Brushed by Cedar, Living by the River: Coast Salish Figures of Power.
CRISCA BIERWERT. Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 1999. 314 pp.
reviewed by Brian Thom, McGill University
[this review is to be published in American Anthropologist]
This is an important text, which puts recent theorizing about space and place, agency, and power into practice through innovative ethnography. In Brushed by Cedar Bierwert takes us to two Coast Salish Native communities (Stó:lô and Lushootseed) on the Northwest Coast and explores Coast Salish ways of making sense of current moral, intellectual, political and spiritual issues and dilemmas. This book challenges visions of contemporary cultures as diaspora not necessarily connected to particular places, showing instead the views of a community which see agency in particular places, narratives and histories. Bierwert has moved out of the ethnohistoric type of discussion which has dominated much of the ethnography of the Northwest Coast, giving us a richly personal, openly partial exploration of important ‘figures' in Coast Salish life. Bierwert develops the idea that these ‘figures' are the kinds of things people pay attention to and often are the motivation for action in the lives of Coast Salish peoples. Her chapters, each focus on one of these ‘figures' including senses of place, mythical transformations, translating oral traditions, rapport with anthropologists, spirit dancing, family violence, and the politics of fishing. Power is revealed in the physical, spiritual, colonial, institutional situations these ‘figures' occupy.
The first ‘figure', place, draws on the important new theoretical literature on space and place. The Stó:lô, Bierwert argues, see power as being inherently connected to place. She does not make this into an essentialist / anti-essentialist argument, bur rather asks how we are to think about place. To lead us down this path, she focuses on one place on the Fraser River and juxtaposes a physical description, her experiences at a fishing camp there, the danger of the river at this place, the colonial process of re-naming the place and the mythical stories about the place. Thus the place becomes a ‘container' (playing on a common Salishan affix in place names) of physical, personal, spiritual, colonial and mythological power. The power of the place is animated differently in different stories, but is always present. She argues that a mythical story or a personal experience do not necessarily convince the listener of a certain way of thinking, but rather provides "a path for an intuitive leap in its direction and a template for thinking in its own way" (67).
Bierwert is herself led down this path in her thinking about the dilemma of the dangers in writing about the power of the spirit dance. When told about one initiate dying and another losing the ability to write when they had both joined the spirit dance in order to write about it, she reflected with some concern on the death of the two other scholars who published on Stó:lô spirit dance practices (Wilson Duff's suicide and Oliver Well's accidental death while vacationing in Scotland) and the controversy surrounding the publication of Jilek's self-serving psychoanalytical text on spirit dancing. She describes the subsequent tension of being engaged in the community, even participating in a spirit dance, and the degree of circumspection needed in writing about spiritual matters, which she is left to figure out for herself. She finds that writing about these things is a part of a larger social dynamic, where "the boundaries of practice allow for variation, for deployment at different limits and different times" (133) and it is the movement of these boundaries which reveal the processes of power which give tension to these dynamics. Coast Salish people see syowen (the spirit which empowers the dancers) as an active agent, much the same way particular places are seen as containing power. Coast Salish people are motivated by the power of the syowen to respond to ritual, political and everyday situations with attention to the unique ways that the power may manifest itself. It motivates Bierwert to respect a boundary of appropriateness in her own writing about spirit dancing, staying clear of describing or trying to explain the details of the practice, while at the same time giving a sense of its power.
In the most emotionally potent chapter Bierwert grapples with the ongoing problem of family violence in Stó:lô communities. She first brings forward the voices of some of the Stó:lô women - her friends - who discussed with her the violence which had occurred in her own marriage. The chapter sensitively moves back and forth between their commentary, their descriptions of their own experiences, and Bierwert's discussion of how this unfortunately common violence may be uniquely understood in particular Coast Salish ways. Her friends respond the violence in their lives in various ways, but almost never did they or their families intervene. Like in spirit dancing, there are different boundaries of power which must be respected. Bierwert concludes that while traditional family structures which may have kept past violence in check have been disrupted by colonial institutions, the violence is now perpetuated by a difficult configuration of Native men appropriating the kinds of violence that is more widely present in non-Native communities and Coast Salish ways of thinking about how bad things need to run their course. Overall this book documents well the experience of working in a Salish community today. From my own experience working with the Stó:lô, these ‘figures' resonate deeply in the creative and varied discourses heard in Coast Salish communities. Bierwert never shies from difficult topics like family violence, internal community conflicts, and the moribund state of the Aboriginal languages spoken in these Coast Salish communities. She deals well with the idea of ‘tradition', concerning herself with the very present fabric of the cultural lives of the Coast Salish, revealing the contemporary relevance and practice of Salishan ideas. Brushed by Cedar is a more literary analysis than a social one, but the social issues of power are always present in the larger historical contexts she provides.
The book's flaws are in its absences. The nine chapters cover an enormous range of Coast Salish experience, but none give a sense of exhaustive coverage. We are given a sense of a few places, but little in the way of a more systematic or wide-ranging discussion of the larger area. Bierwert's history of ethnography on the Coast Salish is thin and brief. In a number of places she hints at the connections between patterns in the grammars of Salishan languages and cultural practices, but does not theorize about the process, or the implications of the persistence of these patterns in spite of the general loss of language. These shortcomings become openings for future writing and thinking about the ‘figures' that are important in our lives.