First Nations, English

Indigenous Literatures in Canada

March 20, 2014

From February 27th to March 2nd at SFU Harbour Centre, several noted experts in Indigenous Literatures in Canada came together as part of a SSHRC Connections funded workshop to edit anthologies designed for the university classroom, to share their expertise with the general public and to mentor a new generation of scholars. Because the study of Indigenous literatures in Canada is not much more than twenty years old, much of the infrastructure of any discipline—recognized curriculum, textbooks, faculty positions—has only recently been developed; over the same time period, universities have become aware of the general lack of Indigenous students in their programs. This workshop was specifically committed to bringing together established academics with a burgeoning group of graduate students, many of them Indigenous, to consider the unique intellectual, social and emotional demands of the field.

On the first evening of the workshop, UBC Canada Research Chair, Cherokee scholar and fantasy writer Dr. Daniel Heath Justice gave a public lecture entitled “Why Indigenous Literature Matters,” from a book with the same name that he is under contract to write for Wilfrid Laurier University Press. He challenged and charmed the packed lecture hall with the charge that ignoring the full canon of Indigenous literatures—including works of orature and those recorded in material culture—is an act of erasure of Indigenous knowledge.

On Friday, February 28th, Canada’s leading expert in Inuit literature, Dr. Keavy Martin from the University of Alberta, suggested that the protocols of eating and sharing in Inuit cultures offers us a way to approach stories. Citing the short film Tungijuq in which eating, death, reincarnation and new life are interconnected, Martin challenged the squeamishness of eaters and readers in the south who use their lack of familiarity with Inuit culture as an excuse not to partake.

On Saturday afternoon, March 1st, Cherokee scholar Dr. Christopher Teuton, from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, discussed the inspiration for his most recent (and award winning) book, Cherokee Stories of the Turtle Island Liars’ Club (2012), which Daniel Justice calls the most important contribution to Cherokee cultural knowledge in the past half-century. Working with elders in his community who were bothered by previous published works they felt were inadequate, Teuton helped them produce a volume of stories and a discussion of the protocols around storytelling. His presentation was a model of engaged research, proving that literary scholarship can be responsive and responsible to community.

Local graduate students including Ashley Morford, Natalie Knight (Yurok) and June Scudeler (Metis) then worked with a scholar from across the country to champion one of three books in an event modelled after the CBC’s “Canada Reads”. The students used facebook and twitter to stir up excitement about SFU’s Turtle Island Reads 2014 and promoted often neglected texts by Indigenous authors from both sides of the border. SFU faculty Dr. Deanna Reder (Cree-Metis) and Dr. Sophie McCall acted as emcees for the event, alternately rousing the crowd and acting as timekeepers. Queen’s University’s Dr. Sam McKegney defended Sherman Alexie’s Flight, Laurentian University’s Dr. Michelle Coupal (Bonnecherre First Nation) defended Sean Tinsley and Rachel Qitsualik’s Ajjiit, and University of Regina’s Dr. Jo-Ann Episkenew (Metis) defended Dawn Dumont’s Nobody Cries at Bingo. While the crowd voted the last book to be the “Turtle Island Reads book of the year”, the book table sold out of all of the copies of each book and the event has inspired the emcees to plan an annual competition.

Because a key part of building the field is supporting academic publishing, the workshop was also a place for Sophie McCall to introduce her critical edition of Anahareo’s Devil in Deerskins, for Sam McKegney to launch Masculindians: Conversations about Indigenous Manhood (both with University of Manitoba Press) and for delegates to attend a presentation and question and answer period with established publishers, including Lisa Quinn from Wilfrid Laurier University Press. Also announced was Anishinaabe writer and Trent doctoral student Lesley Belleau’s next novel, Sweat, to be released by Scrivenor in May. And students read portions from the English version of the first novel written in syllabic Inuttitut, Sanaaq, first published in 1987 and released in January 2014.

Delegates attended a variety of other workshops, from the ethics for teaching traumatic texts to the methods for teaching oral storytelling, and from Indigenous literatures in French to Indigenous Science Fiction. They also were introduced to the newly established Indigenous Literary Studies Association (ILSA) that was recently founded by several scholars in attendance, to continue to forge new ways of literary analysis that honours the history and promotes the ongoing production of Indigenous literatures in all forms, reaffirms the value of Indigenous knowledges and methodologies within literary expression and study, and fosters respectful relationships within and between academic and non-academic communities. The purpose and values of ILSA were demonstrated in the activities of the workshop, as this generation of scholars contend with ways to amend conventional literary criticism to better suit the subject they study.