'Our literatures matter because we do,' says Indigenous author Daniel Heath Justice

In his book, Why Indigenous Literatures Matter, Daniel Heath Justice explores just that — what Indigenous literatures are and the importance of understanding and valuing them in all their forms.
In his book, Why Indigenous Literatures Matter, Daniel Heath Justice examines the many forms of Indigenous literature. (Melvin Yap/Wilfrid Laurier University Press)
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In his book, Why Indigenous Literatures Matter, Daniel Heath Justice explores just that — what Indigenous literatures are. It also looks at the importance of understanding and valuing them in all their forms.

"I always do the plural because our literatures take a lot of different forms," said Justice, a professor in First Nations and Indigenous Studies and English at the University of British Columbia.

"Basically, for me, Indigenous literatures are those embodied, expressive traditions that communicate our understandings in the world."

This includes texts, books, stories and poems, but also mediums such as carvings, basketry and wampum belts, to name a few, said Justice, a citizen of the Cherokee Nation.

"There are all kinds of ways that we have inscribed our realities into other media."

Literary expression before and after colonialism

The term literatures, instead of literature, reflects the multitude of forms which literary expression can take, he said, which date back to long before the arrival and settlement of Europeans.

"I think that we have to get out of the rupture idea that because a rupture has happened in our histories, that somehow everything before then is lost to us and everything that came after is inauthentic," said Justice. "I think that's a very impoverishing view that just isn't reflected by reality."

While Indigenous literatures are getting more attention, Justice said they still are less respected in Canada than they should be.

"I think especially those texts that really challenge settler colonialism in Canada; the literature that really questions the multicultural ethos of a liberalized Canada," he said.

Justice addressed the term settler in his book, describing it as a word that can cause discomfort for non-Indigenous people.

Daniel Heath Justice addresses the term settler in his book, Why Indigenous Literatures Matter, describing it as a word that can cause discomfort for non-Indigenous people. 1:29

"It is agitating for a lot of people and I think that's OK. I think we can be disturbed by some of this terminology. I don't use it as an insult," said Justice. "I do use it as a way of foregrounding the … violent histories of settler colonialism."

The term is often criticized for grouping all non-Indigenous people together. "There is a danger in collapsing all of these distinctive experiences into on," Justice explained. "Under settler colonialism, the arrival of so many communities has ensured that Indigenous peoples have lost lands."

One of the questions his book sets out to answer is in the title itself. Why Do Indigenous Literatures Matter? The answer is simple.

"Because we matter," said Justice.


Click the Listen button above to hear his full conversation with Rosanna Deerchild.