When I was musing on the possibilities for a reading list of indigenous authors, almost all of my favourites were fiction (just one memoir and some poetry snuck in). It just happened! But halfway through the reading year, I read the Summary Report of the Truth and Reconcilation Committee with my reading for the Tenth Annual Canadian Challenge, and knew that I needed to read more non-fiction like it.
Then, four volumes of poetry by Marilyn Dumont snuck in before I pulled a variety of other books from the shelf to try to mend the gap. First up was Me Funny (2006), an anthology compiled and edited by Drew Hayden Taylor.
“One Big Indian” by Allan J. Ryan, “Teasing, Tolerating, Teaching: Laughter and Community in Native Literature” by Kristina Fagan, “And Now, Ladies and Gentlemen, Get Ready for Some (Ab)Original Stand-up Comedy” by Don Kelly, “Whacking the Indigenous Funny Bone: Political Correctness vs. Native Humour, Round One” by Drew Hayden Taylor, “Cree-atively Speaking” by Janice Acoose and Natasha Beeds, “Canadian Native Playwrights’ Winning Weapon of Resistance” by Mirjam Hirch, “How To Be as Funny as an Indian” by Ian Ferguson, “Buffalo Tales and Academic Trails” by Karen Froman, “Ruby Lips” by Louise Profeit-Leblanc, “Why Cree Is the Funniest of All Languages” by Tomson Highway, and “The Dead Dog Café Comedy Hour” by Thomas King.
Even without glimpsing the text, you might get a sense of the variety of materials herein, and the tone of the pieces varies dramatically as well. There are proper essays and actual jokes: the link is the content.
In one instance, you are reading footnotes and rereading sentences and reaching for a dictionary, and in another you are coasting through a stand-up routine and reaching for another beer. (Yes, whether or not it’s funny, to have beer play a role in native comedy: that comes up. More than once.)
Reading this over the course of several weeks, one essay at a time with plenty of space around each, the variety was stimulating and inspiring; if I had read it in a single sitting, I might have found it disorienting, but instead it made me think and it made me laugh (in equal measures).
Also provoking a variety of emotions, was Bev Sellars’ memoir They Called Me Number One: Secrets and Survival at an Indian Residential School (2015).
One aspect of this memoir which stands out is her grappling with the positive experiences she had at residential school, which carry their own emotional weight because they cannot be separated from the horrifying aspects of her experience and, yet, they are valid.
She developed solid friendships with some other students (one, in particular, who began as her protector) and some of her teachers showed sincerity and kindness (she even witnessed one teacher openly chastise another for using the strap, threatening the abuser’s own physical safety if he continued to use it).
Experiences shared with other survivors’ tales include personal effects being stripped as soon as the children arrived at school (e.g. traditional clothing), punishments for speaking their mother tongues, fabricated letters sent to family to report positive experiences, numbness replacing the pain which is perpetrated, abuse of all kinds (including night-time horrors), and youth suicides and mysterious deaths. But Bev Sellars’ decision to share a variety of experiences might broaden readers’ understanding in an unexpected way.
The legacy of pain and sadness remains, and in some ways the description of the happier moments only makes those aspects of her memoir that much more painful. Yes, they did have fun on weekends, and there were games and sports which allowed some students access to travel and to experiences which they would not have had if they have been raised with their parents. It creates a fuller picture of the students’ everyday lives, but it does not detract from the abuse and the systematic efforts to destroy her people. The photographs she shares also add tremendously to readers’ understanding.
Our Story: Aboriginal Voices on Canada’s Past (2004) includes pieces by Tantoo Cardinal, Tomson Highway, Basil Johnston, Thomas King, Brian Maracle, Lee Maracle, Jowette Marchessault, Rachel A. Qitsualik and Drew Hayden Taylor.
The first piece is the perfect opener, Brian Maracle’s retelling of the Rotinonhsyón:ni (also known as the people of the Six Nations Iroquois Confederacy) Creation story, “The First Words”. It is an excellent reminder that setting the record straight is not simply a matter of including other voices, of allowing other voices (which have been silenced) the opportunity to speak their truths.
The very language which we use to enlarge our understanding and which we recognise as a tool and a means of insight must also be flexible, must to open to change. There is only one word for ‘we’ in English, for instance, but four words for ‘we’ in the Rotinonhsyón:ni language, which reveals the culture’s focus on people and relationships (correspondingly, less emphasis on nouns and things and objects). ‘We’ (a relatively exclusionary ‘we’, such as it is) must peer closely, ask questions and pay attention.
Beyond this piece, the volume contains works by two of my MRE (MustReadEverything) authors, so of course that was a treat. But less familar to me was the voice of Rachel A. Qitsualik, whose work I’ve only peeked at before, in a collection of frightening Inuit tales. In “Skraeling”, readers explore a “possible meeting” between the “dogsledding progenitors of Inuit (‘Thule’) culture out of Alaska” and their “now-extinct cousins, the Tunit (‘Dorset’)” on the eastern edge of Baffin Island. The darkness is a background thrum to this tale, compelling readers to turn the pages steadily, almost relentlessly.
Understanding a people is only possible when a reader wants to understand, is willing to live with them for a time, she explains. “And a story is the ultimate magic by which this may occur.”
These are fictionalized versions of historical events deemed culturally significant by community members. Some of them feel more like stories whereas others feel more like accounts: each one contributes to a different understanding of what has passed for these peoples. They move across history chronologically, from the creation tale to Drew Hayden Taylor’s Oka-inspired (Kanesatake-inspired) story of the later 20th century.
“Boy, that Coyote likes to tell stories. Sometimes he tells stories that smell bad. Sometimes he tells stories that have been stretched. Sometimes he tells stories that bite your toes. Coyote stories.” (Thomas King, of course!)
Gregory Scofield’s Thunder Through My Veins: Memories of a Metis Childhood (1999) was blurbed by Tomson Highway as “inspirational” and by Sharon Butala as “gracefully written, and very moving”.
His prose style is simple, unadorned. “In Cree, the story I am about to tell would be called achee-mow-win, which loosely translates to the telling of an everyday story, experience, or happening.” (In contrast to, say, ah-tay-yow-kun, creation stories.)
Carefully, he delineates his position. “I am neither victim nor oppressor. The choices I have made in my adult life are mine alone. I blame only myself for the shame, anger, pity, and success that I have allowed. I speak for no one community, although my heartland, my ancestral and spiritual homeland, is among the scrub poplar and wolf willow rustling along the banks of the South Saskatchewan River, the fiddle as it echoes through the empty coulees at Batoche – the very place where my ancestors fought to keep our nation alive.”
His story is arranged chronologically, so that there are fewer details about his early years. “I remember very little except for the howling of the huskies, the long nights, and the frightening blackness that seemed to envelop my five-year-old world.”
Nonetheless, from the time of writing, he is able to trace some developments much further in the past than his own existence. Of particular interest are the attempts and successes of various family members whose identity remains unclear. “Thus began a life of lies and secrecy for many mixed-blood people.”
He found great strength in the words of other writers who were asking questions about their own identities, their places in society. “I searched out books by Native writers and read them with a new sensibility, a new recognition and appreciation. I read such books as Beatrice Culleton’s In Search of April Raintree, Howard Adams’s Prison of Grass, and Tomson Highway’s The Rez Sisters. I re-read Maria Campbell’s Half-Breed.”
Thunder Through My Veins was published the year after Gregory Scofield won the Canadian Authors’ Association Award for the most promising writer; now, he is an established poet and writer, whose books are likely discovered with as much intensity as the classics he was once so grateful to find on the shelves.
After reading his memoir, I was inspired to seek out Witness, I Am (2016) and Love Medicine and One Song (2002), two books of poetry. Witness, I Am includes poems written mainly in English but infused with some Cree phrases, including the anchoring work, “Muskrat Woman”, which is terrific (especially read in concert with Brian Maracle’s story in Our Story). In Love Medicine and One Song, Cree is sprinkled throughout the poems as well, most of which are shorter and more lyrical than the later works.
The fiction I’ve read for this challenge includes: Robert Arthur Alexie’s Porcupines and China Dolls, Paul Seesequasis’ Tobacco Wars, Harold Johnson’s Charlie Muskrat, Tracey Lindberg’s Birdie, Richard VanCamp’s collection of stories, Angel Wing Splash Pattern and Hope Nicholson’s edited collection of comics, Moonshot.
Have you read any of these? Anything on your TBR list? Which do you think would appeal to you most? What indigenous author did you last read?