Why Indigenous Literatures Matter

Why Indigenous Literatures Matter

by Daniel Heath Justice

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Part survey of the field of Indigenous literary studies, part cultural history, and part literary polemic, Why Indigenous Literatures Matter asserts the vital significance of literary expression to the political, creative, and intellectual efforts of Indigenous peoples today.

In considering the connections between literature and lived experience, this book contemplates four key questions at the heart of Indigenous kinship traditions: How do we learn to be human? How do we become good relatives? How do we become good ancestors? How do we learn to live together? Blending personal narrative and broader historical and cultural analysis with close readings of key creative and critical texts, Justice argues that Indigenous writers engage with these questions in part to challenge settler-colonial policies and practices that have targeted Indigenous connections to land, history, family, and self. More importantly, Indigenous writers imaginatively engage the many ways that communities and individuals have sought to nurture these relationships and project them into the future.

This provocative volume challenges readers to critically consider and rethink their assumptions about Indigenous literature, history, and politics while never forgetting the emotional connections of our shared humanity and the power of story to effect personal and social change. Written with a generalist reader firmly in mind, but addressing issues of interest to specialists in the field, this book welcomes new audiences to Indigenous literary studies while offering more seasoned readers a renewed appreciation for these transformative literary traditions.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781771121781
Publisher: Wilfrid Laurier University Press
Publication date: 03/08/2018
Series: Indigenous Studies
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 306
File size: 3 MB

About the Author

Daniel Heath Justice (Cherokee Nation) is Canada Research Chair in Indigenous Literature and Expressive Culture at the University of British Columbia. A widely published scholar in Indigenous literary studies, he is the co-editor of the groundbreaking Oxford Handbook of Indigenous American Literature (2014) and author of a Cherokee literary history, a cultural history of badgers, and an Indigenous epic fantasy series.

Read an Excerpt


How Do We Learn to Be Human?

Raven shaped us; we are built for transformation. Our stories prepare us for it. Find freedom in the context you inherit — every context is different: discover consequences and change from within, that is the challenge. Still, there is horror at having change foisted upon you from outside.


Although we are born into human bodies, it's our teachings — and our stories — that make us human. Whatever our particular gifts or limitations, no matter how our specific biology influences our decisions and behaviours, our humanity is far greater than the simple consequence of being born into the species Homo sapiens. The exchange of DNA is as much an accident of history as it is an act of will, and culture and kinship travel different (though often parallel) currents. Our biology is only a very small part of our humanity; the rest is a process of becoming.

We tend to like our metaphors, analogies, weathered old chestnuts, quick-and-easy examples, especially for this most elemental of questions. In the old "nature vs. nurture" debate, we might think of nature being the clay and nurture the act of sculpting. The medium of clay determines much of what can be achieved, but it's the care or negligence of the sculptor that has the greater influence. Of course, this presumes that the clay itself has no further role to play than to simply be, and it also ignores the ways that moisture, light, temperature, and other environmental conditions can affect both the process and the final result, so in the end this hackneyed metaphor, like most, falls short. Metaphors alone can't encompass what it is to be human, nor can lived experience.

For that, we need stories.

We learn to be human from everything around us, as the worlds we inhabit help to define both the limits and the possibilities of our humanity. And because the specificities of each of our experiential worlds is different — as Lee Maracle writes above, the contexts we inherit — there can never be a single way of being or becoming human, though no doubt some ways have a great deal in common with one another. That's the role of experience, of teaching, and of story — to help us find ways of meaningful being in whatever worlds we inhabit, whatever contexts we've inherited. This is what I take Thomas King's oft-quoted words to mean: "The truth about stories is that that's all we are." Our lives are incarnations of the stories we tell, the stories told about us, and the stories we inherit. They are both the process and the consequence of the transformations into the fullness of our humanity. Indeed, without those stories, without the teachings about the who, how, and why of us, something is profoundly, almost existentially amiss. We don't need to speak them to live them; even those not given voice are inextricably embraided in our sense of self. We know ourselves only through stories. The unstoried life is a terrible thing to comprehend, a soul-deep desolation.

Yet not all the stories that shape us are our own. Most, inevitably, are not, and these are the legacies we inherit, the formative context of our being. That's part of the beauty and frightening power of story: sometimes the shaping stories are an empowering blessing, sometimes they're a disfiguring curse, sometimes they offer a bit of both shadow and light. But they're always part of who we know ourselves to be.

Although the US-based Ojibwe writer Louise Erdrich is rightly famous as a prolific and award-winning novelist, it's her small nonfiction travelogue about writing and reading, Books and Islands in Ojibwe Country, that I like best, in part because it so beautifully articulates the profound human longing for stories that crosses space and time. In the book, Erdrich travels through northern Minnesota to the Great Lakes region of southern Ontario on a kind of memory quest, mapping Ojibwe writing through the land, language, and history of her people. She notes that her own career is both a personal calling and a natural extension of cultural values, gesturing even to one possible origin of the word "Ojibwe" itself: "The meaning that I like best of course is Ojibwe from the verb Ozhibii'ige, which is 'to write.' Ojibwe people were great writers from way back and synthesized the oral and written tradition by keeping mnemonic scrolls of inscribed birchbark. The first paper, the first books." Throughout the journey, Erdrich punctuates each chapter with the refrain "Books. Why?" and offers different answers each time. At the book's end, after she has returned home to Minnesota, she reflects on a question she's pondered since childhood: if stranded alone on a desert island with just one book, which book would you want it to be? It's an anxiety- producing question for any book lover, let alone a writer and bookstore owner, but her answer is simple, and brilliant: a dictionary, the source of endless story possibilities. And then she offers the following thoughts, almost a departing blessing:

Books. Why?

So I can talk to other humans without having to meet them.

Fear of boredom.

So that I will never be alone.

The aloneness of reading isn't loneliness. With books and other stories, whether experienced in solitude or lived community, we abide in human presence beyond the flesh and blood of personal experience. It's a remarkable alchemy, this storied transformation of self to other, and back again.

When we're in the presence of stories, we're never truly alone. But that's not to say that all stories are welcome companions. We must take care with the company we keep, for some of these stories do far more harm than good. And the stories of how we become and remain human are some of the most dangerous of all.

* * *

The struggle to understand and articulate our humanity is at the heart of most literatures, customs, laws, faiths, nationalisms, identities — even our basic sense of self. All peoples have developed complicated understandings of that existential question and the ways it has fascinated, frustrated, and frightened all human cultures throughout our varied histories. Some of these understandings are expansive and generous, considering the category of human to be a broad and multidimensional one that includes kinship with a whole range of beings that share something we might call "humanity," while others — perhaps most — are more narrow in their definition, limiting "human" to specific classes of beings, with powers and privileges distributed accordingly. It's what Nigerian storyteller Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (Igbo) so brilliantly warns about in her 2009 TED Talk, "The Danger of a Single Story," wherein she identifies Euro-western literature as a particularly insidious purveyor of corrosive singular stories about all kinds of peoples, especially those of lands colonized by Europeans — in this case, the "authentically African" story that presumes that there's only one narrative that represents thousands of cultures and millions of people over one of the largest land masses on Earth. And she makes the point that the expression of the single story is inherently an expression of power:

Power is the ability not just to tell the story of another person, but to make it the definitive story of that person. The Palestinian poet Mourid Barghouti writes that if you want to dispossess a people, the simplest way to do it is to tell their story and to start with, "secondly." Start the story with the arrows of the Native Americans, and not with the arrival of the British, and you have an entirely different story. Start the story with the failure of the African state, and not with the colonial creation of the African state, and you have an entirely different story.

Single stories are shallow, but easily mobilized to support inequality, bigotry, and self-interest. Complexity challenges manipulation — it's why the most cynical politicians and talking heads go out of their way to evade complexity and opt for the sound bite, or, when that fails, excessive volume. Yet even in more exclusive contexts that insist upon singularity over multiplicity, the privileged category of the moment is always in flux — it's inevitable, as the complications of the world and its myriad relations evade these simplistic categories, and stories find their way free to disturb the status quo and to liberate people to express all the rich, bewildering diversity of their lived experiences.

In thinking about how we learn to be human, we also have to keep firmly in mind that Indigenous traditions generally don't limit the category of person solely to the human. As humans, we're simply one of many peoples, and depending on the tradition, there are also animal people, bird people, rock people, fish people, and so on, alongside human people. Multiplicity is inherent in kinship; good relations require acknowledgement and, importantly, mindful accommodation of difference. All these peoples have their languages; all have customs, habits, strengths, weaknesses, and personalities. For all we know — and certainly Indigenous traditions teach us that it's the case — these other peoples have their own story traditions, too. And many of the mainstream settler culture's assumptions about which qualities are entirely unique to humans — language, a moral sense, rationality, tool use, etc. — have little purchase in cultures where untold generations of close observation and abiding relationship have given ample evidence otherwise.

The mainstream is also increasingly out of step with Eurowestern science, especially ethology, the study of animal behaviour, which continues to demonstrate just how little we understand about the complex subjectivities of our other-than-human neighbours, especially when it's a self-referential comparison with our own limited sensory comprehension of the world: crows and badgers and bonobos use tools; whales and prairie dogs have grammatically rich vocabularies; dogs can assess the fairness of situations; elephants grieve their dead; octopuses problem-solve and create underwater gardens arranged in ways practical and even pleasing to octopus aesthetics. The list is as varied as the species. And why do we even ask why animals aren't more like humans? We wouldn't measure so well against migratory birds in assessing travel based on the Earth's geomagnetic field, after all. In fact, we'd utterly fail that test on our own merit and without the benefit of technological assistance, and might well be considered quite stupid and barely sentient if bird sense was the standard against which we were measured.

The only thing that really seems to be unique about humans as a species is our capacity for wilful, self-deluding destruction. We're really good at killing, maiming, and spoiling things, and doing it with pleasure. And we always have been — Indigenous traditions are well stocked with warnings against human destructiveness and lessons for more respectful co-existence with our other-than-human relatives. In Cherokee tradition, for example, it is humanity's mindless cruelty that leads to the presence of disease and suffering in the world; as a result of widespread slaughter of our beast-kin, the chiefs of the various Animal and Bird peoples cursed us with every imaginable disease and debilitating ailment. It's only due to the generosity of the Plant peoples that we've managed to survive to this point, as they each provided a cure to one of the Animal-inflicted maladies. And although some cultures and many individuals have worked to act more responsibly in our relationships with these other-than-human peoples, as a species we've repaid their generosity with wide-scale extinction, deforestation, climate catastrophe, and poisoning of the earth, air, and waters.

The deeper you go into definitions of the human, the less clear and more arbitrary everything becomes. We find ourselves to be more like other animals, and our dependence on the other-than-human world becomes even more evident. This isn't a bad thing; indeed, it should make us humble and thoughtful. But it doesn't, not really, at least not on the planetary scale. While many traditional peoples continue to practise lives of accountability and honour with the world, a great resource-consuming mass of humanity is busy ravaging those delicate threads of interdependence. The horrors of factory farming are worse than ever, and as we become more distanced from the actual animal lives and deaths associated with our meat consumption, the suffering of untold numbers of fellow creatures becomes increasingly abstract; neonicotinoid use is devastating bee and other insect populations, but rather than reflect on the unfolding catastrophe, pesticide industries are lobbying for even more environmental deregulation. These are only two of a litany of examples, and the list is long and ugly. The world increasingly becomes a commodity to be purchased, consumed, and flushed away (but to where?) to poison the lands and oceans and skies that we all depend upon for survival.

In such a perspective, there are still plenty of folks out there who will insist on not just our distinctiveness but also our unchallenged superiority. While not entirely a result of colonialism, this attitude is deeply entrenched in settler colonial cultures that are themselves embedded in culturally specific understandings of what it is to be human. In the Eurowest, the dominant stories of humanity are rooted in the Abrahamic traditions, notably those of the militant, hierarchical versions of Christianity that have justified centuries of expansion, invasion, expropriation, and exploitation; while there have always been other Christian traditions, these by and large have had a negligible impact on colonialist policy and practice. In the dominant Abrahamic stories, there is a fiercely maintained boundary between human and nonhuman, and even in the former category, there is a clear hierarchy: men are more human than women, European colonizers are more human than Indigenous and other colonized peoples, the rich and titled are more human than the poor and oppressed, Christian capitalists are more human than animist traditionalists, and so on. While the Enlightenment wrested much of the West's interpretive authority away from Christianity, its fundamental structure didn't change; European philosophical and scientific traditions remain heavily invested in an ethos of human exclusivity.

Not surprisingly, artistic and ceremonial representations of their solitary deity (or, for Christian Trinitarians, a three-in-one god) fully reinforce the social hierarchies, most often showing some version of a white patriarch in white robes surveying and/or judging the world of his unassisted creation. He could be an old man (Jehovah) or a young man (Jesus), and he might be surrounded by his celestial host or the writhing souls of the damned, but either way he generally stands alone atop the cosmic order with an air of unassailable authority. And when the creeds of this socio-religious tradition insist that "man was made in his own image," it's no great leap to see how an exclusivist god of the heavens is used as a divine model and mandate for narrower hierarchical definitions of humanity on earth.

Yet for all the bluster and self-justifying rhetoric of the social hierarchs, the insistence on these firm boundaries is far from a sign of confidence. If anything, it's clear evidence of a fundamental insecurity, a concern that their singular vision doesn't quite hold up to close scrutiny, that the diversity of humanity is far too complex and dynamic to be contained in their limited definitions. And as new information and contrary evidence is brought to bear on the question, it's either dismissed, attacked, co-opted, or gradually incorporated into the dominant order, destabilizing the power structure's claims to monolithic authority while reinforcing its seeming inevitability. Only rarely does new knowledge break down that existing structure. Yet the destabilization is significant, as it opens and empowers spaces of dissent that make possible the larger, more important transformations.

* * *

In those Indigenous cultural understandings that have withstood such colonial intrusions, the status of "human" is intimately embedded in kinship relations. It's why some version of the question "Who's your family?" or "Who are your people?" continues to be so important in Indigenous conversations: such questions don't just connect you to a lineage, however that may be understood — they place you in a meaningful context with your diverse relatives and the associated relationships of obligation, where you have people who claim you and who have, hopefully, trained you well in the ways of being a good human being. In other words, kinship isn't just a thing, it's an active network of connections, a process of continual acknowledgement and enactment. To be human is to practise humanness.

It's why even those of us not brought up on the land or in community publicly affirm our affiliations: to say that I'm a citizen of the Cherokee Nation is, in some way, to acknowledge not just my genealogical and kinship connections to a particular polity in a particular place (distinguished from those of the Eastern Band of Cherokees or the United Keetoowah Band), but to acknowledge that I belong to them, to whatever degree they decide to claim me, which in turn is to take up as best I can the responsibilities that come from that acknowledgement. And even that's not the end of the story. I might belong as a Cherokee in certain recognizable ways, but those aren't static either, and other Cherokees will let me know to what degree I'm legible to them as a Cherokee person, absent other linguistic, religious, and land- based relationships. Layer upon layer, complication after complication. And it all comes down, in one way or another, to kinship.

One of the richest novels about Indigenous kinship is Waterlily, by the Yankton Sioux ethnologist Ella Cara Deloria. Written in the first half of the twentieth century and unpublished during her lifetime, it was drawn from her widely lived and professional experience, as well as extensive interviews with traditional Dakota community members, and offers a powerful account of Dakota lives and lifeways from their full experience on the edge of American settler colonialism. Its terminology and language are somewhat dated, and the stiff formal register can be a bit off-putting for those more inclined toward today's emotive prose. At times, the novel's gender dynamics are uncomfortably resonant with the broader patriarchal norms of Deloria's time, and perhaps demonstrate more than a passing influence of Judeo-Christian intrusions, especially given her family's deep Episcopalian faith and her own precarious position as a strong-minded woman committed to respectfully representing women's experiences in a profession that privileged men overwhelmingly, both in scholarly focus and in career advancement. Yet for all these challenges, Waterlily remains a finely crafted novelistic study of the ways that kinship shapes self and identity, and of how the contexts of our relationships determine who we understand ourselves to be and what our duties are as a result.


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Table of Contents

Acknowledgements xiii

Preface / Notes for the Long Rebellion xvi

Introduction Stories That Wound, Stories That Heal 1

Chapter 1 How Do We Learn to Be Human? 33

Chapter 2 How Do We Behave as Good Relatives? 71

Chapter 3 How Do We Become Good Ancestors? 113

Chapter 4 How Do We Learn to Live Together? 157

Chapter 5 Reading the Ruptures 183

Conclusion Keeping a Fire 205

Appendix A Year of #HonouringIndigenousWriters 213

Bibliographic Essay / Citational Relations 241

Copyright Acknowledgements 265

Index 267

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