What is Indigenous literature?
Richard Van Camp
This is Indigenous literature.
But beyond the heritage of these amazing authors - and there are many more that could be added to this short list - what binds their work to the heading? Some are poets and others are short story writers. A few are novelists and some are traditional storytellers. Some are non-fiction writers and a couple write science fiction. What is the common bond that makes it all Indigenous literature beyond blood?
I have been to academic gatherings, sat in classrooms, and argued on radio shows about this very topic. And the opinions are as varied as the writers and their works. It gets tricky because some of the rules don’t seem to apply. For example, Indigenous literature as we know it, is not written in Indigenous languages, it’s mainly published in English. And because our languages, cultures and teachings are diverse and unique amongst our larger Aboriginal identity, there is a lack of commonality in many aspects of life, language, stories and understandings. Just to confuse the topic more, some of these authors have books where not one Aboriginal character makes an appearance.
One school of thought says that race is enough to classify and file the work under ‘Indigenous Literature’. That the source of the work (i.e. the author, poet, storyteller) is the key nominating factor to which shelf it ends up on. And this makes sense except, what if the writer is also French? What if they are writing about Germans in World War 2? What if the book is penned in Japanese about Japan from their home on the Japanese coast where they moved to after the rez? What then?
Another school of thought states that it’s about the culture, and not so much about the race. That if the stories or poems or novels are reflective of culture, then it is literature of that culture.
Here’s what I think, for what it’s worth. I am not actually an Aboriginal writer. I am a Georgian Bay Métis writer. I do not write Indigenous literature. I write literature that is reflective of my Georgian Bay Métis culture. There is no such thing, I think, as Indigenous culture or Indigenous literature, because we are as diverse and unique from each other as bordering countries. There could be, instead Cree literature, Anishnaabe literature, Haudenosaunee literature, etc.
But maybe I’m just adding another school to the already crowded Thought Street. Maybe it’s just this: “Dynamic literature that captures the unique voice of Indigenous peoples; curated ideas framed by an Indigenous worldview.”
Maybe we don’t need to debate it after all. Maybe we just need to read.