Date of this Version
Great Plains Quarterly Vol. 29, No. 2, Spring 2009, pp. 155
This book examines how "representational technologies," including photography and archival material, were used to establish colonial control over Aboriginal families in Canada. Case studies include a critique of photographer Mary Schaffer's images of Aboriginal people in the Rocky Mountains, an analysis of an RCMP file concerning the disappearance of an Inuit woman and children, and a discussion of prairie writer Rudy Wiebe's retelling of Yvonne Johnson's life. Defamiliarizing the Aboriginal is a subtle addition to literature on the mechanisms of cultural representation and their dynamics within colonialism, placing these issues especially well within the framework of postcolonial and feminist politics.
That said, it's a frustrating book: challengingly written ("There are three key features of representational violence operating spatially in the semiotics of subjugation ... ") and refusing to engage with deeper aspects of the material explored. In the chapter on photography, for instance, while the analysis of Schaffer's thought itself is thorough, her work is not placed in the broader context of visual representations of Aboriginal peoples, nor are recent critiques of such imagery cited. The observation that "How subjects are categorized and organized ... constitutes spatial modes of epistemic violence" is not a new thought in regard to photography and indigenous peoples, and recent analyses have critiqued sweeping theory, looking instead for local meanings, specificities of production, "fractures" in colonial mindsets, and indigenous agency (e.g., Elizabeth Edwards's Raw Histories: Photographs, Anthropology and Museums, 2001). This work, by contrast, seems determined to find total hegemony within the technologies examined.