The following is a review and thematic analysis of the poetry narrative City Treaty by Marvin Francis, an Indigenous poet, playwright, author, and visual artist who was based in Winnipeg, MB until his death in 2005 from cancer. This essay is adapted from Indigenous Literature coursework at the University of Winnipeg.
In City Treaty Marvin Francis utilizes a trickster narrator and his sidekick (or alter-ego) “clown” to observe and comment on pop culture themes related to fast food, consumerism, and capitalism. I will use the section “mcPemmican™” to explore three ways that Francis utilizes pop culture themes to critique and defamiliarize readers from flawed and comfortable consumer habits and cultural trends that perpetuate marginalization and stereotypes of Indigenous Peoples. First, Francis expose problematic stereotypes that many consumerist products and fantasies perpetuate; second, Francis uses metaphor and analogy to narrate the injustices Indigenous Peoples were subjected to through colonization; and third, Francis critiques the harmful power dynamics and injustices that consumerism and capitalism perpetuate. Francis deconstructs pop culture themes in order to reconstruct a new city treaty that speaks for Indigenous Peoples. The trickster narrator plays with signifiers, allusions, metaphors, grammar, and even the layout of the poem in order to enact authority over the new “treaty”, often playing with the reader as well. However, unlike treaty agreements that were signed under economic duress by Indigenous Peoples, many unable to read English, the trickster narrator’s new treaty primarily concerns itself with Indigenous issues and experiences.
I will begin with the first way Francis engages in pop culture: he defamiliarizes readers from popular ideas ingrained in contemporary culture in order to expose stereotypes and problematic consumerist trends lurking in these “every day” widely embraced cultural habits. For example, he writes, “they line up to see the real…to buy the grey owl burger/ to touch the other” (7). “They” are everyday people in consumerist culture who buy into the allure and commodification of the exotic “other”, perpetuating a stereotype of this imagined other. Grey owls are typically protected and admired rather than eaten, so those who supposedly eat them are stereotyped as the savage, uncivil, or primitive other. Through buying and eating the “grey owl burger”, the consumer is able to touch the fantasy of the other. Marketing campaigns often use similar gimmicks that promise to fulfill the consumer’s fantasy of touching the “other”, and defining themself by what they are not. They touch the “other” without actually seeing or interacting with the real. Warren Cariou explains, “the sudden commercial popularity of this new version of Nativeness is a stinging commentary on the construction of authenticity in a capitalistic system. Buyers want ‘to touch the other’ but only do so in a rigidly controlled corporatized space, one in which the ‘other’ has been tamed and made effectively into something not ‘other’ or ‘real’ at all” (8). Grey Owl might also refer to British-born conservationist Archibald Belaney (1888-1938), who took on the First Nations identity of Grey Owl as an adult—and other white figures who might sometimes profit from or exploit Indigenous culture, while having the privileges that are not open to Indigenous Peoples the rest of the time; they have not had to endure Indigenous hardships such as racism and disenfranchisement.
Francis hints at the problematic sellable fantasy of Indigenous culture when he asks, “Would you like some lies with that?”(6), defamiliarizing readers with the fast food chain McDonald’s catch-phrase “would you like some fries with that?” Here he draws the connection between the danger of branded, stereotype-perpetuating marketing campaigns and the danger of a consumer culture that promotes uniformity, reproducibility, addiction, and unhealthy consumption—manifest for example, in the unhealthy, overly-consumed, and mass-produced McDonald’s French Fries; a product popular in poorer communities because of its affordability. Fast food is untrustworthy, associated with inhumane slaughtering processes, cheap labor, and sacrificing quality for immediacy and affordability. Francis further illuminates the problematic commodified fantasy of Indigenous culture when he writes, “you must package this in/ bright colours…just like beads” (6). The word “packaging” suggests a façade, an exterior that hides the package’s contents, a superficial appeal or a marketing gimmick, a hook or a trap. The word “beads” alludes to cultural appropriation of Indigenous clothing aesthetics, such as beadwork that are not authentic to Indigenous culture. The “mystery meat” is what is packaged; the content of the package is not as important as the fantasy the packaging offers. Elsewhere in his long poem Francis exposes more stereotypes that consumers buy into by defamilarizing pop culture references: Mohawk gas, the Atlanta Braves, Jeep Grand Cherokees, and Disney (Cariou 10). Francis “defamiliarizes” to expose the danger, damage, and duress of the familiar.
The second way Francis utilizes popular culture, through metaphor and defamiliarization, is he illustrates how the colonization of Indigenous Peoples has instigated issues such as poverty within Indigenous communities. Francis uses pop culture to outline the history of Indigenous Peoples and show how the effects of colonialism seep into contemporary pop culture. His poem suggests that treaty agreements were like cheap consumer products that promised more than they could deliver. Similarly, advertisements promise products that will make the consumer happy or beautiful, offering more than they can deliver. Consumer culture commodifies femininity and masculinity, and perpetuates unrealistic ideals or fantasies that might negatively impact the way we see ourselves. Similarly, for Indigenous Peoples, “treaties have never had the value that they were purported to have, because the most powerful parties — colonial governments and corporations — have re-interpreted them or ignored them at their whim, converting them into lies” (Cariou 11). Additionally, through his use of the trademark symbol (™), Francis “links private corporate ownership to treaty agreements” (Cariou 2). Signed under economic duress, the treaties perpetuated a disparity of power, widening the gap between the wealthy and poor, the colonizers and the colonized; treaties, similar to trademarks, perpetuate an economic relationship, “one in which already impoverished people are required to give up even more to the institutions that so severely limit their options” (Cariou 6). Francis writes, “let the poor in take their money take their health / sound familiar/ chase fast food off the cliff”, referencing Indigenous Peoples’ limited options; often, poorer communities have no choice but to eat at places like McDonald’s. The outcome of treaties results in fast food chains that are, as Warren Cariou suggests, “shown to be natural extensions of welfare policies and the systemic marginalization of urban Native people” (7). When Francis writes “chase fast food off the cliff” he conjures imagery of traditional buffalo hunts where buffaloes were chased off the cliff to their death. In juxtaposing this imagery with fast food, he seems to suggest that Indigenous Peoples have been “chased off the cliff”; systematically, they have been forced to abandon healthier eating habits for fast food, which leads to poor health, diabetes, and eventually death. Furthermore, treaties ignored Indigenous Peoples’ needs and grievances (many still ignored by the Canadian government) such as problems arising from residential school abuse, land claim discrepancies, and the colonizer’s systematic attempts at annihilating Indigenous culture, community, and tradition. Children were taken from their homes and placed into residential schools that enforced strictly Christian ideologies, and children were often subjected to violent and sexual abuse in these schools. The perpetrators of abuse “were the care-givers: school superintendents, teachers, priests, nuns, brothers, and lay staff hired to maintain the facilities. But students themselves also became abusers, and engaged in the physical and sexual abuse of other students” (Waldram 230); daily life consisted of fear and terror for many (Waldram 236). Francis suggests—through associating the treaties with corporations—that the Indigenous people, in signing, granted ownership of land and people to the European monarchy; nature became something people own and the Indigenous people themselves became property of the treaty contracts.
The third way Francis utilizes pop culture is through a critique of consumerism and capitalistic structures that oppress Indigenous Peoples and perpetuate cycles of poverty, addiction, poor education, abuse, and loss of tradition—to name a few. When Francis writes, “you must package this in/ bright colours…just like beads” (6), he draws from ideas of “traditional” Indigenous beadwork and clothing design, imitated in popular culture through, for example, the fashion industry and “Western” films that borrow elements of Indigenous culture and then distort or mimic them to perpetuate a stereotype or fantasy. The phrase “you must package this” also alludes to consumerist marketing strategies —advertisements on packages meant to spark within consumers the desire to buy into their product’s fantasy. White colonizers introduced beads along with other novelties, such as mirrors and weapons, in exchange for valuable furs; Francis alludes to the beginning of white colonizers’ corporate exploitation of Indigenous Peoples. Cariou writes, “In the Canadian North-West, as well as in many other global contact zones, the first major colonial presence was corporate, not governmental. The North-West Territories was literally owned by fur-trading companies before it was sold to the fledgling government of Canada in 1868-70” (5). In “My Urban Rez”, a commentary for the magazine Canadian Dimension, Francis describes contemporary issues arising from capitalism and corporate displacement, such as the disparity between classes, poverty perpetuating fast food and addiction, poor health, and stereotypes. He writes, “Fast-food outlets, convenience stores, taxis and the bars all grab their share of the Indigenous migrant dollar. This is hardly news, as arson replaces the smoke signals from a campfire. The hearts of the cities, the malls, are all loaded with things that you cannot buy, but the monster of media demands that you do“(1). Francis argues that capitalistic structures deeply rooted in Canada’s colonial history make it nearly impossible for Indigenous Peoples to break from cycles of poor health and poverty and that one way to “succeed” involves giving into the stereotypes. He writes, “The city is a place where money rules and if you must, and many do, you trade your culture for cash. Although genuine traditional Aboriginals exist, the plastic Shaman slinks along the fringes of the actual Aboriginal culture(s), preying on those who need help the most” (Dimensions 1). He goes on to explain that contemporary “avant-garde” artwork does not sell as well as “a painting of Aboriginal deities, or the rural, hunting, natural landscape imagery, or enticing shots of Indian maidens” (1). Francis incorporates these thoughts into City Treaty when he writes, “cash those icons in” (6); Cariou explains that Francis addresses Indigenous people here, warning them that the corporation will “then make a profit selling it (stereotypes) to everyone, including selling it back to you” (Cariou 8). Here Francis utilizes pop culture to critique consumerism and capitalism. Speaking at times very straightforwardly to an Indigenous audience, Francis lays out the truth of the treaties, and offers a more honest treaty—one that does not make false promises, but instead exposes them.
Francis interacts with pop culture in the three ways I have illustrated: first, defamiliarizing readers from contemporary pop culture norms and fast food products; second, exposing the devastating colonial history of Indigenous Peoples, through pop culture allusions and metaphors; and third, exposing problematic consumer and capitalistic trends ingrained in popular culture. The narrator of the new treaty acts like the Cree trickster figure that resists hegemonic powers through his/her ambiguity and ability to trick or confuse the audience and the dominant culture. The narrator writes, “I can knot/ will not/ just like hem/ ing way/ instead/ we found/ some” (7); he claims the white colonizer’s power to “create” and to influence; like Hemmingway, he too can be ambiguous and withhold narrative detail or clarity. He refuses to cater to the expectations of the audience or perpetuate a fantasy of Indigenous poets. Thomas King writes that the danger of labeling Indigenous literature as “postcolonial” is that it assumes that contemporary Native writing is largely “a construct of oppression” (185). Francis’ narrative rejects being defined by oppression—instead it reclaims autonomy denied to Indigenous Peoples during the original treaty process (and outcome). The narrator writes the “city” treaty in order to propose a new future, one in which Indigenous Peoples speak out, create, and expose contemporary and historical problems and injustices. The narrator sits in a restaurant with the somber clown figure at “one table reserved by the window” (20); they gaze out at society, gaining autonomy through their ability to judge and expose historical and cultural injustices. However, Francis suggests that they too are trapped, like two figures in a museum exhibit; they “look out the window”(7). Although the window table is “reserved” for them, they do not necessarily reserve it. Francis reveals their awareness of being watched and judged when he writes that they “must look busy/ act important”. Thus, although the two figures reclaim autonomy through writing the “city” treaty, they also represent a history of oppression and constant prejudiced judgement. However, as Armand Garnett Ruffo writes, “As the tradition of Native spirituality is inherent in the literature, beginning with European contact, so too is the tradition of addressing historical, secular concerns” (Where the Voice 664); Edward Said also illustrates the importance of literary voices that reveal all subjective experiences when he writes, “the power to narrate, or to block other narratives from forming and emerging, is very important to culture and imperialism, and constitutes one of the main connections between them” (Ruffo 664). White men dominate the archived voices of history, so it is imperative for contemporary writers to challenge consequentially one-sided historical accounts. As Ruffo notes, Native literature must exist “if authentic Native voice(s) are to be heard and addressed within a country which, to date, has been satiated by projections of what Native people are supposed to be”(667). Through City Treaty Francis answers the call, ingrained in the ambitions of Indigenous literature, to address Indigenous people themselves, “so that they can empower and heal themselves through their own cultural affirmation, as well as address those in power and give them the real story” (Ruffo 672). The narrator of the poem, and Francis, reclaim autonomy denied to Indigenous Peoples in the original treaty process; the narrator writes a new city treaty that speaks for Indigenous Peoples’ experiences and concerns within contemporary society.
Cariou, Warren. “‘How Come These Guns Are so Tall’: Anti-corporate Resistance in Marvin Francis’s City Treaty.” Studies in Canadian Literature / Études en littérature canadienne 31.1 (2006): n. pag. journals.hil.unb.ca. Web. 20 Feb.2013.
Francis, Marvin. “My Urban Rez”. Canadian Dimension (November 2004): n. pag.http://canadiandimension.com/articles/1950/. Web 20 Feb. 2013.
King, Thomas. “Godzilla Vs. Postcolonial.” Short Fiction Notes and Supplements. Web.20th Feb. 2013.
Waldram, James B. Revenge of the Windigo: The Construction of the Mind and Mental Health of North American Aboriginal Peoples. University of Toronto Press, 2004. Print.
Ruffo, Armand Garnett. “Where the Voices Were Coming From,” Eds. Paul DePasquale, Renata Eigenbrod & Emma LaRocque. Across Cultures Across Borders: Canadian Aboriginal and Native America Literatures. Peterborough: Broadview Press, 2010. Print.
Ruffo, Armand Garnett. “Why Native Literature.” Native North America: Critical and Cultural Perspectives. Toronto:ECW Press, 1999. Print.