Finding Kluskap: Book Review

Reid, Jennifer. 2013. Finding Kluskap: A Journey into Mi’kmaw Myth. University Park, PA: Pennsylvania State University Press.

By: Kimberly Jenkins Marshall (University of Oklahoma)

The premise that underlies Jennifer Reid’s book, Finding Kluskap: A Journey into Mi’kmaw Myth, is a familiar ethnographic one. What do we do when our drive to collect information leads us to places we did not expect? When our pithy questions about a belief, a practice, or (in this case) stories about the Mi’kmaw mythic hero Kluskap are quickly redirected into long conversations about science education, treaty rights, and Catholic pilgrimage? To her credit, Reid chose to follow those seemingly unrelated streams, and this book is the result of her attempts to trace their course. The product is far from a totalizing mythic narrative (those are never very satisfying anyway). In contrast, we see the ways in which the always fragmentary and always crucial presence of a primordial mythic being continues to work in the lives of a contemporary Native American people.

While coming out of the history of religions, this book has special appeal for readers interested in Christianity as it is practiced in Native American communities. In teasing out the complex connections between the Mi’kmaq, Kluskap, a set of 18th century treaties, and St. Anne (the grandmother of Jesus), Reid gives us a sense of the contemporary flavor of Mi’kmaw Christianity. She unflinchingly delineates the role of the Church in the residential school system that instilled cross-generational trauma in Mi’kmaw communities, trauma that persists in Mi’kmaw life today (and manifests in high suicide, poverty, and substance abuse rates). But she complicates this perspective by describing the persistence of deep faith in Mi’kmaw elders, particularly as they relate to the veneration of St. Anne (and by extension all Mi’kmaw grandmothers). In this way, Reid follows Michael McNally’s challenge to focus not just on what missionaries intended Christianity to “do to” Native people, but what Native people have “made of” the Christian tradition (McNally 2000:835).

In order to elucidate the complex connections that uniquely characterize Mi’kmaw Catholocisim, Reid takes us through four primary approaches, each of which organizes her chapters. After a brief introduction positioning herself, Reid’s first chapter examines the history of scholarship on the mythic hero Kluskap, confronting the problem that the scholarly record on Kluskap paints a rather grander picture of his import than does contemporary Mi’kmaw discourse. She concludes that early ethnographers and myth collectors attributed enhanced importance to Kluskap because of his similarity to European mythic heroes (defeating his evil twin, navigating primordial rivers, ridding the world of monsters, teaching humans to survive). But she also concludes that stories of Kluskap have always vexed scholars. They are more fragmentary than the epic adventures of the Kalevala or Beowolf, and more tied to Christianity (particularly St. Anne) than salvage ethnographers would have liked. Instead of relating stories about Kluskap, Reid’s “background” chapter orients us to the brilliance of this mythic figure: his consistency does not lie in chronology or narrative flow, but in remaining associated with the landscape, and so continues to be relevant for a people fighting for the health of oysters (20).

By focusing on what people do with myth, the second chapter examines the relationship between Kluskap and the 18th century land treaties between the Mi’kmaq and the British government. In what is perhaps her most compelling chapter, Reid posits that Kluskap myths may appear more frequently in early 20th century accounts not only because of ethnographer exaggeration. Following the rather Malinowskian premise that myths do social work, Reid argues that the telling of Kluskap myths was more frequent in the early 20th century because in that contemporary moment they were more relevant. Two major themes in these recorded tales stand out: Kluskap’s role in creating the natural environment, and his “authority to situate both the Mi’kmaw and non-Native populations primordially within that landscape” (31). The time period when Kluskap myths were “recorded with greatest vigor” (39) is precisely the same moment when Canadian governing bodies were utterly disregarding the authority of their treaties and allowing no voice for native objections within the Canadian judicial system. Kluskap myths seem to have been a way for Mi’kmaw in the first half of the 20th century to “maintain a discursive Mi’kmaw foothold” (39) on Native authority over sovereign land and harvesting rights within a non-receptive settler-colonial state. Conflicts over these kinds of sovereign rights continue, but have (since the 1960s) now found hearing and reinforcement within the Canadian legal system. However, in the period when non-Natives refused to recognize these rights, “Kluskap stories affirmed these rights for generations of Mi’kmaw people, assuring them that these rights had a sound (primordial) foundation that was sacred and inviolable” (47).

Chapter three unravels the puzzle of what Kluskap stories have to do with St. Anne. Reid takes us beyond linear chronological thinking to understand how place (in this case the island Potlotek) can tie together threads both pre-Christian and devoutly Christian, entirely ancient and sacredly modern. Potlotek (Chapel Island) is an island off the coast of Cape Breton Island that, holding the oldest Catholic mission in Canada, serves as the location of the annual mission (pilgrimage) to St. Anne. Reid provides a bit of background on St. Anne, but focuses her chapter on the island’s three crosses monument. In this place, Kluskap appeared generations ago, bringing with him the “Gift of Three Crosses,” a moral guidelines of “safe journey,” wise council” and “full provision,” – the very moral codes which underpin the 18th century treaties. The ritual repetition of the treaties as part of the St. Anne’s mission rites spatially and sacredly connects Kluskap, St. Anne, and Mi’kmaw sovereignty.

In her final chapter, Reid delves deeply into the relevance of the St. Anne mission to critiques of postmodern theory. “At Potlotek,” she argues, “we are in the presence of fully modern people for whom God is not dead” (86). In what is by far the most theoretically heavy chapter in her book, Reid uses the St. Anne’s mission to challenge deep-seated assumptions about the incompatibility of sacred and modern epistemologies. Reid discusses the ways in which religion continues to trouble postmodern thought, and concludes that the St. Anne’s mission shows how sacred primordial presences can imbue even modern texts.

While this question is an interesting one, and there is certainly much that the study of non-Western forms of Christianity can contribute to the persistent sacred in a postmodern world of detached referentiality, the major contribution of this book in my mind is Reid’s commitment to driving beyond the easy category of syncretism. In a community where the three crosses of Kluskap’s vision become Calvary crosses at a Catholic mission, and the grandmother of Kluskap (his constant companion) becomes associated with St. Anne (the grandmother of Jesus), transforming her into the “grandmother of all Mi’kmaw people,” claims of syncretism would be all too easy to make.

And yet, Reid resists the category of “syncretism,” preferring instead Homi Bhabha’s category of “interstitial” spaces, grounded in relationships to place and processes of time in ways that resemble what Reid calls “metamorphosis” (5-6). Her book shows how the fixed nature of the sacredness of place (particularly the island Potlotek) is the axis mundi that runs through the metamorphosis of cultural transformation into Mi’kmaw Christianity. Kluskap’s relationship to this place continues to provide a sacred orienting narrative that grounds not just the sacred nature of Mi’kmaw land, but also the sacred nature of legal agreements about that land. This is a focus on place and practice that fits well within contemporary approaches to Native American Christianity (following the calls of Vine Deloria Jr. and George Tinker). As a study of Native American Catholicism, this book sits nicely next to David Delgado Shorter’s We Will Dance Our Truth (2009). Reid’s book, while admittedly brief, is a timely contribution to this productive emphasis on place as a way to understand Native American Christianity. It will be of interest to a wide array of scholars in religious studies, Native American Studies, historiography, and anthropology.

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