Manitoba History: Review: Peter Kulchyski, Like the Sound of a Drum: Aboriginal Cultural Politics in Nunavut and Denendeh

by Robin Jarvis Brownlie
University of Manitoba

Number 54, February 2007

This article was published originally in Manitoba History by the Manitoba Historical Society on the above date. We make this online version available as a free, public service. As an historical document, the article may contain language and views that are no longer in common use and may be culturally sensitive in nature.

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Peter Kulchyski, Like the Sound of a Drum: Aboriginal Cultural Politics in Nunavut and Denendeh Winnipeg: University of Manitoba Press, 2005, 312 pages. ISBN 0887556868, $26.95 (paperback).

In this monograph, Peter Kulchyski analyses political developments and “cultural politics” in three Aboriginal communities in which he has worked over the past 13 years or so: Fort Simpson (Liidli Koe) and Fort Good Hope in the North-West Territories and Pangnirtung (Panniqtuuq) in Nunavut . Plac ing his discussions in an analytical framework that emphasizes colonization and totalization, Kulchyski is concerned to demonstrate the oppressive role of the state vis-B-vis Aboriginal peoples and the steady, creative resistance offered by community members: “In the northern part of Canada, this policy trajectory [conquest, modernization, assimilation] is opposed with a creative energy and a spirit of resistance that defy instrumental accountings.” (4). The book argues centrally that these three communities are ready for selfgovernment, that they in fact offer models of democratic engagement, and that the form their governance takes is of critical importance. Kulchyski finds in these places a sense of continuous and dispersed political responsibility, a “possibility of continued participation in an ongoing public discussion,” and an “ethics of mutuality” (17), realities that are revealed in community meetings and embodied in the search for self-government and the effort to build meaningful community.

The book begins with an introduction that provides geographical and historical context and outlines the study's main arguments and theoretical interests. The next two chapters offer a series of theoretical and historical considerations relating to governance, law, and the colonial process. Thereafter Kulchyski devotes one chapter to each community in turn, describing each as a geographical and political entity, conveying a vivid sense of its ambience, and analysing the ways that its political culture has been shaped by recent events. Basing his analysis on interviews, interactions and experiences with the people of the communities, as well as documents produced by their governing bodies, Kulchyski has managed to produce a text that is both deeply theoretically informed and academically rigorous, while maintaining his connection and commitment to the people who powerfully informed his understanding and experience. The sixth chapter, entitled “An Essay Concerning Aboriginal Self-Government in Denendeh and Nunavut,” draws together the threads from all the individual discussions of communities, arguing in part that these communities are ready for self-government (despite many outsiders' claims to the contrary) and that in fact it already exists to a large extent. This chapter also wades boldly into prominent debates about identity, political forms, Aboriginal rights, and relations between Aboriginal groups and Canada.

The contributions of this book are numerous and occur on several terrains. In the first place, Kulchyski's analysis of political developments in these communities is important and illuminating, and he makes a convincing case for their broader relevance, remarking, “it is precisely here that the latest theoretical constructs find themselves well tested and it is here that our political language and our ability to think the political have to be stretched to and perhaps beyond their limits. And, in my view, it is here, this kind of place, that has the most to teach us today about the political project of democratic government.” (13-14) Secondly, this monograph represents a highly successful blend of theoretical sophistication and Aboriginal-style storytelling, in which the voices of living Aboriginal people are accorded at least as much importance as those of academic thinkers and theorists. Finally, one of the book's greatest strengths is its experimentation in form, through which Kulchyski is able to intermingle accounts of his direct experiences with Dene people and Inuit – “hunting stories” – with analysis of Aboriginal “cultural politics” and theoretical reflections on many issues. Kulchyski has gone far beyond conventional academic prose, producing instead a composite text or pastiche, part analysis, part theory, part experiential writing, part tribute to many Aboriginal teachers, even poetic prose at moments. Thus the chapters are divided into many short sections with varying focuses and encompassing a range of styles and tones – a straightforward academic prose for the analysis of political developments; a denser theoretical mode; and a “storytelling” narrative style that reflects the speaking patterns of his Aboriginal friends and acquaintances. Telling stories is one way in which Kulchyski sought to make the text relevant, meaningful, and “of some value to the people it is about.” (8) It is also an acknowledgement of storytelling as a crucial communication form to Aboriginal peoples, one that is used to convey vital information along with a world view, an ethic, and a belief system.

This is one of the most satisfying, intriguing, and intellectually stimulating books I have read in some time. Peter Kulchyski has spent over a decade on this study, and his time and engagement are obvious. It is a mature, thoughtful, beautifully written book with equal commitments to produce a work that was meaningful to the Aboriginal interlocutors who made the book possible, and to theorize the results with reference to many important theorists of the twentieth century – Theodor Adorno, Jürgen Habermas, Dominick LaCapra, Fredric Jameson, Michael Taussig. The result is a rich and thought-provoking reading experience that will be of value to anyone who is interested in Aboriginal politics and history, the north, the political process, colonialism, and ways to achieve a genuinely democratic politics.

Page revised: 6 November 2012