Malcolm's Reviews > If This Is Your Land, Where Are Your Stories?: Finding Common Ground

If This Is Your Land, Where Are Your Stories? by J. Edward Chamberlin
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Jul 23, 2011

it was amazing
bookshelves: first-nations, history-north-america

Every now and then I read a book that thoroughly impresses me with the author's learning, its erudition, its sheer elegance, and with the power of its argument (in 1990 it was a marvellous book called Black Sheep and Kissing Cousins: How Family Stories Shape Us). This is one of those. By way of a discussion of the question of indigenous claims to land, Chamberlin explores the ways that stories work, the ways they blend the real and the imaginary, the ways different communities, cultures and occupations have different types of stories.

Along the way he makes some wonderful points – almost all to do with paradox (revealing at least a partial postmodern influence): for instance, indigenous peoples who have lived in an area for thousands of years may be seen as 'nomads' while new arrivals who bring with them a vision of 'home' that they may try to recreate – as the British did when they reshaped colonial landscapes – are seen as 'settlers'. His focus is not so much on the content of stories, but the ways we all have them, the ways they work, and the ways we all believe particular stories. His case is about the act of believing.

As powerful and beautiful as the book is, his case finishes up being dangerously relativist: if the big thing is the act of belief, how do we know correct belief (if evolution is just the theory – a story – why is teaching creationism a bad thing, which it is!). But it isn't completely so – he gives us a way out of relativism by arguing for the importance of ceremonies of belief as our common ground.

The book then seems to be about our common humanity, which depresses me: if our problem in dealing with the fall out from colonialism is out failure to recognise common humanity – we're not far beyond nineteenth century scientific racism. This conflicting interpretation points to the very problem Chamberlin so deftly weaves his way through – the challenges of reimagining, reconceptualising Them and Us, and the epistemological break it may require. I know I'll return to this, and know that next time I read it I'll experience a different book. Any way, it is an essential read for anyone wanting to find a way past the problem that Our beliefs are facts and Their beliefs are stories or myths.
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