henry’s wife, and those of her mother). An archival expert presentation on Longfellow, then, was an opportunity to understand the context in which this poem was written.

The student who presented on Longfellow chose the November 10, 1855 edition of the Boston Evening Standard, since Hiawatha was published on that date and since Longfellow lived in Boston. There is a notice (unfortunately rather illegible, as you will see below) titled “Longfellow’s New Poem!” in the paper, so we could see that Longfellow was famous enough that the publication of a new book was a newsworthy event.

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The student also noticed, with irony, an article entitled “The Landing of the Pilgrims,” a romanticized historical piece that makes no mention of Native peoples. Speaking of the pilgrims, the article’s anonymous author says, “Their landing; the history of their future toils, dangers; their struggles and privations; their heroic self-denial and unconquerable trust in God, are among the proudest recollections of our history.”

Transitioning from this article, the student brought up the fact that the Yakama Indian War, a three-year dispute about land rights between the U.S. Government and the Yakama and allied tribal groups in central Washington state, had just begun the month before, in October, 1855. There’s no mention in the newspaper about the progress of this war. Even more glaring was the fact that the Battle of Union Gap, between the Yakama and the U.S. army, had begun the day before and was not mentioned at all. The charitable interpretation is that news had not had time to travel across the country yet; however, we went in another interpretive direction. The student thought about the fact that Longfellow’s poem was so immediately popular, and we wondered if the American public generally preferred to read about mythologized Native Americans, like Hiawatha, rather than real ones, like Kamiakin, chief of the Yakama tribe at the start of the war, pictured in this sketch, below.

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Kamiakin, chief of Yakama Tribe, 1855
by Gustavus Sohon, courtesy Washington State Historical Society 

In this issue of the newspaper, Native peoples are ignored or not included. Longfellow’s poem seems to be their only presence in the issue. Twenty-five years earlier, there would have been articles about Andrew Jackson’s Indian Removal Act, but in 1855, Native issues are not at the forefront of the general public’s consciousness, if this newspaper is any indication.

The Salem Register and John Greenleaf Whittier’s Snow-Bound (1866)

Sometimes, the students looked at the poems in the newspapers and made connections and comparisons with the poems we were reading in class. Here’s a poem printed in the Salem Register for February 15, 1866:

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(Yes, the date on that says November 12, 1866, which can’t be right, but it is what is printed in the Feb. 15 issue of the Register—I double-checked!)

 We had been talking about sentimentality in Whittier’s poem Snow-Bound the class before, with some of the students coming down pretty hard on what they saw as Whittier’s overly nostalgic view of the rural New England places and people of his childhood. However, reading the poem “Little Feet” put that into perspective. We discussed the different ways Whittier guards against this kind of too-easy feeling and ideas in his poem (particularly focusing on the complexity of the way he elegizes his younger sister, Elizabeth). We also spent a long time talking about the rhyme scheme and meter of both poems, since they are both written in iambic tetrameter and are largely in rhyming couplets. We discussed how Whittier’s diction and his use of enjambment create a complex rhythm and more lofty tone than “Little Feet” is able to achieve. And we also discussed how smart Whittier was to stay away from refrains like “Patter, patter, little feet” in his elegy, which would’ve wrecked the gravitas of his poem.

The Cincinnati Gazette and Sarah Morgan Bryan Piatt’s That New World (1877)

Because we had begun the term discussing the child elegy genre in the poetry of Jane Johnston Schoolcraft, then revisited it when we read Frances Ellen Watkins Harper and Emily Dickinson, students had the analytical tools to approach Piatt’s elegies for her two children in the searing book That New World, but they were still shocked by the grim, direct nature of this poetry, which sometimes feels like a wrestling match between a grieving Piatt and a detached God who doesn’t care how mothers feel about the children he takes.

Since we had been talking so much about death, the student who presented on the November 6, 1877 issue of The Cincinnati Gazette started there, showing us articles about some gruesome deaths by murder (which included the dead body then being put in a church and the church set on fire to destroy the evidence), falling from a wagon, being run over by a train, and fire again. The student asked us to compare how the deaths were reported on in the newspaper with how Piatt talks about death in her poems, particularly “No Help” and “To a Dead Bird.” One thing we immediately wondered was if the death of children from disease or accident was so common that it simply wouldn’t make the news. The only “report” of a child’s death might come through poetry. We thought about what poetry does that news doesn’t, and vice versa.

This class occurred on Election Day, so the student also had us think a little bit about Piatt and politics. After pulling out a few articles and headlines about local politics, the student asked us to think about how Piatt feels about monarchy in her poems “If I Had Made the World” and “A Queen at Home.” (The answer is—she doesn’t like it!) We had a great discussion about Piatt and democracy, even looking back to Whitman to compare how Piatt expresses democratic views in some of these poems versus how Whitman does the same.

 Assessment

Overall, this assignment worked very well. It accomplished what I wanted it to accomplish: the students got more invested in (even excited about) the time period. I liked how the assignment was specific, but also allowed them to go in pretty much any direction they wanted with both the newspaper and the poems. Students had fun with it, often pointing out humorous ads or articles and sharing them with the class. The only times the assignment failed were when students did not follow the instructions or when they made wild surmises about connections between the poet and what was in the newspaper (the latter of which could be gently corrected in class). Overall I would rate this assignment as a success, and I plan to do it again.

“But I don’t have access to these subscription-only archives,” I hear you saying. Never fear, this assignment will also work with open-access archives, like the Library of Congress’s Chronicling America, which has thousands of digitized newspapers to read for free. If you try this assignment, or some version of it, I hope you’ll let me know how it goes!