Thursday, December 23, 2010
Returned to Yellowknife, into the quick breath of 30 below, aurora and eclipse over Great Slave, a mason jar of scotch to winterproof the veins, then the usual to and fro up and down Franklin Avenue, towards the new New Town, momentarily luxuriating in its nominal progress, its resource-boom sprawl fabricated in an Albertan vision of bust Utopia, pipeline paved and snowplowed for the Ghost of Christmas Future to land; all the while rummaging through moments of the recent dispersion towards Hometown, Pennsylvania, endless roads and chats with the Ghost of Christmas Past, his mouth, full of hocus pocus, muttering back--odd moments, caught, of wanting to transcribe his talk in the syntax of Latta ("Cold, the moon a hole drill’d in the sky’s western rampart. Crows clump’d up in town trees. Vacancy in the bilge compartment, the pump bust’d. (As George Chambers’d say: 'Oh so lo mio, oh do re mi fa so la.')")--yet, within this songline, cresting through the Poconos, sloping into my Susquehanna River valley, it's once-upon-pastoral, eastern forefront of Marcellus Shale fracking, a tableau vivante of Target Audience Amerika, in the descent towards my grandfather's final breaths and, once there, that breath's dispersion, the narration returns, nominally, or, once again, eternally, to Spicer: "Death is not final. Only parking lots."
To the Ghost of Christmas Present: please sneak into the New York Review of Books (1755 Broadway, New York, New York), and deliver the dear editors there a text too close to being lost--I, Nuligak--so that they will publish it in their classics series. If no one will save this book here in Canada (Santa knows, I've queried), perhaps it could find a fitting home with some of the other lost international greats the NYRB keeps alive.
Simply put, there is no book like it in this land, no document or vision of life in the far north during decades of such great change (1890s-1960s) as personally and historically intimate, compelling and complete as this: from stories of familial politics and forced exiles, lean times in the harshest of weathers, to hunts and celebrations, seasonal migrations, animal myths, tales of first contact with the Europeans sailors charting the Northwest Passage, of a traditional livelihood mixing with the first institutional attempts at arctic colonial governance and trade, philosophical musings, sagas, trapper's logbooks and glossaries.
This autobiography, its life and telling, its moment and document, is--while remaining always entertaining--of the greatest importance in charting the history of a north that, as it melts and is found to have more and more immediately exploitable resources, will be increasingly politicized, and possibly harnessed towards that bust Utopia of so many places, while documents of a sustainable way of living such as Nuligak (both in person and in text) die out.
Written by Nuligak, born and orphaned in 1895 on the Mackenzie Delta, and originally "translated from the Eskimo" into French by Maurice Metayer, an oblate missionary who visited Nuligak at Tuktoyaktuk and on Herschel Island several times in the 1950s, the first English versions of I, Nuligak were published by Peter Martin Associates out of Toronto in the late 1960s. A trade paperback of the book appeared in the mid '70s and '80s--though, sadly, without the elegant black-and-white cover drawn by Ekootak--and since this time, the book has remained out of print.
Yes, there are issues that need sorting out with a book like this--such as: does an original text by Nuligak exist; if it does exist, is it transliterated or in syllabics, and can this too be printed so that the first book published in Canada by a northern indigenous writer can be read in its original language; how great was the hand of Metayer in editing the text or, possibly, in changing Nuligak's voice (this is addressed somewhat briefly in the introduction); in what ways, if any, has Metayer colonized Nuligak's story, and if he does do so, are these possible colonizations important to keep as artifact of the book's time?
These are all questions to be addressed by editors, archivists, and specialists. At least, I hope for them to be questions that will be addressed. For now, I, Nuligak remains a hidden treasure tucked in the various northern collections in a few libraries scattered across the country.
Michael Nardone thanks The Walrus for their "fearless" journalism.
Great Tar Sands ads, guys!
Your heart is where your sponsors are?