It may be argued that the field of literature, as an art, is marginalized in Canada in terms of disciplinary focus and financial support in comparison to say economics, politics, or science. The same may be said for literature as a cultural process, artifact, and product—the funding of literature and priority in funding literature is also marginalized. In exchanges with Indigenous writers and academics I’ve learned that the creators of Indigenous literature have had to and continue to negotiate different kinds of marginalizations within the wide field of Canadian literature.
My own experiences as a writer, editor, and interviewer have been varied and it’s my recent rich experience editing a dossier of Indigenous writing for a Canadian literary arts magazine that inspires me to reflect on the dynamics of the invitation. Indigenous literatures in Canadian literature are the marginal within the marginal, which creates an interesting dynamic when Canadian literary spaces open up to Indigenous writers. My question then, is, how do the players within this dynamic negotiate power.
To begin, a fact that cannot be forgotten, denied, or overlooked: Indigenous peoples and Nations in Turtle Island (Canada and U.S.) have been enduring, resisting, and negotiating colonization for the past four hundred plus years and simultaneously working in diverse ways to keep our knowledge and practices, which are thousands of years old, alive. We’ve also been, like all other cultures when not in crisis, trying to innovate, generate, and transform the methods we engage to promote our lives. One of the methods Indigenous peoples have always been employing to affirm and generate life has been through literature—oral and written.
Within this context, including Indigenous literatures in Canadian literary spaces prompts a consideration of the politics from which several questions emerge: i) the level of awareness of the marginalization of Indigenous literatures within Canada; ii) that this marginalization can never be separated from the broader history and contemporary reality of colonialism/neo-colonialism that has sought to destroy Indigenous life and/or assimilate it into a relatively young and developing Canadian nationality as a special group within a multicultural nation; and iii) that Indigenous literatures have been and continue to be many things for Indigenous peoples and Nations, but have recently become a method to document, name, and transform colonial reality, as well as a persistant means to re-generate Indigenous reality and Indigenous life.
In this sense, publishing Indigenous literature is never just about generating or influencing culture, extending the field or discipline, or about getting more space or publications—it’s about survival and the persistance of Indigenous life within a culture of domination that has a relatively short history in Indigenous lands.
In my opinion, this context means particular things when invitations are extended to Indigenous writers. Awareness, or lack thereof, of these varying points will determine how Indigenous truths, as expressed through literature, are engaged at all points of the creative process: editing, publishing, dissemination, and reading. How they are engaged will shape how they continue to live in the reader, or not live in the reader; how they live or don’t live beyond the reader.
Motivations in extending invitations must be considered given historical and contemporary practices that exploit or tokenize Indigeneity. However, the present historical moment in Canada, which has been significantly influenced by the Idle No More movement and its proliferations (e.g. Sovereignty Summer, Indigenous Nationhood Movement), requires consideration of the real possibility that invitations may be made as genuine acts of decolonization, for the real intention of transforming lives, Indigenous-non-Indigenous relationships, and the future. As an example, a question emerges for me in light of the recent consistent acknowledgement of Indigenous literature within Canadian literary spaces: What does it mean that Canadian institutions have largely acknowledged Katherena Vermette’s North End Love Songs
(poems), Thomas King’s The Inconvenient Indian: A Curious Account of Native People in North America
(creative non-fiction), Joseph Boyden’s The Orenda
(fiction), and Leeanne Simpson’s Islands of Decolonial Love
(short stories) in the span of a few months? Does this mean that Canadian literature is decolonizing and wants to contribute to a broader dialogue of Indigenous realities or Indigenous-non-Indigenous relationships through literature? Or, does it mean Indigenous literature is trending? Perhaps it means something else altogether different?
If the perpetuation of colonial dynamics between Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples is going to be disrupted, and if decolonization is going to be seriously engaged with, and if, as I believe, this can be done in part through literature, the politics of the invitation requires the question: Why are you extending this invitation? The asking of the question in turn requires being prepared to learn that an invitation may fall within the realm of exploitation or tokenization. It also requires being prepared to learn that maybe the invitation is aligned with an agenda of decolonization and the promotion of Indigenous life within a dominant culture. Conversely, it requires the invitee to be conscientious about their invitation: Why are we/am I extending this invitation? The point of the invitation requires a discussion, or, at least, an imagining of such a conversation between invitee and invited. Once here, we can begin to imagine how such a conversation might unfold, or just as exciting, where it may lead.
Next, the matter of mediating Indigenous truths in Canadian literary spaces needs attention. Are Indigenous truths accepted, declined, or revised? And then, why the decline? Why the revisions? While we rarely want to know why a submission was accepted, it would be fruitful to know more about this too, as it tells us something about the terrain of truths that the dominant group is willing to publish. This process of querying and negotiating power is not unique to Indigenous literatures; the context, meaning, and outcomes, however, are unique for Indigenous literatures and are connected to Indigenous peoples’ survival and thriving in our homelands. For instance, if the only Indigenous literature that is published is in English, what repercussions does this have for Indigenous languages? For Indigenous worldviews? How does this impinge upon the consciousness of a non-Indigenous audience?
I see Indigenous literatures as living repositories for truths and truth-telling. In this light, our literatures are a powerful tool capable of transforming (neo) colonial realities by generating decolonizing processes that concomitantly neutralize destructive forces in Indigenous life and promote the flourishing of our lives. It’s never just about getting published or getting more space or more funding. For me, it’s about life—keeping it going and growing in ways that are coherent with Indigenous meanings of the good life and the methods of making this happen.
Finally, I wonder what the parameters are in the editing process of Indigenous literatures. Specifically, how much responsibility does an editor have in pushing or challenging the parameters of the literary project in making space for Indigenous truths, truths that may create discomfort in readers and/or funders? If an editor in a Canadian literary space has invited Indigenous writers to contribute to that space, is it necessary to accept all the truths presented? If not, how is this mediated? If funders or publishers establish the boundaries of truth-telling and if those boundaries impinge on the range of truths being told, is there a duty for editors to speak back to this, if for no other reason than to begin to name and to document the need to expand the boundary.
In summary, in thinking about what it means to invite Indigenous literatures into Canadian literary spaces, I’ve been inspired to articulate what I consider to be “the politics of the invitation.” These politics address the marginal status of Indigenous literatures in Canada as it is linked to the marginal status of Indigenous peoples and Indigenous Nations as a result of colonization. These politics also include naming and owning the motivations for the invitation; understanding how Indigenous truths are accepted or mediated; and thinking about whether or not invitees are responsible for advocating for more space dedicated to Indigenous truths, or if there are occasions when Indigenous writers should be extensively edited or not included at all. Given that producing Indigenous literatures may be more than an act of cultural production for many, if not all Indigenous writers – it is also a matter of survival, resistance, and continued life in Indigenous homelands—engaging with the politics of the invitation may be an important step in diverting the re-creation of colonial dynamics of exploitation or tokenism. More generatively, it will contribute to the growth of a decolonizing consciousness and exchange in Indigenous-non-Indigenous relations.
Two outcomes of negotiating these marginalizations have been the creation of Indigenous publishing houses (e.g. Theytus Books, Kegedonce Press) and the move towards articulating an
Indigenous national literature that is separate from the body of literature produced by colonizing settler cultures (Lee Maracle, “Towards a National Literature: A Body of Writing” in Across Cultures/Across Borders: Canadian Aboriginal and Native American Literatures
, Paul DePasquale, Renate Eigenbrod, and Emma LaRoque, eds., Peterborough: Broadview Press, 2010: 77- 96) and/or elucidating many
Indigenous national literatures, for example Cree, Inuit, Anishinaabe (Craig S. Womack, Red on Red: Native American Literary Separatism
, Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1999; Keavy Martin, Stories in a New Skin: Approaches to Inuit Literature
, Winnipeg: U of Manitoba P, 2012; Jill Doerfler, Niigaanwewidam James Sinclair, Heidi Kiiwetinepinesiik Stark, Centering Anishnaabe Studies: Understanding the World through Stories
, East Lansing: Michigan State UP, 2013).
Daniel Heath Justice, “A Relevant Resonance: Considering the Study of Indigenous National Literatures” in Across Cultures/Across Borders,
Waaseyaa’sin Christine Sy
is Ojibway Anishinaabe of mixed ancestry from the Treaty 3 area in Northwestern Ontario and Bawating (Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario) and presently resides in Williams Treaty (1923) area in Southern Ontario with her daughter. She affirms and promotes Anishinaabe life through multiple literary forms (i.e. poetry, short prose, short story, spoken word, storytelling) and photography. She is the winner of Briarpatch’s 2nd Annual Short Story Creative writing (fiction) contest (2013) and is the co-editor of Matrix Magazine’s first dossier of new Indigenous writing (autumn 2013). Christine is writing her first poetry manuscript, which illuminates biskaabiyaang, an Anishinaabe process of returning to self. She works in the field of Indigenous Literature and Creative Writing, and is a Ph.D. candidate in Indigenous Studies. Her blog, “Anishinaabeweziwin” can be accessed at email@example.com