Skin for Skin: Death and Life for Inuit and Innu

Gerald M. Sider has written a book about the historical violence suffered by the Innu and Inuit in Labrador. It is also a call to arms. His closing lines announce the sentiment that has pulsed through the previous pages: “A nation with elders with real power and warriors with real commitments to their community and to each other is a nation with a tomorrow. There are few if any other possibilities” (p. 249). Sider often seems to stop short of a Fanonian call for liberating violence, metaphorical or otherwise. Still, in the case of an abusive and powerful priest who worked among the Innu of Labrador he writes:

This will sound unbelievably, foolishly harsh, and I am not at all advocating it, but definitely advocating the need to consider why it was not done: it is profoundly unclear why at this time or the next possible opportunity the priest was not shot and buried in an unmarked forest grave by the Innu whom he so intensely mistreated and humiliated. (Sider 2014:220)

Sider certainly doesn’t conceal his own feelings about the priest, about the religion the priest disseminates, about the actions of the Newfloundland an Canadian government, the Hudson Bay Company—or even about the sector of people he repeatedly calls native elites. But in a sense, Sider’s motivation for writing the book seems clearest in the raw bewilderment he expresses in the passage above. He wants to understand why, after suffering generations of abuse, domination, and exploitation at the hands of the Hudson’s Bay Company, the Moravian missionaries and the Newfoundland, Labrador and Canadian governments, the Innu and the Inuit of Labrador have turned their aggressivity and their violence inward—as evidenced by the high rates of substance abuse, suicide and domestic violence and FASD. The historical research he conducts is wide-ranging. In the course of ten years of research he consulted health records from governments and medical missionaries, missionary journals and reports, travelers’ and explorers’ memoirs, government commissions of inquiry, police reports, judicial and legislative records, HBC records and more.

We often get the sense, though, that this book—both the argument Sider is making and his justifiable anger and bewilderment—is not just about the Innu and the Inuit. “La lucha continua—‘the struggle continues’” (p. 186) says Sider, making clear his primary allegiance is to capitalism’s oppressed and often forgotten casualties whether in Latin America or Africa or in indigenous communities in Labrador.  Such allegiances, of course, flatten some of the specificities of the particular struggle in question.  It seems that Sider has had enough of anthropology’s deeply political commitment to different ontologies, different modes of life and different ways of thinking. In his role of provocateur—and the book is written as a polemic, and needs to be read that way to be understood—Sider takes potshots at all the luminaries of our field—one after the other he pillories Geertz, Boas, Levi-Strauss and even Foucault. Sider is arguing for a material as opposed to a cultural history of oppression, to be sure, but more importantly he sees anthropologists’ crucial task as that of a continual questioning (even when there are no clear answers), a continual undermining of the powers that be—in whatever context or realm of life, including those of anthropology.

There is a moment in Chapter Seven, “Today May Become Tomorrow” where Sider makes a claim for what this kind of anthropology might look like. There he tells the grim story of a thirteen-year-old Innu girl, (who was living in the new community built for the Innu as a response to the outcry over their abominable living conditions) who was abducted and raped repeatedly over a period of three weeks apparently without anyone in the community noticing. He writes,

It feels like the end of the world, or the end of this world. But people keep going. And that, simultaneously, is the mystery, the triumph and the loss.

When I asked, just earlier, what is anthropology? I think an answer has to start here.

Sider starts with the terrible stories emerging from Labrador and argues that the Innu and Inuit have become disposable people—“people who are no longer wanted for any use, or whose usefulness depends on their disappearance” (p. 167). For Sider, this category of disposable people is wide—and widening: “There are vast regions of Africa, Asia, and Latin America, as well as large sectors of the African American population in the United States, along with many other folks, where nobody with the power to shape social and economic situations seems to care what happens to such people” (p. 167).

Why did no one notice that a 13-year-old-girl was missing? Sider makes it his business to notice what is happening—in Innu and Inuit communities and beyond. The implicit argument is that we all, and especially the anthropologists among us, should. But Skin for Skin also attempts something beyond the critical act of witnessing. It attempts to account, in its own idiosyncratic way, for the production of relationships of dependency that structure native relationships to the Canadian Government and lead to the production of a category of supposedly disposable people. In so doing, he provides an irreverent—what he at one point calls a “honey-bucket history”—of Inuit and Innu relations with outsiders over the past two hundred and fifty years.

That history is marked by greed, avarice, violence and the worst kind of neglect. In short, according to Sider, the indigenous people in Labrador were seen at best as material support for the fur trade, at worst as impediments to effective and putatively predictable resource extraction. One of the important points Sider makes in the book is that the era scholars now call traditional in the history of the Innu and Inuit of Labrador (roughly from 1800-1920), was itself marked by increasing incursions into aboriginal autonomy and control over their means of production—in short the appropriation of their lands. In the 1960s and 70s however the government adopted policies of “concentration and confinement” and began to “relocate” Inuit and Innu began into villages not of their own choosing.  These moves were usually justified by arguments about access to health care, welfare, and schooling. The ways government officials and missionaries convinced Inuit and Innu to make this move were never particularly honorable. Promises were made and not kept, and the villages themselves often lacked the fundamentals of a sedentary life in a modern village—including running water and proper sanitation. The history is important and hard to read.

Sider’s most important theoretical argument lies here: that the historical violence perpetrated against the indigenous peoples of Labrador is not in any sense past: “we all live our yesterdays within our todays” (p. 70). In line with other scholars trying to come to terms with the Canadian State’s desire for reconciliation (see especially Audra Simpson’s (2014) Mohawk Interruptus) Sider makes the important point that the trauma of colonization, or even relocation, is not in some simple sense over and done with for the Innu or the Inuit, as it is not for veterans or holocaust survivors:

“For…the Innu and Inuit the “post” in PTSD is a fundamental evasion of the seriousness of the problem: the memories that cannot be just memories, but still must be lived; traumas that are carried within victims and perpetrators alike, continually recreated, a living presence in these lives, often for decades if not lifelong” (p. 110).

Sider’s melding of psychological theorization with his materialist theory of history is not without its complications. While he wants to argue that protest in general—and specifically the Innu protests of NATO’s low-level supersonic flights over Innu territory—has healing powers (see especially g. 205), he also writes sensitively about the potent sense among indigenous communities about the futility of any action. He wonders, for example, about the possibility that the current epidemic of alcoholism may have something to do with the virtual impossibility of meeting the needs of those for whom you are responsible. And even more devastating: Sider wonders if certain forms of self-annihilation may simultaneously forms of asserting control or autonomy over one’s life: “Getting high” can be trying to take control of what is being done to you when the ground is cut out from under you” (p. 27).

In the end Skin for Skin, as a polemic, provides scholars with an important agenda for future research. First, anthropologists need to hear more from the Innu and Inuit of Labrador about their struggles and life projects. Without writing off the native elite scholars need to hear about their visions and their compromises, their ways of trying to get to a place where there is a bit of space between “imposed history and their lived history” (p. 12). What does it mean, for them, to live and to die in Labrador today? What are their stories of hope, of success, of caring for others in the midst of what seems to be unrelenting suffering and violence? And finally the specter of violence—against the self and against the oppressor—needs to be broached head on. As Freud said in reflecting on World War I, humanity has been living “psychologically beyond our means” for far too long. It is time to realistically and soberly acknowledge the role of violence in creating self and community. I think this is something Skin for Skin pushes everyone to do.

Lisa Stevenson, Department of Anthropology, McGill University

Sider, Gerald M. Skin for Skin: Death and Life for Inuit and Innu. Duke University Press, 2014. Read more at Duke University Press.

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