Longread: Consultation, permission and Indigenous protocol
The books, Who Took My Sister? by Shannon Webb-Campbell and In Case I Go by Angie Abdou, have both sparked conversations of who should be telling Indigenous stories, and when to ask for permission.
Often, before authors write about Indigenous culture, community or share personal stories, they consult and collaborate with those they are writing about.
Delilah Saunders wrote an article after reading a poem included in Who Took My Sister? She said the author of that book did not contact the family for permission to include a poem about her sister, Loretta Saunders.
"I was disturbed and very upset by the descriptive and unnecessary imagery that Webb-Campbell used when talking about my sister's brain being bounced and her body being mangled. I can't bring myself to share the poem with my parents or family. I'm unsure if she consciously decided to not reach out to my family because she knew no family would agree to having their loved one written about in such gory detail, or if she is just that out of touch with the protocols that exist in our Indigenous communities."
The author, Shannon Webb-Campbell issued a statement that read in part:
"I want to apologize from the depths of my being for the poems that explicitly convey details found in public news articles about the murder of your sister, Loretta Saunders, published in my book Who Took My Sister? with Book*hug.
As a settler-Mi'kmaq writer, who did not grow up within my culture due to colonialism and the ripple effects of intergenerational trauma, I was unaware around the protocol of writing material of this nature.
I feel very ashamed by my lack of knowledge, understanding, and what now looks like a complete act of disregard, when ultimately, the instinct to write the work came from a place of heart, advocacy and solidarity. A place of poetry. I understand now, perhaps, this is not how it translates. Again, I am deeply sorry. Your sister's life is far more than a poem.
"Book*hug acknowledges that prior to publication, we were unaware that Shannon Webb-Campbell had not contacted the families of MMIWG to discuss the sensitive nature of the work. We are aware that this was a topic of discussion during the editorial process, and understand that her decision does not follow Indigenous protocol with regard to these matters.
Book*hug also acknowledges a sincere regret that our team failed to ensure that this protocol was followed as part of the publication process with Shannon's book. For this we take full responsibility. We see our mistake as an opportunity to learn how to be better publishers, and are taking action to ensure that this will never happen again."
Angie Abdou is a Canadian fiction writer and the author of five books. In Case I Go tells the story of a young boy named Eli. He and his parents return to their small home town where Eli befriends a Ktunaxa girl named Mary.
While Abdou did consult and collaborate with Indigenous peoples for the book, she still faced backlash.
"We are, understandably, not at a point in history where white people are invited to write about Indigenous peoples. Still, I had invested considerable time and energy in a novel I believed in. I had to figure out what to do with it. I knew I needed to consult with Indigenous people, with Ktunaxa people. But how? I had no set of rules, and I found the prospect terrifying. What if I approached the Ktunaxa and they were angry or hostile? What if they didn't like me? What if they said no?"
After that piece was published, Troy Sebastian, a Ktunaxa writer published a rebuttal.
From Quill & Quire: Misrepresentation and the truth of Ktunaxa consent: A response from Ktunaxa Nation Council
"The primary misrepresentation in the article is that In Case I Go was released "with Ktunaxa Nation Council's enthusiastic support and with the Ktunaxa elders' approval." These assertions are not supported by the facts. The Ktunaxa Nation Council did not provide any formal endorsement of the book. To claim otherwise is a misrepresentation of the outcome of the consultation process undertaken by Ktunaxa Nation Council. Therein lies the essence of the grievance."
The discussion on this topic attracted the attention of author and editor Jonathan Kay, who decided to weigh in.
From Quillette: "Canada Has Gone Mad": Indigenous Representation and the Hounding of Angie Abdou
"The case shows how the war against cultural appropriation can be leveraged to corrupt the very way in which literature is conceived. According to Abdou's most prominent critic, the best way to tell indigenous stories is through collectively approved celebratory works that advance the community's cause and image. But of course, governments around the world produce this sort of writing all of the time. The word we often use to describe it is propaganda. And no one would ever confuse it with true literature."