Wonder upon wonder: the I in the absence of history

Histories are an afterthought. They are written after the experiences they describe. They are normally written by the victors.

I wonder:

Is it only with the benefit of hindsight that we understand that we lived through history, or is it possible to experience something as history — in the making, as it is so often said.

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I recently finished reading Dr. Zhivago. While reading it, it felt like I was reading a story about people who were experiencing history. It also felt like I might have developed a better understanding of my own experience of the Russian Revolution had I lived through it and then read the book. Although the characters in the story do not — I am guessing — represent all the experiences of the revolution, it also felt like those who were omitted from the story would feel included precisely because they were absent from a story of which they knew they were an essential part. I can imagine an old peasant nodding to himself over vodka and muttering, “Ah, yes, that was Pasternak’s take on things, but he saw it that way only because, like so many of his generation, he didn’t see it as I saw it. Let me tell you about the truth of the revolution.”  

I wonder:

Is it Pasternak’s skill as an author that makes me feel like his story is inclusively exclusive or is it the all-encompassing nature of the revolution that he was trying to document that makes me feel that way?

*

I have lived through a number of events, which, by any standard or measure, should count as history in the making: the fall of the Berlin Wall and, eventually, the Soviet Union, the rise of the American corporate kleptocracy, globalization, the dawn of the digital age, and the uneven march of social justice. However, it does not feel to me like anyone could write a history of those events, individually or collectively, that would be encompassing and inclusive in the same way that Pasternak’s seems to be. I cannot imagine a history that would help me better understand my own experience of those events.    

I wonder:

Have we lost an ability to write and read all-encompassing histories like Pasternak’s or are the kinds of events that histories are normally written about no longer unavoidable as they once were? Today, can we opt out of the very stuff of history in a way that was previously impossible?

*

The capitalist kleptocrats, by any objective measure, are the victors in the western industrialized and colonial world. Their history, history has shown, is our history.

I wonder:

Is the seeming absence of an all-encompassing history of our times by design or is its absence an indication that the battle has been won but the war not lost? Is history the greatest spoil of war or its final battle? 

*

My initial thoughts:

The Russian Revolution probably was all-encompassing in a way that the Capitalist Kleptocrat Revolution is not, but the difference lies not in the magnitude or significance of the revolutions, but in the self-understanding of the people who lived through them. Society today is so fractured and atomistic that there seems to be little appetite for experiences or histories that speak to and for all of us. This, I think, is both a symptom of and a crucial tactic in the Capitalist Kleptocrat Revolution. We have all been affected by this revolution, and it has, in winning the moment, convinced all of us that we have have not been individually affected by it. In the absence of a history, it is difficult to even see that a revolution has taken place.

I wonder:    

Grand all-encompassing histories have rightly, I think, undergone a sustained and withering critique in recent decades. These kinds of history have been instruments of oppression — excluding, silencing, and marginalizing — but must a history that aspires to be universal always be oppressive? Even stronger: do we need these kinds of histories to better understand our place in society, even if it is only to see that we are at the margins? And finally: when we give up on history, do we also concede the war?

A Small Act of Grace: A Story We Can Tell

Frank MaheuxI don’t remember my Aunt Grace — technically, my great Aunt — the same way that I remember my grandmother, Ethel. Grace was our next door neighbor for three or four years, but somehow her presence during my boyhood seems less tangible. Perhaps, it was because she lived close to us only when I was quite young.

I do, however, remember her cottage. I remember its smell, its layout, and the land it was built on. I remember the old and the new outhouse. I remember the barrel that collected the rainwater from the roof. I remember playing thirty-one by the light of an oil lamp in the inky dark of night.

I also remember the short walk to the nearby lake. I remember the spot where we’d wade into it to swim or launch the canoe. I remember the shape of the lake, and the spot where we’d collect spring water. I remember the low bridge, a short walk from the lake, where my brother and I would fish a shallow creek for trout.

I don’t remember how often I went to Grace’s cottage when I was a boy, but the depth and clarity of my memories seems to suggest it was reasonably often. I do know that, in my adolescence, I went to the cottage on my own a few times. The solitary time away was regenerative.  

It was Grace who donated Frank Maheux’s war letters to the Public Archives of Canada — now the Library and Archives of Canada. I can’t be sure why she did it, but I seem to remember that she understood the historical value of her father’s letters, which had reached her mother, Angélique, uncensored. I suppose there might have also been a measure of vanity in the gift. Once the letters were accepted by the Public Archives, we were a family with a relative who was institutionally recognized to have been historically significant. We had a place in Canada’s history.

All of that is probably true. I also wonder if the decision was motivated by another kind of hope.

I have read that the land, for indigenous peoples, is a kind of encyclopedia of stories. Plants, animals, places and activities are all cues to tell and retell the stories that remind them of their place on the land, their connection to each other, and the knowledge that makes all of it possible. The land — just as effectively as the letters, words, and sentences of any book — helps a person, a family, and a people remember the stories they tell and retell to know who they are.

When I was in grade school, I went to read my great grandfather’s letters in the Public Archives. I wrote a short speech about his experiences for Remembrance Day and won an award for it. I recently learned that my brother also went to read the letters when he was a teenager. A few months ago, when I returned to the letters as an adult, I found a note slipped in among them. It was written by a relative, unknown to me, who had also gone to read the letters at some point. It stated simply that he, Christian Maheux, had visited the letters and that his grandfather was Frank Maheux.

I don’t know much about the other descendants of Frank and Angélique Maheux, but I do know we are all connected to each other through those letters and the stories we tell about them. Not everyone of us who visits the letters will blog about the experience or leave notes behind, but, every time one of us visits those letters, we create one more story that connects all of us to each other. Our family no longer has a traditional territory, sacred places or the daily routines of life to prompt our collective story-telling, but we have those letters.

And I suspect Grace might have had something like that in mind, when she donated Frank’s letters to the Public Archives — the letters of my great grandfather and possibly yours.

My Betrayal: A Short History of My Search History In My Search for My Family’s History

Frank Maheux, my great great grandfatherIt started with a Google search. I’m not even sure what prompted it.

A few years ago, it occurred to me that the internet might be able to answer an old unconfirmed family story. It was claimed that my great grandfather had been awarded the rank of “King’s Sergeant”, a rank only the King could take from him.

My search led me to a thread in an Army.ca forum, which had been started by someone who must be a relative of mine. Like me, he was wondering if the rank of “King’s Sergeant” existed. In the back and forth of the thread, my great grandfather’s name — Frank Maheux — was mentioned. One Google search later, and I found a scholarly article about Frank, written by Desmond Morton, “one of Canada’s most noted and highly respected historians,” and an online version of Frank’s service record.

At the time, I was excited to discover that my great grandfather had been officially immortalized into Canadian history by one of Canada’s leading historians. I was also excited to discover that the same historian described my great grandmother — Angélique, I learned was her name — as a “full-blooded Odawa.” By my memory, my family had only ever described her as “almost or probably full-blooded.” Thanks to Morton and his article, I realized that my mother’s family was much more a part of Canada’s history than I had ever imagined.  

I shared the article and my great grandfather’s service record on Facebook, and I really did not think much more about it until I did another Google search, perhaps, a year or more later, when I decided — again, I’m not sure why — to investigate my indigenous heritage a little more carefully.

I quickly discovered that the Odawa are not an Algonquin nation, as I had thought, but are, in fact, a totally different and distinct nation, even if they are a part of the Algonquin language group. I had assumed the Odawa were an Algonquian nation — if I had thought about it at all, when I first read Morton’s article — because my family had always said my great grandmother was Algonquin. My grandmother, who had her status returned to her in the 80s, also identified herself as Algonquin. So had my mother. All at once, however, thanks to Morton’s article, I was now descended from the Odawa rather than the Algonquin.  

Prompted by this discrepancy between Morton’s professional history and my memory of my family’s oral history, I dug deeper into Google, looking for other references to my great grandfather. I made another discovery.

In the footnote of another article, Morton claims “Maheux” is a corruption of the Irish name “Mayhew,” and that my great grandfather’s family was Irish. This claim about his ancestry also came as a shock because my family had always said Frank (née Francois-Xavier) was French Canadian and from a good French family that had disowned him for marrying an indigenous woman. My identity had been remade once more by Morton. I was now more Irish than I had previously thought.   

And so it went.

For about a year and a half, I thought my mother’s family was descended from the Odawa nation and the Irish. For about a year and a half, I took Morton’s professional history over my family’s oral history. For about a year and half, I embraced the ancestral identity that Morton’s official history had handed down to me. For about a year and a half, my understanding of my ancestral identity was wrong.

*

A few weeks ago, yet another Google search remade — or rather, returned to me — my family’s history. And this time, I remember why I searched.

I was thinking and writing about the place of my mother’s family in our colonial history. How had my family got it so wrong? Clearly, this was one more legacy of colonialism and its attempt to erase the “Indian problem” through genocide. It occurred to me, however, that my family and my great grandmother may have been complicit in the attempt to erase their culture from history.

I speculated: maybe Angélique had embraced cultural assimilation when she married Frank. Maybe she had seen the writing on the wall and decided to embrace the winning team. Maybe, because she had renounced her indigenous heritage and stubbornly refused to talk about it with her children and descendants, maybe, after she was dead, my grandmother and mother, operating in the cultural vacuum created by my great grandmother, mistakenly thought they were Algonquin only because Ottawa sits on unceded and unsurrendered Algonquin territory. Yes, my mother’s family was Indian, I speculated, but maybe we somehow managed to get it wrong.

In other words, to resolve the historical dissonance between Morton’s professional history and my memory of my family’s oral history, I developed a new family history, in which my ancestors were partly to blame for our cultural myopia.  

That was the theory anyway, but I couldn’t quite bring myself to write it. I wrote and rewrote a blog post which — I now see — was driven by that theory, driven by the desire to articulate it explicitly, and yet I couldn’t write it for some reason. I was stuck. I couldn’t finish the piece. I didn’t know why I couldn’t finish it, but some part of me had a wordless hunch that something wasn’t quite right. It wouldn’t let me complete the story I had invented to vindicate Morton.

And so, in frustration, I turned once more to Google and found this site, which looks to have only been launched in December 2015. It collects the birth and marriage records of the Weskarini nation, an Algonquin nation. And on that site, in black and white, I found the marriage record of Frank Maheux and Angélique Kaponicin. My great grandmother was unquestionably Algonquin, as my family had always said. I also learned the English version of Angélique’s Weskarini name: White Caribou Woman.

I decided to Google the translation of Angélique’s Weskarini name and, unbelievably, it turned up in the search results. It turns out that White Caribou Woman — Wa Ba Die Kwe, in her first language — was an informant on Algonquin culture for a woman who was herself a “complicated character” in Canadian history. My great grandmother was not only Algonquin but one of two women who together appear to be important sources of our present day knowledge and understanding of Algonquin culture. They were also both descendants of Luc-Antoine Paginawatik, who was instrumental in the creation of the River Desert Reserve No. 18 — now Kitigan Zibi.

Emboldened by this discovery, I contacted Irish Heritage Quebec, an organization that encourages and aids genealogical studies of Quebec Irish families. In an email, I explained Morton’s claim about Frank’s surname and his family, including details about Frank’s parents that I learned from the Weskarini site, and, within a few hours of sending the email on a Monday night, I was informed that Morton was probably wrong about Frank being Irish. A few days later, after a few more records had been consulted, I was told that Frank was French Canadian — just like my family had always said.

So, in the end, Morton, the professional historian, was wrong, my family’s oral history was right, and I was left with one more unavoidable and nagging question: why the hell had I believed him?

*

At the risk of blowing my own horn a little too hard, before I go any further, I need to emphasize that I am a well-read, highly critical, and highly independent thinker. I’ve had about as good an education as any person could have received. I have always felt comfortable challenging authority, if I felt it necessary to do so. I’m in good health and I’m comfortably middle class. If anyone was in a position to stare into the face of professional and academic authority and say, “no, that’s not true,” it should have been me. And yet, when a historian of some note wrote something about my family that I knew to be wrong, I immediately doubted my family’s oral history, instead of doubting the professional historian’s “official” history.

So how did it happen?

It’s tough to say, but, like any other attempt at historical analysis, I can identify some plausible causes and mechanisms.

The most important factor at play is that I have been out of contact with my family for many years. Had I brought Morton’s claims, say, to my grandmother, she would have said at once that he was spouting nonsense. On the strength of that strong rebuttal, I’m sure my normal resolve to challenge authority would have kicked in. The strength and resilience of a family’s oral history is grounded in the family members who tell it and retell it. A family history with no family to tell it withers in the face of “official” history.  

It was also important, I think, that there was plenty in Morton’s imperfect history that I wanted to hear.

To start, it was an ego boost to discover that a historian had written about my great grandfather, a relative that I have always been fascinated by. Once charmed by the historian’s gift of “historical relevance”, I was probably psychologically primed to be more accepting of whatever story he told.

Second, Morton resolved in a favorable light a fact about my great grandmother which had always been left ambiguous. My great grandmother, according to Morton, was unequivocally “full-blooded”, while my family — in my memory — had always been wishy-washy about her pedigree. Because I wanted to believe Morton on this aspect of his imperfect history, I probably became much more susceptible to accept all of it.

Finally, Morton’s claim about my great grandfather’s ancestry offered a simpler and neater version of my identity. In Morton’s version, I was now almost all Irish, with a full-blooded shot of Indian as an accent. There was no French Canadian to further muddy the already less than clear waters. Like a scientist drawn to a new theory because it is aesthetically neater, I was drawn to Morton’s history of my family because my blood quantum was now — in my eyes — aesthetically neater.

In other words, Morton’s imperfect history of my family had enough good in it that I was tempted to bite, and I took it hook, line, and sinker.

My foolish acceptance of Morton’s imperfect history, however, is not even the most troubling aspect of this short history of my search for my family’s history. Far more troubling to me is the fact that I tried to resolve the dissonance between Morton’s imperfect history and my family’s oral history by imagining a story in which my great grandmother was complicit and even culpable in the death of her own culture. In doing so, I not only aided and abetted Morton’s imperfect scholarship, but I effectively ended up blaming the victim of that imperfect scholarship — my own flesh and blood. In the face of professional academic authority — when it mattered the most — I capitulated and betrayed my family and, ultimately, myself.

The betrayal — thankfully — was short-lived, but it was a betrayal nevertheless: a very personal betrayal, which may be one more consequence — and symptom — of the long-lived and unresolved betrayal at the heart of our colonial nation.

And what of the question that started this journey, is there any truth to the family story that Frank, my great grandfather, was awarded the rank of “King’s Sergeant”? 

My internet research, so far, is inconclusive. The existence of the rank is hotly contested because there seems to be no official record of the rank ever having existed. All that we have in support of the claim that the rank existed are personal anecdotes and family stories — like my family’s story about it being awarded to Frank.

And while it might very well be true that my family got this part of its history wrong — an oral history needn’t be venerated to be respected — I would certainly hope, if you’ve made it this far, you are now more willing to accept the notion that our “official” history — however professional — shouldn’t be taken as a final authority either.

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Postscript: I reached Desmond Morton by email. He thanked me profusely for my corrections. He also indicated he would correct the record, if at all possible. It was a very encouraging exchange.

Me, My Mother, and You: Colonialism’s Bastards

SelflessSelf2I never knew my maternal Grandfather. I’m not sure if my mother ever knew him either. Like me, my mother was a bastard.

I remember, when I was little, she once claimed to have seen him on the bus. I also remember that she claimed to have seen him when she was very young.

She said she had peered down from the stairs, under the cover of darkness and the assumption that she was asleep, and saw him arguing with someone — maybe my grandmother — in the front hallway of one of her childhood homes.

I say “claimed” because my mother would later claim many things I knew not to be true. Perhaps, these claims of her having seen a forever absent father were an early sign of what was to come.

Until very recently, I had always assumed my maternal grandfather was white. It was a natural assumption. Every mirror reminds me that I am white — no matter how Indian my mother, grandmother, and great grandmother looked.

I recently realized that my “natural” assumption is one more legacy of colonialism. The aim of colonialism in Canada — and around the world — is to create in all of us a deep and natural longing to be whiter than white — bleached of land, language, community, culture and history — whatever the colour of our skin may be.

I also realized that my maternal grandfather — had he been a status Indian — probably would have gone to residential school. My maternal grandmother probably did not.

She was the daughter of a French Canadian veteran and her Indian status was returned to her only in the eighties. She was probably spared some of the worst physical horrors of the residential school system because my great grandmother had given up her status to marry my great grandfather.

Nevertheless, I am sure any school my grandmother attended, whether she slept there or not, would have also tried very hard to kill the Indian in her too. My mother as well.

Now that I know much more of the history of the residential school system, it seems unlikely that anyone who had my blood in their veins ever attended an official residential school. However, had I been raised in a traditional indigenous community, I would have been raised to look upon all the older men and women of the community as grandfathers and grandmothers.

It is only the Western colonial obsession with the “racial” purity of blood that cuts off my ties — our ties — to a shared history we should all call our own. In a just world, we’d remember all of the boys and girls who attended residential schools as our grandparents, our aunts and uncles, our sisters and brothers. We are as much children of their history as are their direct descendants.

In truth, I don’t know anything about my maternal grandfather’s ancestry. He might have had any kind of blood flowing in his veins. Because he surrendered — or was denied — any direct influence on the stories I tell, I am free to write any story I want about him — even one that absolves him of some of the responsibility of what was probably the abandonment of my mother and grandmother.

Nevertheless, because I know the history of this land, I know one truth about him that no story can ever erase. Whoever he was, he was a child of colonialism. Like me. Like you. We are all the bastard children of colonialism.

We are often told that blood is thicker than water. Story, however, is thicker than both. Our western colonial obsession with the “racial” purity of our blood is just one more story we are taught to tell ourselves. It is a colonial fairy tale — like whiteness — invented to divide and weaken us and to make it easier for domination to stride freely and do as it pleases.

We are much more than the stories we tell, but the stories we tell — and don’t tell — can bring us together or hold us apart. The story of colonialism is our story — all of us — whether we like it or not. The only question you or I face is how to weave our own story out of it.

A Short History of Social Media: Hope, Defeat, and the Faint Hope of Renewal.

Winter Tree 2Once upon a time, in March of 2009, when I started using Twitter to support my recently acquired blogging habit, social media’s potential seemed to me to be unlimited. Its early promise lay in its ability to create new and unexpected connections and, ultimately, community. 

For about a year or two, anything seemed possible. Eager and creative people were using social media to connect with like-minded people regardless of the geography involved. Together, they worked and played to expand the bounds of the possible. It seemed like social media might break – at long last – the cultural dominance of mass marketing and its omnipresent brands.

With the benefit of hindsight, I now see that the early promise of social media was somewhat ephemeral. It originated, on the one hand, in the reluctance of the giants of mass marketing to embrace social media and, on the other hand, by the specific intentions and efforts of many of those early users. Once the big brands got on board, more middle-of-the-road organisations and users followed suit, and the culture of social media began to shift. Some of the best people were hired into those organizations and had to make social media more palatable to them. Many others simply lost interest, as users began to use the tools differently.

Other forces were at work too. The market demanded that social media generate revenue and profits. The owners of social media responded by embracing the old and familiar habit of selling advertising. They tweaked the tools to favour those who could and would pay to play, and those who paid to play played differently. Meanwhile, the mainstream media finally took an interest, focusing on social media success stories that made sense from the perspective of their business model, which requires attracting masses of eyeballs for advertisers. Very quickly, the goal of social media shifted from “connecting” to “going viral” and, as new users adopted the tools, they also adopted the culture of mass marketing achievement that was peddled to them. Users now acted like brands rather than people because they were told that was the secret to success.

Fortunately, people acting like brands is very dull indeed. I say “fortunately” because the hope for social media’s renewal lies precisely in this rising tide of dull, mass-marketed homogeneity. Users will respond, I hope, by rejecting the mass marketing ideology and by focusing once more on the promise and power of connecting with other like-minded people and communities in order to expand the bounds of the possible. It will, nevertheless, be much harder to connect these days with so much more noise in the mix, but, as they so often say, where there’s a will there’s a way.

 

To The Historians Go the Spoils of Your War: Who is Writing Your History?

It is well understood that the victors write the history.

It is overlooked, I think, that, in fact, it is the victors’ historians who write the history. For historians, ideas, culture, and writing are pretty damn important. It should, therefore, come as no surprise that ideas, culture, and writing figure so prominently in our histories, even if they don’t seem so relevant in our daily lives.

As our culture splinters, more and more histories are being written by more and more historians. Arguably, many histories have always been composed, but now very many histories can be distributed as well.

Who is writing your history? What does it say about him or her, as opposed to you?

A Fine Afternoon, Caught Between History and the Ever Present Future.

It was an unusually warm afternoon in late October. My friend had disappeared, following her daughter, who had wandered off, cheerfully exploring.

Someone was flying a kite and, as I lay on my back in the grass, I decided that it was very generous of him or her to provide such a wonderful sparkling charm to look at against the vast blue of the sky.

I sat up on my elbows, with my shoulders in my ears, trying to see who was flying the kite, but I couldn’t trace the line to its source. So, I watched the different people and pets, living, playing and enjoying. I smiled and felt good.

All of a sudden, I wondered about the bones of the very many murdered and brutalized that lay beneath this broad field of grass and in the topsoil of the history that had brought us to this beautiful day in this beautiful park under this beautiful sky.

I wondered what they would expect of us, comfortably cocooned in our unique moment in history, in our unique place on the planet, when all around us, both in time and in geography, tsunamis of suffering buffet the dikes of the imperialism that preserve our well being.

The sun was still bright, the sky was still vast, the day was still beautiful, but blood stained all of it and everything and no one seemed to notice or care.

I decided, if all those who had suffered and suffer had the opportunity to choose, they would prefer peaceful days in the sun and the park and the sky very much like this day.

I wondered, then, would they want us to pursue justice, if it meant grinding more bones in the mortar of unrest. Would they want us to enjoy the peace of the day, if it meant ignoring the ever expanding and always unmarked mass graves that fertilize our peace.

Do we owe it to them to enjoy that which they never enjoyed and would have surely cherished as well and as good as we cherish it or do we owe it to them to disturb the peace and safety of the few until there is peace and safety for the all?

And it is a question I now often ask myself, even in the sun and in the sky and in the peace and in the short toll of new year’s turn.