The Marrow Thieves
On the penultimate page of her 2017 dystopian speculative fiction novel, The Marrow Thieves, Métis author and editor Cherie Dimaline evokes the sound of an echo as a means elucidate the reunification of two residential school surviours:
The scene is significant for a number of reasons, not least of all because it contains the only instance of the word “reconciliation” in an entire novel about the return of residential schools. But also because of the aural imagery that Dimaline build around the word, like whispers of scaffolding that direct and inflect our understanding of a key (and intensely problematic) term in the contemporary Canadian vernacular.
Before they were forced into residential schools by “Recruiters” (Dimaline’s dystopian articulation of the Indian Agent) Miigwaans and Isaac were a happily married couple. Flashbacks throughout the novel lovingly establish this, which makes the scene of their eventual reunification all the more moving and emotional.
Throughout the narrative, Dimaline also makes clear that both men also believe that the other is dead, killed in the schools that stole them away from one another. Miigwaans even wears an amulet, which he believes to hold his husband’s remains, around his neck as a means to remember him. He refers to this amulet as his heart, gesturing to the grief and melancholia that still permeates Isaac’s loss.
The imagery that Dimaline builds around this single instance of the word “reconciliation,” conjugated here as a verb, is guttural and provocative. It speaks to the intensity of being reunited with a loved one who is presumed lost; a family member who is being mourned and grieved and is now returned from the dead:
[Isaac] slowed to a walk now, the welcoming party and the new comers falling in behind. He slowed all his movements, as if focusing his eyes and reconciling what they saw took motion from his muscles. I heard a sound like an echo turned inside out, and then Miig, who had been standing still, trying to see, to understand, under the blue smoke of moonlight, finally took a step forward.[i]
“Like an echo turned inside out.” I find myself captivated by this phrase and what it might mean for our understanding of reconciliation in the present moment. The echo Dimaline describes here is not a reconciliation of words, or of policies; nor is it a reconciliation of settlers and Indigenous peoples, which is how the word is primarily mobilized by Canadian politicians. What is at stake in this single instance of the word is, rather, a reconciliation of Truths: of 1) knowing as certain the genocide inflicted by residential schools while at the same time 2) being held in the gaze of a loved one who was forced into those schools. It is a reconciliation built on love and care and grief and mourning. But, perhaps most importantly, the echo of reconciliation that Dimaline ends her novel with is a reconciliation of surviours.
Outside of the colonial gaze, outside of the multifarious meanings that have been layered onto the word “reconciliation” in the wake of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, reconciliation here is established as the domain of Indigenous peoples and the resurgence with which they will rebuild in the wake of the apocalypse.
Reconciliation and the Age of Apology
Reconciliation is a troubling word. According to Roy Brooks, writing on the prevalence of reparations politics as they emerged out of the Cold War, “we have clearly entered what can be called the ‘Age of Apology.’” From a Canadian perspective, Brooks may very well have chosen the most apt designation for the current political epoch. As Mitch Miyagawa points out, with reference to the numerous apologies offered by the state since 2006, Canada is a “sorry state.” But the overt repetition of what has become a part of Canada’s core political vernacular: “acknowledgement, apology, redress, forgiveness, and reconciliation,” may have also evacuated those words of their meaning.
Indeed, for many of the students in my First Nations and Indigenous Studies here at UBC, the word “reconciliation” has become, and I quote “almost entirely useless.” Anishinaabe author and comedian Ryan McMahon perhaps sums up the naivete with which the word has been inflected in a succinctly worded tweet: “The Reconciliation Industry that is building in Canada looks more like a basic life skills program. ‘Be nice to each other. Don’t be racist.’” In Dancing On Our Turtle’s Back,
Leanne Betasamosake Simpson provides a more academic, yet no less incisive, perspective on the failure of the word “reconciliation” for Indigenous peoples: “In the eyes of liberalism,” she writes, “the historical ‘wrong’ has now been ‘righted’ and further transformation is not needed, since the historic situation has been remedied” (22). I follow from Simpson, when I argue that reconciliation, stripped of its potentiality through the process of the TRC, is perhaps at risk of becoming a floating signifier: a sign without referent.
The Indian Residential School Settlement Agreement
Sadly, this is not where we began. The original call for reconciliation came from residential school surviours and their families in the form of the Indian Residential School Settlement Agreement (IRSSA), ratified in May of 2006. Billed as “a holistic and comprehensive response to the Indian residential school legacy,” the IRSSA included the Common Experience Payment (CEP), the Independent Assessment Payment (IAP), the aforementioned Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), Health and Healing Services for surviours and their families, and a $20 million for the Commemoration Fund for national and community commemorative projects.
Yet, now, only twelve years out of the IRSSA, “reconciliation” echoes most loudly, not in the mouths of surviours or Indigenous peoples, but from the pulpits and chambers of settler politicians as what Tom Clarke, Ravi de Costa, and Sarah Maddison identify as a “regulatory ideal”[ii]—as opposed to an appeal for truth, sovereignty, self-determination, and decolonization.
So, what can dystopian speculative fiction tell us about reconciliation and its failure? Well, for one thing, in the way that it calls back to us from the future, dystopian fiction amplifies the socio-political concerns of the present by reflecting them into the future. Grace Dillon argues that speculative fiction, when taken up by Indigenous authors, has the “capacity to envision Native futures, indigenous hopes, and dreams recovered by rethinking the past in a new framework.”
Responding to and building on Dillon’s assertion, I argue that The Marrow Thieves recovers the narrative of reconciliation through what Gayatri Spivak identifies as “the a-venir of a history not written”–that is the forthcoming (or the echo) of a past in the future tense. In doing so, it compels us to rethink and reorient reconciliation as it is currently developing (and failing), out of Canada, in the age of apology.
In the sense that it is currently being defined by settler governments, The Marrow Thieves is not a “reconciliation” novel per se—by which I mean it does not advance an agenda concerned with enmity relations or the Judeo-Christian forgiveness imperative. Nor does it does not contend with the history of reconciliation and the TRC as it develops out of South America and South Africa; nor can it be defined as a “humanist” narrative, in the sense that its primary goal is not provoke empathy in settler audiences or to make universalist claims about the human experience. The Marrow Thieves cannot be read programmatically. By which I mean it does not provide a formula that will allow us, to quote Schedule ‘N,’ of the TRC mandate, to “put the events of the past behind us.”
Indeed, as I hope to illustrate here, The Marrow Thieves locates the past squarely in the future, demanding that we address history as an ever-receding horizon. In order to read The Marrow Thieves as a reconciliation novel, then, we need to read it as a consequence—as an echo—of our current political moment. In this sense, I read The Marrow Thieves as productively antithetical to Schedule ‘N,’ insofar as it puts the past squarely and unavoidable in the future yet to come.
To be clear, the critique of reconciliation I want to undertake via Dimaline is not an indictment of reconciliation writ large. With a history that spreads, geographically, across the globe and, temporally, back to at least the Nuremberg trials, the word is far too dense for that. Too loaded. Too reverberant.
Rejecting reconciliation wholesale also risks eliding the fact that it was initially called for, as I have already indicated, by residential school surviours. We have, in any critique of reconciliation, a duty to attend to the people and communities that reconciliation claims to redress, even as we seek to illustrate the violence of the systems they are made to work within. Righteous scepticism, however well-intended, risks further obscuring survivor voices.
￼With this in mind, my critique of reconciliation is aimed at what Dimaline herself calls “shallow reconciliation,” a framework she identifies in an interview with The 49th Shelf, as a lens through which to read her novel. For Dimaline, “shallow reconciliation” means business as usual for the settler state. To put that more strongly, it means settlers apologizing while at the same time refusing to acknowledge that “the Western way of thinking about our world is a broken theory, that Indigenous Traditional Knowledge is vital to any forward movement.”[iii]
Shallow reconciliation is an apology or reparation that never moves beyond the cosmetic. It does nothing to address, for instance, the racism and white supremacy that provided for last year’s Stanley and Cormier verdicts; shallow reconciliation provides the ideological space for Bradley Barton to be acquitted of the murder of Cindy Gladue.
Shallow reconciliation is 67 long-term drinking water advisories for Indigenous communities across Canada. Shallow reconciliation is the gap between government rhetoric about “nation-to-nation” consultation and the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion. To paraphrase Christie Belcourt, shallow reconciliation is a system of reparation that fails to address land, language, and Indigenous sovereignty and self-determination.[iv] Shallow reconciliation is an echo of settler colonialism filtered through the age of apology.
As the possibility of structural change however, reconciliation in The Marrow Thieves is represented as not only futile, but a visceral threat to the lives of Indigenous peoples. The protagonist’s birth father provides the most direct evidence of this. Right at the beginning of the novel, the reader learns that this character, who goes by the name French, lost his father to settlers when, “in a last-ditch effort to talk to the Governors in the capital,” he, and members of the Indigenous council, are disappeared (and that word is most appropriate here, as it echoes the disappearances in Latin America; disappearances that led to that foundational TRC in Chile). Closer to the end of the novel, we learn more about the details of this disappearance. Miigwaans, who, it turns out, was the council’s guide to the Capital, shares this story with French:
“They had this crazy notion that there was goodness left, that someone, somewhere, would see just how insane this whole school thing was. That they could dialogue. That they could explain the system had to die and a new one be built in its place. Like that wasn’t scarier to those still in the system than all the dreamlessness and desert wastelands in the world.” (141)
In a reconciliation reading of The Marrow Thieves, this is one of the most important passages in the entire novel. I say this, because it most explicitly outlines the hegemony of capitalism and settler colonialism and the futility of reconciliation within it.
What Dimaline makes clear here, is that these are not simply systems that people cannot figure out how to escape, rather, more devastatingly, they are systems that those same people do not want to escape—even when it is know that they harbinger the apocalypse.
In a Marxist sense, the commitment to extinction that Miigwaans draws attention to in this passage is ideology at its most pure: as a system which individuals contribute to even though–and despite of–the fact that they realize that this system will destroy them, their families, and the world around them.
Against this ideological backdrop, then, Dimaline sets up her critique of reconciliation, and by reconciliation here, I mean dialogue between Indigenous and settler communities that has the possibility of leading to concrete structural change. As represented in the above passage, dialogue between Indigenous peoples and settlers is a complete non-starter in this system; in fact, it is not just a non-starter, it is the beginning of the path towards a new genocide. Because, within the ideology of capitalism and settler colonialism, reconciliation can only function insofar as it feeds that ideology.
To quote Glen Coulthard, “without such a massive transformation in the political economy of contemporary settler-colonialism, any efforts to rebuild [Indigenous] nations will remain parasitic on capitalism, and thus on the perpetual exploitation of our lands and labour” (“For Our Nations to Live, Capitalism Must Die”).
To accept reconciliation then, without being willing to deconstruct capitalism and settler colonialism, is not to look towards a greener brighter future for Indigenous-settler relations as Michael Ignatieff, who argues that reconciliation should be accomplished via financial “rewards… for tolerant behaviour” suggests (“Afterward.” Imagine Coexistence: Restoring Humanity After Violent Ethnic Conflict). It is to look towards the wasteland. If I might borrow from the character Morpheus from the film The Matrix to put punctuation on this point: “welcome to the desert of the real.” The wasteland of conflict resolution in the settler state that Dimaline lays bare in The Marrow Thieves.
To read The Marrow Thieves as an echo of shallow reconciliation, then, is to say that it reflects back at us, from the a-venir, the precarity of our present moment. Set in the near future, somewhere around 2050, Dimaline’s novel describes a world that, due to climate change, has become nearly unlivable.
In this future, the polar ice caps have melted and the global population is being driven north in pursuit of land and potable water. The clamour for resources in this apocalypse inflects a new era of settler colonialism in which nation states uproot Indigenous peoples and the poor from their lands with renewed vigour in order to make comfortable spaces for the white and wealthy. Indigenous bodies become bare life in this formulation, an “inconvenience,” as Thomas King puts it, to the engine of settler colonialism, which has by now twisted itself completely into the paradox of the ouroboros, an entity that claims to save itself from itself.
Dimline’s critique of the present, which she compels us to read through the future, is damning, but she doesn’t stop with environmental concerns. At the core of The Marrow Thieves is an indictment of the ways in which Indigenous bodies have been, are, and will be, commodified in service to the settler state. In Dimaline’s dystopic future, amongst all the environmental changes that are occurring, settlers have also lost the ability to dream. And dreamlessness is driving them mad.
While speculative fiction here, the symptom of dreamlessness and its connection to capitalism is an established piece of critical theory: in Postmodernism, or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism Frederic Jameson suggests that late capitalism itself will lead to the death of dreams, inasmuch as its most consistent logic is the materialization of desire, a perennial unearthing that pushes the limits of the psychic apparatus to such a degree that the unconscious “finally rise[s] dripping and convulsive into the light of day.” For Jameson, dreams die because the unconscious is rendered obsolete via the extractive drive of commodification.[v] In this sense, settlers cease to dream in The Marrow Thieves, because the inner self is obsolete.
To return to The Marrow Thieves, then, when settlers finally discover that Indigenous peoples have maintained the ability to dream, while all the rest of humanity has lost it, there is a new rush to fetishize Indigenous cultures and bodies. And when they discover that those dreams can be extracted from bone marrow—like bitumen from the earth—those bodies become pure commodity, in the most Jamesian, late capitalist, sense of the word. Dimaline’s characters inform us of the capitalist impulses behind dream extraction, as they speculate on the questions that must have informed the process:
How could they best appropriate the uncanny ability we had to dream? How could they make ceremony better, more efficient, more economical?”[vi]
The answer to these questions is, of course, Fordism and market capitalism. In order to commodify Indigenous dreams, Dimaline’s settlers needed to build factories to extract and distribute those dreams. They needed buildings and procedures that would facilitate it.
So where does reconciliation fit into this? It is through shallow reconciliation, I argue, that the technology for dream extraction is made manifest in The Marrow Thieves via the echo of the residential school. In the following passage, Miigwans, who is one of the few who escaped from the schools with their lives, describes the history and functionality of the residential schools as they are called out of Canada’s colonial history in service to the settler state:
Soon, they need too many bodies, and they turned to history to show them how to best keep us warehoused, how to best position the culling. That’s when the new residential schools started growing up from the dirt like poisonous brick mushrooms.
We go to the schools and they leach the dreams from where our ancestors hid them, in the honeycombs of slushy marrow buried in our bones. And us? Well, we join our ancestors, hoping we left enough dreams behind for the next generation to stumble across.[vii]
What we are hearing in Miigwans’ story is an echo. In this passage, and others like it, The Marrow Thieves reflects back to us, through the possibilities afforded by the dystopian genre, the material effects of “shallow reconciliation.” We hear the echo of shallow reconciliation in the above quoted passage as a re-articulation of the very thing that the original call sought to “put behind us”: residential schools. What echoes back to us through the novel is thus not a humanist decree, nor is it a message of healing, or togetherness.
What echoes back is the uncanny: shallow reconciliation as Frankenstein’s monster, realized materially in the return of residential schools as engines of extraction: or, to quote Miigwaans once again, as “the second coming” of settler colonial genocide.[viii]
This is to say that, “shallow reconciliation,” in its failure to address the structural issues endemic to redress, does not attend to the ways in which residential schools are symptomatic of the larger disease of settler colonialism, which works, according to Patrick Wolfe, to erase and replace. In this sense, “putting the past behind us,” as Schedule ‘N’ would have it, is an act of repression, as opposed to an indicator of healing. And as Sigmund Freud so clearly instructed us, repressed trauma is never behind us, it is always already on the horizon.
The figure of the inside out echo, I want to suggest, then, can provide new insight into this troubling word, “reconciliation.” For what is an “inside out echo” but a word that is undone as it returns to its sender. A speech act that inflicts the very opposite of what it signifies. In this figure of speech—the echo turned inside out—we are compelled to address reconciliation, in its very articulation of healing, as a wound as much as a salve, as the uncanny. Calling back to us from the horizon of the future, The Marrow Thieves thus echoes back to us the trouble with reconciliation and the possibility of a future that imagines otherwise.
Which is why I want to end this section on The Marrow Thieves by calling back to an earlier echo in the text, an echo that reverberates through one of the novel’s most important characters, Minerva.[i] In the end, Minerva represents the possibility for change within the hegemony of settler colonialism: the ongoing echo that we hear reiterated through the new residential schools. As a Cree-speaking—and Cree-dreaming—elder, Minerva’s subjectivity is incommensurable with the settler technology that seeks to drain the life from Indigenous bodies. Building on the work of Franz Fanon and Albert Memmi, Eve K. Wayne Tuck and Yang argue that,
incommensurability is an acknowledgement that decolonization will require a change in the order of the world (Fanon, 1963). This is not to say that Indigenous peoples or Black and brown peoples take positions of dominance over white settlers; the goal is not for everyone to merely swap spots on the settler-colonial triad, to take another turn on the merry-go-round. The goal is to break the relentless structuring of [settler colonialism]—a break and not a compromise (Memmi, 1991).[ii]
In my reading of Tuck and Yang, incommensurability represents a wrench on the gears of settler colonialism. As having no common comparison or measure, the incommensurable is that which cannot, and should not, by assimilated, incorporated, or reconciled into the operation of settler machinery—and therefore remains distinct and sovereign.
Minerva represents the incommensurable insofar as her Cree sovereignty explodes the system which sustains settler colonialism in Dimaline’s novel. The echo plays a significant role here. In the following passage, Minerva has been connected to the new residential school technology designed to extract her dreams:
She sang. She sang with volume and pitch and a heartbreaking wail that echoed through her relatives’ bones, rattling them in the ground under the school itself. Wave after wave, changing her heartbeat to drum, morphing her singular voice to many, pulling every dream from her own marrow and into her songs. And there were words: words in the language that the conductor couldn’t process, words that Cardinals couldn’t bear, words the wires couldn’t transfer.
In this passage, the echo is an articulation of Indigenous sovereignty and self-determination in that it resonates, deeply and powerfully, with Minerva’s voice and language. From this voice, ancestors are awoken and summoned into the present/future. Indeed, the bones that are animated beneath the schools represent not only the ancestors that had been murdered there, but those who had lost their lives, and were buried, in unmarked graves, beneath the original schools.
In this sense, Minerva’s echo, folds and collapses linear, colonial time because it calls out to the past as a means to make space for Indigenous peoples in the future/present, or what Spivak identifies as the “a-venir of a history yet to be written.”
The Indigenous echo, as incommensurable, thus represents a reconciliatory space, which does not simply make Indigeneity more legible, or less feared, within the settler colonial state (the aim of shallow reconciliation), it dismantles the materiality of the ideology which seeks to render that as an endpoint. This echo (re)centres Indigenous voices, drawing on Indigenous presence with Indigenous histories to make space for Indigenous futures.
In turning the settler colonial echo inside out, via the incommensurable–in (re)turning the voice to surviours and their families in the final moment of her novel–Minerva clears a space for that call to ring out again, from Indigenous bodies, Indigenous perspectives, and Indigenous territory.
For more reading on reconciliation and residential schools see 20 Books that Will Change How You Think About Canada.
[i] I want to Karlene Harvey for drawing my attention to this second echo in The Marrow Thieves and for the insight she has shared with me on Minerva.
[ii] Tuck and Yang, 31.
[i] Dimaline, 230-31.
[ii] Tom Clark, Ravi de Costa and Sarah Maddison, “Non-Indigenous People and the Limits of Settler Colonial Reconciliation.” The Limits of Settler Colonial Reconciliation: Non-Indigenous People and the Responsibility to Engage.
[iii] Trevor Corkum and Cherie Dimaline, The Chat with 2017 Governor General’s Award winner Cherie Dimaline.” https://49thshelf.com/Blog/2017/11/282/The-Chat-with-2017-Governor-General-s-Award-winner-Cherie-Dimaline
[iv] Alicia Elliott, “Christi Belcourt says Indigenous resistance didn’t start with Canada I50,” CBC February 22, 2017. https://www.cbc.ca/2017/christi-belcourt-says-indigenous-resistance-didn-t-start-with-canada-i50-1.3992226
[v] Frederic Jameson, Postmodernism, or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism, 67.
[vi] Dinaline, 88.
[vii] Dimaline, 89-90.
[viii] Dimaline, 87.