Morgan on Monture, 'We Share Our Matters: Two Centuries of Writing and Resistance at Six Nations of the Grand River'

Author: 
Rick Monture
Reviewer: 
Cecilia Morgan

Rick Monture. We Share Our Matters: Two Centuries of Writing and Resistance at Six Nations of the Grand River. Winnipeg: University of Manitoba Press, 2015. xv + 248 pp. ISBN 978-0-88755-767-5.

Reviewed by Cecilia Morgan (Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, University of Toronto)
Published on H-Canada (January, 2016)
Commissioned by Corey Slumkoski

Cecilia Morgan on We Share Our Matters: Two Centuries of Writing and Resistance at Six Nations of the Grand River

As Rick Monture points out in the prologue to We Share Our Matters, the Haudenosaunee have attracted a great deal of attention over the past two centuries. From the mid-1850s, anthropologists, political theorists, historians, linguists, and scholars in environmental studies have pored over the Confederacy’s principles, practices, and legacies. Such a fascination stems from centuries of European contact with its members and the Confederacy’s centrality, from the sixteenth to the early nineteenth century, to those military and political struggles that resulted in the creation of nineteenth-century nations in North America. The Grand River community, with its proximity to settler society on both sides of the Canada-United States border, coupled with its size and history of multiple contacts and networks, has in particular played a prominent role in such studies. Yet as Monture argues, in comparison to the volume of work about the Haudenosaunee by non-Indigenous academics, work on and for the community by Haudenosaunee scholars has been less prolific or, at the very least, not well known to academic audiences. However, the work of Haudenosaunee scholars such as Deborah Doxtator, John Mohawk, Theresa McCarthy, Rick Hill, Susan Hill, and Taiaiake Alfred, coupled with a wide-ranging of body of Indigenous scholarship by members of other communities (Vine Deloria Jr., Kathryn Shanley, and Elizabeth Cook-Lynn, for example), provides a vibrant intellectual, cultural, and political context for Monture, one in which he situates his own exploration of the Six Nations’ literary and performative texts and practices. We Share Our Matters is conceptualized and written from multiple perspectives, as Monture brings to his work the vantage points of Indigenous studies, literary history, and (not least) his own position as a member of the Mohawk nation, Turtle clan, who directs McMaster University’s Indigenous Studies Program and lives at the Grand River Territory. 

In tracing the rich history of Haudenosaunee thought and activism at the Six Nations territory, Monture has selected a wide-ranging and diverse group of political leaders, writers, performers, musicians, and artists: Joseph Brant, E. Pauline Johnson, Deskaheh, Bernice Loft Winslow, Brian Maracle, Robbie Robertson, Alma Greene, Enos Monture, Daniel David Moses, Chief Jake Thomas, and Shelley Niro. For Monture, these individuals represent important threads of continuity and change in Haudenosaunee cultural thought. Furthermore, as Monture reminds us, they also are emblematic of the community’s complex history of relationships with settler society and colonialism, its engagements and negotiations with, as well as its resistance to, imperial and settler political institutions and structures of knowledge. Many of these individuals--Brant, Johnson, Deskaheh, Winslow, Robertson, Moses, and Niro--lived and worked both on and outside the reserve. In some cases, such as those of Johnson and Robertson, personal circumstances and the trajectories of their careers meant that much of their adult lives either were (in Johnson’s case) or have been (Robertson) spent living in other parts of Canada or the United States. Moreover, Monture acknowledges that these men and women expressed their relationships to Haudenosaunee culture in a very wide range of genres.  For example, Brant’s must be read through his dealings, both his speeches and practices, with British colonial officials; Winslow’s through her retelling of her peoples’ oral histories and traditions; Maracle’s through his first-person account of his move back to Six Nations in the 1990s, Back on the Rez (1996); and Niro’s through her photography and film. Monture argues, though, that there are three threads that tie the writings and teachings of these members of the Haudenosaunee to each other and that--equally importantly--have persisted over time. Their responsibility for the well-being of the earth has been and is both strong and grounded in Haudenosaunee spirituality; their commitment to Haudenosaunee sovereignty as a confederacy of independent nations has been and is firm; and they strongly believe that they are obliged to maintain these positions for the benefit of future generations. Monture acknowledges that being able to trace continuity over the course of 225 years does not preclude a history of debate and division on a range of political, social, and economic “matters.” Indeed, he goes to some lengths to demonstrate that his narrative is not one of static conservatism or homogeneity: rather, Haudenosaunee people have, he argues, continually debated and renegotiated their culture and positions. Such processes, though, meant a constant engagement with Haudenosaunee oral traditions, philosophies, histories, and contemporary contexts, whether the latter were those of Brant, faced with increasing settler encroachments on the Grand River Territory and an imperial government less and less interested in the Six Nations, or Thomas, who spoke publicly about the principles of the Great Law in the face of Mohawk warriors whose behavior (particularly around the use of violence) contradicted, Thomas felt, his peoples’ fundamental moral beliefs. It is this history of cultural and political adaptation in order to uphold key Haudenosaunee teachings that, Monture believes, characterizes his peoples’ persistence at the Grand River Territory. Monture depicts a vibrant, lively community, one engaged in creating its own historical narratives and cultural truths while simultaneously insisting that settler society pay attention to these processes and abandon the myth of the “vanishing Indian.”

As the previous description should make clear, the book’s scope is wide, as Monture’s definition of “literary history” is broad-ranging. His coverage of over two hundred years and such a diverse range of thinkers, writers, and performers will make We Share Our Matters of interest to a number of scholars; while the book will appeal to those engaged in Indigenous studies, it also should find readers in literary studies, cultural studies, and those who study the history of settler societies. His central argument, that Haudenosaunee culture has been and continues to be a living, breathing entity, is convincing and persuasive.

As a non-Indigenous historian who has spent some time thinking and writing about Indigenous-settler relations, particularly their manifestation at the Grand River in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, I found certain chapters were especially thought-provoking. For one, Monture’s discussion of Joseph Brant is an extremely thoughtful and nuanced exploration of the complex and difficult situation which faced Brant in the aftermath of the American Revolution. Monture places Brant in his political and diplomatic context, highlighting the difficult--one might say almost intractable--choices he and the Haudenosaunee faced after the Revolution. To be sure, Monture points out he is not the first scholar to attempt to understand Brant in those terms; historian James Paxton has also asked similar, thought-provoking questions about Brant’s leadership and motives, work on which Monture builds. Yet by situating Brant within the long history of Haudenosaunee philosophy and understandings of the world he also adds morel depth to our understanding of him as a Haudenosaunee man, moving us away from binary perspectives that have seen Brant as either a heroic leader or an advocate of his people’s assimilation. Monture is by no means an apologist for Brant and is well aware of his controversial and contested legacy at the Grand River, not least over land sales. Nevertheless, his exploration of Brant’s words and deeds--not least his point about the linguistic difficulties Brant experienced in his dealings with the British--opens up new directions and possibilities. Additionally, while I knew something of Chief Jake Thomas’s work at the Grand River, Monture’s exploration of his teachings is a fascinating (albeit somewhat brief) exploration that helps us understand both the strength of Thomas’s leadership and the reasons why he disagreed with certain members of his community who, from his perspective, were not adhering to Haudenosaunee values. I was left wanting to know more about Thomas and hope that his biography might be a future project for Monture. 

Certain aspects of the book raise other questions. Monture’s chapter on E. Pauline Johnson, which follows his discussion of Brant, does not strike me as being quite as even-handed or as subtle as his treatment of Brant. I agree wholeheartedly that part of Johnson’s significance has been (and still is) her status as a prominent, complex, and troubling figure: her sale of wampum to finance her tour to England in 1906, for example, or her use of settler tropes and imagery to represent the Six Nations to non-Indigenous audiences. However, an analysis that incorporated gender to a greater extent might plumb more deeply Johnson’s problematic position, vis-a-vis both the Haudenosaunee and settler and imperial societies. Too, while I was fascinated by Monture’s discussion of Robbie Robertson, I would have liked to seen an expanded analysis of Robertson’s participation in The Band’s “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” (1969). While the song speaks to overarching themes of loss, struggle, and the ways in which those far removed from the levers of power are caught up in events over which they have little control, I often wonder if it risks romanticizing the role of the southern United States in the Civil War. Moreover, although I take Monture’s point that Robertson’s work with The Band was a critically important part of his career, I could not help wishing for a lengthier analysis of his later work, which explores his Haudenosaunee roots: Monture’s insights here would, I think, be immensely useful in giving us another dimension of Robertson’s art. These criticisms aside, We Share Our Matters is an important and ambitious endeavor that makes a significant contribution to Indigenous studies’ scholarship and to our understanding of Haudenosaunee-settler relations in both the past and present.   

 

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Citation: Cecilia Morgan. Review of Monture, Rick, We Share Our Matters: Two Centuries of Writing and Resistance at Six Nations of the Grand River. H-Canada, H-Net Reviews. January, 2016.
URL: http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=44150

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