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Jeannette Armstrong Biography

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Nationality: Canadian (Okanagan). Born: Penticton (Okanagan) Indian Reservation, British Columbia, Canada, 1948. Education: Okanagan College; University of Victoria, British Columbia, Canada, B.F.A. Career: Since 1989 director, En'owkin School of International Writing, Okanagan, British Columbia.

PUBLICATIONS

Novels

Slash. Penticton, British Columbia, Theytus, 1987; revised edition, 1998.

Whispering in Shadows. Penticton, British Columbia, Theytus Books, 1999.

Poetry

Breathtracks. Penticton, British Columbia, Theytus, 1991.

Other

Enwhisteetkwa; Walk in Water (for children). Penticton, BritishColumbia, Theytus, 1982.

Neekna and Chemai (for children), illustrated by Barbara Marchand. Penticton, British Columbia, Theytus, 1984.

The Native Creative Process: A Collaborative Discourse, with Douglas Cardinal. Penticton, British Columbia, Theytus, 1992.

We Get Our Living Like Milk from the Land: Okanagan Tribal History Book. Penticton, British Columbia, Theytus, 1993.

Contributor, Speaking for the Generations: Native Writers on Writing, edited by Simon J. Ortiz. Tucson, University of Arizona Press, 1998.

Contributor, Native North America: Critical and Cultural Perspectives: Essays, edited by Patricia Monture-Angus and Renee Hulan. Chicago, LPC Group, 1999.

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Critical Studies:

Momaday, Vizenor, Armstrong: Conversations on American Indian Writing by Hartwig Isernhagen. Norman, University of Oklahoma Press, 1999.

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Following in the footsteps of her great aunt, Hum-Ishu-Ma (Mourning Dove/Christine Quintasket, 1888-1936), author of Cogewea, The Half-Blood (1927) and Coyote Stories (1933), Jeannette Armstrong published the first novel by a First Nations woman in 1985. With the publication of the novel, Slash, Armstrong established a place for writing by contemporary Native Canadian women along with Beth Brant's Mohawk Trail, Maria Campbell's Halfbreed, Beatrice Culleton's In Search of April Raintree, and Ruby Slipperjack's Honour the Sun. Now in its eight printing, Slash is an important novel that traces out a young Native Canadian man's struggles with colonialism, racism, and a self-identity that doesn't fit easily into "assimilated," "traditional," or "Pan-Indian" categories. In addition to her work as a novelist, Armstrong is also a political activist, sculptor, writer of children's books, and educator. Born on the Penticton Indian Reserve in British Columbia, she maintains strong links to her Okanagan community, which is reflected in the novel Slash.

Armstrong's novel foregrounds key issues in the political, cultural, and linguistic struggles of Native Americans in both Canada and the United States in the late 1960s and early 1970s, such as the birth of the American Indian Movement, changes in the Canadian Indian Act, the takeover of Department of Indian Affairs (DIA) and Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) offices, and the Wounded Knee occupation. Set primarily in British Columbia, Armstrong's title character, Thomas Kelasket, who is nicknamed "Slash" while serving time in prison, demonstrates how these events are linked, although geographically and culturally distant and distinct. Armstrong wants to examine how Native Americans, particularly young people, can confront what she calls their "postcolonial" situation, the double bind resulting from existence under the dominant white culture, on the one hand, and a desire to preserve important aspects of their own aboriginal communities, on the other.

Armstrong's novel is a bildungsroman, a fictional autobiography tracing the growth of a single main protagonist as he struggles with social and psychological pressures to maintain a positive sense of identity and community in a rapidly changing world. The novel is framed by two poems, one entitled "For Tony," which describes a man much like Slash, and an untitled concluding poem, as well as a "Prologue" in which Slash reminisces about his own progress from childhood innocence, through a self-destructive adolescence, to a mature state of understanding and an "Epilogue" in which Slash reflects on his adulthood and his reasons for relating his story, namely to assist young people like his son. The novel's four long chapters begin with "The Awakening," in which a 14-year-old Slash first comes to realize that being Indian in Canada means either occupying a space which is entirely antithetical to white Canadian values or adopting an "assimilated" identity and becoming what Homi Bhabha has called "almost white but not quite." Interestingly, Armstrong is able to convey a sense of the young adolescent's inner struggles by using dialogue a teenager of the 1960s and 70s might employ. For example, Slash and his friends use terms such as "chicks," "Mary Jane," and "Bro." In the second and third chapters, "Trying It On" and "Mixing It Up," the protagonist recounts his various experiences as a drug dealer, convict, activist, vagrant, and prodigal son. Slash tries on various roles and identities, shifting restlessly from place to place, focusing on his own inability to come to terms with what it means to be an Native person in North America. The final chapter, "We Are a People," draws the loose threads of Slash's life together as he struggles to make sense of his identity as an Okanagan community member and activist in many Native struggles, as well as his new roles of father, husband, and widower. In so doing, Armstrong elucidates complex notions of sovereignty, self-recognition, and treaty rights.

The three names he uses throughout the novel suggest these kinetic and multiple senses of self. "Thomas/Tommy," his Anglo-Celtic Christian birth name, indicates both his relationship to his family—his parents and siblings call him Tommy—and the assimilative force of the dominant Canadian culture; "Slash," a nickname he's given by his first love, Mardi, after a drug-related bar brawl in Vancouver, represents the angry, cynical warrior self; and an undis-closed Okanagan name, which, according to Slash, is given ceremonially to tribal members after birth, suggests his relationship to the larger Okanagan community in British Columbia and the close ties he maintains with individuals living on his own reserve.

In addition to being a bildungsroman, the novel follows another popular literary form, the picaresque, or traveler's tale, since its narrative consists of a loosely knit series of events involving numerous characters, many of whom do not recur in the rest of the text. For most of the narrative, Slash wanders from place to place—his reserve to Vancouver, Ottawa to Toronto, the Pine Ridge Reservation to Washington, D.C.—although he returns periodically to visit with his family in British Columbia. In moving through these cycles of relocation, Slash better understands his place in the world as an activist struggling for Native rights in general as well as his role as a member of a specific Native community. These connections are very important, especially when his father, who is suffering from medical problems, is healed by a visit from a medicine person from another tribe, although the Kelasket family typically doesn't trust outsiders.

Slash is somewhat polemical in its style; that is, Armstrong (who, as director of the En'owkin Centre in Penticton, is deeply involved in Native Canadian education) wants to employ her fiction to make clear, strong political statements about the contemporary state of Native Canada. And despite the fact that the main protagonist is a young man, the novel is also profoundly feminist. Slash is respectful of the women in his life and at one point proclaims, "It's really the women who keep things smooth … We learned early from our mothers and grandmothers that it is women who are the strength of the people."

Slash confronts the personal and social issues that young First Nations people face and offers hope for improvement through education and self-discovery. The text moves forward from frustration and anger through activism to self-and communal-affirmation, but this path is not so neatly drawn or simple. Slash engages the welter of events and ideologies in contemporary history and projects a vital, current role for First Nations people in that history, a role played out in the narrative by the title character himself. This novel may prove to be one of the most important twentieth-century works of fiction by a Canadian author, as it addresses the historical origins of racism and colonialism and its contemporary manifestations in First Nations communities, as well as elucidating Native Canadians' struggle for the recognition of sovereignty with a rich and distinct First Nations' voice.

—Kevin McNeilly

, updated by

Michelle Hermann

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