Christine’s request for some comments on the significance of Indigenous literature came at a good time, as I’ve been reflecting a lot lately on just that topic. I’m off to a new job at the University of British Columbia this summer, and have been giving a great deal of thought to some of the things I’ve learned in my ten years at the University of Toronto. My students have taught me at least as much as I’ve taught them, if not more, and it’s their wisdom more than anything I might have brought to the classroom that has helped me understand some of the most significant reasons why Indigenous literatures matter. So, to all the students I’ve had the honor of working with in ENG 254 (Indigenous Literatures of North America) and ABS 300 (Indigenous Worldview, Knowledge, and Oral Tradition) over the past decade, I want to offer my most sincere thanks, as these ideas have come in part from the conversations we’ve had and the insights and understandings you’ve shared with me and each other in that time.
Below I’ve listed seven broad qualities that now represent to me the significance of Indigenous literary expression. These thoughts are always evolving, but I’m hopeful that they provide a good foundation for guiding our reflection on this topic.
There’s a lot of good work by ethical and thoughtful individuals in the archive of writing about Indigenous peoples, but there’s also a great deal of bad work by non-Indigenous writers with a vested interest in either Indigenous deficiency or diminishment, often with the assumption (or outright assertion) that all Indigenous peoples are the same in some set of essential values, perspectives, or characteristics. Indigenous writing–by Indigenous peoples, with self-determined concerns, ideas, and priorities at the center–offers an important corrective to these reductive ideas. There’s as much diversity and disagreement in Indigenous communities as in any other group; there’s never one single voice or perspective that speaks for all, no single way of being that captures the complexity of experience. So, as with any body of writing, there’s always going to be a range of perspectives and personalities in Indigenous texts, too, and that’s very much as it should be. The diversity represented in the literature is vitally important to understanding the diversity of experience and perspective in communities, historically as well as today, and it offers a vital challenge to the rampant stereotype of the generic, monolithic (and often monosyllabic) Hollywood Indian in beads and feathers.
Beauty is as much a purpose of Indigenous writing as anything else; beauty is multidimensional, as much about language and structure as content, theme, or form. With the dominant narratives about Indigenous peoples in popular and political discourse being largely stories about Indigenous deficit and dysfunction, we can’t underestimate the importance of other stories, the ones that show the full, rich depths of Indigenous humanity and creative spirit, and which offer both Indigenous and non-Indigenous readers, viewers, and listeners the possibility of encountering and perhaps being changed by the diverse aesthetic practices and traditions at work in these texts. And for many of these writers, these invocations of beauty are not simply “art for Art’s sake,” meant primarily to express the writer’s own aesthetic vision, but rather what Cherokee-Appalachian poet Marilou Awiakta has called “art for Life’s sake” (qtd. in Rain Crowe 43), intended in some way to explore, to expand, and to sometimes even thoughtfully challenge the experiences and understandings of community. Beauty, then, is something to be experienced and perhaps be changed by, not something simply to observe.
This is an overused and sometimes hackneyed term, but it nevertheless seems entirely appropriate here. At its best, literature can reflect back an image of ourselves that affirms our humanity and dignity, even when it might also articulate the challenges and painful woundings that impact our lives. To see ourselves as complex and richly textured people–individually and collectively–is to see ourselves beyond the narrow and pathologizing limits of the settler imaginary, where Indigenousness is generally a “problem” to be ignored, dealt with, or fixed, until commodifying modernity triumphs and Indigenous peoples vanish. Our family stories speak to our complexity and continuing presence, as do our community stories; literature can be an extension of those relational understandings. While the written word in European languages has certainly been used against Indigenous peoples by colonial powers and settler populations, so too has writing been used by Indigenous peoples to not only affirm their rights and sovereignties, but also to affirm their presence, their strength, and their storied significance, to one another as well as to their neighbors. It’s never easy, and it’s sometimes messy and complicated, but that doesn’t mean that it’s not important. And sometimes just seeing our words on the shelf can fill a person with sudden and unexpected pride, as it did for me as a grad student when I first perused my various mentors’ bookshelves, and as still happens when students come into my office and start exploring the books there. For many of us, just the mere knowledge of our textual archive is an awakening, and for some it starts or rekindles a love of literature as part of a larger process of personal empowerment and community engagement.
In her 2009 book, Taking Back our Spirits: Indigenous Literature, Public Policy, and Healing, Métis scholar and educator Jo-Ann Episkenew has made an important argument about the capacity for Indigenous literature to not only help Indigenous individuals and communities to heal from the generational assaults of colonialism, but also for its potential in creating empathy between Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples. Just as “Indigenous people have learned that the creative process has restorative powers” (68), that same creative process, in Indigenous hands and towards Indigenous purposes,
“enables settler readers to relate to Indigenous peoples on an emotional level thereby generating empathy. By reading Indigenous literature, settlers come to understand Indigenous people as fellow human beings. Empathy, in turn, has the potential to create a groundswell of support for social-justice initiatives to improve the lot of Indigenous people” (190-191).
While such a system-wide transformation will take many more readers to engage with this work (and many more teachers to share it) to be fully realized, it’s nevertheless certain that the engagement of Indigenous texts by non-Indigenous readers can absolutely create a deeper sense of human connection and understanding. I see it every year in my literature classroom, and I know that other Indigenous literature teachers witness these moments of empathetic transformation. This doesn’t mean that readers lose their critical capacities and are blind to the human frailties and shadow-sides that are also represented in the texts, but it does mean that they find much more nuanced and human figures in these texts than are generally on display in popular media today.
Indigenous literatures aren’t simply a contemporary phenomenon: Indigenous peoples have always been textually expressing their dreams, fears, visions, ceremonial practices, and aesthetic priorities in alphabetic as well as non-alphabetic forms. Literature, then, is an ancient legacy, one that connects us to the past and extends well into the future. It’s an inheritance. Two literature scholars offer important insights here. First, I take the guidance of Cherokee scholar Jace Weaver, who defines literature “broadly as the total written output of a people….because to impress form on the relative formlessness of a life or a culture, to express selectivity over what is to be included and what excluded, is an act of literary creation” (That the People, ix). Extending further, J. Edward Chamberlin’s words offer important insights into the vexed nature of the “literary”:
“All so-called oral cultures are rich in forms of writing, albeit non-syllabic and non-alphabetic ones: woven and beaded belts and blankets, knotted and colored strings, carved and painted trays, poles, doors, verandah posts, canes and sticks, masks, hats and chests play a central role in the cultural and constitutional life of these communities, functioning in all the ways written texts do for European societies.”
Further, he reminds us that “the central institutions of our supposedly ‘written’ cultures–our courts and churches and parliaments and schools–are in fact areas of strictly defined and highly formalized oral traditions, in which certain things must be said and done in the right order by the right people on the right occasions with the right people present” (If this is Your Land, 19-20). Our literary traditions are long ones, and not simply limited to the alphabetic texts printed on paper in English, Spanish, or French. Our literary traditions, like our oral traditions, are a legacy bequeathed to us from those who came before. And they’re a legacy we’re both honored and obligated to preserve, expand, and understand for those who come after.
Indigenous texts also affirm our textualized presence in the world. The “Vanishing Indian” of stereotype and colonial myth is as fleeting as a breath in the wind; alone and isolated, this figure passes away without leaving a mark on the land or on memory (except, perhaps, settler nightmares of the Poltergeist kind). Real, dynamic, and fully present Indigenous peoples are fully part of the world, not apart from it in some nebulous space of eternal stasis. As the People continue on in life and in experience, so too do their stories, in various languages, forms, and traditions. Writing, then, offers another way of continuing on, a way that affirms Indigenous peoples’ presence–in the present, as well as the past and the future. It’s not the only expression of continuity, but it’s certainly an important one, and it gives the lie to the spectral Vanishing Indian who exists only a fantasy of settler dominance. This isn’t to say that there aren’t challenges with the practice or problems; indeed, as fluency in Indigenous mothertongues decreases, in many cases writing in English and other Euro-derived languages far outpaces that of texts in our original languages. But the presence of one needn’t negate the presence of the other, as there are many important language revitalization projects going on all over the continent (and elsewhere in the Indigenous world) that are creating (or recovering) amazing archives of Indigenous mothertongue literature for current and future generations. It’s therefore perhaps more accurate to speak of our individual literatures as well as our broader, interconnected literary traditions, in multiple languages spreading across vast geographic regions and time periods. To participate in this process, then–to read, to write, to share, to learn–is to participate in the continuity of the People. Jace Weaver notes that Indigenous writers “write that the People might live;” writing “prepares the ground for recovery, and even re-creation, of Indian identity and culture. Native writers speak to that part of us the colonial power and the dominant culture cannot reach, cannot touch. They help Indians imagine themselves as Indians” (44-45). We might add to this the affirmation that it’s not just the writing that’s important, but the reading, discussing, and considering, thereby actively participating in that process of recovery and re-creation. The People go on, and so do the stories, which help the People go on to continue telling the stories that help the People go on…
The last area of significance I want to offer here (though certainly not the last to consider, as there’s much more than I can cover in this piece) is the possibility inherent in Indigenous literature: that of imagining otherwise, of considering different ways of abiding in and with the world that are about Indigenous presence, not absence, Indigenous wholeness, not fragmentation, Indigenous complexity, not one-dimensionality. When Indigenous writers take up pen or keyboard or carving knife or bead and sinew, they bring their talents and visionary capacity to the work, and in so doing help to create a different world for themselves, for their communities, and for their neighbors (friend, foe, and unaffiliated alike). When we read the work of Indigenous writers, we participate in the possibilities inherent in that different world, and we become part of the network of relations that make possible more generous, more thoughtful, and more just relationships with one another.
Literature can be transformative; just as I’ve experienced it myself, I’ve also witnessed it among friends and family, and I’ve seen it in the lives of my students. It can also be deforming: it all depends on what stories we choose to read and be influenced by. Too many of the stories about Indigenous peoples are of the latter kind; quite frankly, we need more stories that affirm Indigenous humanity in all its complicated, contradictory, and wild and wounded wonder. It’s not about telling only the happy stories, but it’s certainly about telling the wide range of stories that matter to us and offer an important sense of our diversity and depth. Indigenous literature makes a real difference to Indigenous nationhood, as well as to individuals, families, communities, and nations. Not every text will move every reader, but every text will offer something to someone, and some works will open many hearts and minds, Indigenous and non-Indigenous readers alike.
Stories matter; they extend our humanity beyond the self to others, and at their best can make possible better relationships with our own histories and lived present as well as with one another. Ultimately, these seven broad qualities of Indigenous literary expression–perspective, beauty, empowerment, empathy, legacy, continuity, and possibility–speak to me of the extraordinary potential for our literatures to transform these relationships in powerful and enriching ways. We have much to learn from one another, and much to share, on our own terms, and in our own ways. May love, courage, and good sense guide us as we do so.
Chamberlin, J. Edward. If This is Your Land, Where are Your Stories?: Finding Common Ground. Toronto: Vintage Canada, 2004.
Crowe, Thomas Rain. “Marilou Awiakta: Reweaving the Future.” Appalachian Journal 18.1 (Fall 1990): 40-54.
Episkenew, Jo-Ann. Taking Back our Spirits: Indigenous Literature, Public Policy, and Healing. Winnipeg: University of Manitoba Press, 2009.
Weaver, Jace. That the People Might Live: Native American Literatures and Native American Community. New York: Oxford University Press, 1997.
Daniel Heath Justice is Chair of the First Nations Studies Program and an Associate Professor at the University of British Columbia, specializing in Indigenous literary studies, cultural and literary history, and speculative fiction. Daniel holds a joint position with UBC’s Department of English. He is a Colorado-born Canadian citizen of the Cherokee Nation. See his website for more information about his creative and scholarly work.
We want to thank Christine McFarlane once again for allowing us to re-post Daniel Heath Justice’s essay. Christine is herself an emerging voice on the Indigenous literary scene. Her published works include two creative stories, “As A Child” and “Mother: An Essay,” appearing in the Yellow Medicine Review and a third story, “Choosing the Path to Healing,” in Growing Up Girl- Voices from Marginalized Spaces (GirlChild Press 2006). Her poem, “I Remember,” appears in xxx ndn, a book by the Aboriginal Writer’s Collective of Manitoba, and a short story titled “The ER” was published by The Survivor Chronicles. Check out Christine’s Blog for a sampling of her writings in various genres.