Yukon Dispatches: Textual Research (Part 4 of 4)

[Editor’s Note: Yukon Dispatches is a four-part Assay project by Corinna Cook and will explore place-based writing, ekphrastic nonfiction, and research as she completes a year-long Fulbright. Click here for Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3!]

We read aloud
 I sit in the second row, pressed elbow to elbow against the person next to me and he to the person next to him. Our rows of too-close chairs create a temporary theatre in an art gallery. The artist speaks. We listen. As planned.

Then the artist distributes copies of a text and directs the audience to read it aloud. We do. This both joins and removes us: we become a Greek chorus, commenting on—while locked out of—the action at hand.

Cede, release, and surrender, we read. Cede, release, and surrender—we say it over, and over, and over, because we are reading page fifteen of the Umbrella Final Agreement, the document adopted in 1990 by the Yukon Territory to guide its First Nations land claims settlements. Cede, release, and surrender. We follow the text like a map but we stumble, and in my ears it sounds like we stumble every single time the text has us repeat: cede. Release. And surrender.

Why read this clause? It’s the one the artist foregrounds in her sculpture. It’s the one that says: for a Yukon First Nation to receive legal title to traditional lands, it must formally cede its territory. Release it. Surrender it.

Notice: it takes three verbs to fully invoke the intended severance.

In a more practical sense, this is how I understand the clause: UFA signatories agree to “cede, release, and surrender” their lands first, then enter into the negotiations that will grant title back. It’s only one page of a very complex document, but now that I’ve heard it out loud, I can’t put it out of mind.

Where we’re going
general writing process photoCommunity research thrives with conversation, voice to voice. And although this post begins with voices, it is not really about voices, or speaking, or even listening—instead, it concentrates on two points at which voices lead me back to written texts. That is, this post considers two examples in which community research becomes textual research. Community and text are entwined, after all: communities make texts; texts are community artifacts.

Example one: government documents
About the artist who distributed the cede, release, and surrender clause to her audience: her name is Lianne Charlie, and she is also a trained political scientist who teaches at the college. (In fact, her talk sparked for me these reflections about how and why a humanities curriculum might include political documents and read legal texts as literature.)

The upshot is this: I attended an artist talk structured with professional training and running deep with personal, family meaning. It marked me. My interest in the Yukon’s central land claims document went from general to urgent.

Because I thought: this is not the only document.

It is not the only document that strikes at the core of people’s lives. And this is not the only document that also reaches straight into the lives of generations to come. In other words, this is not the only document to make some kind of quiet, life-altering pivot in the universe of northwestern North America.

In other words, this is not the only document that is boring and hard to read and yet as potent or alive as marrow.

The big questions I’ve been pursuing in this year’s Fulbright project are rooted in the difficult histories that our small, northern communities have to find ways of living with (more detail in Dispatch One). So while I’m no attorney and I’m no legal scholar, I’m interacting more and more with the historic legal texts that had a hand in setting the stage for our communities’ present-day schisms. In the making is a “government documents essay”—an essay that traces a lineage from imperial border agreements between Russia and Great Britain up to the Modern Treaty Era, including the latter’s democratic rules and its cutting-edge, co-governance agreements.

My object is to build an essay that re-creates (in some sense) the Greek chorus experience I had in the art gallery. I’m building an essay that seeks to enter into a visceral relationship with bureaucratically stylized texts—texts that seem designed to prevent exactly this kind of visceral understanding.

Example two: archives

Whitehorse Mission School memorial - sitting circle detail
Whitehorse Mission School memorial – sitting circle detail

My second example of community research gone textual involves residential school history, legacy, and recovery. It’s an open wound: as far as I know, every First Nations person in the Yukon either went to residential school themselves or is related to someone who did. And residential school is generally agreed to be the core of this area’s collective trauma. This means: I can’t properly think through questions of social healing without considering residential schools. But I also can’t walk around asking brutally painful questions. Plus, survivor stories have been formally collected and preserved by Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission. (Ronald Niezen published some pretty riveting accounts of these “listening sessions” in his 2013 book, Truth and Indignation.) Of course, much of this testimony is kept private. It’s profoundly not my place to pursue private collections in the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation’s archives.

But there is this: many survivor groups have created their own publications—gathering photos, text, and interviews from their own communities, arranging these components as they wish, and determining how and how much of their collective history and personal narratives to make available. Textual research, here, is a way of respecting survivors’ choice of when, how, and how much of their experience to share.

There are also the Yukon Archives, and the churches that have—and have not—archived their records. When I asked former Yukon Territorial Archivist Linda Johnson about how best to research the Whitehorse Baptist Mission School at the archives, she said this: alongside survivor publications, read the Anglican church workers’ correspondence about the challenges they faced running Chooutla down in Carcross. Because Chooutla gave their records to the archives. The Mission School did not.

Whitehorse Mission School Memorial - healing pole and sitting circle
Whitehorse Mission School Memorial – healing pole and sitting circle

Therefore, we can only guess what it was like to staff the Whitehorse Mission School.

But—and Linda really stressed this—read that church worker correspondence alongside the survivor accounts because that is how you will begin to see the profound disconnect between what residential school workers thought they were trying to do and what effects they actually had.

I feel Linda really has me figured out. Because that gap she sends me to: gaps like those necessitate the arts.

Still, the research experience here reminds me of Frank Sinatra’s famous evasiveness in Gay Talese essay/portrait, “Frank Sinatra Has A Cold,” and it also underscores the importance of an insight I started hatching in Dispatch Two about “deep” or “slow” research. Namely, the genre of literary nonfiction and its core form, the essay, lends itself to modes of research in which we must direct our search just offcenter from what we are actually seeking.

Poetry, in the end
Clea & Tess poetry collectionsTwo writers in particular inspire my textual research. Both are poets.

Tess Taylor’s collection, The Forage House, asks questions about her family history as it links to Thomas Jefferson, and therefore to slave ownership. These poems deal with the emotional experience of archival reality, including its information and its omissions. “Literary history is itself full of omissions,” Taylor points out in an interview, “and what gets saved is partial—hauntingly so. What gets left out is political, as well as mundane and accidental.” This description of literary history shares (un)surprising similarities with my insights on the art of cartography (Dispatch Three), in which I consider the way that maps (like all records, I suppose) contain densities and paucities of information, and the special way empty space has of attracting the eye.

Similarly drawn to omissions is Clea Roberts’ poetry collection Here Is Where We Disembark. Roberts uses archival research in order to fill out her sense of Klondike history, and to touch on perspectives omitted from the sensationalized, popular versions of the Gold Rush. Among these are several poems written from under-celebrated perspectives paired with stunning replies: for example, Mrs. Purdy comments on appropriate attire for hiking the Chilkoot Pass (“I recommend a cord skirt / cut above the ankles. / It’s warm and fetching, / and practical for stepping over / dead horses on the trail”). And later, the Chilkoot Pass responds directly: “I’ll take your body / a quarter mile before / I break it completely. / I will love you widely / plucking trees and / boulders as I go.” A history can be romanticized, popularized, even welcomed into mainstream consciousness—but alongside adventure, gruesomeness also drives the Klondike history’s power. This too is our inheritance.

I set out on my Fulbright year in the Yukon with three clear themes in mind. Ecology. History. Art.

Ecology, because I wondered about the grief of climate change. History, because I wondered if the currents dividing northern communities are starker and more damning than I realized. And art, because I hoped physical objects, ones that hold still for slow pondering, could offer mental/spiritual traction. Now that I’ve concentrated nearly a whole Fulbright year on these three themes, my research-mind may have grown into an over-strong muscle: I see too much expansion and long for the balance of contraction. In other words, I recognize in my project a growing need for control on the page—simplicity. My rising questions are thus more and more about craft: essayists I’ll be re-reading in my upcoming search for compactness, momentum, and socially consciousness art writing: Zadie Smith’s “Getting In and Out” (among others) in Feel Free, and Rebecca Solnit’s “Grandmother Spider” in Men Explain Things to Me.

Further reading:

Ronald Niezen, Truth and Indignation
Gay Talese, “Frank Sinatra Has A Cold”
Tess Taylor, The Forage House
Clea Roberts, Here Is Where We Disembark
Zadie Smith, Feel Free
Rebecca Solnit, Men Explain Things to Me

on the ridge above fish lake where now i go to think about caribouCorinna Cook is a lifelong Alaskan currently based in Whitehorse, Yukon Territory, where Fulbright Canada supports her writing on art, ecology, and living with colonial history. She holds a PhD in English and Creative Writing from the University of Missouri and is a recipient of the Ak State Council on the Arts and the Ak Arts and Culture Foundation’s 2018 Literary Award. Corinna’s essays appear here and there, including Flyway: Journal of Writing and Environment, the Alaska Quarterly Review, and the Ocean State Review.

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