Indigenous Peoples, Colonialism and Ballet-Slipper Socks: Telling Stories and Storytelling

Friday, February 24, 2012

Jocelyn Thorpe, Memorial University
Guest Contributor

This entry is part of the Equity Issues Portfolio’s series on Indigenizing the academy and Indigenous education.

Our daughter rarely wore the pink ballet-slipper socks she received when she was born. My partner couldn’t stand them, finding in those socks every limitation ever imposed upon a girl. But I hung onto them, unable to give away newborn socks that actually stayed on newborn feet. Two-and-a-half years later, those socks have made a reappearance, this time on the feet of our baby boy. Suddenly, my partner can’t get enough of them: she says they look nice with his booties. Of course, the socks are not just socks, but a symbol of the gendered prescriptions that we hope our children will learn to question, to think about critically, and to challenge. So too with race, with sexuality, and with other identity categories that have become so overburdened with meaning as to make maneuvering through them a difficult and taxing affair, particularly for those who find themselves on the wrong side of various binaries. My partner and I often try with our kids to make things not mean, to empty the categories, to start fresh. But it is a strange dance, as they begin to discover the world as it is and we strive to help them become people who will live toward the world as it might be. It is also a flawed idea, for we do not singlehandedly create the world in which our children live, and we cannot erase the histories that have made identity categories meaningful. But we do hope that in showing them possibilities beyond the expected, we might begin to create space for them to live, and to let others live, full lives determined by their passions and skills, not determined by the dictates of culture.

A warning: I plan to make a leap now from my children to my classroom, but rest assured that I know the difference between the two. And that I will return to the socks. I teach Women’s Studies at Memorial University in St. John’s, Newfoundland and Labrador. I don’t teach Indigenous Studies, though I was hired at Memorial because my research focuses on Indigenous-settler-environment relations in the territory that has become Canada. And I do find ways, relevant ways, in all of my classes to discuss the history and legacies of colonialism in the Canadian context. In part, I talk about colonialism because it is what I know about, and because I think it’s important for students to understand the history that brought us to the present moment. But I also talk about colonialism because it is essential to what and how I teach. Women’s Studies as I understand it is in large part about teaching students how to think critically about the world in which we live, about encouraging them to consider how power operates – gendered, yes, alongside racialized, classed, and so on – to produce subjects and truths. One central purpose of this approach to teaching is to make room for other kinds of thinking and action. If we do not take for granted identity categories (such as “man” or “woman”) or geographical locations (such as “Canada”), but rather explore how they became meaningful over time and across space, then it becomes possible to question them and, one hopes, to move beyond their hold on us. I have come to think of this way of teaching as “telling stories” in two senses. First, we examine telling stories, those stories that have the effect of truth: The story of Canada as a fair and tolerant nation, for instance; or the story about how the only Indigenous inhabitants of the island of Newfoundland are the exterminated Beothuk. I think of these stories as telling because they tell a lot about dominant culture: they tell us both what is commonly believed and what is expected of us to believe. The second meaning of telling stories is the perhaps-more-immediately-obvious story telling, the activity that we humans do to make sense of ourselves and our surroundings. I find that with my students, mainly non-Indigenous Newfoundlanders, telling stories about telling stories is a particularly effective tool for showing such stories to be powerful rather than innocent. And telling alternative stories, for instance stories of the Newfoundland Mi’kmaq and their struggles for land and recognition, helps students understand what is at stake when we comprehend telling stories as straightforward truths. This process of telling stories about telling stories and telling alternative stories helps non-Indigenous students come to terms with their complicity in settler colonialism, allowing them to comprehend colonialism as their concern rather than something that belongs only to Indigenous communities (see Martin J. Cannon’s, “Changing the subject in teacher education: Indigenous, diasporic and settler colonial relations.”). For, as Thomas King has taught us, the truth about stories is that that’s all we are. The stories we know make us who we are. When we can examine those stories, perhaps change our relationship with them, and learn new stories, we have the possibility of changing who we are. I promised to come back to the socks. Perhaps what I hope to accomplish as a parent is not in the end so different from what I hope to accomplish as an educator. I hope my students will be able to unlearn what they thought they knew about race, gender, the nation, and other categories that appear obvious yet limit possibilities and impose restrictions. I hope my son will be confident in his ballet-slipper socks, should he continue to wear them once he can exert his will, just as I hope my daughter will feel free to live beyond the bounds of gendered stereotypes. Creating new stories, new truths, certainly requires learning about the past, about colonialism, about the histories that have made the present meaningful. It also requires imagination and hope, two things my students and my kids bring to me.

Jocelyn Thorpe , author of Temagami’s Tangled Wild: Race, Gender and the Making of Canadian Nature, is an assistant professor in the Department of Women’s Studies at Memorial University in St. John’s, Newfoundland and Labrador. 


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