New indigenous writing

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First aired on The Next Chapter (10/06/13)

There's a great wealth of novels, graphic novels, children's books, and non-fiction exploring many aspects of aboriginal identity -- and now the field is booming. To get a sense of what's happening in indigenous writing today, The Next Chapter recently brought together two people who know the scene well.

Kateri Akiwenzie-Damm is a writer and publisher and the editor of Skins: Contemporary Indigenous Writing and Without Reservation: Indigenous Erotica. She lives and works at Neyaashiinigmiing, the Cape Croker Reserve in Ontario.

Niigaanwewidam James Sinclair is a writer and editor, and a professor in the Native Studies department at the University of Manitoba.

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When asked what books were important influences, Niigaanwewidam told host Shelagh Rogers his first discovery was that the idea that his people were primarily an oral culture was "a kind of myth, an anthropological construction. We've always been undergirded by the written," he explained. "We have literate traditions, writing systems, that are thousands of years old and that we still use today. And the new introduction of poems and poetry and plays, that's simply just in addition to that tradition."

Niigaanwewidam went on to say that it's important to recognize that "aboriginal literature is a long-standing tradition which has always been creative and expressive and based in notions of experiencing the world...and our relationships within it."

In high school, Niigaanwewidam was taught that everything that was worthwhile was written "by dead white men in Europe." But then he picked up In Search of April Raintree, a memoir by Beatrice Culleton Mosionier. "I learned a lot about the history of the land on which I stood on," he said. Other books that influenced him later were Maria Campbell's Halfbreed, Richard Van Camp's The Lesser Blessed, Lee Maracle's Ravensong and Thomas King's Medicine River. "It was really about the political experience of being a native person within Canada, and experiencing policy and removal and erasure, which my community knows very deeply about," he said. "And about language, that was for me really influential."

Akiwenzie-Damm said that her maternal grandmother wrote a weekly newspaper column, and having that example in her family made a big impression on her. She added that's there's a tradition of writers in her community, including Verna Patronella Johnston, who wrote I am Nokomis, Basil Johnston and Lenore Keeshig-Tobias.

Akiwenzie-Damm went on to take creative writing when she attended university. She recalled asking her teacher for books by indigenous writers, and he gave her a small list. That was the starting point for her track down the writers and make contact with them. The fact that other indigenous people were writing of their experiences gave her the sense that she could also do it. "If you see other people doing something, it becomes in the realm of possibility," she said.

When asked about indigenous writing dealing with residential school, Akiwenzie-Damm said that she's noticed a change in recent work. "There are more books where the residential school experience is not the key focus of the book or the poem or the collection of poetry, but rather it's a part of the experience of the writer or the characters or the community," she said. "It kind of signals to me that people are coming to terms with that history in different ways, and in their own time." These works aren't just expressing anger, but "have a fuller range of expression."

The two writers also addressed the role of the land in aboriginal literature. Niigaanwewidam said that the relationship between indigenous people and the land is an important theme, but to see it as "mystical" is simplistic. "It's a very political relationship," he said. "It's a relationship of give and take, of struggle, of how do you understand, how do you live within a land that sometimes can be very unforgiving territory."

"I think it's about a web of relationships that are very specific to a place or territory, and that's kind of what makes that particular story unique," Akiwenzie-Damm said. "It's not some sort of a mystical relationship. I think it's a lot more practical in a lot of ways than maybe some people like to think."

Photo of Kateri Akiwenzie-Damm by Himiona Grace. Photo of Niigaanwewidam James Sinclair by Aaron Pierre Photography

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