Arts·Point of View

mâwacinikân: Moving Indigenous literature to the front in 2018

Oji-Cree storyteller Joshua Whitehead reflects on how literature offers a space for reclamation and empowerment for Indigenous writers.

Joshua Whitehead on how literature offers a space of reclamation and empowerment for Indigenous writers

Joshua Whitehead is an Oji-Cree storyteller from the Peguis First Nation in Manitoba. (Joshua Whitehead, Arsenal Pulp Press)

ᒫᐊᐧᒋᓂᑳᐣ mâwacinikân: an expression meaning "way in front; foremost"

"What is two-spirit?" and "What is Indigiqueer/Indigenous literature?" were two of the most popular questions asked of me during the tour of my debut poetry book, full-metal indigiqueer. Everyone is looking for a simple answer, and, if I were to give one, the only semblance of an explanation I could give is: two-spirit (2S) is the Indigenous inverse umbrella of Western conceptions of LGBTQ. It places us into a specific community, region, peoplehood and culture(s). Who we are, what we did pre-contact and how we survived are stories waiting for us to unearth. But what is 2S literature? That is a question I cannot answer.

My poetic hero(ine) ZOA — the narrator of full-metal indigiqueer — tells me that "you have never seen the likes of me before," and I think they're right, for the most part, as 2S Indigenous literature has always been fairly sparse, although the writing itself is full. Defining a coagulated 2S/Indigenous literature is a complicated gesture because its signals are vast and varied. I think of it as a braid, all singular strands interlocked — some longer than the others, some frayed, broken, limping, others reinforced, but it's the braid that counts, the whole that means, the singulars that hold onto one another all swaying in the wind.

I think of it as a braid, all singular strands interlocked — some longer than the others, some frayed, broken, limping, others reinforced, but it's the braid that counts, the whole that means, the singulars that hold onto one another all swaying in the wind.- Joshua Whitehead on defining  2SQ /Indigenous literature

2017 was a mîwâsin year of Indigenous literature and I am overcome with excitement for 2018. I think of all my Indigenous kin here when I think of hope and literary futurisms. I hear Louis Riel's proclamation that, "My people will sleep for one hundred years, but when they awake, it will be the artists who give them their spirit back." My spirits are aglow with what is to come from Indigenous literature this year — we are witnessing the great wake of an NDN renaissance that is brimming with glitter, sex, sexuality, trans creators and a whole lot of traditional love. In thinking futuristically, let's look back briefly on that amazing literature that was produced in 2017 and hear from the authors, in their own words, about how and what Indigenous literature is, feels like, looks like, loves like.

"If queerness only determines our validity after fucking us," writes Gwen Benaway (Anishinaabe/Métis), "how do we survive queerness without dismembering ourselves?"

I continually return to this question as I look back on my own process of coming out and coming in. If my writing were too white and my queerness followed suit, then where and how could my Indigeneity exist? I think of Billy-Ray Belcourt (Driftpile Cree) who teaches me, "if i have a body, let it be a book of sad poems…if i am somehow, miraculously, bodied then my skin is a collage of meditations on love and shattered selves."

Billy-Ray Belcourt is the author of the poetry collection This Wound Is A World. (Frontenac House)

What does it mean to let a body be a book of sad poems? You may want to think of Indigeneity and its queer peoplehoods as tragic tales, but, as Leanne Betasamosake Simpson (Michi Saagiig Nishnaabeg) teaches us, "We have to confront the idea that we may be made to feel we don't belong...we don't exist unless we all belong. We all belong," and in a poetic response shouts, "So queer, so sacred."

Shannon Webb-Campbell (Mi'kmaq) says, "I am an invisible Indian. I am an invisible queer woman...some days I wonder if the page is the only place I exist." I hear ghosts in her stories, ancestral language, spirits that sing our glories. And though this may sound a eulogy, it too whoops itself into a primer in living and loving. For example, I think of Cherie Dimaline (Métis), who storytells, "I heard it in his voice as [he] began to weep. I watched it in the steps that pulled [him], the man who dreamed in Cree, home to his love." And when I think of home, I think of Carleigh Baker (Cree-Métis/Icelandic), who foresees, "Beautiful life, safe from everything, inside. It's small, of course. Just a bathtub. But once we get some fish in there, we'd have a humble food source. As soon as the rain started again, we'd never have to leave." Meanwhile Lee Maracle (Sto:Loh) reminds us that "fiction is powerful truth" and "powerful art can be in the transformation of relations between one another."

This country and its literature too often feel like a graveyard, like a haunted house, like a necropolis.- Joshua Whitehead, writer

I think of these kin as I anticipate 2018 amongst the CanLit fire that continues to rage from UBC Accountable, to the philosophical hiatus of Coach House Books' poetry, through to the continued arguments of appropriation brought about by the likes of Jon Kay. CanLit has a knack for reanimation — just ask old Wenjack. It extracts hi/story from our bones (which is to say our land but mean our bodies), curates it for museums and archives, skins our stories, empties the land of genealogy and rewrites social progression as a series of vanishing acts.

This country and its literature too often feel like a graveyard, like a haunted house, like a necropolis. Indigenous lit is in a unique space of reclaiming where it wants to posit its selves in the ecological literary landscape that is CanLit and its claims to land, borders, hi/stories and peoplehoods. Yes, we are over being called "Canada's Indigenous peoples," and instead are placing our energies in more productive spaces as compared to continuing the pedagogical 101 of where and how we fit into this national literary imaginary. One need only look to the recirculation of Edward Curtis' photography to see how, when and where white settler sensibilities like to imagine us.

(Leanne Betasamosake Simpson)

It is my belief that the majority of Indigenous storytellers write not simply for monetary value nor national recognition (though we are finally being awarded as such). We write for a different kind of capital — one that is social and cultural, but also holistically enriching. Will writers, poets and storytellers within the nation-state that is Canada achieve extreme profit? Perhaps yes, more than likely no — but I, for one, write for a profit that empowers and reclaims our literary and literal sovereignty, a profit that impacts our peoplehoods with healthy representations of who we are, an "I" that is removed from the "was" of CanLit's stories and places us into an "is" and a "will become" imaginative space that predicts and embodies by those of us who know the true brute grunt work that entails both surviving and thriving in an apocalyptic land/literary scape. It is my belief that the writer, especially the Indigenous writer, is not a solitary figure. No one writes in a vacuum — our stories are communal, shared, reciprocal, accountable, interconnected. We are storytellers who speak with community, not for communities. Sometimes I think of literature as another word for accountability.

It is my belief that the majority of Indigenous storytellers write not simply for monetary value nor national recognition (though we are finally being awarded as such). We write for a different kind of capital — one that is social and cultural, but also holistically enriching.- Joshua Whitehead, writer

So when I think of the current state of CanLit, its foundations, its projections, its wrongdoings and its accomplishments, I never fully see myself — not yet anyhow. But I write this with hope — one placed in the resurgence of Indigenous literature, primarily the new circle emerging of two-spirit, queer, trans, women, and non-binary Indigenous writers emerging from the ashes of this ceremonial fire. We are witnessing a renaissance of writing, both Indigenous and not, with those of us holding our unions, colleagues, universities, friends and our own kin accountable to how we storytell ourselves into the world. It then comes as no surprise that Indigenous literature is one that has been profoundly injured — its a body of sad poems subjected to dream scraping — while also being simultaneously and wondrously re-augmented, networking in a bathtub full of fish, body like a bricolage, NDNness a kaleidoscope.

Lately, I've been mentally and spiritually writing this breakup note to CanLit. But I always exit the letter saying kihtwâm — see you again, soon, once more, because we never say goodbye in nehiyawewin (Cree). Indigeneity and its literature exist at the end of the world, on the borderlands of those who like to describe and embody us, tell our story for us. We've survived the apocalypse and awoken into ourselves — and oh, how I dance with glory knowing too well what will happen when we sing the skin back onto our bones.

About the Author

Joshua Whitehead is a Two-Spirit/Indigiqueer otâcimow from Peguis First Nation (Treaty 1). He is currently a doctoral student at the University of Calgary (Treaty 7) undertaking a degree in Indigenous Literatures and Cultures through the English department. He is the author of full-metal indigiqueer (Talonbooks 2017) and the forthcoming Jonny Appleseed (Arsenal Pulp Press 2018).