To give a little bit of background in regards to who I am, and where this blog came from, I studied English literature for five years at the University of Toronto, receiving both my undergraduate and Master's degrees there. I studied various fields of literature during that time, from Homer and Chaucer, to the Romantics, Wordsworth and Coleridge, to the high Modernists, Joyce and Conrad, to even postmodernists like Beckett. And now a couple of years after that rich and engaging studying, I'm (still) a bartender.
This is a fact a lot of people seem to find rather troubling. I think this is because it's a fact that seems to imply my academic career was a waste because I'm still a bartender, and what kind of a formal education do you need to do that? It's true, hypothetically. That being said, I loved what I studied at university: I enjoyed it, I got to study the one thing I've always really cared about, I became extremely well read, and, most importantly, I expanded my own horizons.
That being said, this feeling of having to defend the value of my education, since it hasn't yet gotten me the main thing an education is supposed to get you (a full-time job), has provoked a lot of thought. What exactly was the point? Or, how can I explain to people what the point was, since intuitively I feel like I understand, and don't need to explain it myself.
Continually I find myself circling back to a mission statement for an altogether separate non-profit that is arts-related, but not exactly literary related. The Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) has for years declared itself as 'a charitable cultural organization with a mission to transform the way people see the world, through film'. It's a line that resonates with me, because I feel like, in a lot of ways, it could read as the mission statement for the body of literature, as a whole. In fact, it could even read as a sort of mission statement for the entire body of art, as a whole, ever created.
For me, it explains why there is a value in art and, more specifically, literature. Literature makes you see things in a different light. It presents you with alternate perspectives and subjectivities that transform the way you see the world. It's what my five years of studying literature did, and it's why I look back with only the fondest memories.
This is why, for me, it's always been important to engage with literature from a wide variety of time periods and geographical locations. This is how you learn, and how you wake yourself up. It's for this reason that from the time I first read it, even though it wasn't the easiest book I've ever read, I've been a huge believer in Rudy Wiebe's epic novel, The Temptations of Big Bear.
WHAT'S THE CONTEXT:
Rudy Wiebe is one of Canada's great writers. A Mennonite, he grew up in an isolated community in the western Prairies of Canada, and went on to become a prolific writer and long time literary professor at the University of Alberta. When Wiebe encountered the story of Big Bear, the great aboriginal Prairie Chief, he was fascinated, and dedicated years of traveling and researching to the writing of this novel. He would later speak of his fascination with Big Bear as, 'The power of a story that never lets you go'. Indeed it's a story that's never let him go, but it's also a story he's reached countless Canadians with: in 1973, The Temptations of Big Bear won the Governor General's Award for Fiction, which is arguably Canada's biggest literary prize.
As Sherill E. Grace describes in her article, 'Western Myth and Northern History: The Plains Indians of Berger and Wiebe,' Rudy Wiebe 'takes immense pride in re-creating the story of Big Bear by inventing as little as possible because the names, the letters, and some of the speeches are already there and do not require improvement.' Wiebe is as faithful to history as he can be, incorporating all the real life events, individuals, and documents that he had access to.
That being said, as Wiebe states in his introduction, 'Despite that, and despite the historicity of dates and events, all characters in this meditation upon the past are the products of a particular imagination; their resemblance and relation, therefore, to living or once living persons is to be resisted'. In other words, Big Bear is undoubtedly a work of historical fiction. While it takes a great deal from history, it is also undoubtedly fictionalized.
The novel spans a period of twelve years, from 1876 to 1888, starting with Big Bear's refusal to sign a land treaty with the British government, Treaty No Six, at Fort Pitt. The first major Prairie chief to do so, Big Bear continually resisted signing the treaty for six years, while trying to create a 'political confederation of Indian bands capable of forcing concessions from the government' ('Mistahimaskwa (Big Bear)' The Northwest Resistance). In 1882, faced with the starvation and severe weakening of his people, Big Bear felt as if he had no other choice but to sign.
Following the signing of the treaty, Wiebe then takes us through Big Bear's struggle to retain control of his tribe, and the massacre at Frog Lake when a band led by his son Ayimisis and the war chief Kapapamahchakwew (Wandering Spirit) killed nine people, later taking a group of civilians hostage. Although he did not participate in the fighting and continually advocated for peace, Big Bear was later brought to trial in Regina. He was found guilty of treason- felony, and sentenced to three years in prison for his 'involvement'. Suffering from poor health, Big Bear was released in 1887 and allowed to return to the Poundmaker reserve where he died in 1888, the point at which Wiebe concludes his novel.
I'm not going to lie, Big Bear isn't the easiest read. At times the language of the novel is dense, and it makes it difficult to power through at a fast pace. But I also think this is the point. In constructing his narrative as such, Wiebe immerses the reader into a culture and worldview that is vastly different from our own. It's the world of Big Bear and his people, and it's highly stylized in order to emphasize a soft, sensual manner of living that is deeply connected to nature and spirituality. Take a look at this passage of description:
'Running Second stood there with a leaf funnelling water into him and smiled, her round face steaming shiny and she merged and doubled, double into not eight but six shapes as indistinguishable blackness hung there distorted in a glazed bulging eye under a black hat rim, blackness strung aloft like heads and bodies, ahh, hung under a pole bobbing to tear themselves loose and coming away suddenly in spouts of black words and words where their bloodswollen souls might have smiled from their faces, one giant flowering upward between his clawing fingers now, folded back, chuckling, a horrible spring of clotted black blood laughter.'
That's one sentence. Far from concise, rational, or technical, Wiebe's language is overflowing, lyrical, and although perhaps overwhelming at times, it also possesses a slow moving beauty that we don't always get in our fast-paced world of the twenty first century that increasingly privileges technology, efficiency, and logic. As Sherill E. Grace notes, 'His sentences resist ending, as if to draw out or extend the time of the telling ... Wiebe's prose slows and circles over and over again, as if to mirror the act of contemplation'. In being constructed as such, the language of the text also slows you down, and, in doing so, gives you time to think.
The language of the novel isn't always like that though. Rather than simply have an omniscient narrator, Wiebe pieces his story together by telling it from countless perspectives. It moves from official documents, to letters, to the first person voices of different characters, to the third person narration we see above. In doing so, he creates a cacophony of voices and enlarges the viewpoint from which we see Big Bear and his story. We have access to multiple subjectivities: those of Big Bear and his tribe members, those of British government officials, and bystanders like Kitty McLean, a young girl who adores and respects Big Bear, but also witnesses his trial, sentencing and imprisonment.
What I like most about the novel is the way that, no matter who is speaking and what they say in particular, it continually succeeds in characterizing Big Bear as an epic, larger than life figure. In a letter written by the British official Edgar Dewdney, Wiebe has him describe Big Bear as, 'the head and soul of all our Canadian Plains Indians'. He goes on to show admiration for his skill as an orator, stating 'it is his voice and his perception, which draws more and more people to him. His voice would be unbelievable in Parliament.' There's a grandness, an elegance, that Wiebe gives to Big Bear, and I think it shows him the respect he deserves.
From Big Bear's first appearance in the novel, it is clear that, while he refuses to simply concede to the demands of the 'White Man', he is keenly aware of the precariousness of his situation, and the changes going on around him. In one of his opening lines he states, 'There is something that I dread. To feel the rope around my neck. It is not given to us by The Great Spirit that Redmen or Whitement should spill each other's blood.' Big Bear's dread is terrible to witness as we know what is to come, but the acute understanding Wiebe shows him to have serves to heighten his wisdom and respectability.
Wiebe never makes Big Bear out to be a weak, or careless, or unknowing figure. He never presents Big Bear as someone who was easily tricked or fooled. Instead, he shows Big Bear as a Chief who didn't fall due to his own flaws or poor decision making, but someone who was a hapless victim of circumstances. He distinctly sees the way his world is changing, as he looks at the world around him. As Wiebe describes, when Big Bear,
'contemplated what he found here, though the land appeared the same, something was wrong with it. As if just under the edge of his vision a giant blade was slicing through the earth, cutting off everything with roots, warping everything into something Whiteskin clean and straight'.
He can see there is something terribly wrong, but as he says when he at last signs the treat, 'I am an old man and it is no longer given me to feed my people. What more can you want?'
There is no denying that the story of Big Bear is tragic. But I think there is something to be said for the way he's showcased here as as a powerful, thoughtful, humble leader. Wiebe makes us see the value of Big Bear and aboriginal culture. We're devastated for Big Bear, but we never look down upon him. Instead, we question the actions of the British government and colonialism. We are angered by the way we learned Canadian history. Because, after all, it wasn't an empty continent that was discovered by European explorers. There was a world here already, a way of life, that was used by the earliest inhabitants to survive, manipulated, and, ultimately, carelessly destroyed.
WHY IT MATTERS NOW:
Well, it's 2017, but the disputes continue, as they should. In Canada, there continue to be disagreements over land, with aboriginal groups advocating for territory they should have been given years ago. In a country with the oil industry at the heart of the economy, there is also the constant debate over pipeline construction, particularly when it is being planned to go through aboriginal territory and forested areas that should be protected for the future of our environment and, also more broadly, our planet.
This is why The Temptations of Big Bear matters, and why, as a piece of literature and art, it can be useful in transforming the way people see. As Sherill E. Grace says, Wiebe 'forces us to see the profound irony of the Indians held captive in his native land by an ordinary group of whites who are neither evil nor good, stupid nor wise, but who are themselves held captive by a logic ideology that they cannot overrule or successfully adapt.'
It's striking when reading Big Bear how ridiculous the entire scheme of colonialism was. Ridiculous, but with tragic consequences. As Big Bear states in regards to land, 'Who can receive land? From whom would he receive it?' He goes on to say 'I cannot seem to understand anything here,' and as we read, we can't either. It doesn't make any sense that the British explorers arrived in North America and just assumed it was their land that they owned. Far more reasonable seems to be Big Bear's understanding that 'No one can choose for only himself a piece of the Mother Earth. She is. And she is for all that live, alike.' Of course, this is a worldview that has been continually lost, but there's a beauty in it that I think is highly evident here.
For me, through literature like The Temptations of Big Bear, I've gained a far greater understanding of the plight of aboriginal groups in Canada, and it makes me a strong advocate for their land claims. Really, if it was anyone's land to begin with, it was theirs. I think this is a message Wiebe makes clear in his novel: perhaps the colonialists came and conquered (to some degree), but it wasn't right, and our understanding of history needs to be re-evaluated.
But beyond specifics about land, I think what Wiebe does throughout this novel is also give us access to a way of life and understanding that is far more open, inclusive and respectful than the one we often fall into today. The belief that no one owns the land, that we should respect nature and each other, and that peace is of the utmost value. It promotes the idea of harmony, and that a little respect for others can go a long way. I think we can all learn a little from Big Bear, and since I know that it has transformed the way one person sees the world (me), I can also say that as a piece of art, it has certainly done it's job.