Assignment 3.2 – Myth and Nationality

This blog post will address the following (question six):

Lee Maracle writes:

In order for criticism to arise naturally from within our culture, discourse must serve the same function it has always served. In Euro-society, literary criticism heightens the competition between writers and limits entry of new writers to preserve the original canon. What will its function be in our societies? (88)
In the following paragraphs in her essay, Maracle answers her question describing what she sees to be the function of literary criticism in Salish society. Summarize her answer and then make some comparisons between Maracle and Frye’s analysis of the role of myth in nation building” (Paterson n.p.).


To Lee Maracle, developing a system for literary criticism in Salish society is akin to restoring bodies of knowledge and systems for creating and critiquing that knowledge. Such restoration is needed following extermination vis a vis the Canadian colonial enterprise (Maracle 79). She goes as far as saying that the key to liberating the Salish people (perhaps implying all Indigenous peoples)  lies within both oracy and literature, which hold the “cultural knowledge” needed to escape cultural oppression (Maracle 95). Indeed, and quite unsurprisingly for a society that has existed for millennia, Salish people, through orature and literature, had a developed system of knowledge with diverse schools of thought that reached into and probed the realms of science, philosophy, anthropology, politics, &c (Maracle 89).

Issues arise due to the fact that the Salish lack internal structures and methods through which they can analyse their own literature. Because most Salish literary analysts are educated in Western traditions (Maracle 88-89), they approach Salish literature from a Western standpoint, incapable of examining it through the now-lost “old filters of original knowledge” (Maracle 89). By developing a Salish literary criticism rooted in Salish society, Maracle seeks to systematize and formulate the extensive knowledge held by the Salish people in the past and present (Maracle 95). This, in turn, will allow Salish society to define itself as a nation separate from its European colonizers.

In a separate strain of thought, Northrop Frye notes that “the question of identity is primarily a cultural and imaginative question” (Frye xxi), and thus that identity is confined by the limits of the imagination. Identity, in the context of this post, is national in scope – what we call ‘nationalism,’ or in Canada, ‘Canadianism.’ Nationalism, framed by Frye, is an imaginative mentality, a story built on widely spread myths that connect person to place. Central to Frye’s particular theory of nationalism is “the obvious and unquenchable desire of the Canadian cultural public to identify itself through its literature” (Frye 218).

In turn, literature is defined as “conscious mythology: as society develops, its mythical stories become structured principles of storytelling, [and] its mythical concepts … become habits of metaphorical thought” (Frye 234). Nationalism, then, is based on the mythological stories formulated in a national canon. The myth forms a “vision of a social ideal” towards which a society strives (Frye 240). This social ideal, the flag under which a nation rallies, is reflected by “‘popular’ literature,” which has the goal of “[persuading] us to accept existing social values” (Frye 237). We then formulate our national identities, and indeed our literature, through the framework of those values.

In terms of Canadian national identity, Frye claims that, instead of being based on myth, “the Canadian literary mind” is based on history (Frye 233). Canadianism is a consequence of a particular historical bias, not a mythological one. This is because myth does not have the basis to form in Canada to the extent needed for create a solidified national identity, according to Frye. Problems of national identity, what Frye calls “the mystique of Canadianism” (Frye 222), arise due to cultural revolutions that have occurred to quickly and too often to allow for the development of a literary foundation (Frye 221). This foundation must exist before a canon of literature can develop to refine the myth of ‘nation,’ as forms of literature “cannot be derived from any experience outside of literature” itself (Frye 234). Thus, Canadian national identity must be based in history rather than myth, though it may strive for a foundation in the latter.

Frye claims that “Canadian literature … is an indispensable aid to the knowledge of Canada” (Frye 217), being the primary way that we record our imagination. The accepted canon of Canadian literature, regardless of how developed it may be, not only aids knowledge of Canada, but creates and frames that knowledge as Canadian. Through some of the methods that Frye alludes to, canonization in this way creates a more or less static foundation of literature that can then be analyzed and critiqued by literary ‘experts.’ Knowledge pertaining to that literary canon (which is representative of a national identity) is thereby produced, encoded, and replicated. This process plays a large role in forming and solidifying the myth of Canada as a nation.

Maracle advocates for a system of literary critique internal to Salish society because she realizes the power that this process holds. Indeed, the ability to internally criticize literature and knowledge would allow Salish people to invent a Salish myth of nationalism by drawing borders around their own knowledge and traditions of recording that knowledge. It is at this point that the theories of Maracle and Frye intersect. Both recognize the role that literature plays in informing a collective identity, and the power that literary critique holds by creating a national literary canon.

When the nation is framed as a myth, Thomas King’s statement that “we [Indigenous peoples] are about story and nothing else” is no longer the insult that Maracle takes it to be (quoted in Maracle 82). In fact, Maracle herself is attempting to find a way to create a national myth – a story – in order to reclaim Salish knowledge, culture, heritage, and society. Similarly, Frye is utilizing Canadian literature to create a national myth of Canadianism. Ultimately, both implicitly or explicitly concede that “ideas are weapons” (Frye 229) and that stories are power in the sense that they can be used to invent and harness the raw power of nationalism, or to reclaim a lost sense of togetherness.


Works Cited

Frye, Northrop. The Bush Garden: Essays on the Canadian Imagination. Introduction by Linda Hutcheon. Concord, ON: House of Anansi Press, 1995. Print.

Maracle, Lee. “Toward a National Literature: ‘A Body of Writing.'” Across Cultures, Across Borders: Canadian Aboriginal and Native American Literature. Ed. Paul DePasquale, Renate Eigenbrod, and Emma LaRoque. Toronto, ON: Broadview Press, 2010. 77-96. Print.

“Nationalism as a Cause of World War I.” Alpha History. Alpha History, n.d. Web. 13 July 2016.

Paterson, Erika. “Lesson 3.1.” ENGL 470A Canadian Studies: Canadian Literary Genres May 2016. University of British Columbia, n.d. Web. 13 July 2016.

“Xá:ytem/Hatzic Rock National Historic Site of Canada.” Canada’s Historic Places. Parks Canada, n.d. Web. 13 July 2016.


Filed under Unit III

4 Responses to Assignment 3.2 – Myth and Nationality

  1. HeatherJames

    Hi Nick,

    Reclaiming space or language or celebrations is a really awesome movement of decolonization that many Indigenous peoples and communities are consciously taking up and I think it’s really interesting to also put it in the perspective of reclaiming literature critique, like Lee Maracle is doing.

    I think there’s a tension, as a non-Indigenous student, to be engaging with Maracle’s text (or other Indigenous actions towards agency) because on some level I think we end up monopolizing the conversation about antics or semantics. Maracle is incredibly explicit in most of her work that she is not writing for non-Native peoples, and that her work prioritizes Indigenous women for very political reasons. Personally, I do think it’s important to centre Aboriginal voices and remove myself from space I’ve claimed that isn’t mine, but I wonder how we do that when we are engaging for purposes of class discussion, or even to be critical thinkers in general? I wonder your thoughts on that. Let me know if I need to do a little more explaining?


    • NickBabey

      Although the reclamation of “space or language or celebrations” are important, as you have said, I think that Maracle is looking for reclamation on a far deeper level than even literary critique. For her, literary critique is the key to reclaiming knowledge. The adage “knowledge is power” is quite apt here. By reclaiming knowledge, Maracle hopes to open the door to true, lasting decolonization.

      Of course there is a tension engaging with and critically analyzing Indigenous literature as a non-Indigenous student. However, that same tension arises when we engage with anything we are not culturally and socially native to. Surely, it is important to centre Aboriginal voices in the dialogues that are about Aboriginal voices – it is the only logical thing to do, so that fact that it is also just is nice. It would, however, be tragic to limit discussion to insiders only. I have not claimed a central space in this dialogue, nor do I believe I should, but to remove myself entirely is to blind myself to knowledge of an ‘other’ culture that can reduce its ‘otherness.’

      Dialogue between cultures, and efforts to foster mutual understanding and learning are integral to social and political progress. Fear of misinterpretation should not scare us away from engaging in a dialogue that centres on another social group.

      Something else is to be said about excluding the group one is critiquing in order to achieve decolonization. The colonial system cannot be attacked head-on like that, for it has already incorporated that attack into itself. Ideas and popular perceptions of First Nations peoples have already been set up, and exclusion (whether voluntary or aggressive) will reinforce those perceptions. The importance of dialogue and engagement across cultures is that it bypasses colonialism altogether by co-opting otherness. By breaking down those perceptions of each other created by the colonial system, we will break down colonialism itself, for its foundation is upon those perceptions. We cannot achieve that if we do not read and openly engage with authors like Lee Maracle. Imagine if all non-Indigenous Canadians did the same.

  2. DanicaFerguson

    Great post! I found it interesting when you talked about how experts studying Indigenous literary analysts are educated within Western systems and it got me curious. How do you think educating with an Indigenous system would change views on literary analysis? In what ways would things be the same and different? It is an interesting thing to ponder and I hope one day it may be achieved so we may see the results.

    • NickBabey

      The issue that Maracle is talking about is that there is currently no system within which Indigenous people can develop their own literary criticism. Essentially, she’s arguing that the education system is either not keeping up, or that it is geared towards Western/Eurocentric bodies of thought (Maracle “Toward a National Literature” 79).

      Certainly, education within an Indigenous education system would alter views on literary analysis dramatically. This is no surprise though – the way that we are educated and what we are educated about is necessarily affected by the sociopolitical and economic context we find ourselves in. It is exactly this shift of context that Maracle believes is necessary to reclaim Salish knowledge.

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