Sunday, December 4, 2016

Coll Thrush's "Indigenous London"

Coll Thrush is associate professor of history at the University of British Columbia, where he is also affiliated with UBC’s Institute for Critical Indigenous Studies. Originally from the Seattle area, he lives in Vancouver on unceded Coast Salish territories.

Thrush applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, Indigenous London: Native Travelers at the Heart of Empire, and reported the following:
I like to think that every book has a soul. Mine has six, and one of them just happens to start on page 99. That page opens an account of an eleven-year-old boy from the Odawa nation of the Great Lakes who was taken to London as a war captive in 1761. There, his captor General George Townshend held the boy in his Craven Street home and used him as entertainment at evening affairs that included guests such as the famed poet Thomas Gray. Indeed, an account of one such soiree by Gray is the only archival evidence that the unnamed boy ever existed. What makes his story one of the souls of Indigenous London is its form: a free-verse poem built out of archival fragments.

Like the rest of the book, the poem aims to tell a story about Indigenous people who travelled to London, willingly or otherwise, from territories that became Canada, the US, New Zealand, and Australia. Showing how the city has been bound up in Indigenous history from its very earliest efforts at colonialism, Indigenous London focuses on six “domains of entanglement”: knowledge, disorder, reason, ritual, discipline, and memory. In between the chapters sit six interludes, each focused on a different object: an obsidian mirror, a debtor’s petition, a lost museum, a hat factory, a notebook. In the Odawa boy’s case, the object is a pair of atlantes (human figures) holding up a memorial to Townshend’s brother Roger, both of which were modeled on the boy’s body. It is one of many instances in which London is marked by Indigenous presence and the workings of settler colonialism.

To be sure, though, Indigenous London is not solely the story of captives. It is also the story of Mohawk diplomats, Hawaiian royalty, Inuit medicine people, Aboriginal Australian cricketers, Mohegan missionaries, Maori sailors, and many others who came to the city for their own reasons and with surprisingly varied results. Unlike so many other narratives of the vanishing Indigenous, these are stories of survivance - even when the travellers never made it home, many are still remembered in descendant communities today. But for all its emphasis on Indigenous agency, Indigenous London also speaks to the trauma of empire. Written in a way that attempts to circumvent the detached prose of the academic, “Atlantes, 1761” suggests one answer to the question that closes the book: When did we become real human beings?
Learn more about Indigenous London at the Yale University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue