Unreserved

'Our stories give us a lot of guidance': Daniel Heath Justice on why Indigenous literatures matter

The stories we take in have a lasting impact on our inner and outer worlds, explained author and scholar Daniel Heath Justice. When Justice thinks about the importance of stories, he thinks about much more than written texts. 
Daniel Heath Justice is the author of Why Indigenous Literatures Matter. (Melvin Yap)

The stories we take in have a lasting impact on our inner and outer worlds, explained author and scholar Daniel Heath Justice. 

Justice is the author of Why Indigenous Literatures Matter, he's also a professor in Indigenous studies and English at the University of British Columbia, and a citizen of the Cherokee Nation.

When Justice thinks about the importance of stories, he thinks about much more than written texts. 

"I'm thinking of our traditional stories. I'm thinking of our family stories, the dreams and fantasies and imaginings of worlds that haven't yet come into being, or may never come into being. I'm thinking of poems and songs and all of the ways that we articulate our being in the world, past, present and future."

Justice spoke to Unreserved host Rosanna Deerchild about the stories that he's turning to during the COVID-19 pandemic.

There's a traditional Cherokee story about how disease entered the world, Justice recounted to Deerchild. 

The story illustrates that "there are consequences to not being in good relation with the world," he explained. It's a story that's been resonating in Justice's thoughts these past weeks. 

"What does it mean now to be in better relation in a world that is so out of balance?" he asked.

'Imagine otherwise'

"Indigenous peoples know what it is to face the end of the world many, many times. And I think our stories give us a lot of guidance, and also speak to a life beyond the despair of the now." 

"Imagine otherwise" is a phrase that's central to Justice's work. 

"I think it's really hard to live in a different way without being able to imagine what that might be," said Justice. "We are all, in various ways, the result of our ancestors' imaginings beyond whatever they were experiencing."

"We're not the first generation to deal with pretty profound traumas. We probably won't be the last," he said. 

"Many of our ancestors were able to imagine otherwise. And I think we are the embodiment of their dreams for the future. And so we've got to dream for those yet to come, and hopefully dream a better world and a better set of possibilities for them." 

Stories are "absolutely essential" for imagining otherwise, said Justice. 

"As humans, we are storied creatures and we're constantly working to restore and re-story our being in the world. I can't think of anything more important to who we are as human beings than the stories we share about ourselves, and share about our relations in the world." 

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