Panel: Indigenous writers and editors (Editors Canada 2017)

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:

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.”


Related posts:

Should publishers invest in software for in-house indexers? A case study

I learned to index on the job—and by reading books like Nancy Mulvany’s Indexing Books—when I worked as an in-house editor. I created several indexes using only Microsoft Word, which is perfectly adequate for projects like cookbooks but can be painful to use for more complex projects that require thoughtful and accurate cross-references between topics and a consistent way to combine and split headings during editing.

The year I started indexing, I spent my professional-development allotment on an indexing course, where the instructor showed us how she worked with her indexing software, and I lobbied my supervisor to get a license for our office. Fortunately, I didn’t have to argue hard—she recognized that the software would pay for itself over a handful of projects. I know of other publishing houses that have chosen to stick with a Word workflow and haven’t bought the software. On one hand, I understand—the price tag of ~US$550 may not seem worth it if they’re only preparing a few indexes in house each year. On the other hand, they’re paying for editing time that wouldn’t otherwise be necessary.

Software won’t help you pick out topics to index—that part still requires a human brain (for now)—but it will reduce the cognitive load of indexing by automating alphabetization, certain aspects of formatting and punctuation, and the order of the locators. Most indexing programs also have time-saving features like autocomplete and error checking for blind cross-references and orphaned subheadings. The final index obviously still needs to be edited, but if it’s prepared using software, the editor can focus on content and organization rather than on nitpicky (but essential) details like alphabetization.

Recently I had to edit an index that a publisher created in house—without indexing software. I thought I’d use it as a case study to quantify how much time using software would save. I won’t comment on other issues of quality like term selection or accuracy and comprehensiveness of the locators but will focus on problems that software would have obviated.

The index was just under 5,000 words and was for a 300-page historical atlas.

I spent 6 hours and 57 minutes editing and proofreading. This was probably a little longer than I would devote to most projects, but this book had a peculiar design workflow.

Of that time, I spent 50 minutes checking alphabetization and found several inconsistencies in how characters like ampersands were treated. I mention these inconsistencies not as a criticism of the indexer but as a justification for why this check was necessary.

The subheadings of a particular heading were not properly alphabetized at all, and when I looked into it, I discovered that the line breaks between subheadings were manual ones, so Microsoft Word’s sort feature didn’t consider them separate paragraphs. This problem wouldn’t arise with indexing software.

I devoted 26 minutes to checking the locator order. In general, this aspect of the index was well done: I found only one error. But again, I wouldn’t have had to do as close a read for an index compiled with software.

I spent 10 minutes checking formatting of cross-references and confirming that the pointers matched the targets (and I found a couple of errors there). I also noticed that the commas in the document weren’t consistently formatted after italicized or bolded text, another problem that wouldn’t usually arise with an index creating using software.

I spent 30 minutes double-checking alphabetization and locator order during the proofreading stage and found a few changes I’d missed making.

So, 117 of 417 minutes (a conservative estimate—because the workflow was unusual, I haven’t included the time it took me to implement the changes in the files) were spent on checking issues or fixing problems that software would have taken care of. If my editing fee had been hourly, the publisher would essentially be paying a 28% premium for my work. At that rate, the software would pay for itself in 6–8 indexes. I haven’t even considered the time that indexing software would have saved the indexer—at least as much as it would have saved me—in which case the software would have been paid off after 3 or 4 indexes. (And I’m still using the same version of the software I bought 6 years ago.)

This is just one data point, but I hope it shows the value of indexing software, even for small presses, if they do any indexing in house. In the indexing course I teach, students have a week to explore demo versions of three industry-standard programs and use them to build a simple index, so the learning curve is not that steep. In addition to saving editing time and cost, it also eliminates the frustration while editing of knowing that the process could have been a lot simpler.

Nicki Benson—Reclaiming Indigenous languages (Editors BC meeting)

Nicki Benson is founder of Esperanza Education and education initiatives manager at Kwi Awt Stelmexw, an organization to advance the language and culture of the Squamish people. She spoke at an Editors BC meeting about Indigenous language reclamation.

As the daughter of Jewish immigrants, Benson is not Indigenous herself, but earlier in her language education career she worked in Peru to research bilingual education for Indigenous children there, and she’s applied the best practices from that experience to her work with Kwi Awt Stelmexw.

First, some numbers

Before colonization, there were an estimated 450 languages spoken in what is now Canada. Today, there are 60. Only three—Cree, Ojibwe, and Inuktitut—are predicted to survive without some kind of deliberate intervention.

In BC alone, there are 34 Indigenous languages, reflecting a cultural diversity made possible by the province’s challenging geography and abundant natural resources, which meant populations didn’t have to travel far to find what they needed. These Indigenous languages are in seven language families, with Haida, spoken in Haida Gwaii, and Ktunaxa, spoken in the Kootenays, being language isolates. The Indigenous languages are not necessarily the first languages of people in these communities anymore; many people lost the use of their language because of forced assimilation policies.

Within Vancouver, traditionally the shared territory of the Musqueam, Tsleil-Waututh, and Squamish people, two languages—Sḵwx̱wú7mesh and hən̓q̓əmin̓əm̓ (one of the three dialects of Halkomelem)—have been spoken for thousands of years. However, today each of those languages has only seven first-language fluent speakers each.

Why reclaim a language?

Benson is careful not to use morbid language like “endangered” and “dying” to describe languages like Sḵwx̱wú7mesh and hən̓q̓əmin̓əm̓. Even “revitalization” implies that something has died and that you’re bringing it back to life. Instead, she talks about “reclamation”: the language is there to be taken back.

Language is an important vehicle for culture and identity, and reclaiming a language can contribute to community health and healing. These languages were not lost as part of a natural process: Indigenous people were killed or displaced, they died from diseases introduced by colonizers, or they were subjected to attempts at assimilation like residential schools or the Sixties Scoop. Culture and language influence health outcomes: communities with higher numbers of Indigenous language speakers have lower rates of substance use and teen suicide.

Other reasons for reclaiming languages are that they carry important historic and scientific information and that, according to the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP), maintaining one’s traditional language is a human right. There are calls to protect Indigenous languages just as French is protected in Quebec, Acadia, and other French-speaking parts of the country.

How does language reclamation differ from other kinds of language education?

Indigenous languages have historically been marginalized, and that marginalization continues: whereas it’s easy for people to understand why someone would study Mandarin or Spanish, say, for travel or trade, learning Indigenous languages to promote the survival of the language and culture seems to have fewer practical advantages, so Indigenous language reclamation can face a shortage of funding and learning materials.

Also contributing to the lack of learning materials is the fact that most of the languages were oral, with no tradition of writing. Many Indigenous groups are sensitive about committing their language onto paper: historically, when Indigenous people were asked to sign paper, they were unknowingly giving up their rights and lands. Further, many cultural traditions are meant only for ceremony and are never meant to be recorded or transmitted in writing.

Today, different Indigenous languages use different orthographies: many were adopted after non-Indigenous linguists and anthropologists worked with the communities to develop them, and so they carry residues of colonization, but most communities acknowledge that their language has a better chance of being perpetuated if it is written down. Some languages, like Dene, use a syllabary, whereas others use some form of adapted alphabet, whether based on the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA) or an alphabet that makes it easier to type the language on mainstream keyboards. hən̓q̓əmin̓əm̓, for example, uses a system close to IPA and so is transparent about its pronunciation, but Hul’q’umi’num’, the Vancouver Island dialect, opted for an orthography that would be more practical to type.

Another challenge for reclamation is that there are few teachers, and many of them are elderly. They’re limited in how much time and energy they can devote to educating new speakers.

How does language reclamation work?

Linguist Joshua Fishman travelled the world studying reclamation and, based on what he observed, developed the Graded Intergenerational Disruption Scale (GIDS) to describe the various stages at which a language can be. Other linguists expanded the scale, with level 0 being “International,” where the language is used in several countries for many different functions to 10 being “Extinct.” When reclaiming a language, you want to meet languages where they are, then support them in reaching the next level up. It is too ambitious for a language at level 7 (“Shifting”) where the child-bearing generation knows the language but are not transmitting it to their children, to move directly to level 4 (“Educational”), say, where the language is taught through public school and literacy is considered sustainable. Instead, we want to help it reach level 6, where the language is used by all generations but not necessarily outside the family.

At this point, when the language is being spoken in the family but not at school or in the media, it is considered orally sustainable. The opposite is not true: language taught in school but not used in the home is not considered sustainable.

What works in British Columbia?

The First Peoples’ Cultural Council has supported a number of language reclamation initiatives:

  • Language nests began in New Zealand to help Indigenous groups reclaim Māori and have been incredibly successful there. Some communities in BC have adopted the model, in which parents bring their children to immersion preschools, where elders speak the language to both parents and children and only that language is used.
  • Master–apprentice programs pair a teacher with a single learner or a small group where participants must learn for a certain number of hours but can do so on a flexible schedule. These programs make the most of the masters’ limited time and availability.
  • FirstVoices released a series of keyboards for Indigenous orthography that can be used on desktop and mobile.

Across the province, Indigenous communities have established school programs, which vary across the province. In some districts, Indigenous languages are offered to all students, including non-Indigenous children. Squamish students can opt out of learning French and learn Sḵwx̱wú7mesh instead. The most successful programs are immersion programs, such as the one at Chief Atahm School in Chase.

Kwi Awt Stelmexw, the organization Benson works for, was founded by Khelsilem, and it:

  • runs workshops to help Squamish people reconnect with their culture,
  • works with people in the community to develop a strategic plan to develop their language resources,
  • a “Languages in the Homes” project, which recognizes barriers people face in attending language classes and brings the language education to them,
  • a Squamish place names map, and
  • a full-time adult immersion program hosted by SFU.

Benson elaborated on the place name recognition work at Oh the Places You Should Know, showing, for example, how the name Ch’ich’iyuy (“twins”)—the Sḵwx̱wú7mesh name for what settlers call the Lions—carries with it the story of how a coming-of-age celebration for the chief’s beloved daughters helped broker peace with tribes to the north. “Place names can be really significant,” said Benson. They can give insight into cultures and offer different perspectives on the importance of place.

Audience questions

I asked Benson about the parallels and differences between Hebrew revitalization efforts at the end of the nineteenth century and Indigenous language reclamation. She said Hebrew’s revival is considered a great success story, made possible by the tireless efforts of activists. Indigenous language reclamation is using some of the same strategies—including language documentation and dedicated spaces for immersion—but key differences make it more challenging. For Hebrew (and for Māori in New Zealand), there is only one language that people focus on, and the fact that Israel is an independent political state made it easier for government to enact policies ensuring the language would get used. In contrast, with 34 Indigenous languages in BC, different communities must compete for many of the same resources, and their reclamation efforts don’t have as much political support.

Another audience member asked whether settlers are welcome in Indigenous language classes. Benson said that opinions differ and that the best thing to do would be to consult the community. Some communities welcome everyone, because they recognize that getting as many people as possible to speak the language increases the odds of its preservation. Other communities accept settler learners as long as they are not taking away the opportunity from an Indigenous person.


Related post: Greg Younging—Indigenous editorial issues

Not just words: Comic books, health, and Indigenous youth

Sean Muir is the executive director of the Healthy Aboriginal Network (HAN), which creates comic books and videos on health and social issues for Indigenous youth. Muir gave a public talk about his work with HAN at Douglas College.

Muir founded HAN after recognizing that brochures and pamphlets weren’t really reaching youth or connecting with the community, and he got tired of reading about parents who couldn’t buy healthy foods for their kids on reserve. He wanted to recreate the connection that kids have to their favourite books and movies: a relatable, enjoyable story. He aimed to give young people health and social information as narratives rather than as facts and figures. “Tell me a story. Tug at my heartstrings. Move me in some way, and maybe we can do something,” said Muir. Continue reading “Not just words: Comic books, health, and Indigenous youth”

Trena White—Trends in book publishing (Editors BC meeting)

Trena White, co-founder of Page Two, a full-service publishing agency specializing in nonfiction books, gave us a tour of some of the trends in trade book publishing at the March Editors BC meeting.

Subject trends, like adult colouring books, which peaked in mid-2016 or so and have since declined, or the imported Danish trend of hygge, which was particularly popular in late 2016, can be interesting but usually pass within a year or two. White wanted to focus her talk on the broader changes in the publishing landscape.

“Traditional publishing is great,” said White, in that the industry is committed to best practices in editing and design. But when White and co-founder Jesse Finkelstein launched Page Two in 2013, it was out of a recognition that traditional publishing, which tends to be technophobic and slow to react to change, doesn’t serve everyone or every book. There are legitimate reasons people might want to self-publish, and Page Two wanted to help authors and organizations publish professionally by fully embracing all things digital and being interested in changes in publishing.

White highlighted a few key trends: Continue reading “Trena White—Trends in book publishing (Editors BC meeting)”