Arts & Entertainment, Books

Book Review: “3 or 4 Years an Indian”

The introductory blurb on the back of 3 or 4 Years an Indian describes author Cindy Styles as being “a new author born by obligation.” Of all Styles’ titles—musician, healer, McGill alumna—the only one that she has ever been denied was the one she is owed: Membership to the Qalipu Mi’kmaq nation, a small band of landless indigenous Canadians that, thanks to the 2014 parlimentary bill C-25, has very strict membership requirements. 

Styles’ story begins in 2011, when Harper’s government formally acknowledged the indigenous Newfoundland nation and promised its members all the health and economic benefits they were entitled to. As the news began to circulate, members from near and far came forward, and before long more than 100,000 individuals had claimed legitimate ties to the nation—almost four times the original estimate of enrolment.  It was then that the government began to amend its original plan. Membership contracts were revised and rules were changed. Despite their status as a “landless tribe,” those members who were living outside of Newfoundland were faced with the strenuous and demeaning task of proving their authenticity to the government by providing everything from affidavits to family photos. Styles, who is of Mi’kmaq heritage and entitled to membership in the indigenous nation, was inspired to write her story when her identity was challenged. 

3 or 4 Years an Indian is a quick read. Of its 130 pages, almost half the book is comprised of photos, letters, and lists, tucked away in addendums, to which Styles often refers. Interrupting her own narrative, she asks readers to flip back and forth, creating a “maze-like trickery to mirror the task presented [to me] by the Canadian government.” 

“I’m a Music major, right?” Styles joked in an interview. “The book has ABA formatting, with a variety of imagined codetta’s in the form of addendums. Creative non-fiction.” This format successfully reflected the confusion and miscommunication that characterized the process of Qalipu Mi’kmaq membership.

Hers is not a linear story. Styles insists that it began generations ago, with the family and traditions that she was born into, and the colonialism that threatened them. The first of the addendums contains the letter she and many others received from Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada, detailing the steps they must take in order to complete the process of “Self and Group Identification.” What follows is the letter she wrote in response to the Enrolment Committee, in which she recounts childhood anecdotes, family histories and personal accomplishments to prove her genuine ties to her own people. 

Near the middle, the book abruptly segues into a brief interlude about addiction and substance abuse. The chapters preach the dangers of alcohol, marijuana, cigarettes, and Kraft Dinner, along with a slew of street drugs that Styles hopes readers haven’t tried.  Her  favorable view of sobriety, although eloquent and earnest, is one we’ve heard before, not to mention that it appears without much explanation as to how it relates to the rest of the story. 

Although this transition is blunt, Styles’ additional message here is effective. Speaking candidly about substance abuse and Indigenous- Canadian relations moves the reader away from the media’s portrayal of addiction and hopelessness within Indigenous reservations.

“It’s not that it’s inaccurate or misrepresented, it’s more about overall optics,” Styles explained. “We both know I could follow a few of Canada’s finest sons and daughters around any campus, frat, or sorority house on any given weekend,  and come up with some pretty unattractive footage. I see substance abuse in many cultures. So, since I am of the healthiest body and mind, I thought I’d offer advice to the other cultures. How dare I? I did.”

The entire story is delivered with this kind of wit and shrewdness. 3 or 4 Years an Indian is an meaningful narrative that entertains while it educates. Told in a unique format with a confident voice, the book sheds light on the injustices still present in Canada. At once charming and blunt, funny and solemn, 3 or 4 Years an Indian is an atypical work of non-fiction that puts personal experience at the forefront of a historic phenomenon. 

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