Howard Norman reminds us that “to the Cree, stories are animate beings” and that if nourished properly they are like good friends, aiding our good living throughout our lives. In Storying Violence, co-authors Dallas Hunt and Gina Starblanket add this warning: If we leave stories unexamined, they may take monstrous forms that will come back to harm us. As Indigenous people know, not all monsters on the prairies are created equal nor do they harm equally.
Centred on the trial of Gerald Stanley for the death of Colten Boushie in 2016, the book’s main goal is to illuminate the constitutive grip of the colonial narrative on Canadian prairie life. But rather than a detailed critique of how criminal legal procedure played out in the Stanley trial, it’s a story about the effect of colonial storying upon that trial. And while the circle of events surrounding Boushie’s death and the devastating impact on his family and the Red Pheasant Cree Nation are a spiritual impetus of the book, Hunt and Starblanket take the reader on a further, vital step: an inward examination of how stories can be at their most influential when they remain imperceptible, as “natural” as the landscapes around them.
In particular the authors argue that the colonial narrative not only haunts our common search for justice, it provides apparitions of what we think justice is. The colonial narrative, write Hunt and Starblanket, is nourished by pre-imagined fears of Indigenous presence, often representing it as a threat to the control of land and property. As these assumptions create an “affective fear” (as the book describes it), threats are dangerously amplified from reality. For Gerald Stanley, Colton Boushie, in whatever movement he made, was embodying the affective terror of Indigenous presence on the prairies.
Nothing is more dangerous to the Indigenous person than to be the target of these affective fears. The book shows how much we have to unlearn. Hunt and Starblanket interrogate how the long history of the colonial narrative on the prairies—from propaganda posters aimed at attracting mass settlement from Europe, to the flattening of the treaty relationship into a “settler treaty mythology”—still feeds imaginations here.
In this way, Storying Violence is more of an exorcism than an argument. Of course, the trick with colonial exorcisms is that no magic incantation can heal the afflicted. There is only the diligent work of re-storying around breakfast tables, in stockyards, in law schools and at Thanksgiving dinners. And once the colonial ghosts dissipate, new stories of what we call witaskewin—living on the land together—can be invited in. Hunt and Starblanket provide a guide towards this.
—Darcy Lindberg is an assistant professor of law at the U of A.