Indigenous Words Matter

Reviewed by Aubrey Hanson

The field of Indigenous literary studies has received two key contributions this year from two prominent authors. Both of these texts offer timely and essential considerations for writers, scholars, publishers, community members, educators, and all those who want to engage well with Indigenous literary work. These two titles were launched to an audience attending the inaugural Indigenous Voices Awards Gala in Regina this past spring, and are both being widely received within Indigenous literary communities.

Gregory Younging’s Elements of Indigenous Style offers practical and nuanced considerations for writers, publishers, and educators across disciplines. I have already referred colleagues to this book for its careful discussion of language and explanations of terminology. By outlining nearly two dozen guiding principles for Indigenous style, this book offers clear suggestions for engaging respectfully with Indigenous people, concepts, and texts. These principles could be a strong foundation for those beginning to learn about Indigenous writing as well as a valuable go-to resource for those working regularly in Indigenous topics. Principles range in scope from the necessity of capitalization (which indeed warrants much discussion) to the complexity of Indigenous identities. I was impressed by the inclusion of “Principle 9: The Role of Relationship and Trust,” which “recognizes the essential role of relationship and trust in producing works with authentic Indigenous content, and the source of relationship and trust in truthfulness, honesty, mindfulness about community impacts, and continuity with history and heritage.” While Younging’s guide offers clarity, it does not do so at the expense of complexity.

Particularly effective are the case studies of publishing projects, which are interspersed with Younging’s guiding principles. These real-world scenarios embed the principles within meaningful contexts, demonstrating the significance of stylistic choices and editorial approaches. Readers can gain greater understanding by attending to the care and consideration in these stories. The guide presents its principles in depth in a handful of well-organized chapters, but also sums up key information in a useful set of appendices. Among them is a sample academic paper: it might have been beneficial to provide a more detailed explanation of this paper’s inclusion, if only so that readers might benefit more deeply from the stylistic and scholarly example it sets out. Younging points to the potential for Elements of Indigenous Style to be developed further or refined across subsequent editions: it is easy to imagine this book taking on that kind of sustained role within the field.

With a very different focus, Daniel Heath Justice’s Why Indigenous Literatures Matter tackles the significant task of illuminating the heart of Indigenous literary engagement, articulating the significance of the literary arts to Indigenous peoples. While politically impactful and theoretically cogent, Justice’s book is simultaneously tender and personal. Within the first few pages and amid an introductory discussion of key terms, Justice lays out family histories that nuance difficult Indigenous-settler relationships, and describes his own grappling with histories and positionality: “Indigeneity,” he writes, “doesn’t free me from being implicated in the violent histories of colonialism.” The book speaks truth to colonial relationships while respecting complexity: for instance, while “profound and lasting alliances of kinship, love, and fierce friendship” may have emerged between settler and Indigenous people, it is necessary to recognize that “Indigenous peoples lost lives, lands, and livelihoods as a result of non-Indigenous appropriations of lands and territories.” Justice addresses issues with sensitivity but also with an urgent sense of responsibility to Indigenous peoples.

Why Indigenous Literatures Matter is organized around four guiding questions: “How do we learn to be human?”; “How do we behave as good relatives?”; “How do we become good ancestors?”; and “How do we learn to live together?” Having set out essential context and starting points in his introduction, Justice pursues these questions through four beautifully composed chapters. Each consists of smoothly interwoven personal reflections, critical considerations, and textual analyses. In selecting literary works to examine, Justice makes a particular effort to attend to under-represented or underappreciated texts and authors. For instance, he foregrounds texts by queer writers and by women, and, even when responding to better-known authors, he speaks to their lesser-known texts. I learned a great deal from reading this book. Along those lines, it includes as an appendix Justice’s 2016 Twitter project #HonouringIndigenousWriters, which highlights the abundance of global Indigenous writings. While reading this book cover to cover, I particularly noted its remarkable bibliographic essay (already recommended to students for rethinking the conventional literature review), which incites “mindful and ethical consideration of our citational practices in academia” and constitutes “not . . . merely a list of sources, but a conversation about the embraided influences of words, ideas, and voices on the topics at hand.” Even the index is remarkable: my favourite entry is that for Dolly Parton, catalogued as “the true and rightful Queen.”

I found the book’s style as remarkable as its content. Justice writes in a compelling voice that is simultaneously gentle, smooth, personable, powerful, and hard-hitting. This stylistic choice resonates effectively with the focus of the book and its core questions: “This is a book about stories, and some of the ways they matter. It’s about the many kinds of stories Indigenous peoples tell, and the stories others tell about us. It’s about how these diverse stories can strengthen, wound, or utterly erase our humanity and connections.” The use of a personal yet critical voice connects to the choice of material for examination: for instance, refusing to take shelter behind abstract issues, Justice illuminates stories of rupture by laying bare deeply personal family and tribal histories. Nor does he shy away from confronting difficult truths, such as anti-Blackness in Indigenous scholarship, experiences of ruptured kinship, personal affinities felt with distorted representations of Indigeneity, and so on.

While owning his feelings and experiences, Justice comes out swinging against the systems that exacerbate and perpetuate the misrepresentation and erasure of Indigenous stories—but not by positing himself as a pure critical voice above the messiness of mutually complex relationships. Through this fertile approach to his questions, Justice opens up space for collective engagement around the significance of Indigenous literatures to Indigenous peoples. Indigenous literatures

reflect the truths of our survival and our own special beauty in the world to which we belong. They don’t hide the traumas or the shadows; they don’t make everything neat and tidy . . . They remind us that we’re the inheritors of heavy, painful legacies, but also of hope and possibility, of a responsibility to make the world better for those yet to come.

By his conclusion, Justice has powerfully drawn out his contention that “Indigenous literatures matter because Indigenous peoples matter.” If I want something more from these two books, it is simply that: more of these critical, essential considerations.

This review “Indigenous Words Matter” originally appeared in House, Home, Hospitality Spec. issue of Canadian Literature 237 (2019): 152-154.

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