Indigenous Literatures and the Arts of Community: Editors’ Afterword

To honour the history and promote the ongoing production of Indigenous literatures in all forms; [and] to advance the ethical and vigorous study and teaching of those literatures …

—Indigenous Literary Studies Association, “Our Guiding Purpose”


Indigenous literatures not only emerge from, depict, and address particular communities; they grapple with the meaning of community itself, while expanding our understandings of how communities might be imagined, lived, and sustained in pursuit of decolonial futures. Indigenous literatures don’t just represent communities; they call communities into being. This special issue considers what Kristina Fagan Bidwell calls “the messy multiplicity of communities” as they manifest in Indigenous literature and its study.[1] We invited Indigenous creative artists and scholars, along with settler, diasporic, and allied artists and scholars, to explore the relationships among (i) diverse expressions of Indigenous literary art, (ii) the myriad Indigenous (and other) communities out of which such art emerges and toward which it is directed, and (iii) the responsibilities embedded in such art’s ethical study. In this “Afterword,” we are interested in whether the ethics of community implied by the Indigenous Literary Studies Association’s support of the “ongoing production of Indigenous literatures” are in fact commensurate with those implied by its advancement of “the ethical and vigorous study and teaching of those literatures”[2]—in other words, whether “community” means the same thing(s) in creative and critical contexts; if it doesn’t, we wonder if maybe it should and whether this might be the direction in which the Indigenous literary arts are, in fact, guiding us.

“ILSA acknowledges the continued existence of Indigenous nations within the territorial boundaries of lands claimed by Canada and the inalienable rights of those nations to self-determination”

The Indigenous Literary Studies Association (ILSA) was founded in October 2013 by a group of nine Indigenous and settler scholars on the traditional, ancestral, and unceded territory of the Musqueam, Squamish, and Tsleil-Waututh people in Vancouver, BC, “to address the need for a scholarly body based in lands claimed by Canada that focuses specifically on the study and teaching of Indigenous peoples’ literatures.”[3] As its founding documents make clear, however, the “need” for such a “scholarly body” was perhaps secondary to the desire to reimagine what academic associations do. For example, the association’s statement of “Values” indicates that “ILSA seeks to foster an atmosphere of respect, sensitivity, and safety among its members, and ILSA expects its members’ interactions with cultural productions, communities, and other members to be characterized by a high standard of integrity.” This declaration champions a vision of community and traces out the kinds of rights and responsibilities imagined as integral to such community’s flourishing; it rejects the individualist imperatives of academia’s standard structures of advancement and reward to promote an alternative ethic of mutual support. It is thus of little surprise that ILSA endeavours also “to promote a climate of generosity and collaboration over one of possessiveness and competitiveness” and that it “supports the responsible transformation of the academy to better reflect [such] values.”

ILSA’s inaugural gathering at Six Nations of the Grand River in October 2015 offered an opportunity to test out and further theorize these ideas, inviting participants to reflect on the responsibilities of artists and/or scholars to the communities of which they are part and to the communities addressed by their work. Some of the imaginative, insightful, and rigorous responses to these themes presented at Six Nations would later become papers submitted to this special issue.[4] When the ILSA Executive agreed to collaborate with Canadian Literature on a special issue dedicated to Indigenous literary art, the authors of the present “Afterword” were chosen to take on the task of guest editing for pragmatic reasons: Sarah, because as the Early Career Representative she could gain considerably from the experience, and Sam, because as Past President his role at the time was largely consultative and he therefore had the time. We are not blind, however, to the fact that while the ILSA Executive consists of four Indigenous and three settler scholars, both of the appointed guest editors are non-Indigenous.[5] While we have undertaken this work self-reflexively and with the support of our colleagues, we recognize that our editorship of a special issue dedicated to the study of Indigenous literatures and communities is not politically neutral, particularly in light of the fact that the five previous special issues of Canadian Literature devoted to Indigenous themes were also edited by non-Indigenous scholars.[6] In an effort to destabilize the institutional authority that clings to disciplinary positions like editorship,[7] we agreed with the Canadian Literature staff to move our editorial from the beginning of the issue—where it might pre-empt the voices of contributors and condition readers’ interpretations of their interventions—to the back, where it is intended to provide context and fuel further discussion. Although this is merely a gesture, the impact of which ought not be overstated, such placement also enables us more effectively to honour the foundational influence of Delaware poet, playwright, and scholar Daniel David Moses on the field of Indigenous literary studies in lands claimed by Canada through the placement of his words before all others.[8]

In the remarks that follow, we offer background on the development of Indigenous literary studies in lands claimed by Canada, with particular attentiveness to the collaborative ethics that characterized many early interventions in the field and have buoyed the development of initiatives like ILSA; then we consider the extent to which the promise of such community building has been realized in the current cultural moment (which includes ongoing celebrations of the 150th year of occupation of Indigenous lands by the nation-state of Canada and the return of the Appropriation of Voice debates in May 2017); and we conclude with thoughts about what Indigenous literatures tell us about community building as an art and an ethic. To organize our discussion, we invoke “Values” from ILSA’s founding documents, one of which charts the course of each of the following sections.

“ILSA honours the foundational critical work of foremothers and forefathers in the field of Indigenous literary studies”

Given the facts that individual texts by Indigenous literary artists were not taught with regularity in Canadian universities until the 1990s and that Indigenous literature courses were not taught at many institutions until the mid-to-late 2000s,[9] it is unsurprising that much of the formative critical work in the field of Indigenous literary studies came from thinkers on the periphery of the academy. The vast majority of these were Indigenous intellectuals who self-identified more as creative writers than as critics and whose ties to Indigenous communities far eclipsed their ties to academia.[10] Such writers include but are not limited to Kateri Akiwenzie-Damm (Anishinaabe), Jeannette Armstrong (Okanagan), Beth Brant (Mohawk), Basil Johnston (Anishinaabe), Lenore Keeshig-Tobias (Anishinaabe), Thomas King (Cherokee), Emma LaRocque (Cree/Métis), Lee Maracle (Stó:lō), Daniel David Moses (Delaware), and Armand Garnet Ruffo (Ojibwe). Their work in the 1980s and 1990s influenced profoundly how Indigenous literary studies would evolve north of the 49th parallel, not least in terms of its prioritization of community as a persistent critical value. Unlike the American context, in which the field opened up largely within academic institutions via the critical writings of settler academics, much of the foundational work in the Canadian context was Indigenous-authored, community-focused, and steeped in Indigenous intellectual traditions.

A paradigmatic example of the tenor of early critical discussion in lands claimed by Canada is Jeannette Armstrong’s “Editor’s Note” to the seminal collection Looking at the Words of Our People: First Nations Analysis of Literature (Theytus, 1993). This deceptively brief manifesto foregrounds Indigenous ethics of community[11] in both its form and content. In terms of content, Armstrong argues that “in reading First Nations Literature the questioning must first be an acknowledgment and recognition that the voices are culture-specific voices and that there are experts within those cultures who are essential to be drawn from and drawn out” (7). As such, Armstrong calls for the development of tribal-specific criticism that prioritizes intellectual materials from the source culture(s) out of which particular Indigenous authors write; at the same time, she affirms pluralist notions of Indigenous “culture” that refuse to cede cultural specificity, arguing that “urban-modern,” “pan-Indian,” “tribal specific,” and “traditional or contemporary” communities all “have unique sensibilities which shape the voices coming forward into written English Literature” (7). In terms of form, Armstrong demonstrates commitments to intellectual diversity and community building by assembling eleven Indigenous critics—some of whom are also creative writers—to consider the ethical parameters of Indigenous literary studies, and then publishing their reflections with the Indigenous-run press Theytus Books; the collective and collaborative nature of the enterprise serves Indigenous communities in both abstract/theoretical and practical/pragmatic ways, with interpersonal connections being forged among participants, with scholarly acclaim being shared among a variety of individuals, and with proceeds returning to Indigenous communities.

Looking at the Words of Our People also exemplifies a telling feature of Indigenous literary studies in lands claimed by Canada: the centrality of edited collections rather than single-authored monographs, the latter of which tend to be treated as the hallmark of success within the academic humanities. If one were to seek out the foundational texts of Indigenous literary criticism in Canada, the first would likely be Looking at the Words of Our People, followed closely by editor Armand Garnet Ruffo’s (Ad)dressing Our Words: Aboriginal Perspectives on Aboriginal Literatures (Theytus, 2001). The integral place of edited collections has been sustained in more recent years via volumes like Across Cultures/Across Borders, edited by Paul DePasquale, Renate Eigenbrod, and Emma LaRocque; Indigenous Poetics in Canada, edited by Neal McLeod; Introduction to Indigenous Literary Criticism in Canada, edited by Heather Macfarlane and Armand Garnet Ruffo; and Learn, Teach, Challenge: Approaching Indigenous Literatures, edited by Deanna Reder and Linda Morra. The work of the late settler scholar Renate Eigenbrod is instructive here as it highlights how the edited collection is not simply a practical or expedient consequence of material conditions—a means of distributing the proceedings of a conference, for instance—but can also be construed as an ethical choice. After the publication of Travelling Knowledges (2005), Eigenbrod published several articles that could either have been collected into or have served individually as the seeds for a follow-up monograph. However, she instead devoted her time and effort to generating space for other scholars—particularly Indigenous scholars new to the field—to enter critical conversations through the organization of conferences and colloquia, as well as co-editing five critical collections. Similarly, alongside the publication of her seminal book Taking Back Our Spirits (2009), the late Métis scholar Jo-Ann Episkenew devoted herself to the health and wellbeing of Indigenous youth, working tirelessly as the Director of the Indigenous Peoples’ Health Research Centre, mentoring young Indigenous scholars, community workers and activists, and building community-based research and outreach networks. If, as Craig Womack has suggested, “one measure” of a critic’s dedication to Indigenous communities “is the degree to which he or she finds a way to turn over some of his or her work to the younger generations of critics who are coming up in the discipline” (169), Eigenbrod and Episkenew epitomized such ethics. In fact, the two—who were also founding members of ILSA—organized the inaugural Aboriginal Roundtable at CACLALS in 2000, an informal and dialogic annual gathering of Indigenous and allied scholars, creative artists, and community members that has served as a model for how Indigenous literary scholarship might forward unique methodological priorities. Furthermore, both scholars worked to support Indigenous creative writers: organizing public readings, scheduling appearances by writers at scholarly gatherings, championing keynotes by creative writers as well as critics, editing writers’ works, and teaching a wide array of lesser-known Indigenous authors in their classes. Eigenbrod and Episkenew acted as role models and mentors and relationship builders; they created space for the voices of Indigenous artists and scholars, and they guarded that space with a fearless generosity, exemplifying therein ethics of community.

“ILSA honours the creative work of Indigenous writers, storytellers, and literary artists of the past, present, and future on whose creative work the field of Indigenous literary studies depends”

Parallel to the development of Indigenous literary studies, Indigenous writers, filmmakers, and other artists have been generating an inspiringly diverse corpus of work—from oratory to science fiction, from drama to eroticism, from harangue to slam poetry, from testimony to video games—exceeding expectations about national, linguistic, and generic boundaries. Because more and more authors are making use of different media and modes of intervention, contemporary critics are starting to privilege an intermedial practice of reading that accounts for interactions and engagements that, to borrow from Leanne Simpson, must be done “through principled and respectful consensual reciprocity with another living being, in the absence of coercion and hierarchy, and in the presence of compassion” (18).

And yet while these very ideas—respect, consent, and reciprocity—are, we can hope, at the basis of our lives as scholars, teachers, and engaged citizens, events directly preceding the publication of this special issue have illustrated the manifold ways that the ethics modelled by scholars like Eigenbrod and Episkenew continue to be threatened by settler entitlement and the ongoing naturalization of the Canadian nation state. The (un)surprising resurrection of the Appropriation of Voice debate in May 2017—in large part instigated by Write magazine’s then-editor Hal Niedzviecki and his “Winning the Appropriation Prize” editorial published in an issue curated around the work of Indigenous writers, followed by The Walrus’s now-former editor-in-chief Jon Kay’s Twitter session with Canada’s media elite on crowd-funding an actual #AppropriationPrize—tells us that in Canada, dishearteningly, many settlers retain a sincere belief in the right to unfettered access to Indigenous cultural materials, an imagined entitlement sustained by abstract notions of creative freedom and individual autonomy that obfuscate the violent realities of settler colonialism’s manifold and ongoing dispossessions. And, of course, the appropriation of cultural materials remains inextricably entwined with the appropriation of Indigenous lands and resources. Let us consider, for instance, in the wake of Daniels vs. Canada, the recently self-appointed non-Status community of Mikinak in Quebec as an example of, to quote Chelsea Vowel and Darryl Leroux, “a range of [emboldened] so-called Métis organizations [that are claiming] Aboriginal identity and those rights owing from it … [and thereby] exemplify[ing] settler nativist tactics that ultimately undermine Indigenous self-determination” (30-33). While these examples showcase an ongoing trend, however, we are reminded of another resilient and fierce continuity, which can be found in the voices of those who have struggled against appropriation and the naturalization of settler entitlement upon which it depends: from Lenore Keeshig-Tobias’ “Stop Stealing Native Stories” (1990) and Kateri Akiwenzie-Damm’s “Says Who: Colonialism, Identity and Defining Indigenous Literature” (1994) to the current responses to the  #AppropriationPrize, which include Jesse Wente’s interview on CBC Radio with Matt Galloway where he reacted to the “remarkable arrogance” of the appropriation prize, saying “don’t mistake my emotion here, or my civility anywhere, as weakness. This is our strength. This is me being in touch with my ancestors and feeling them sitting beside me” (n. pag.) and Akiwenzie-Damm speaking powerfully once again, now asserting that “[t]he cultural appropriation debate is over. It’s time for action” and “[t]his fight has made it easier to see our allies, to let go of false friends, and to identify our enemies” (n. pag).

While the return of the Appropriation of Voice debate can be seen as a failure of community responsibilities—or, worse, an active repudiation of such responsibilities—the outrage it has provoked has engendered new relationship-building initiatives, such as the creation of the Emerging Indigenous Voices fund, started by Toronto lawyer Robin Parker, as a “Canadian literary award to support the vision of emerging Indigenous writers.” Parker’s initial fundraising goal was a modest $10,000, but the fund has since soared to well over $115,000 by over 1500 backers, which ILSA will help administer in the coming year. In this way, Indigenous and allied advocates have repudiated appropriation and erasure, and have fought to honour the sovereignty of Indigenous voices; the debate has turned into sustainable action.

“ILSA respects the integrity of various communities, Indigenous and otherwise, and seeks to foster positive and accountable community building within and beyond the discipline of Indigenous literary studies”

As we write this editorial, we prepare for ILSA’s 3rd annual gathering at Stó:lō Nation, in Chilliwack, BC, Ethics of Belonging: Protocols, Pedagogies, Land and Stories, which invites participants to consider ways in which our scholarship, activism, and creative work cares for stories and centres Indigenous perspectives. Earlier in this piece, we wrote of how Indigenous literatures call communities into being. This calling is ultimately rooted in care—care of territory, care of stories, and care of understandings of the world embedded within wider kinship relations among communities, nations, cultures, and languages, as well as with the other-than-human. What this entails, and how we live it, is ultimately part of an ethical imperative: a commitment and ongoing responsibility of scholars to the artists and communities whose imaginative visions make our work possible. Some of those visions are included in the articles and poems that make up this special issue. We hope that readers will take away from these diverse critical and creative pieces as much knowledge and inspiration as we have as editors; we hope as well, along with our colleagues and friends in ILSA, that this issue promotes “positive and accountable community building within and beyond the discipline of Indigenous literary studies.”



We wish to thank the people of Six Nations of the Grand River, on whose lands the inaugural gathering of ILSA took place and many conversations developed in this special issue were initiated. In particular, we wish to say Niawen’kó:wa to community liaison and colleague Rick Monture. We would also like thank the current ILSA Executive and former executive members for their ongoing care and support.

Lastly, we wish to honour the labour and vision of the community of individuals involved in bringing this special issue together, who have in many ways modelled the community ethics about which we’ve theorized in this “Afterword”: the contributing scholars and poets, the reviewers, the designers, the editorial staff at Canadian Literature, and most importantly Editor Laura Moss. We appreciate and admire your work. This issue is dedicated to the memory of our friends Renate Eigenbrod and Jo-Ann Episkenew.


Works Cited

  • Akiwenzie-Damm, Kateri. “The cultural appropriation debate is over. It’s time for action.” The Globe and Mail. 19 May 2017. Web. 15 June 2017.
  • “An Emotional Jesse Wente on the ‘Remarkable Arrogance’ of an Appropriation Prize.” CBC 15 May 2017. Web. 15 June 2017.
  • Armstrong, Jeannette. “Editor’s Note.” Looking at the Words of Our People: First Nations Analysis of Literature. Ed. Armstrong. Penticton: Theytus, 1993. 7-8. Print.
  • Bidwell, Kristina Fagan, and Sam McKegney. “Many Communities and the Full Humanity of Indigenous People: A Dialogue.” Learn, Teach, Challenge: Approaching Indigenous Literatures. Ed. Deanna Reder and Linda Morra. Waterloo: Wilfrid Laurier UP, 2016. 309-14. Print.
  • Indigenous Literary Studies Association. “Founding Documents.” Indigenous Literary Studies Association, 2014. Web. 15 June 2017.
  • Justice, Daniel Heath. “‘Go Away Water!’ Kinship Criticism and the Decolonizing Imperative.” Reasoning Together: The Native Critics Collective. Ed. Craig S. Womack, Daniel Heath Justice, and Christopher B. Teuton. Norman: U of Oklahoma P, 2007. 147-68. Print.
  • McKegney, Sam. “Beyond Continuance: Criticism of Indigenous Literatures in Canada.” The Oxford Handbook of Indigenous American Literatures. Ed. James H. Cox and Daniel Heath Justice. New York: Oxford UP, 2014. 409-26. Print.
  • McKegney, Sam, ed. Masculindians: Conversations about Indigenous Manhood. Winnipeg: U of Manitoba P, 2014. Print.
  • Simpson, Leanne. “Land as Pedagogy: Nishnaabeg Intelligence and Rebellious Transformation.” Decolonization: Indigeneity, Education & Society. 3.3 (2014): 1-25. Print.
  • Vowel, Chelsea and Darryl Leroux. “White Settler Antipathy and the Daniels Decision.” Topia 36 (2016): 30-42. Print.
  • Weaver, Jace, Craig S. Womack, and Robert Warrior. American Indian Literary Nationalism. Albuquerque: U of New Mexico P, 2006. Print.


[1] Bidwell argues that “We don’t have a full language or theory yet … for articulating how people can have multiple identities or multiple communities without becoming less of any one thing, without becoming less Indigenous, for instance” (310). She continues: “And literature is often much better at sustaining the messy multiplicity of communities than is criticism” (312).

[2] All quotations from the founding documents of ILSA can be retrieved at the Association’s website:

[3] ILSA’s “Inaugural Council” consisted of Kristina Fagan Bidwell, Renate Eigenbrod, Jo-Ann Episkenew, Daniel Heath Justice, Keavy Martin, Sam McKegney, Rick Monture, Deanna Reder, and Armand Ruffo.

[4] Drafts of pieces by Dallas Hunt, Brandon Kerfoot, Michele Lacombe, Daniel David Moses, June Scudeler, and Pauline Wakeham were presented at Six Nations in 2015.

[5] The current ILSA executive consists of Deanna Reder (President), Jesse Archibald-Barber (President Elect), Sophie McCall (Secretary), June Scudeler (Treasurer), Angela Semple (Graduate Student Representative), Sarah Henzi (Early Career Representative), and Sam McKegney (Past President).

[6] The previous issues referred to here were published in 1990, 1995, 1999, 2000, and 2012. The first two were edited by W. H. New and the rest by Margery Fee, two non-Indigenous scholars who have done significant work to advance the study of Indigenous literatures in Canada.

[7] We take our cues here from settler scholars Renate Eigenbrod and Helen Hoy.

[8] Given the centrality of the Grand River to Moses’ piece, this opening also signals the situatedness and territorial specificity of knowledge and the ongoing influence of lands, waters, and relations with the other-than-human on intellectual and creative work. In this sense, we wish to acknowledge the profound influence of the Haudenosaunee territory of Six Nations of the Grand River on the understandings of those assembled at the inaugural ILSA gathering and therefore on this special issue. We choose the phrase “words before all others” intentionally in recognition of the Haudenosaunee practice of the Ohen:ton Karihwatehkwen, spoken at the Six Nations gathering by Mohawk scholar and community host Rick Monture, which illuminates the stark differences between cultural practices of thanksgiving, mindfulness, and openness that bring the minds of a gathered community together and western editorial practices of introduction, which (intentionally or otherwise) tend to foreclose upon interpretive possibilities regarding what will follow.

[9] In a survey conducted by ILSA in 2013, it was determined that by that point 86% of universities surveyed taught at least one course dedicated to the study of Indigenous literature. Predominantly these were housed within Departments of English, but a small percentage of such courses existed at the time in Departments like Cultural Studies, Drama, Gender Studies, and Indigenous Studies.

[10] See McKegney, “Beyond Continuance,” where this literary and critical history is taken up in greater detail.

[11] Anishinaabe writer Basil Johnston explains such community ethics within an Anishinaabe context, arguing, “To us, a right is debnimzewin. But each right is also a duty…. And so we’ve got to go back to some of these values: responsibility, duty, right” (qtd. in McKegney, Masculindians 46).  Cherokee scholar Daniel Heath Justice concurs, explaining community through a rubric of kinship. Justice contends that the foundation for Indigenous continuance is “our relationships to one another—in other words, our kinship with other humans and the rest of creation. Such kinship isn’t a static thing; it’s dynamic, ever in motion. It requires attentiveness; kinship is best thought of as a verb rather than a noun, because kinship, in most indigenous contexts, is something that’s done more than something that simply is” (150).

Please note that works on the Canadian Literature website may not be the final versions as they appear in the journal, as additional editing may take place between the web and print versions. If you are quoting reviews, articles, and/or poems from the Canadian Literature website, please indicate the date of access.