Digging into Canada’s Indigenous literature

This is what literature offers: a language powerful enough to say how it is. (Jeannette Winterson)

If you’ve ever helped someone learn –  a co-worker in the next cubicle, a grandchild in your kitchen,  the neighbor kid across the fence  – you’re familiar with the wonderous “Oh, now I see!” moment. When that light appears,  it’s almost impossible not to want to flick the switch on again and again. And when you do,  you might realize that the person you’ve taught isn’t the only one who’s learning

After the Aboriginal students in my literature class recognized themselves in  Marilyn Dumont’s poem Leather and Naughahyde, (for the back story, see my March 26 post),  I knew  I’d be spending a lot of Saturday afternoons in the public library, looking for other writing by Canadian Indigenous writers.  Since more than a quarter of my students self-identified as First Nations, Metis, or Inuit, I  wanted them to experience themselves again and again in the literature I brought to class.

It was simple enough to find a list of authors in the library database, but where to then?   I had no idea who most of these writers were. And I needed selections that featured adult characters, yet were accessible enough for some students who struggled with reading. An enthusiastic librarian made suggestions and helped me to sift through the choices. I’d go home with an armload of novels and  poetry anthologies, spend the weekend reading, and badger my department head on Monday for book money.

The classroom discussions that this literature sparked were inspiring. Canada’s Indigenous writers portray situations that accurately reflect the often challenging circumstances experienced by Aboriginal Canadians. Their characters struggle with issues of self-identity, addictions, poverty, family fragmentation, and racism. At the same time, they face their challenges with hope, resilience, determination, and humor.  It wasn’t only the Aboriginal students who related to these themes. Many of their classmates were equally as captivated.  The literature became a starting point for telling our own stories, and our conversations often spilled out into the hallways after class.

After I left my job as a high school upgrading instructor, I continued to seek out literature that told me more about Canada’s First Peoples. Somewhere along the line,  what I viewed as my professional obligation had deepened into personal engagement and a sense of civic responsbility. The page-turning stories,  complex characters, and powerful, elegant images found their way into my heart.  Not only that, this literature offered insights into Indigenous culture and history,  deepening my understanding of how colonialism, residential schools, and damaging government policies continue to profoundly impact the lives of Aboriginal Canadians.

I’m happy to share the names of six authors whose writing has helped my students and me to think differently about ourselves,  our communities, and our country. The list is partial, and the names are in no parituclar order.  I’ve included each author’s  Twitter handle, in case you want to follow them that way as well. They’re my personal “go to”  authors who have provided me with one or more especially powerful reads. I hope they’ll inspire a trip to your local bookstore or library, and possibly your own journey of understanding into the history of Indigenous people, in Canada or your own country:

Keeper 'n' MeRichard Wagamese (@richardwagamese): Wagamese’s novel Keeper ‘n’ Me was the first full length selection my students and I tackled together.  We followed Garnet Raven as he returns to the home from which he had been removed when he was 3 years old. He rediscovers his family, his community and himself with the guidance of Keeper, a friend of his grandfather’s. A touching, hilarious,  hopeful story of reconnecting

An inconvenient IndianThomas King: My introduction to King’s work came through the book of linked stories Medicine River.  Set in a Blackfoot community in southern Alberta, we follow Will, a returnee to Medicine River, and his interactions with friends and neighbors, as they regularly and mostly good naturedly interfere in each other’s lives.  King’s more recent, narrative-styled commentaries, The Truth About Stories and The Inconvenient Indian: A Curious Account of Native People in North America  expose the roots of the many misperceptions about Aboriginal Canadians and sets the record straight on a whole variety of historical  inaccuracies. I enjoy King’s deft weaving of storytelling,  factual accounts, and sly humor.

Three Day RoadJoseph Boyden (@josephboyden): I wish that I’d still been teaching when I discovered Boyden’s Three Day Road,  My students would have loved it. Best friends Xavier Bird and Elijah Weesageechak   leave their Northern Cree community to serve as  sharpshooters in World War I France. Their experiences in the trenches and towns test their friendship and their personal resilience.  Boyden’s  follow up novel Through Black Spruce picks up the thread of Xavier’s family generations later as dual narrators Will Bird and his niece Annie share their separate stories of loss, discovery, and the family bonds that keep them connected.   

Marilyn Dumont (@reallygoodbrowngirl):  A Really Good Brown Girl, Green Girl Dreams Mountains, That Tongued Belonging –  Reading Dumont’s poetry is like walking through an art gallery. I wander back frequently  to reconsider specific images again and again. With breathtaking clarity, her words personalize Indigenous issues and help me to appreciate their complexity.That tongued belonging

This is a small northern townRosanna Deerchild: This Is A Small Northern Town is a stark poetic portrayal of a girl’s life in a rough scrabble mining town. We accompany Deerchild into the turbulent heart of her family, and on her rambles through the community, where she finds both acceptance and rejection,  beauty and squalor among the people and places that touch her life.

Katherena Vermette(@katherenav): When I lived in the south end of Winnipeg, my neighbors told me, “Don’t go to the North End. It’s too dangerous.” So when I discovered North End Love Songs, by Winnipeg poet Katherena Vermette, I was hooked.  Vermette draws stunning portraits of  the people who make the north end their home, finding poetry in  girls drinking Big Gulps and young mothers watching over their children at play. A heartbreaking series describes her brother’s disappearance, the police’s indifference,  her parents’ grief. I’m reading the book for the second time now, dazzled that so few words can evoke so much emotion.North End Love Songs

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