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Some of hockey's fiercest and most passionate players and fans can be found among Canada's First Nations populations, including NHL greats Jordin Tootoo, Jonathan Cheechoo, and Gino Odjick. At first glance the importance of hockey to the country's Aboriginal peoples may seem to indicate assimilation into mainstream society, but Michael A. Robidoux reveals that the game is Some of hockey's fiercest and most passionate players and fans can be found among Canada's First Nations populations, including NHL greats Jordin Tootoo, Jonathan Cheechoo, and Gino Odjick. At first glance the importance of hockey to the country's Aboriginal peoples may seem to indicate assimilation into mainstream society, but Michael A. Robidoux reveals that the game is played and understood very differently in this cultural context. Rather than capitulating to the Euro-Canadian construct of sport, First Nations hockey has become an important site for expressing rich local knowledge and culture. With stories and observations gleaned from three years of ethnographic research, Stickhandling through the Margins richly illustrates how hockey is played and experienced by First Nations peoples across Canada, both in isolated reserve communities and at tournaments that bring together participants from across the country. Robidoux's vivid description transports readers into the world of First Nations hockey, revealing it to be a highly social and at times even spiritual activity ripe with hidden layers of meaning that are often surprising to the outside observer.


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Some of hockey's fiercest and most passionate players and fans can be found among Canada's First Nations populations, including NHL greats Jordin Tootoo, Jonathan Cheechoo, and Gino Odjick. At first glance the importance of hockey to the country's Aboriginal peoples may seem to indicate assimilation into mainstream society, but Michael A. Robidoux reveals that the game is Some of hockey's fiercest and most passionate players and fans can be found among Canada's First Nations populations, including NHL greats Jordin Tootoo, Jonathan Cheechoo, and Gino Odjick. At first glance the importance of hockey to the country's Aboriginal peoples may seem to indicate assimilation into mainstream society, but Michael A. Robidoux reveals that the game is played and understood very differently in this cultural context. Rather than capitulating to the Euro-Canadian construct of sport, First Nations hockey has become an important site for expressing rich local knowledge and culture. With stories and observations gleaned from three years of ethnographic research, Stickhandling through the Margins richly illustrates how hockey is played and experienced by First Nations peoples across Canada, both in isolated reserve communities and at tournaments that bring together participants from across the country. Robidoux's vivid description transports readers into the world of First Nations hockey, revealing it to be a highly social and at times even spiritual activity ripe with hidden layers of meaning that are often surprising to the outside observer.

16 review for Stickhandling Through the Margins: First Nations Hockey in Canada

  1. 5 out of 5

    Malcolm

    There are few more iconic markers of Canada that hockey or its First Nations – but only one of them gets any significant positive public profile, with even many of the First Nations athletes in professional hockey barely acknowledged. As a result, this engaging and timely book is likely to be a revelation to many. Don’t be put off by its brevity (about 150 pages), there is an extensive body of research, 10 years field work, inquiry and thinking woven into this, and for the most part that is done There are few more iconic markers of Canada that hockey or its First Nations – but only one of them gets any significant positive public profile, with even many of the First Nations athletes in professional hockey barely acknowledged. As a result, this engaging and timely book is likely to be a revelation to many. Don’t be put off by its brevity (about 150 pages), there is an extensive body of research, 10 years field work, inquiry and thinking woven into this, and for the most part that is done with a light touch (an all too rare attribute in my line of work). The book’s first principle strength is its engagement – Robidoux follows the tried and true anthropological method of participant observation; as is the case with many Canadians, he is a hockey player, a hockey fan; as is the case with many good anthropologists he seems willing to let himself get hurt and bashed about in the cause of knowledge…. And there seems to be a fair amount of hockey playing in the field and fair amount of being bashed about. Like many anthropologists has a broker, a gatekeeper who negotiates access, in the form of a friend and team mate, a First Nations hockey player who help him into the field, who effects introductions and carries him inside the cultural setting in focus. As a result of this access, of the discussions with athletes and in communities the book focusses on three aspects of First Nations hockey – its place and role in communities where it becomes a tool and space of community ‘healing’, its big commercial tournaments, often linked to other events, festivals, powwows and the like, and its smaller community-focussed fully amateur tournaments. The difference between the tournaments is significant and important for the analysis – in one, a community’s teams may be made up of some community members but there may also be paid players brought in especially for the event; in the other, all team a members must be members of the community it represents. This produces different forms of engagement and types of success/participation. The ‘healing’ discussion is distressing, unsettling and challenged my cynicism about sport-as-community-restoration (a cynicism I might add that is largely the product of government rhetoric, policies and programmes that suggest sport is a universal panacea for communities in crisis – as a non-sporty sports studies academic I know just how horrific this reification of sport is for those of us who are rubbish at most sports practices). In this case, though, Robidoux and his team of research assistants did their field work in a small British Columbia community of Alkali Lake, home to an Esketemc community that has been struggling for several generations with intra community violence, alcoholism and the extremely high rates of dislocation that are the result of the marginalisation and dispossession of First Nations globally. This is not a happy all-is-well fairy tale ending but a story of a community struggling with its demons and sometimes keeping them at bay; a community where a number of its younger members rummage together hockey kit and when they can secure ice-time at the local sports centre (in the neighbouring town) provide a marker for how things can be different, how the community could and should rally to itself. Here, as elsewhere in the book, Robidoux makes good use of his field notes written into the text, and in doing so shows how his analysis grew as the engagement developed and as he secured a better hold on the place, its people and his way of making sense. The discussion of the tournaments had quite a different tone – these are larger organised events meaning that it is harder to get that sense of concurrent pathos and pride that comes through the language of healing, but there is a recurring sense of struggling with demons, of communities senses of self and pride associated with winning, with doing well, with having made it across the 1000 mile drive to play a weekend of hockey. There is also a lot more humour, I suspect in part because in these cases Robidoux spent some of the time hanging with a team, being part of the intensely masculine sports cultural world of banter, of taking the piss, of affectionate denigration – and given that these tournaments happen only once a year in most cases these intra- and inter-team relations may be spread over several years. The other thing he does well in the tournaments is get in with the organisers, so he gets a sense not only of why they matter to players but also why they matter more generally to communities, to families of players and players’ families. He also is able to give us a sense of the equality of the ice, where players will take on professionals in other teams just for the chance to say they went up against whoever from the NHL, and the way many of those players expect it, expect the hits, expect the violence and take it – because they know it is important to the men they play against; it isn’t something I’d expect to see in many other sports settings. The strength of this analysis, the thing that sets it apart from so many others, is that Robidoux neither romanticises nor condemns – this is an analysis that sets out to do two things: to understand the cultural form and relations (a sign of good ethnography) and to explore the meaning of First Nations hockey in a colonial setting, a colonial culture and within the discourses of colonialism. This means that aside from dealing with these three forms of First Nations hockey he also explores ways that colonial Canada makes sense of its ‘Other’, its First Peoples, through the way they play their hockey and through the way this playing is policed, either by the state through it legitimate violence (its police forces, the RCMP and so on) or through more informal cultural and social constraints – this is the meeting of the two icons of Canada (let’s leave the maple leaf to one side) as colonial Canada mediates its incorporation and rejection of its First Peoples in its first sport. For Robidoux this is the site of a continuing colonial imaginary, a way of dreaming modern colonial Canada, to use the Australian Aboriginal notion, while First Nations hockey may be understood as a form of border thinking – as an alternative form of knowledge formation, of the creation of local communities within a global environment and using the dominant culture’s tools to make the local, indigenous way of being. This notion of border thinking is part of this book’s significant contribution to sport studies – too much of what we do in colonial and imperial sports studies (and this marks the field as different from many other forms of social and cultural analysis) presumes simple diffusionism. This is seen, in part, in the assumption that when a subjugated cultural group is playing by the formal rules of the game they are necessarily playing the same game with the same meanings. Many of our fellow sports studies practitioners don’t seem to get the difference, don’t see that when two teams from neighbouring indigenous communities play each other there is often more than the rivalry of neighbours involved – there may be centuries of tension as genealogies are remembered, as ancestors’ (sometimes right back to first ancestors) differences off the field/ice/court give new meanings to on field/ice/court moves, relations and successes or failures. Robidoux shows how, in many cases, meaning is made through the fissures, gaps, openings left by a colonial régime that thinks it is more comprehensive and successful than it is. He has, therefore, helpfully and usefully brought to light the tensions in First Nations hockey as a site of tensions when two régimes of truth and knowledge meet in the same body practice and as they continue to develop through their interactions with each other. Despite all this goodness, from time to time I found myself sceptical about the case; I’m not sure how it could have been done differently, but I have a sense that perhaps Robidoux assumed too much about his readers’ understandings of First Nations ontologies. From my work with indigenous people in New Zealand and Australia I have a reasonable sense of how, for instance, genealogy works to build links, about the ways that ways of being and relating shape and influence intra and inter-community and communal relations, about some of the ways the experience of colonisation and continuation of colonial relations have reshaped and redefined some of those ways of being and relating. My engagement with Canadian First Nations is nowhere near as sophisticated or deep – and based in time spent with friends from these communities, from a student whose fieldwork takes him into this world, and from reading and watching; I get the sense that my relative distance from understanding the nuances and subtleties of Canada’s First Peoples’ histories means that I missed much of the subtlety of Robidoux’s suggestions about the phenomenology of indigenous hockey. It would, most likely, have been a different book had this problem been addressed, but at least from my point of view a greater presence of these indigenous ways of being, even if through the eyes of a non-indigenous anthropologist, would have helped in opening up the multiple potentials of understanding, would have helped me with what he calls hockey’s pluriversality. That said, this is a really good book that should help us reformulate aspects of the debate about First Nations sport and about the continuing shape and development colonial body cultures. In its development of Walter Mignolo’s work on border thinking he has also challenged those of us work in related areas of sport and cultural analysis to re-theorise much of what we do. Alongside all of this, we can also read the book without necessarily getting dragged into all of the theoretical analysis – and it merits a wide readership on this counts as well.

  2. 5 out of 5

    Leslie

    I recommend this book for those interested in First Nations/Native/Aboriginal culture, for those interested in the field of folklore, and for those interested in rethinking the pros and cons of sport in our society and in our communities. If you are interested in the place of Native women in hockey, or hockey in the lives of Native women, you’ll have to look elsewhere, though; those topics were unfortunately not touched upon this study (though their absence was noted with regret by the author). S I recommend this book for those interested in First Nations/Native/Aboriginal culture, for those interested in the field of folklore, and for those interested in rethinking the pros and cons of sport in our society and in our communities. If you are interested in the place of Native women in hockey, or hockey in the lives of Native women, you’ll have to look elsewhere, though; those topics were unfortunately not touched upon this study (though their absence was noted with regret by the author). Stickhandling through the Margins: First Nations Hockey in Canada is rare among academic tomes: it is not only engaging and accessible to the reader, but it also exudes the genuine enthusiasm of the author. Michael Robidoux, a professor at the University of Ottawa and, according to its website, an award-winning researcher focusing on indigenous cultural practices as they relate to physical activity and local dietary practices, spent ten years researching hockey as it is played in First Nations communities in Canada. He confides that, given his non-Native status, his peers in academia initially doubted his ability to gain adequate access to those communities, but writes that, ultimately, First Nations people from many communities were quite eager to talk with him about the place of hockey in their lives. Through the tournament-participant brother of a friend he gained access to several different First Nations hockey tournaments, and subsequently was invited to the home reserves of some of the participants to experience hockey in its, if you will, “native” setting. In Stickhandling through the Margins (the title is perfect) Robidoux lays out the theoretical backgrounds of modern sport and of colonization. He particularly embraces the idea of “border thinking”, examining how local cultures take “existing signs” (in this case the modern, rationalized “hockey” that we know from the world of organized and sometimes professionalized sport, with all its rules and practices) and reinscribe upon them new meanings. This not only disrupts the modern and Western colonialist view, but also allows for the formulation of alternate identities and knowledge, so that local communities can provide for (some of) their own needs through sport. In the chapter “Healing through Hockey” Robidoux describes his visits to the Esketemc First Nation, where regular Saturday night hockey affords the community some relief from the cycle of substance addiction and physical and sexual abuse that originated within the local (historical) Indian Residential School, gives them renewed control over their own bodies, and, to paraphrase a former Chief, allows their spirits to come to the fore. In “First Nations Hockey Tournaments: Celebrating Culture through Sport,” Robidoux describes a variety of tournaments, the diverse and overlapping meanings of hockey games in tournament settings, and the roles of intensity and humor, rivalry and camaraderie, escape and community that make these events meaningful and rejuvenating for such a range of participants - from celebrated NHL veterans like Gino Odjick to anonymous youths and old-timers from the most remote, materially disadvantaged reserves. The book is not entirely celebratory, though; it does touch upon the occasional excessive drinking and episodic violence that, although ubiquitous at adult hockey tournaments throughout Canada in general, disproportionately “feed into disparaging stereotypes and racist ideologies of First Nations peoples.” Robidoux describes how he unintentionally reaped benefits from his non-Native status while seeking food and lodging in tournament towns, and became a witness to the continuing racial prejudice based upon those stereotypes. Finally - and this is one of the great strengths of this book - Robidoux describes how Native hockey practices have changed his own ways of playing and enjoying hockey, and his own ways of thinking, learning and knowing. One gets the impression that he will invest this evolved experience and inspiration into further beneficial pursuits. To that end, I wish him the best of luck.

  3. 4 out of 5

    Jashvina Shah

  4. 4 out of 5

    Paul

  5. 5 out of 5

    Allison

  6. 5 out of 5

    Barry B

  7. 4 out of 5

    Tiffany

  8. 5 out of 5

    Equestrienne10

  9. 4 out of 5

    Nigel Orr

  10. 4 out of 5

    Barry

  11. 5 out of 5

    Nigel Orr

  12. 5 out of 5

    Caitlin Mazurek

  13. 5 out of 5

    Mason McFee

  14. 5 out of 5

    Dhruti

  15. 5 out of 5

    Bernadette Skodack

  16. 4 out of 5

    Mia

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