8th Fire: Waub Rice on collecting stories

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.

We've teamed up with journalist and fiction writer Waubgeshig Rice, author of Midnight Sweatlodge, to highlight the important work of Indigenous writers, past, present and future.

waub-headshot1`.jpgThe timeless method of cultural preservation in North America has been the oral narrative. It's widely known that Aboriginal cultures on this continent maintained their spiritual traditions and history by passing down spoken stories from generation to generation. These stories touched on diverse subject matter -- from important life lessons to cultural practices to simple entertainment -- and they came in all shapes and sizes. In many of these storytelling circles, once the principal storyteller (often an elder) was finished, everyone was encouraged to share. In some cultures, a talking stick or a feather would be passed around, and whoever held it would reflect on what he or she just heard, and would then offer personal insights or allegories. As a result, everyone left a sharing circle carrying a wide array of knowledge in the form of diverse stories.

This diversity in storytelling and the ability to tie these anecdotes together has carried over into the written word. As Aboriginal storytellers began to culturally adopt books as a viable avenue to strengthen traditions, they assembled stories into collections to serve as crucial reference points on a variety of experiences. Some of these story collections have become timeless in their own right; providing a cultural refuge for young Aboriginal people to relate to shared struggles and a window for non-Aboriginal readers into an evolving culture.

brothers-in-arms-100.jpgOften, these collections are tied together by an underlying theme. Jordan Wheeler's Brothers in Arms is a collection of three novellas that touch on brotherhood among young Aboriginal men in three distinct struggles. Each story focuses on a pair of brothers trying to understand and adapt to the changing world around them. Specifically, how the bond of brotherhood and contemporary Aboriginal identity are challenged by changing culture and community dynamics, politics, and sickness. All the while, they struggle to figure out their place, toeing the line between the rez and the non-Aboriginal world. Throughout, the young men in each story rediscover what the traditional essence of brotherhood means, how it defines them, and how it helps them maintain their identity.

red-rooms-100.jpgCherie Dimaline's Red Rooms is another collection that looks at changing Aboriginal cultural dynamics in the face of urban influences. The book is told through the eyes of an Aboriginal cleaning lady who closely examines five different guests in an urban hotel, and imagines their lives through what she's able to piece together. As a result, the book weaves these different and unique experiences into a de facto short story collection that touches on themes like sex, sickness, and identity -- all from an urban Aboriginal perspective. Dimaline's narrative is funny, sexy, and powerful, and it's a fitting tribute to the unique and growing urban Aboriginal experience in Canada today.

One of the seminal short story collections from south of the border that has provided one of the most powerful glimpses into the young Aboriginal experience is Sherman Alexie's The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven. tonto-100.jpgIt's a thorough look through nearly two-dozen short stories at nearly every dilemma contemporary young Aboriginal people can endure. The stories are interconnected by several characters -- predominantly Victor and Thomas -- as they detail life on the reserve, their understanding of being "Indian," leaving the community, and eventually coming back. While it's a comprehensive scope of distinct experiences, Alexie uses a variety of writing methods to convey the richness not only in the stories, but also in ways they are told. He alternates between traditional prose, poetry, dream sequences, and even epistolary passages to drive them home. As the title suggests, this book is required reading for anyone who is looking to understand what it's like to grow up on a rez with a vastly different way of life challenging you from the outside.

angelwing-100.jpgOne of the commanding traits of the short story is its ability to focus on solitary characters and get to the core of their essences. Richard Van Camp's Angel Wing Splash Pattern is a short story collection that does this so beautifully and intensely. In each of these three stories, Van Camp introduces the reader to people who are embroiled in some sort of negative turmoil, from substance abuse to sickness to violence. But as he delves deeper into who they are, he paints complex experiences of identity loss, tragedy, and the desire to reconnect with the positive life that once flourished in their past connected to Aboriginal traditions. As these introspective journeys unfold, those ties to culture emerge as a sort of silver lining to the pain. That underlying hope is key in sharing these experiences with readers from all backgrounds and helping them connect.

While the sharing circle will always be the most powerful way to connect us to our traditional stories, collections like these serve a new, powerful role in immortalizing our unique experiences as we further define our role in the social fabric of modern North America. As the reach of these books grows, so will understanding.

For more 8th Fire interviews and blog posts, click here.