'We are very much here': Newfoundland's vibrant history of Indigenous writing

Newfoundland has a vibrant history of Indigenous writing that’s been obscured over the years, but is now being rediscovered and celebrated. As part of the George Story Distinguished Lecture series at Memorial University, professor Kristina Bidwell shares the rich and complex world of Newfoundland’s Indigenous literature and points to the collaborations taking place right now.

Professor Kristina Bidwell celebrates the thriving presence of Indigenous writers in Newfoundland & Labrador

Chief Mi'sel Joe (left) and Sheila O'Neill (right) are standing beside their book cover, My Indian. They are co-authors.
My Indian is written collaboratively by Mi’kmaq writers Chief Mi’sel Joe (left) and Sheila O’Neill (right) and was published in 2021. The young adult historical novel 'is a moment of Indigenous cultural renaissance in Newfoundland and Labrador,' says Inuit professor Kristina Bidwell. (Breakwater Books)

*Originally published on Feb. 15, 2023.

Kristina Fagan Bidwell sees an Indigenous literary and cultural renaissance taking place in Newfoundland and Labrador. And she's picked up on a key aspect of that renaissance: the flowering of collaborations among Indigenous writers, elders, and storytellers.

The literature professor, and member of NunatuKavut (the Inuit community of Southern Labrador), argues that the desire of many Indigenous artists to collaborate speaks to a legacy of Newfoundland's entry into Confederation in 1949.

"Joey Smallwood at the moment of Confederation basically erased Indigenous people," Bidwell told IDEAS host Nahlah Ayed. "For Indigenous people, what he represented was this moment of erasure."

"Indigenous people were literally pencilled out. There was some discussion of putting some kind of recognition of Indigenous people in the terms of union, and it was crossed out," explained Bidwell.

Bidwell credits the current cultural flowering to the successes of long political fights to get Indigenous people recognized. 

"These fights are not entirely over but I think that Indigenous people here can begin to put their energies into other things, into creativity."

Bidwell added that right now is a pivotal time in reclaiming history.

 "This is a moment that is, in many ways, similar to that Newfoundland cultural renaissance of 50 years ago," she said.

"As Indigenous people, we're now saying publicly that, although we too were 'supposed to have disappeared,' we are very much here."

Bidwell presented her research into literary collaboration in November as part of the annual George Story Distinguished Lecturer series, hosted by Memorial University.

Listen to Kristina Fagan Bidwell's lecture by clicking the play button above or watch here:

Guests in this episode:

Kristina Fagan Bidwell has been a scholar of Indigenous literatures based at the University of Saskatchewan for over 20 years, most recently as Canada Research Chair in Indigenous Storytelling. She is currently a visiting researcher at Memorial. 

Sheila O'Neill and Chief Mi'sel Joe are co-authors of My Indian

Shannon Webb Campbell is a mixed Indigenous (Mi'kmaq) settler poet, writer, and critic. Her collections include I Am a Body of Land, and Lunar Tides. 

Tshaukuesh Elizabeth Penashue is the author of Nitinikiau Innusi: I Keep the Land Alive.

Elizabeth Yeoman is a retired professor in the Faculty of Education at Memorial University, and a writer and translator. Her works include the English translation of Tshaukuesh's book, and also a nonfiction book about collaboration, Exactly What I Said. 

Lee Maracle was a writer and critic, academic, Officer of the Order of Canada, and winner of many national and international awards for her books. She was a member of the Stó:lō Nation, the daughter of a Métis mother and Salish father and a granddaughter of Chief Dan George. 

Ellen Ford is an Inuk elder, knowledge keeper, and language teacher. 

The music used in this episode is from the Nagamo / Storytellers production music library, a collaboration between ImagiNative and Bedtracks. The main track used is "Rebuild" by Greyson Roy Gritt, Cynthia Pitsiulak, and Charlotte Qaminaq.

*This episode was produced by Tom Howell.

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