Dialogue on editing Indigenous writing (Editors Canada 2016)

Jordan Abel, Nisga’a poet, editor, and PhD candidate, and Ann-Marie Metten, managing editor at Talonbooks, had a conversation about telling Indigenous stories and about establishing good working relationships between non-Indigenous editors and Indigenous authors.

They began the session, as the conference itself did, with an acknowledgement that we were meeting on the unceded territories of the Coast Salish people, but they also wondered whether such an acknowledgement was truly helpful. At some events it’s the only time Aboriginal people are mentioned. Abel said that the practice is a courtesy but can be a problem if it’s done out of routine. The acknowledgement is fine as long as it’s not the only action you take to include Indigenous people.

What is Indigenous knowledge? We tend to think that it’s knowledge and experience that come from Indigenous nationhood and Indigenous communities, but Abel warns against considering Indigenous knowledge as monolithic. For example, “Urban Indigenous knowledge is different,” said Abel. “It is fundamentally impacted by a history of colonization.” And different types of knowledge have different modes of ownership and circulation.

Metten asked Abel what constitutes ownership. Are only certain people allowed to tell certain stories? Many older books about Indigenous people were written by settlers, often disseminated without consent. Abel says that the stories told by anthropologists like Franz Boas and James Teit may no longer be salvageable—they’ve been distorted through both a colonial lens and an academic lens. Over the past several decades, we’ve come to realize that Indigenous people can speak for themselves. Books like Robert Bringhurst’s A Story as Sharp as a Knife, his translations of traditional Haida stories, might not be publishable today.

Metten has worked with such Indigenous writers as Bev Sellars, Drew Hayden Taylor, and Tomson Highway. She confessed to being nervous on her first project. “As a non-Aboriginal person approaching Bev, I just didn’t know what to do.” She sought advice—humility always being a good first step. She was told to “meet in person, be prepared to spend time, bring food.” Ultimately, you want to establish a respectful, open dialogue. Metten said that one of her biggest mistakes was to ask a question of an Indigenous writer before doing the research needed to understand the context. When editing for non-Indigenous readers, Metten must always consider what is said and what is not said: “What is assumed knowledge for someone who is an Aboriginal but not known to the non-Aboriginal reader?”

Publishers working with Indigenous authors might consider moving more toward using Indigenous editors as well. Abel mentioned the Aboriginal Editors Circle, supported by the Saskatchewan Arts Board, as a good way to find Indigenous editors. The program also offers training for Canadian publishers and editors working with Indigenous writers.

I asked Abel if he felt he owned his own work or if his creating it meant it automatically also represented the Nisga’a nation. He said that one of his books, Un/Inhabited, actually used non-Indigenous text—fragments of Western novels—and appropriated them from an Aboriginal perspective. “But, as a Nisga’a author, is everything I write a Nisga’a creative product? I don’t know exactly.” Indigenous writing doesn’t have to align with Indigenous author’s national identity.

I wish the session could have been longer to explore some of these issues in more depth. My main takeaways were to (a) always do your research and (b) understand that different nations—and individuals within each nation—may have different approaches. Humility and respect are key.


Related post: Writing about First Nations

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *