Professor Pamela Klassen gives talk on the relationship between storytelling and colonialism

By Ruby Van Dyk || Staff Writer

On Wednesday, October 25th, Pamela Klassen gave a talk in the Brooks Common Room titled “Protest on the Page: Print as an affordance for Revolutionary Spirits.”

Klassen is a professor of Religious Studies and Anthropology at the University of Toronto and the author of many books including Spirits of Protestantism: Medicine, Healing and Liberal Christianity and Blessed Events: Religion and Home Birth in America. The subject of her talk at F&M centered around her upcoming book The Story of the Radio Mind: A Missionary’s Journey on Indigenous Land.

Klassen’s talk centered around the relationship between missionaries, indigenous peoples and storytelling. Klassen discussed her interest in mediums of expression and storytelling, stating “every time a new medium is created, it spurs ideas of hope and utopian dreams.” She then went on to ask if “the medium of print holds these dreams differently?”

Klassen’s main two focuses regarding storytelling were the Printing Press and Marginalia, or the notes written in the margins of a book. Klassen discussed how the way that missionaries in western Canada believed in telling stories clashed with the ways in which indigenous peoples saw fit. While missionaries used their printing presses as a way to tell stories, many indigenous groups saw totem poles and other methods as the best way to convey a story.

These colonists and indigenous peoples also clashed over the definition of what made a good story, and so many colonists attempted to introduce the indigenous people to their means of telling a story, the printing press. Klassen went on to discuss the specific ways in which the printing press was brought upon the indigenous people, and noted that “in order for colonists to set up printing presses, they had to be accepted by the indigenous people.”

Some colonists were successful, and even helped Indigenous people produce their own newsletters and newspapers. Klassen noted that in some ways these efforts has positive effects, allowing natives to use the printing press to make protest flyers and spread information, but they also allowed the colonists to claim further ownership of native land, and attempt to change the ways in which indigenous people told stories. Klassen said the “printing press revolutionized spiritual movements” and “missionary efforts worked along with colonialism.” Klassen emphasized the fact that by finding overlaps in the way in which both Colonists and indigenous peoples told stories, the colonists were able to bring their new ideas to the natives using their colonial tools. 

Klassen went on to note that these ideas of power, voice, and ownership continue on today in issues like Standing Rock. And that these issue we should still be thinking about because of their relevancy today.  Klassen brought up the question of how is sovereignty and identity shaped by stories, and highlighted the impact of the means of how those stories are shared.

First-year Ruby Van Dyk is a staff writer. Her email is rvandyk@fandm.edu.

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