The People and the Text: Indigenous Writing in Northern North America to 1992 will collect and study one of the most neglected literary archives in English Canada, an archive neglected because settlers used literature to consolidate a narrative of Canada starring the British-descended resulting in university curricula that featured the British canon. The 1960s produced a nationalist canon that Margaret Atwood noted, in her influential book, Survival, obscured Indigenous people as “real inhabitants of a land” (105). Rather than subject this archive to the typical methods of a field that until recently has ignored or appropriated Indigenous intellectual production, we ask how it might be possible to work out specifically Indigenous literary research methods to study it.
We know that postcolonial theory devised a new framework for approaching the written literatures of colonized peoples and we know that other disciplines have devised research ethics that emphasize the right to participate in and benefit from research (in Health it is the 4 R’s: respect, reciprocity, relevance, and responsibility; in data collection it is OCAP: ownership, control, access, possession). Indigenous and settler scholars of oral story have begun this work in particular communities (e.g. Armstrong; Archibald; Cruikshank; Wickwire). What we do not know yet is how to transform typical literary method so that it fully takes into consideration the specific intellectual traditions and genres of Indigenous literatures. Nor have we established “promising practices” for literary scholars to enable research that is responsive and responsible to relevant Indigenous communities and individuals.
Aboriginal research methodologies and literary criticism have developed along divergent tracks,
mainly because literary scholars typically do not work with or hold themselves accountable to the communities that produce the literature they study. Our project will bridge this gap to produce the most comprehensive literary history of the period and new ways of training literary scholars by consulting and working collaboratively with specific Indigenous communities.
Context: In 2013 Amherst College in Massachusetts acquired one of the most comprehensive private collections of early books by Native American authors, a rich resource for researchers in our field; while there are libraries in Canada with impressive collections (e.g. Brandon University; UBC’s Xwi7xwa),there is no library with the same breadth. We will search this and other collections (real and virtual) to recover and analyse early works written in what is now Canada up to 1992, the 500th anniversary of Columbus’ arrival on the continent, but also the beginning of a period when an amazing new group of Indigenous writers finally began to receive the attention they deserved from readers and scholars. We want to show that they were not, in fact, simply writing as Canadian authors, but out of a much longer Indigenous tradition of writing and publication that has yet to receive proper critical assessment or historical contextualization.
The ethical pitfalls for literary critics in this field have long been made clear by works such as E.
Pauline Johnson’s “A Strong Race Opinion on the Indian Girl in Modern Fiction” (1892), Lenore
Keeshig-Tobias’s “Stop Stealing Native Stories” (1989), Helen Hoy’s How Should I Read These?: Native Women Writers in Canada (2001), and Sophie McCall’s First Person Plural: Aboriginal Storytelling and the Ethics of Collaborative Authorship (2011). Accepting the welcome of Indigenous texts into a necessary conversation of equals requires a risky move out of institutionalized and hierarchical disciplinary ways of knowing. English literary studies arose along with colonization, and “great works” were interpreted and taught as evidence of the superior civilization of the British. Past disciplinary ideologies connect to regimes of compulsory monocultural education in residential schools, the punishment of children for using their mother tongues, and the neglect, misunderstanding and misrepresentation of the cultures encountered on “discovery.”
It is in this context that works produced by Indigenous writers in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries often had difficulty finding publication and subsequently often have been dismissed as inadequate or irrelevant. In opposition to this is the work of Osage scholar Robert Warrior who argues, in The People and the Word (2005), that this past body of writing constitutes a transnational intellectual tradition that can and should inform the contemporary work of Native intellectuals in order to “contribute to improving the intellectual health of Native America, its people and its communities” (xiv). Yet while scholars in hemispheric Indigenous studies have been at the forefront in supporting the value of neglected Indigenous literatures, given the small number of these scholars, these literatures will often be taught by non-experts who need support to provide a historical, geographical and culture specific context for their interpretations. Fortunately, Indigenous writers and speakers, familiar with two epistemologies, often instruct the mainstream audience on interpretation. Here, for example, is the epigraph to George Clutesi’s Potlatch (1969): “This narrative is not meant to be documentary. In fact it is meant to evade documentation. It is meant for the reader to say I was there and indeed I saw.” Clutesi resists having his text read into a Western genre and instead invites readers into the Nuu-chah-nulth longhouse. We begin reading as guests and witnesses whose duty is to respect Indigenous cultural protocols (Carlson et al. You Are Asked to Witness).