Asked why he is defending Joseph Boyden’s newest novel The Orenda in the upcoming Canada Reads 2014, Ojibway journalist Wab Kinew responded by saying: “Because reconciliation with Native People is still the most pressing social justice issue Canada faces.”
According to Kinew, reading Boyden’s vision of the complex ways Indigenous peoples and Canadians shaped one another during early contact has the ability to shake up abusive cycles of relationships, revisit history and examine the ways we are more connected than not.
“Art can play a transformative role in society,” Kinew explained, “and I want to be a part of that.”
The stories we tell – and believe – are what makes Canada what it is. In our textbooks, novels and songs are foundational beliefs – principles that become law and policy. As much as narratives of early pioneers or UN peacekeepers support our beliefs about brave and dignified Canadians, so do accounts of Indian savages form the basis for policies like the Indian Act.
As Cherokee novelist Thomas King famously declared in his 2003 Massey lectures: “The truth about stories is that’s all we are.”
Indigenous storytellers understand this well. For millennia tales and songs have been shared throughout North America telling of the creation of the world, the beings within it, and the histories that converge in this place. Spoken and written, these constituted how life was understood while articulating how forces in the universe interrelated. Stories formed the basis for law, science and government. This didn’t change after European contact. Whether describing changing seasons or politics, for centuries expressions by Canada’s Indigenous peoples continued to explore and explain a world full of movement, irony, and teachings that everyone can learn from.
Now, and in many ways culminating in this past year, Canada is experiencing a flood of Indigenous publishing never seen before. Books are winning many of Canada’s distinguished prizes, such as 2013 Governor General-winning Métis poet Katherena Vermette’s collection North End Love Songs. An ode to Winnipeg’s North End, Vermette’s book uncovers a rich sense of community in areas often stereotyped as violent and poor, repainting landscapes in the same way ground-breaking Indigenous poets like Pauline Johnson, Chief Dan George and Louise Halfe have done. Established First Nations writers like Lee Maracle (Stó:lo) and Richard Wagamese (Ojibway Wabasseemoong) continue to produce and receive accolades. Maracle, minted with a doctorate from St. Thomas University, has a new short-story collection called First Wives’ Club: Salish Style, telling of the humorous and poignant experiences of a modern Indigenous woman. Wagamese, recipient of The People’s Choice Award for Canada Reads 2013 for his novel Indian Horse, is publishing the much-anticipated Medicine Walk in 2014.
There are also many soon-to-be award-winning Indigenous writers making literary splashes. Take, for example, Mississauga Nishnaabeg Leanne Simpson. A gifted storyteller and activist, Simpson published two books in 2013: The Gift is in the Making, a retelling of Nishnaabeg traditional teachings, and Islands of Decolonial Love, a dazzling collection of stories of beauty and resilience, fiercely illustrating how Indigenous communities continue to grow.
Tom King also said “You’ll never believe what happened” is a great way to start a story, and so the undead are having their cultural moment too. The short story collection Dead North: Canadian Zombie Fiction, for example, features a number of Aboriginal contributors, including the renowned Dogrib storyteller Richard Van Camp. In his On the Wings of This Prayer, a zombie rises from the Oil Sands of Alberta, reminding us how the land can return the gifts we give to it.
Idle No More may be quieter than a year ago – at least in malls and public squares – but it is active and effervescing on the page. There is an upcoming collection of work honouring the movement called The Winter We Danced, edited by The Kino-nda-niimi Collective, and in late 2013 a young adult novel called Digitil Ogichidaa, about a young Aboriginal activist falling in love, was published by famed Cree/Metis novelist Jordan Wheeler.
Indigenous poetics continues to be the medium of some of the most stunning work in Canada. Metis poet Gregory Scofield’s Louis: The Heretic Poems is a landmark re-envisioning of the charismatic Metis leader, giving new energy and meaning to events and experiences that form the basis for Canada. Erotic, political and charged, Scofield’s writing not only expands the man and the myth, it enlarges Riel’s story.
In the Delaware poet Daniel David Moses’ collection A Small Essay on the Largeness of Light and Other Poems we live through cycles of moon and sunlight. We see the world turning, in a sense of largeness not only of light, but of this poet’s vision, as well.
We haven’t even mentioned the tremendous market of Aboriginal storytelling found in children’s literature sections. Esteemed elder Basil Johnston, for example, continues to produce at a record rate, receiving an international award in Switzerland for his teaching book Anangoog Meegiwawinan (The Gift of Stars). The Inuit writer Michael Kusagak takes us north in his charming new book T is for Territories: A Yukon, Northwest Territories, and Nunavut Alphabet. Residential school survivor Margaret Pokiak-Fenton and Christy Jordan-Fenton collaborated on A Stranger at Home, the sequel to the memoir Fatty Legs, which recounts Margaret’s return home from school and her struggle to belong again.
Some of the most exciting work in Indigenous literature though is in graphic novels. Combining text and image to create sequential visions, graphic novelists are re-making the landscape of Indigenous storytelling. Red: A Haida Manga, by Michael Nicoll Yahgulanaas, is arguably one of the most intriguing Canadian texts in recent memory. It not only re-tells a traditional hero story but is produced on pages that, once removed and combined, become a huge, narrative mural.
Swampy Cree storyteller David Robertson’s bestselling four-book series Seven Generations, about a Cree boy learning about his past and overcoming suicide, has recently been published as an omnibus edition while the publishing house The Healthy Aboriginal Network continues to produce ground-breaking graphic novels by Indigenous storytellers and artists combining traditional stories and contemporary issues.
Wab Kinew is right. Reading stories from Aboriginal writers in Canada expands our collective story. They uncover where we overlap, inviting us to transform our society by helping us learn, grow and ultimately find the language to speak to one another. As they have always done, Indigenous storytellers explain the way the world operates in this place. Challenging us to be more than the relationships we have inherited, they transform the way we think about ourselves.
Indigenous literatures provide us with a path towards reconciliation, helping us re-create our laws, our lives, our imaginations. And that is something we can all be a part of.
Niigaanwewidam James Sinclair is a writer, award-winning editor and Assistant Professor at the University of Manitoba. Shelagh Rogers is a broadcast-journalist, host of CBC Radio's The Next Chapter and an Honourary Witness to the work of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada.