Hugh Brody, Maps and Dreams

I think often of Pierre Bayard, author of the celebrated/infamous How to Talk About Books You Haven't Read. To quote one of his comments that appeared in the Guardian's review of his book (which I haven't in fact read in full), "'Because I teach literature at university level,' he says, regretfully, 'there is, in fact, no way to avoid commenting on books that most of the time I haven't even opened.'"

The past five years, for me, have been spent gradually getting to some of the books that I've most been wishing I'd opened, so that I can stop relying on the tricks I've half-heard from those who might have read more of Bayard's book than I have, in order to use these valuable but unread books in my intellectual practice.

(Don't try this in your classes, kids!)

Key in this list of thus-far-unread books has been Hugh Brody's Maps and Dreams: Indians and the British Columbia Frontier -- but no longer. A work of immersive social science, not uninfluenced by Clifford Geertz' approach to ethnography but with a sharper political purpose, Brody's work proceeds through chapters in alternating discursive modes: one a narrative of some time spent with the people of a particular Reserve (cloaked with some fictitious detail), one a discussion of economic, political, or historical influences or impacts. Brody spends most of a year participating in the annual round of activities, in pursuit of enough trust from the people of the region's reserves that he can generate maps of their historical and contemporary land-use, in order to challenge the planning processes for oil and gas development, including the by now long-completed Alaska Pipeline.

The most potent sentiment for me as I read this book was simply, what changes have there been to the circa-1978 First Nations way of life Brody portrays? How could I know what changes there've been in BC's northeast? And on what basis might I be able to judge such change?

At times, I feel quite keenly the worry that I tried fumblingly to articulate after my PhD defense to the members of my examining committee: as a literary studies academic, I live mostly inside my head, but the good bits of the world are almost exclusively outside my head. It's not good enough for me simply to think differently than I once did -- but the roads to other effects on the world are difficult for the benightedly academic fully to recognize, let alone to inhabit. I understand how one might use Maps and Dreams in a literature and environment classroom, for example, but my role there generates a different influence than did Hugh Brody's year with the Dunne-za (formerly known as the Beaver Indians).

Let me end, simply, by offering some of Brody's words that ring truer now than they ever did, with the enormous scope of the oil sands project in northern Alberta:
"Resources left in the ground are saved, not lost. The rapacious frontier in northeast British Columbia is not in anyone's long-term interests. A questionable economic urgency is being allowed to overwhelm the needs of the Indians for whom the northeast corner of the province is both a home and an economic base that has lasted more centuries than the energy frontier might last years." (p.281)
To be clear: The Dunne-za have lived in northeast BC for more than a hundred times longer than the expected productive tenure of the oil and gas companies in the same region. And when the companies are ready to leave, the land will be filthy, the game trails and hunting trails will be disrupted, and the vegetation patterns will be unreadable to anyone familiar with it today.

The lessons that Pierre Bayard shared with the world in his little book have, though I haven't read it, allowed me to touch on Maps and Dreams in the past. I'm glad to have finally done my small bit by actually reading it: the very least, I think, that a would-be-responsible academic can do.


Anonymous said…
If you liked Brody's Maps and Dreams, I strongly recommend Robin Ridington's Trail to Heaven (1987) which is also an ethnography done while staying with the Dunne-za (Beaver) peoples who Brody stayed with. Ridington had a longer association overlapping time with Brody, but which continues to this day. Ridington has been recognized by the local post-secondary institutions for outstanding lifetime achievement. His style of writing is much more powerful, in my view, even though, if you only read Brody, you would say his is powerful. The contrast is instructive and memorable; Ridington leaves you with a sense of mystery, which appropriately illustrates the topic of spiritual dreaming that both authors are discussing. In contrast, Brody's seems too analytical and Western. A very strange thing to say when Brody's work is, indeed, powerful.

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