First Nations, English

Faculty Profile: Deanna Reder – Building the Field of Indigenous Literary Studies

April 30, 2015
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SFU professor Deanna Reder is excited for the future of Indigenous Literary Studies in Canada. From assembling anthologies and founding scholarly associations, to curriculum development and mentorship, Reder’s dynamic work demonstrates her deep commitment to building the field.

As Reder explains, Aboriginal literature was rarely taught in Canada until the late 1980s and 1990s when post-colonial theory entered into literary analysis. At that time, debates about the appropriation of voice and demands for representation or inclusion of Indigenous voices became prominent. Post-colonial theory begged the questions: where are indigenous people, what are they doing in Canada, what are they writing? It is only since 1994 that there has been an anthology of Aboriginal literature that could be used in the classroom; “in fact,” states Reder, “I wonder if people realize how lucky we are at SFU. The Department of English made the excellent choice to hire my fantastic colleague, Sophie McCall, in the early 2000s to teach Indigenous literatures. I don’t know if people realize that she is one of the first scholars in the country to complete doctoral work in this area—a literal groundbreaker—so much of my work builds on what she has already established.”   

Draft cover for "Learn, Teach, Challenge" (forthcoming, 2016)

Reder also collaborates with colleague Linda Morra (Bishops University) and together they have co-edited a new anthology called Learn, Teach, Challenge: Approaching Indigenous Literatures. Under contract with Wilfred Laurier University Press, they are expecting a 2016 release date. “I’m really excited,” says Reder, who sees Learn, Teach, Challenge as “one of the first comprehensive anthologies of Indigenous literary criticism, a volume that includes some of the foundational theorists in the field alongside new voices.” For Reder, including junior scholars in the anthology was important not only to contextualize the historical pieces, but also to profile emerging scholars in the field.

The anthology is tailored for upper undergraduate and graduate school studies. Since the field is so young, Reder sees the anthology as helping to fill a crucial gap: “there are a lot of initiatives by Indigenous scholars to increase the field by interesting the wider community but it’s difficult to have higher level conversations if you continue to have to review basic points that ought to be common knowledge— things like who is an Aboriginal person in Canada or what is the difference between basic terms like Indian versus First Nations versus Métis.” She hopes the upcoming anthology will help change that reality.

A key component for Reder in building the field is the mentorship, support and promotion of other Indigenous students and scholars. Reder has been doing curriculum development work with SFU’s Aboriginal University Prep Program. The program recently expanded to a full year and Reder saw an opportunity to assist with curriculum development and to include Indigenous students in the process. She enlisted the help of Métis SFU alumnus Gabrielle Hill as a research assistant to help develop new curriculum for the program; “the work was much more consultative, it wasn’t just me sitting there alone and isolated; having another person to bounce ideas off of was great. Currently a Native American student, Natalie Knight, who is Yurok, is teaching the curriculum that I wrote with Gabrielle Hill, and so the course benefits from the input of three Indigenous scholars, which is great and highly unusual. I’m thrilled with that course.”

In October 2013, Reder and a small group of other Indigenous literature scholars were invited by Daniel Heath Justice at UBC to think about how to develop and expand the field. Together they established the Indigenous Literary Studies Association (ILSA). ILSA is a literary organization that aims to “address the needs for a scholarly body based in lands claimed by Canada that focuses specifically on the study and teaching of Indigenous people’s literatures.”

Reder explains that ILSA reflects a shared commitment to academic work that benefits the community and also “a commitment to vigorous intellectual academic work, rather than rigorous, that is, in fact, appreciative of the different exciting approaches to literature, even if they are unconventional.” The organization is expansive in scope, extending beyond the written word to also include oral traditions, music, film, and other forms of creative expression.

ILSA’s first conference will be held this fall at Pauline Johnson’s childhood home on the Six Nations Reserve near Brantford, Ontario. Mohawk literature scholar, Rick Monture, will host. Reder sees ILSA and the conference as a culmination of recent work being done by Indigenous literature scholars.

The focus of Reder’s work considers the experience of Indigenous students from an introductory level to advanced intellectual production. It is an approach Reder sees as distinct to Indigenous literary studies: “I think that’s the difference between my work and a standard Canadianist, you’re thinking about the field but you’re also thinking about representation of indigenous students, you’re thinking about barriers to the university, barriers to graduate school, and trying to build in supportive measures there that will in some ways change the culture of the university but also help prepare students for the culture of the university.”

Reder teaches in the Department of First Nations Studies and also runs one class a year in the English Department. She appreciates the creative flexibility this allows: “In First Nations Studies I’m having the freedom to also develop other courses; I teach a course in sex and gender, another in pop fiction. My classes are mostly literature based, but I can colour outside the lines a bit. My contribution to this particular program includes teaching critical thinking, writing and close-reading skills while at the same time being able to expose students to all of the exciting things that are happening artistically and culturally by Indigenous artists and activists.”

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