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Elements of Indigenous style: Author shares 5 common mistakes editors make

Gregory Younging was working as the managing editor of Theytus Books, the first Indigenous-owned publishing house, when he started noticing problems popping up in Indigenous literature. He created Elements of Indigenous Style, to answer common questions of style and process that the literary world had with Indigenous literature.
Greg Younging wrote Elements of Indigenous Style when he noticed that editors had a lot of questions about Indigenous literature. (Provided by Greg Younging/Bush Education Inc.)

Gregory Younging, originally from Opaskwayak Cree Nation, Man. was working as the managing editor of Theytus Books — an Indigenous-owned publishing house — when he started noticing problems popping up in Indigenous literature.

He created Elements of Indigenous Style, to answer common questions of style and process that the literary world had regarding Indigenous literature.  

Younging said editors and publishers had a lot of questions about "the best terminology to use, how to refer to aspects of Indigenous culture in literatures, [and] if it was appropriate to write about certain aspects of Indigenous cultures?"

I see contemporary Indigenous literatures as part of the continuum going back to our oral traditions and traditional stories ... which pre-date CanLit by millennia.- Gregory Younging

In addition to the problems faced by editors, Younging said that Indigenous writers across Canada were having negative experiences when trying to get their books published. 

"I was hearing stories — and I knew that this was happening — that Indigenous writers who were getting published by non-Indigenous publishers and edited by non-Indigenous editors, were having bad editorial experiences," said Younging.

"Because the editors were not understanding where Indigenous peoples were coming from, what Indigenous protocols are all about, and even the traumatic histories that Indigenous peoples have been through in the colonization process — so there was a lack of sensitivity there."

One of the biggest misconceptions that the publishing world has of Indigenous literature in Canada is that it is a subcategory of CanLit, said Younging.

"I see contemporary Indigenous literatures as part of the continuum going back to our oral traditions and traditional stories and the storytelling traditions of the different Indigenous nations, which pre-date CanLit by millennia," he explained.

"There's a great quote by Warren Cariou, he says that not all Indigenous writers write in the style of the oral tradition, but all Indigenous writers are influenced by the oral tradition."

Younging said that conditions are improving for Indigenous writers working in the Canadian literary world, but added a recent incident highlights that we still have a long ways to go.

"In this era of Indigenization and decolonization that were are supposedly in ... small spaces [for Indigenous writers] that are scattered across the Canadian literary landscape are widening a little bit," said Younging.

"But it certainly doesn't help when we get incidences like Hal Niedzviecki statements last May about the cultural appropriation prize … it makes those spaces smaller again."

Younging said these are some of the most common mistakes made by editors about Indigenous literature:

  • That non-Indigenous people can write about Indigenous communities and interpret their culture through their own perspectives.
  • That because Indigenous people are modern, they are no longer authentic. Editors assume that "when Indigenous peoples participate in modernity, they are turning their backs on their ancestors." 

  • Indigenous people are written about in the past tense, when they are in fact very much alive and thriving.  

  • That Indigenous literature is a subcategory of CanLit.

  • That publishers have the right to publish traditional stories — a trend Younging sees in children's literature. 

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