8th Fire: Discovering Aboriginal literature

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A multiplatform, multicultural documentary project, 8th Fire is a provocative look at the richness and diversity of Aboriginal cultures and Canada's complex 500-year-old relationship with Indigenous peoples -- a relationship still mired in colonialism, conflict and denial.

The four-part 8th Fire television series airs on Thursdays at 9 p.m. ET on CBC-TV's Doc Zone, and several Radio One programs will be running 8th Fire-related content starting Jan. 12.

To further explore Aboriginal history and culture through a literary perspective, CBC Books has teamed up with journalist and fiction writer Waubgeshig Rice, author of Midnight Sweatlodge, to present a series of blogs highlighting the important work of Indigenous writers, past, present and future.

In his first post, Rice discusses the importance Aboriginal literature had in shaping his own identity as a youth and some of the authors that have truly influenced him.

By Waubgeshig Rice

waub-headshot1`.jpgTraditional storytelling on this continent was always mostly based on the spoken word. For countless generations, children learned about their culture and history through stories their elders told. It was also a significant entertainment tool. People of all ages gathered around a storyteller to hear funny, theatrical, harrowing and important lessons through ancient tales. The First Peoples of what became Canada also used other methods to record their stories, such as rock paintings, birchbark scrolls, wampum belts and carvings, but the foundation was always the oral narrative.

That changed in the generations after contact with the European settlers who eventually founded Canada. Aboriginal people were forced to abandon their languages, and subsequently, their traditional stories as the authorities strong-armed them into assimilation. Instead of looking up to the face of a elder, the eyes of children were directed down to books. The objective of Canada's education system was to strip Aboriginal children of their identity, and although that practice has since been abandoned, its negative effects loom over life in First Nations communities, towns and cities.

The relationship between Canada and its First Peoples is so sweepingly complicated that it's impossible to fully explain in conventional media. But right now, CBC is embarking on an ambitious project called 8th Fire that aims to introduce Canadians to the idea of reconciliation between this country and its Aboriginal people. Through a variety of platforms -- television, radio and online -- Canadians will learn about Aboriginal life in Canada and some of the unique and complex issues that define it. As that relationship has evolved over the past century, the written word has become a crucial part of spelling out exactly what it means to be "Indian" in Canada. Aboriginal storytellers who struggled on quest for identity adopted these new tools to convey that journey to the wider masses, all the while becoming literary powerhouses in the process.

In the coming weeks, as the 8th Fire documentary series rolls out on CBC Television, CBC Books will offer literary complements to the topics Canadians become exposed to. For example, while Episode 1 profiles the "Indigenous in the City" -- urban Aboriginal people who are blazing unique trails and defining a new identity -- we'll tell you about the required reading in the Aboriginal literary canon that will allow you to explore these experiences even further.

books-waub.jpgThere are powerful and diverse voices in Aboriginal literature that have helped us maintain our culture and identity as our relationship with Canada has slowly mended. These authors helped me understand who I was as an Ojibway youth growing up on Wasauksing First Nation on Georgian Bay in central Ontario.

My name is Waubgeshig Rice and I'm a CBC videojournalist based in Ottawa. I've been fortunate enough to contribute to this massive and comprehensive project called 8th Fire. I produced three stories for the online project called "8th Fire Dispatches": one about growing up mixed blood in contemporary Canada; another about traditional Native spirituality's role in modern Christianity; and the last about an Ottawa landmark's long and controversial journey. I've been a broadcast journalist for nearly a decade now and this has been one of the most creatively fulfilling projects I've ever been a part of, and I think every other producer/filmmaker/writer/contributor on the 8th Fire team would agree. And I'm grateful that in the coming weeks, I'll be able to discuss one of my greatest passions with you: Native literature.

Like many Aboriginal Canadians growing up in the 1980s and 1990s, I didn't really understand exactly where I fit in the grand social fabric of Canada. I didn't know what it meant to be "Aboriginal" generally, or Anishinaabe specifically. But as teachers and elders introduced me to authors like Basil Johnston, Thomas King, Lee Maracle, Jordan Wheeler, Louise Erdrich, Sherman Alexie and many others, I learned that identity struggles weren't new or easy to resolve. These prominent storytellers encountered such obstacles at greater degrees in the generations before me. On their paths to individual reconciliation, they wrote these stories down to share with the wider Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal communities as a whole. Today, we are fortunate to have these literary treasures proliferate the ever-evolving stories that identify us.

Discovering Aboriginal literature inspired me to develop and follow my own dreams of becoming an author. Last year, Theytus Books published my first collection of fiction, called Midnight Sweatlodge. It's a book of short stories that attempts to capture some of the distinct challenges faced by Aboriginal youth in this country. As I embark on this journey of my own, I'm delighted to share with you some of the phenomenal books that inspired me and many others to resolve to never let our powerful storytelling traditions die. Miigwetch.

Related link: The 8th Fire homepage