'Stories are survival:' Cherie Dimaline writes about the power of Indigenous storytelling

In this essay, award-winning Métis writer Cherie Dimaline explores the power of storytelling.
Cherie Dimaline is an award-winning writer. (CBC)

June is National Indigenous History Month in Canada. In 2018, Métis writer Cherie Dimaline wrote this essay on the power and importance of Indigenous storytelling for CBC Books.

Dimaline is the author of Red Rooms, The Girl Who Grew a Galaxy, A Gentle Habit and The Marrow ThievesIn 2017, she won the Governor General's Literary Award for young people's literature — text and Kirkus Prize for young readers' literature for The Marrow ThievesThe Marrow Thieves was championed by Jully Black on Canada Reads 2018. Her latest is the novel Empire of Wild.

Speaking to thousands of readers and literary audiences over the past year there is one question that keeps coming up: who is allowed to tell Indigenous stories? There's a short answer, so here it is — we are. And then there is the longer answer, one that takes some convincing once I've shut the door on aspiring non-Indigenous writers of Indigenous stories, but one that needs to be heard.

Writing becomes the action and the argument that refuses to comply or allow history to continue on unchallenged and the future to develop unabated. In this way, stories become our battle plans and our peace treaties — they hold our records and influence our next steps.

We hold on to story. Stories are powerful, and stories are survival, in particular, for communities and peoples who seek to rebuild and persevere. Indigenous storytelling communities are surviving the longest and most multifaceted genocide effort, in part, through the preservation and handing-down of stories, stories which contain all the teachings, wisdom, encouragement and identity necessary to move forward as a people.

Stories become our battle plans and our peace treaties — they hold our records and influence our next steps.

It is imperative when we tell stories in an Indigenous context that there is connection to the nation(s) that we are speaking of or on behalf of, even in fiction — this is real survival. And survival is not just about living or cheating death. It's about having the original words to call out to family members. It's about carrying the teachings and words that locate ourselves and each other.

Stories about us have been wrong for too long — anthropological tomes that Other-ed and oppressed; fictional imaginings that took over the mainstream opinion; false narratives that built the collective understanding that we were 'primitive' that we are 'less than.' Cemented through generations of publications, the "Indian" became easy to dismiss, easy to claim and easy to kill. When stories about us get it wrong, we end up with policies and practices that seek to keep us alive only as figures of the past or imagination. We end up with residential schools, higher rates of missing and murdered women, girls and transwomen, the murderers of our youth are acquitted. We die.

It is literally a matter of life and death that we tell our own stories, that we create the narratives that allow us to live.

It is literally a matter of life and death that we tell our own stories, that we create the narratives that allow us to live. In publishing and the literary industry, our structures and knowledge have to wield influence. After all, it's not enough that we write the books, we must build the house in which they will be kept safe, according to community architectural planning and with our own tools.

And then there is this simple fact: when we tell our own stories, with our family histories, our intimate knowledge, our specific worldview, it's just the best storytelling there is. Why would you want anything less? Take the month of June as a beginning, a doorway to these stories. They are difficult, they are beautiful and they are some of the best we have to offer.

The epidemic of youth suicide in Indigenous communities preyed on Cherie Dimaline's mind. But what could she do to make a difference? Her solution: Write a novel where young, Indigenous people save the world.

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