Cherie Dimaline, from the Georgian Bay Métis community, is the author of Red Rooms, The Girl Who Grew a Galaxy, A Gentle Habit, and The Marrow Thieves and was the first Writer-in-Residence of Aboriginal Literature for the Toronto Public Library. As a coordinator of the annual Indigenous Writers’ Gathering and founder of the upcoming RIEL Centre, a national Indigenous literary organization, she was the perfect person to moderate a panel on Indigenous writing and working with Indigenous authors at the Editors Canada 2017 conference in Ottawa.
On the panel were:
- Waubgeshig Rice, journalist and author of Legacy and Midnight Sweatlodge, originally from Wasauksing First Nation;
- Evie Mark, Inuit storyteller, filmmaker, educator, and throat singer; and
- David Groulx, who has published ten books of poetry and celebrates his Anishinaabe and French Canadian roots.
Dimaline began by asking the panel about their experiences working with Indigenous and non-Indigenous publishers, editors, and other collaborators. “How do we choose who we’re going to work with?”
Rice said that when he was starting out, he didn’t know how to jump into publishing. The Canada Council was supporting his work, and he asked them for suggestions; they pointed him to Theytus Books, which expressed interest in his writing immediately and assigned him a Cree editor, Jordan Wheeler, who is also a published author. “He opened my eyes to the literary world and helped ease me into it,” said Rice. “He had a good understanding of my background, where I came from, and what I was trying to do. It was important to have that first experience with publishing.”
“Theytus,” in Salish, means “preserving for the sake of handing down,” which is key for many writers who see their storytelling as cultural preservation. And, said Dimaline, “Handing your work over to someone who feels like family is more comfortable.”
Groulx faced challenges with mainstream publishers early on, because his manuscript for The Long Dance was polemical: “Publishers kept saying, ‘We loved it, but we’re not going to publish it.’” He found a home for it at Kegedonce Press. “[Publisher] Kateri [Akiwenzie-Damm] was not afraid to publish it.” With Indigenous publishers, Groulx found that he didn’t need to explain certain allusions to cultural ideas (like tricksters) in his work. For books that didn’t focus so much on the culture, Groulx sent those manuscripts to mainstream publishers like Bookland Press, which published The Windigo Chronicles and has sold translation rights to the book. It will be translated to French by Éric Charlebois.
Mark recently finished editing a book that grew from her travels to 14 Inuit communities to study their history, law, and literature. The book is all in Inuktitut, so working with Inuit collaborators was the only option. “There is a need for literature in the North,” said Mark. “We still have our first language, but we were an oral people. Writing was new to us.” Edmond James Peck, and missionary from England, developed an Inuktitut writing system from Cree syllabary so that Inuit would be able to read the Bible.
“What do you wish non-Indigenous people knew?” Dimaline asked the panellists.
Groulx said that non-Indigenous editors sometimes raise concerns about rez-speak or rez-talk, dismissing it as slang. “But it’s an authentic way of speaking for some First Nations and Métis people,” said Groulx. And if the intended audience was mostly other Indigenous people, there would be no misunderstanding. Groulx would like to see more workshops where non-Indigenous people could learn about Indigenous cultural references and language.
Rice agreed, saying the Canadian education system hasn’t been teaching the history of the relationship between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people in Canada. We need a mainstream understanding of the diversity among Indigenous people—that there are many different cultures, beliefs, and ceremonies. “I see that lack of awareness in my day job as a journalist,” said Rice. People don’t understand the treaty process or Indigenous peoples’ relationship to the land, for example. Rice would like to see “a willingness to acknowledge what you don’t know and a willingness to be vulnerable, to acknowledge what has happened and what they’re going to do to make things better… With a mutual understanding, we can work together to create something good.”
Dimaline brought up the Appropriation Prize controversy, which began when the Writers’ Union of Canada’s magazine, Write, which dedicated an issue to Indigenous voices, featured an editorial by Hal Niedzviecki calling for an award for writers who can best write about another culture. Outrage in response to that editorial led to Niedzviecki’s resignation but also prompted several high-profile members of the mainstream Canadian media (including some residential school apologists) to defend cultural appropriation as free speech.
According to Rice, the initial ill-conceived editorial all boiled down to an editorial failure that basic journalism could have prevented. “There were no safeguards or checks in place, no second set of eyes.” Rice said that although he has a pretty good relationship with the Writers’ Union (he joined after Midnight Sweatlodge) came out, it does have a well-documented lack of diversity, and when the editorial came out, Indigenous writers, included those who contributed to the issue, were blindsided. The incident highlights a continuing structural failure and power imbalance that “all media and literary organizations need to address,” said Rice. “Are there diverse or Indigenous people at the final gatekeeping level?”
It’s ironic, said Rice, that this level of exposure is something Write had been longing for. The silver lining to the fiasco is that everything is now in plain view, and we can directly confront issues of racism in media and the damage done by cultural appropriation. “We’ve been neglecting these voices for so long, we ended up making everything worse.”
Groulx noted that ignoring Indigenous voices also perpetuated appropriation by people like Joseph Boyden. He recalled being at a reading for The Orenda. “People loved it. Some Aboriginal people were rumbling, but those voices were ignored. People knew their culture—they knew they were being misrepresented.” He added that this issue seems to pop up every twenty or thirty years: in the 1980s, W.P. Kinsella faced similar questions about appropriation.
Said Dimaline, “Knowledge keepers are alive and well and organized and ready to share. All you would have had to have done is go to the community, offer tobacco, and ask them to tell their stories. It’s so easy to get it right that it’s a decision to get it wrong.”
She then asked the panellists about writing in their own language. “Should we have subtitles? Should we write in English and have our language on the side?”
Mark said that a lot of the writing in Inuit communities is still in Inuktitut first, then translated. “I’m very happy that we’re still on that path. When we start losing our language, we start losing our culture.” Mark tries when she works with people outside her community to educate them about Inuktitut: “I am not an Inuit. I am an Inuk. Inuit is for three or more people.” Some words in Inuktitut “encapsulate feelings that do not exist in English or French,” so she teaches those words and uses glossaries to explain them.
Rice said, “When you write about your dialect and your language, that’s what makes your story authentic.” Sometimes non-Indigenous editors will suggest scrubbing that out to make the text more palatable to non-Indigenous people. “I try to put as much Ojibwe language in my books as possible. It’s a personal victory to be able to have those words in my book.”
Groulx emphasized the need to be cautious and respectful when writing about one’s own culture, especially creation stories. “You have to be light-footed. Respect is not a good enough word. Some things are sacred, off limits.”
How do we get it right? Dimaline asked. She suggests that it begins with finding out about the community and especially understanding their relationship with the land. Mark agreed that people should take the time to develop a real relationship with the community. “We have to get to know each other. Quebec is my neighbour; I’m in the north of Quebec. We don’t know each other still. Only in the 1960s did Quebec bother to learn about us.”
“Learn our values and how to show your respect to Inuit,” she continued. “Don’t bring your fear. When someone extends hands, shake hands. Take off your shoes.”
Even within and among Indigenous groups, how to “get it right” isn’t always clear. Groulx described being on the jury for an arts council, and in some submissions people would claim they had special or secret Indigenous knowledge. “There’s no such thing,” he said. “If people use words like ‘secret’ or ‘special,’ check out the authenticity of the voice.”
“Maybe Aboriginal people can come up with a protocol for what to write about amongst ourselves,” Groulx added. “Should I write about this? Who do you ask? Authority can be fluid in Aboriginal communities.”
“Listen to elders,” said Mark. “Get to know each other better—and be mocked.”
“I like the point about being mocked,” said Rice. “If you’re with an elder and they start teasing you, that means you’re in.”
As for what non-Indigenous people can do to elevate Indigenous voices, “Seek out and support as much as Indigenous art as you can,” said Rice. “If you don’t start including those voices, you run the risk of losing relevance.”
“Support the art,” he repeated. “That’s what’s maintained us for so long in the face of adversity.”