BWS 13.01.21 report: “Supporting Indigenous Authors: from the archives to the Indigenous Voices Awards” with Deanna Reder

Cree-Métis scholar Deanna Reder is Chair of the Department of Indigenous Studies and Associate Professor in the Department of English at Simon Fraser University. In 2018 she was inducted into the College of New Scholars in the Royal Society of Canada and is the co-Chair of the Indigenous Voices Awards.

Supporting Indigenous Authors: from the Archives to the Indigenous Voices Awards

My name is Deanna Reder and while my family is from all over the Canadian Prairies, and my Cree-speaking Cree, or Nehiyow, and Métis, or apistowkustan, relatives, are from Northern Saskatchewan, I have had the great privilege to live and raise my children in Vancouver’s lower mainland over three decades. I write as an uninvited guest on the traditional, unceded lands of the xʷməθkʷəy̓əm (Musqueam), Səl̓ílwətaʔ/Selilwitulh (Tsleil-Waututh), and Skwxwú7mesh Úxwumixw (Squamish) Peoples and I teach in the Departments of Indigenous Studies and English at Simon Fraser University. My research focuses on the large, neglected archive by Indigenous writers who historically have had difficulty accessing publishing {1}.

When Dorianne Emmerton first reached out to invite me to the Brockton Series, she suggested that I could advise on how writers could best avoid anti-Indigenous stereotypes and instead write sensitively and respectfully about Indigenous peoples.

I feared that the first imperative I know about writing might be considered by you, by Creative Writers, to be cliché—the adage to write what you know. But I know enough from my experience teaching a spectrum of students—from the first-year university classroom to Masters and Doctoral programs—that this itself is a problem. Should you have graduated from the conventional Canadian school system, especially if you did so more than five years ago, then you typically know very little about Canadian history from the perspectives of Indigenous peoples. And in my assessment, I mean no disrespect. I am commenting on curriculum constructed around the logic of colonization that justified settlement: the belief in terra nullius or empty land, that Canada was empty and free for the taking, that Indigenous people had died out or were simply out of the picture, and that this was land upon which a new country could be built.

Now the “you” I address does not include those who have benefitted from amazing, transformative Social Studies teachers in high school, or graduates of Indigenous Studies departments at universities; and this doesn’t address those of “you” who are Indigenous writer yourselves. But even in 2021 the majority of students I teach have been only taught the settler history of the community they were raised in or the stories of the “pioneers” of their province, and little about the histories of members of the original nations. So forgive me if my words don’t apply to your situation, but instead consider whether most Canadians know the history from Indigenous perspectives.

I have had graduate students who are public school teachers themselves—solid citizens, elegant writers, hardworking researchers—who were never taught how Canada displaced Indigenous peoples. That is why, after all, the 2007-2015 Canadian Truth and Reconciliation Commission issued ninety-four calls to action {2}, many that repeatedly insist on curriculum development so that Canadians—especially teachers, lawyers, social workers, healthcare professionals—will be taught at minimum the history of residential schools, used to separate First Nations children from their communities and cultures as a way to undermine First Nations autonomy and vitality and encourage assimilation.

So this lack of knowledge creates a conundrum. Now it is always possible that a writer might wish to create a universe that is significantly different from the one we inhabit—like the world without adults in the Peanuts comic strip or in the Teen Titans Go cartoons. But if writers sketch out Canadian landscapes or cityscapes and exclude signs or references to Indigenous peoples then they enact a literary form of terra nullius.

And yet Canadian writers are cautioned by the words, recorded by Stó:lō writer Lee Maracle, at the famous debates in 1988 in Montreal, at the Third International Book Fair {3}; Secwepemc editor Viola Thomas implores: “Don’t buy books about us, buy books by us.” So I am not suggesting that you tell Indigenous stories. As Menominee writer Chrystos states: “We have a Voice.” This isn’t about writing our stories. Indigenous creators have told and recorded stories in various mediums since forever. And in my work looking at the archive, I see however that long before there has been a viable publishing industry in Canada, there have been Indigenous peoples who wrote and attempted to get manuscripts published, without success in their lifetime: Kainai war veteran Mike Mountain Horse; Cree cleric Edward Ahenakew; Métis activist James Brady; Cree activist Joseph Dion; Secwepemc/Ktunaxa dramatherapist Vera Manuel. Etc.

But this is about your writing, how you might describe your world. In his recent book Seen But Not Seen eminent historian Donald B. Smith examines several famous historical figures as a way to ask why it was that they, like Canadians generally, didn’t recognize Indigenous societies and cultures as worthy of respect. Smith begins the book by remembering his childhood and how little he was taught about Indigenous people in general. He begins, as I urge all my students to do, with something that is foundational to Indigenous inquiry: the acknowledgement of the writer’s—of your own—particular position, even as it is dynamic and changing and complex. It is self-reflection based on respect for your perspective, your genealogy and then expanding that respect to the territories where you live, to uncover the stories encoded upon the land, the shifting names of the territories where you live, maybe even the treaty histories and the names and histories of people who lived there before and now. All of this is even before you write, so it is a long process but this approach based on respect will guide you. Embrace the humility that results.

Beware also of the overwhelming influence of American culture internationally, that has circulated the American national myth about “cowboys and Indians” that reverberates in a lot of what is identified as Indigenous in North America. So often what we expect an Indigenous person to look, dress, speak, act and live like is influenced by this Hollywood history. Navigating stereotype is emotionally charged. I recommend the NFB film Reel Injun as a way to review common tropes. Plus, it is funny. Recognizing stereotype as a way to avoid replicating it, is an important step.

But what can be surprising is that stereotype reverberates throughout a complex set of systems, and stereotype influences Indigenous aesthetics too. Often Indigenous creators will use images from popular culture to undermine or maybe even just amuse. I teach my students how to marvel at the ways that these creators can adopt and adapt these images for their own purposes. But for non-Indigenous creators, this is not as easy to do. So tread carefully.

There might be some who will urge you to stumble in without this level of respect or care. Should someone offer an Appropriation prize, back away carefully. But without taking up too much air space on the history of how the 2017 scandal unfolded, I want to share with you how with the support of a lot of allies, many pushed back, and believed and insisted that Indigenous writers still need support and space and opportunity to write.

In 2017, I was just about to become the President of the Indigenous Literary Studies Association (ILSA) {4} and through a complex set of events I and other members of the ILSA executive became the stewards for over $110,000.00 that helped us fund the Indigenous Voices Awards {5}. I am very proud to say that we are now coming up to our fourth year. In 2018 our very first poetry prize winner in English was Billy-Ray Belcourt who went on to win the Griffin award; our very first poet to win the unpublished category in English was Smokii Sumac, who the following year, had his first book published that took the 2019 prize. Recently American poet and editor Tracy K. Smith chose a poem by Francine Merasty for inclusion in her collection, The Best American Poetry 2021. And the IVAs (pronounced the eye-vahz) is the only literary awards IN THE WORLD that gives prizes to emerging Indigenous writers in FRENCH.

I urge all of you to go to www.indigenousvoicesawards.org to learn more, maybe to donate, and then on the 21st of June to watch our website and join us for our online gala. In 2018 we held our gala in Regina to celebrate our first group of authors; in 2019 we held our gala in Vancouver. All along the way writer, and patron Pamela Dillon and Penguin Random House supported us to put on mentoring events for the shortlisted writers. And then with 2020 and COVID we despaired because we wouldn’t be able to physically gather and instead had to go online. However, it is through our recorded gala, still available for view on-line {6}, that we caught the attention of the Giller Foundation, and discovered a national audience.

I’m not really sure how Creative Writers ought to write about Indigenous people, although I am convinced that the process begins by listening. I invite all of you to look for our podcast on National Indigenous Peoples Day on June 21st; and listen to these emerging Indigenous voices.

Endnotes

{1} See www.thepeopleandthetext.ca

{2} See http://trc.ca/assets/pdf/Calls_to_Action_English2.pdf

{3} See “Native Myths: Trickster Alive and Crowing” by Lee Maracle in Language in her eye: views on writing and gender by Canadian women writing in English. Edited by Libby Scheier, Sarah Sheard, and Eleanor Wachtel, eds. ECW Press, 1990. P. 185.

{4} See www.indigenousliterarystudies.org

{5} See www.indigenousvoicesawards.org

{6} See https://indigenousvoicesawards.org/2020-ivas

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