February 23, 2018
THE DEHUMANIZING REVIEW OF “HEART BERRIES” BY THE CRIMSON
RE: Of the February 14th review of Terese Marie Mailhot’s book “In ‘Heart Berries,’ an Important Narrative Overshadows Amatuer Execution”
To the Crimson Editor:
On the day that most Indigenous communities throughout America and Canada commemorate as the day to honor the legacy of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls, The Crimsonchose to dishonor the unsparing story of Terese Marie Mailhot in her memoir Heart Berries (Counterpoint, 2018).
Criticizing the book for its amateurish style and so-called clichés (a negligent knock-off of the NY Times comprehensive review by Parul Seghal’s on January 30th), the review comes from a staff writer (and Harvard undergrad) whose qualifications as a critic clearly undermine the story, the significance, and the context of Mailhot’s memoirs. Beneath the plain language of the review citing the book as “unclear,” “amateurish,” “filled with many clichés,” there is an underlying mischaracterization that disingenuously attempts to entrench what Mailhot calls the “genre-marketing of Native memoir” by talking over the intended, deep-seated context that surrounds and undergirds a book “structured by pain.” It does so by transcending the universalizing tendencies of tragedy that Mailhot purposely avoids.
Mailhot’s book purposely confronts the extremely “complex” space (as Mailhot recounts in the book’s Afterword with Inupiaq poet and Harvard alum Joan Naviyuk Kane) of settler-colonialism as it appears in the past and continues to aggress today. Mailhot’s book is a journeyed atlas of vivid accounts and a live archive of mental images that traverse (at least) four generations of trauma, fear, love, violence, mental illness, care, friendship, family, and motherhood.
There is nothing “amateurish” about embodied Indigenous experiences that are carefully interwoven and threaded. Its rawness is exactly its strength, its liberation. It demands cognition and emotion, it makes you think hard and deep, about the omnipresent setting of settler-colonialism, that moves and shifts across the book. As author of the memoir You Don't Have to Say You Love Me, Sherman Alexie mentions in the introduction of Mailhot’s book,
“I am certainly aware that Heart Berries has torn me apart. And I fully expect, as I read it again, as I keep re-reading it over the years, that Terese and her stories will put me back together.”
So, if anything, Mailhot is a highly-trained, expert navigator of colonial trauma. A warrior is the extreme opposite of an amateur. So, read Mailhot’s words carefully:
“it was a hundred years of work for my name to arrive here, where I can name my pain so well that people are afraid of the consequences and power.”
Yet, below the disarming carelessness of The Crimson’s Editor in the selection of its headline, the following line of your book review is equally troubling:
“this universality [of Mailhot’s experiences] is important because it contributes to the humanizing representation of a Native woman, demonstrating to readers of all audiences that they can relate to her experiences.”
Without reading between lines, Mailhot’s story was never intended to humanize or generalize the experience of Indigenous women, nor does it ask of non-Indigenous readers to relate to her story. In a recent interview with NPR (February 12th), Mailhot could not have been more blunt. She tells us that, while the book begins as a letter to her white husband Casey, it ultimately became a book for herself, asking many questions of her family and of herself, through the eventual comingling of “writing and therapy.”
Furthermore, the universalizing tendency of either characterizing the plight of the “Native woman” as The Crimson’s review mentions, is not only an act of reductive condescension, it wreaks of an underlying racism that prevails across the language of the headline and the review; a language that clearly seeks to exclude, marginalize, and erase deeply-rooted contexts, entangled realities, and violent effects of settler colonialism. These debilitating effects are all to manifest and locate specifically in the lived experiences of an important body of work from Indigenous women writers that Mailhot’s aesthetic, craft and art builds on: Joy Harjo’s Crazy Brave, Elissa Washuta’s My Body Is a Book of Rules, Leslie Marmon Silko’s The Turquoise Ledge, N. Scott Monaday’s The Names, Linda Hogan’s The Woman Who Watches Over the World (to name a few that Mailhot cites in her book).
To dismiss Mailhot’s work as amateurish and overlook her embodied experiences, along with the body of work it emerges from, is ultimately dehumanizing on several levels. Not only does it marginalize and displace Mailhot’s own experiences, it does so to re-center a universal narrative of a dominant, white-settler majority. The failure doesn’t stop with the individual reviewer but is a reflection of The Crimson’s own shortcomings to not take seriously a book that The New York Times, NPR, The Chicago Tribune, and The Atlantic have respectively lauded as “ambitious,” “searing,” and “courageous.”
This failure in recognition, however, is not an accidental omission nor is it a coincidental shortcoming.
So, why did The Crimson publish this deprecating review of Mailhot’s monumental achievement?
Perhaps the failure of The Crimson Editorial Board, and its low editorial standards, are indicative of a deeper, more chronic, institutional reality at Harvard University (from where the author of the book review is enrolled).
At Harvard today, there is an institutional legacy of Indigenous erasure and exclusion of Indigenous voices, bodies, and lands. It is evident in the weak recruitment of Indigenous students and faculty representation across the many programs and schools of the University (Harvard tenured its first Indigenous Professor last week, Philip J. Deloria, while it continues to avoid contested claims to Native American Ancestry of Harvard Law School’s Emeritus Professor and current U.S. Senator Elizabeth Warren), or the virtual absence of any meaningful Indigenous curricula across the many labs and research centers of the University where so many of the current issues (from art history and mapping to renewable energy and climate change) intersect with treaties, lands, rights, ways of life, and sovereignties of Indigenous Peoples. All this, notwithstanding the near-complete absence, distortion, and appropriation of Indigenous place names throughout New England—from Cambridge to Boston, across the State of Massachusetts.
At a deeper level, Harvard University’s history is actually built on the legacy of erasure and exclusion: the broken promise of perpetual education for English and Indigenous Youth in the Harvard Charterof 1650, to closure and demolition of the Harvard Indian College in 1698 (only 44 years after its foundation), which promised Native students free residency. The absolute failure of the University to adopt or initiate territorial protocols that are now common practice throughout Canadian and Australian Universities simply exacerbates the effect of Indigenous exclusion and erasure. To further show how it really feels about its obligations to Indigenous students and communities, Harvard placed a bike rack in front of the plaque (which was paid for by Indigenous donors and alumni) honoring the university’s historic dedication to educating America’s Indigenous youth.
Are Harvard faculty, staff, and students aware of whose territory they’re on? So much for history.
For the twenty thousand students that walk across the University campus, whose grounds are on the territorial lands of the Massachusetts people, the University seems to sanction Indigenous erasure.
While The Crimson can’t be conflated with Harvard’s representational practices and policies, the newspaper carries the responsibility for representing and rendering visible unfolding contexts and larger narratives outside of its own settler-colonial predispositions. The Crimson’s review of Heart Berries landed at a particularly important moment in time of Indigenous territorial injustices and white-settler aggressions. Is The Crimson not aware of the contested acquittal of Raymond Cormierin the killing of 15-year old Anishinaabe girl, Tina Fontaine, whose body was found in Winnipeg’s Red River in 2014? Or, the controversial acquittal of Gerald Stanley last week, a white farmer in Saskatchewan who killed young Cree man Colten Boushie in 2016 igniting outrage against Canada’s justice system by both Indigenous and non-Indigenous communities? Or, are they not aware of the white man, William Hoehn, who is on trial in Fargo, North Dakota for the murder, this past August 2017, of Savanna Greywind, an Ojibwe woman, whose baby was cut and stolen from her body while she was alive before her body was dumped in the Red River (the same as Tina Fontaine’s)? Or, the recent aggression of state police and mercenary security companies against the people of the Sioux Nation at Standing Rock contesting the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline on lands of the 1851 Treaty of Ft. Laramie?
Notwithstanding the context of the recent 2014 Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) exposing the violent, colonial legacy of Indian Residential Schools (Industrial Schools in the United States) that separated and stole Indigenous children from their families and lands up until 1996. Indigenous girls and boys were stripped of their culture, language, and humanity through Christianization, inflicting generations of violence and entrenching the racism that plagues the North American settler views of Indigenous peoples today. This is precisely the trauma that Mailhot’s grandmother suffered through. Notwithstanding the current Inquiry on Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women in Canada (almost 1,200 between 1980 and 2012) represent over a quarter of homicides committed against women in Canada as of 2015, a reality devastatingly present in the United States as well.
Mailhot’s memoir bleeds with this reality. But the burden of responsibility and knowledge of these overlapping and converging settler-colonial contexts do not rest on the shoulders of Terese Marie Mailhot, they rest on you. This intellectual work and historical knowledge rest in the hands of educators, administrators, publishers, and decision makers who choose to read, review, or engage with the hard work of Indigenous authors. To overlook or sidestep this burden of responsibility is to contribute to ongoing forms of colonial domination that are not only disrespectful and dishonorable, they are racist. They entrench white supremacy.
As Sarah Hunt, Assistant Professor of Critical Indigenous Geographies at the University of British Columbia and Kwagiulth (Kwakwaka'wakw) from Tsaxis, articulates,
“Colonialism relies on the widespread dehumanization of all Indigenous people—our children, two-spirits, men and women—[then] colonial violence could be understood to impact all of us at the level of our denied humanity. Yet this dehumanization is felt most acutely in the bodies of Indigenous girls, women, two-spirit and transgender people, as physical and sexual violence against us continues to be accepted as normal.”
Ultimately, settler-colonialism present in the structure of the institution and the newspaper not only denies and dispossesses her humanity but disempowers the lived experiences and embodied stories of authors like Mailhot and the many young writes she inspires.
The reality of transgenerational trauma, mental health, and colonial violence warrant the recognition of a literate, versed, informed readership that welcomes and cultivates the work Indigenous women writers whose intellectual, emotional, and physical contributions embody an understanding of the complex trajectories that are profiled in Mailhot’s memoir. If fear and abuse go hand-in-hand with erasure and exclusion, then the reality of colonial violence inflicted on Indigenous women and girls every single day is made possible and perpetuated by what is communicated and how it is represented.
“So, how do we begin to change norms around gendered violence without reinforcing its roots in colonial power?” Sarah Hunt saliently asks in her 2013 essay More than a Poster Campaign: Redefining Colonial Violence. “As we strategize, we must be careful not to reproduce the systems and ideologies that colonialism has introduced. Sexist, racist and homophobic ideas have been internalized at many levels, but colonialism’s stealthy ways make them hard to recognize.”
It would do well for The Crimson and Harvard University to take a hard look at itself to recognize these internal norms and structures rooted in colonial power that perpetuate or uphold Indigenous erasure and exclusion present in the place, pedagogy, and environment of these educational institutions. Foundations of colonial domination, racist dehumanization, and gendered violence are rendered visible by the erasure, exclusion, and subjugation of Indigenous women.
To this end, Mailhot’s story should be understood as a gift from her mind, heart, and body. They have been abused, broken, and practically destroyed, then mended, remade, and relived. It is a sobering story about what it means to be an Indigenous woman, an Indigenous mother, an Indigenous person living with mental illness, an Indigenous person who loves and mourns in this violent colonial reality. Unlike her reviewer’s unqualified treatment, Mailhot’s story is brave and honest. It is beautiful and it deserves to be read with respect and honor.
A public apology and retraction letter of the February 14 review by The Crimson would be nothing less than the honorable step to take. Staffing and providing internships for young Indigenous writers would go a long way towards expressing visible support of Indigenous resurgence and the next generation of writers. But Indigenous communities need actions not more empty words.
In closing, we strongly encourage your staff join us on March 30th when Terese Marie Mailhot, Dr. Kim TallBear, and Erica Violet Lee come to campus to address the very important topics and troubling issues found in the February 14th review, “In ‘Heart Berries,’ an Important Narrative Overshadows Amatuer Execution."
American Democracy Fellow
Charles Warren Center for Studies in American History
Associate Professor, Harvard Graduate School of Design
Harvard Weatherhead Center for International Affairs—Canada Program
Shelly C. Lowe
Executive Director, Harvard University Native American Program