Motorcylces and sweetgrass
Reaching Compromise of Cultures by Manifestation of Contact Zone through the Character John From the start of the novel, it is not difficult to see that Maggie, the chief and mother of Virgil, is having trouble with her life. She is busy and has many identities. When she is talking to her mother Lillian, she has her own thoughts and opinions about how to live her life. Her way is doing as much work and taking care of every matter because she is the chief, and also worrying about her son because she is the mother. This always crashes with what Lillian thinks.
Lillian says that her work is “too much” (Taylor, 44) and that she “should be the chief of [her] own home, not Otter Lake. ” (Taylor, 44) Maggie does not even have time to have lunch with her son, let alone talk and spend some time with him. When she came home after what happened with her tire, she cooked a decent dinner “for the first time in a week. ” (Taylor, 93) Virgil, of course, knows this and feels the lack of his mother in his life in some way. He might be skipping classes because he is not getting his mother’s attention and care.
Lillian suggested this many times before she died and Virgil’s teacher asked Maggie for special care for Virgil. She is letting down her family. When John came for lunch to her office, her answer is “but sorry, can’t do it. Priorities. ” (Taylor, 226) Her tone is very determined and dry. She cannot sleep well at night. This proves that she is rushing herself too much with her work and schedule. Meanwhile, she thinks that she will manage all of this and be responsible. This way of thinking is very much the influence of western culture, Canadian culture in this book.
Although she cares for the Anishnawbe society and knows the language and culture, her life is more of a Canadian life than an Anishnawbe life. John enters her life suddenly with his charming looks and approaches her without hesitation, intriguing Maggie’s curiosity and interest. She goes on a date with John and in such a long time, she feels romantic For Maggie, John appealed his sexual attraction because that would work the best since she lost her husband and there has been no space for ‘man’ in her life. She learns slowly how to chill out and have some break.
Through John she also experiences some real Anishnawbe culture such as the carvings in front of Sammy’s house and an inukshuk that John made. The first time she encounters John and on their first date, she was definitely feeling confused. In the end, she managed to balance her life with “a more Zen approach” (Taylor, 340). She does not waste her time worrying too much and spend more time with family. She learned how to compromise between the two cultures somehow. She chose “what gets absorbed into” (Pratt, 36) her life from the Canadian culture and moved closer to her Anishnawbe culture.
This is how John worked as a comfort zone as for Maggie. He approached her to show her a new perspective just like Guaman Poma did to “construct new picture of the world” (Pratt, 34). There are two more important characters that went through similar process with Maggie’s and found the way to negotiation: Virgil and Uncle Wayne. To begin with Virgil, he was just an adolescent boy who is going through puberty before his encounter with John and little chat with him on the rock that he visits often. He skipped class in school and went near the train station, sitting on his rock thinking. He doesn’t have many friends.
Even Maggie was relieved to see that Virgil talking with Dakota before they were all together in Lillian’s house. Most importantly, Virgil does not receive his mother’s attention and care that he deserves that age. This is shown throughout the story. He feels jealous when Maggie cooks fancy dinner for John. He thought “the effort his mom was putting into” (Taylor, 110) the dinner was “upsetting” (Taylor, 110). Maggie never did this for “him” (Taylor, 110). His encounter with John was not that pleasant, but it was shocking enough to haunt him every day until he finally disappears from Otter Lake society.
He saw John kissing Lillian and John’s motorcycle was surely a piece of work to a teenage boy. I think what John did to Virgil was not that much and not direct. John clearly influenced Maggie directly but what he did to Virgil is a little bit of threatening before they meet near the rock. Following John and being obsessed by his presence make him look for what Nanabush is and about Anishnawbe culture. Until the last moment of John, Virgil keeps on thinking about his life and his identity and at the same time about John who is so mysterious and seems to be dangerous to his mom.
After him gone, he got much closer with his uncle and Dakota thanks to John because it is the mystery of him that bonded them in the first place. Similarly, Uncle Wayne comes out to the real, social world where he belongs to his family and mingles with people. His life was closed before John’s arrival and he faces John only one time when they fight. In a roundabout way, he could come out from the island and try living a social life outside of the island. His presence gave him the chance and helped in an indirect way to strengthen the bond of family between him, Maggie and Virgil.
From these changes, Wayne seems to be learning his way of adjusting to society by understanding and taking in some of Canadian culture. He let some of it “get absorbed” (Pratt, 36) in his life. He adapted to the mixed society where it is inevitable to live with two different cultures. He certainly gained a whole new perspective towards life and First Nations society. John, although he mainly focused on Maggie during the whole story, had given Virgil and Wayne the opportunity to think about balancing between two cultures.
By undergoing these processes, we can see a sign of ‘transculturation’ where “members of subordinated or marginal groups select and invent from materials transmitted by a dominant or metropolitan culture” (Pratt, 36). In this book, the members would be the people of Otter Lake society and their society is obviously a marginal group including the generations of Anishnawbe such as Lillian, the generations of First Nations such as Maggie and the generations of their children leaning more towards Canadian culture. A dominant culture would be Canadian culture.
From all three of the characters, we can see that a certain degree of ‘transculturation’ going on. Maggie using a Zen approach would be interpreted as selecting less from the dominant culture, the Canadian culture. In case of Virgil, the change is broader and more overall because his connection with his family such as Wayne, Dakota and most importantly Maggie has become stronger after John’s appearance. For Uncle Wayne, the fact that he is admiring the technology of the white people means in some degree that he is taking in the Canadian culture.
What is more worthy to focus on is his change of attitude. By the end of the novel, Wayne asks Maggie about the nurse at the clinic. Wayne is clearly feeling the kind of natural attraction towards women. During the conversation, we can see that he has his own thought of his identity in a positive way. He says that he is “Eccentric” (Taylor, 342) and “peculiar” (Taylor, 342) rather than weird. This could indicate that he is accepting the Canadian culture a little and not be a weird person who lives in the island stuck in the Anishnawbe martial arts.
This can be called Wayne’s way of ‘selecting’ from the dominant culture. As for ‘inventing’, I think that all three of the characters invented something that mostly fit to their lives. This ‘transculturation’ occurs together with the understanding of both cultures, both dominant and subordinate cultures. John came in with this understanding of cultures part, working as a contact zone himself. For Maggie he offered her the Anishnawbe way of thinking and living life while he was with her. For Virgil he offered him the opportunity to know better about his identity as a descendant of Anishnawbe people.
For Wayne, he also gave him the chance to come out and see what it is like to allow some degree of ‘White man’ culture. Through the experiences with John, they all get to negotiate between the Anishnawbe culture and Canadian culture. They created their own ways of lives and this led to overall balance of the whole society including their individual lives. John crosses the boundaries of Canadian culture and Anishnawbe culture. He features some of the characteristics from this and at the same time, he features some of the characteristics from that.
He is appeared to be a white man, although he later changes to his Anishnawbe appearance before he says last goodbye to Virgil. The feature he displays of himself is not just that of a white man, it is the typical of a white man. He has blond hair which is the stereotype of a white man. Although his eye colors changes a lot, it never goes black which is the eye color of Anishnawbe people. He comes to the Otter Lake village riding his motorcycle which could be classified as western culture or Canadian culture. Then, his knowledge in the history and Anishnawbe culture is so deep.
He speaks perfect Anishnawbe language and he knows how to perform Anishnawbe arts such as drawing petroglyphs, carving and making an inukshuk. It is strange but these two cultures coexist in him, allowing him as a proper ‘contact zone’ figure. The title of this book is a combination of rather ironic and discording two things if you think about it. Motorcycle is something that is totally Canadian, western, and white while sweetgrass is something that is totally Anishnawbe, traditional, and aboriginal. From the title, the author is already telling the readers what the book is going to be like.
As the story goes on, the readers realize that Taylor describes how the balance and concord is gained throughout the society of the First Nations from discourse. John, who is depicted as a manifestation of contact zone and perhaps the contact zone himself, enters their society. He uses magic and changed the society but the process is not that simple. He tries to control the amount of each culture the characters are accepting in their lives. The balance does not come from the numerical and mathematical balance. It is the balance within their lives and even without his realization or work, Maggie, Virgil and Wayne finds the balance themselves.
He works as a negotiator, a mediator between the two cultures. The way he is described in the book is probably Taylor’s idea to explain what contact zone is since the concept is very abstract and hard to grasp. John’s features including his outer and inner characteristics play a huge role when he approaches each of the characters. He appeals to each of them very differently and very effectively when he does that and after ‘John’ happened, all of them are able to enjoy the “moments of wonder and revelation, mutual understanding, and new wisdom – the joys of the contact zone.
The wonder of John’s sudden appearance and his talking to animals or changing his eye colors, the wonder of real Anishnawbe culture, the true understanding of both cultures and accepting both in lives and learning new ways of living less stressful and more leisurely lives happens. With John character, the author gives the readers how it is like to interact and negotiate between disparate cultures and to produce something valuable.