mom reading to daughter


In This Time Of Isolation, I Think Own Voices Stories Are More Important Than Ever

Apr 22, 2020

Dad never liked the word reconciliation.

But my father and I used to talk about it, and we'd return to the topic often. Along with a group of elders, they were trying to come up with a better word in Cree. Cree’s a beautiful language. I can only speak a few words, but my father was fluent. I used to love listening to him talk because it sounded like poetry to me. One word can describe an entire action, rather than assign a term. Kíwew: He goes home. Kisináw: It is bitterly cold weather.

"Stories bring us together, even when we’re physically separated."

That’s what the elders were attempting. They were trying to find a word that describes an action.

And that’s what reconciliation is, in the end. It’s an action. A verb. At the time of dad’s passing, they still hadn’t come up with a word, which is interesting because those conversations with my father told me that the definition — the action — is clear.

For me, reconciliation comes down to, essentially, storytelling. That’s it. It sounds simple, but of course it’s not. None of this work is meant to be easy. I’ll try to break down why I think stories are important, in a number of different ways.

Storytelling As Healing

Within Indigenous families and communities, since time immemorial, stories have passed beliefs, values, histories, ways of living and legends, to current and future generations. That knowledge transfer helps to heal. We are able to heal when we tell our stories, and when we hear our stories told. Storytelling breaks through intergenerational trauma because it’s an act of intergenerational healing.

"Dad used to describe the action of healing as me, sitting across from you, and us telling stories to one another."

When stories are exchanged between individuals, families and communities from different backgrounds, they help us understand each other. Coming to understand each other helps us to heal, especially if it helps change misconceptions that have been engrained by a different kind of story altogether — a story that has been told about a marginalized group by somebody who doesn’t fully understand them. Ironically, a story that has been told by somebody who has not been told, or has not bothered to seek out, the kind of story I’m talking about.

Own Voices Stories

Own voices stories are ones that are told about a marginalized group by somebody who is a member of that marginalized group. Somebody who has lived experience, or who can understand that lived experienced through intergenerational connections. So, a residential school survivor talking about their experience in a residential school. Or a guy like me. I wrote When We Were Alone, a children's picture book about residential schools. I never went to a residential school, but my grandmother did. I’m a third-generation survivor. When We Were Alone is, then, an own voices story. It is a story of truth.

In this time of isolation, when we can feel less connected to each other, own voices stories are all the more important. Stories bring us together, even when we’re physically separated. That’s a good thing because healing doesn’t happen in a vacuum, and even if the world has ground to a halt, the work of reconciliation can push forward.

In short: just because I can’t see you, doesn’t mean that I can’t hear you.

Find 10 Indigenous children’s books, including When We Were Alone, here.

Dad used to describe the action of healing as me, sitting across from you, and us telling stories to one another. When it’s your turn to talk, I listen. When it’s my turn to talk, you listen. We listen, we learn. If we really listen, when we sit across from someone else, we will have more stories to tell. And if we’ve taken the time to seek out and hear stories that have been told from lived experiences, own voices stories, we will be equipped to tell stories of truth.

"I think we have an opportunity now, while we’re apart, to move closer together ...."

That is an action. That is healing.

I’ve had the same conversation with my five children that my father had with me. It’s a simple discussion, but vital. We’ve talked about the value of reading stories by marginalized artists about marginalized groups, how doing so can help them learn truths they may not have learned otherwise — and the importance of sharing that knowledge so that they can be teachers. After all, each one of us is a teacher. The question is: what will you teach?

I think we have an opportunity now, while we’re apart, to move closer together, and ever closer to the healing we desperately need. Seek out stories, and then do your part: share those stories of truth with others. That way, when we emerge, we will know each other better. And even though we won’t have seen each other for quite some time, somehow, we will be more familiar with one another.

Article Author David A. Robertson
David A. Robertson

Read more from David here.

David A. Robertson (he, him, his) is an award-winning writer. His books include When We Were Alone (Governor General’s Literary Award), Will I See? (Manuela Dias Book Design and Illustration Award), Betty: The Helen Betty Osborne Story (listed In The Margins), and the YA trilogy The Reckoner (Michael Van Rooy Award for Genre Fiction, McNally Robinson Best Book for Young People). David educates as well as entertains through his writings about Indigenous Peoples in Canada, reflecting their cultures, histories, communities, as well as illuminating many contemporary issues. David is a member of Norway House Cree Nation. He lives in Winnipeg with his wife and five children.