Storying Responsibilities – Learning to Follow the Trails

As I looked out the bus window, I watched the grasses and shrubs pass in a rapid succession of green. Sitting next to me was Warren Cariou, and we were visiting on the bus ride to Batoche during the 2022 gathering of the Indigenous Literary Studies Association. We talked about research and writing, and I asked how he began making petrographs.1 He described noticing bitumen seeping out of the ground along the Athabasca River and wondering if he could do something with it. Petrography (eventually) followed.


I listened while my eyes traced the flow of land we passed, and I thought about how much plant knowledge must have come from people noticing things and wondering about them. I said some version
of this to Warren: “It seems to me that so much of research involves honouring your own instincts and observations. Following the hunches and testing them until they become fuller ideas or practices. It all rests on a kind of self-trust.” I told him about an inkling I had while reading a text a couple of years prior, and which had been confirmed in conversation with someone I met at the conference.


“You should read Deanna’s new book,” Warren responded.


What Deanna Reder offers in Autobiography as Indigenous Intellectual Tradition is an example of how we follow the instincts, hunches, signs, inklings that lead us down certain paths of research and inquiry, like the way tracing bitumen led Warren to make petrographs, like me following the traces in the archive. For Reder, a study of Cree and Métis life writing not only offers a study of genre; she also enacts âcimowina in her book, giving an example of how to practise life writing as Indigenous literary scholarship.


Reder begins her book with the central relationship that set her on a path to studying stories: her relationship with her mother. Through family stories of her mother and memories from Reder’s childhood, the book builds out toward contextual issues of race, anti-Indigenous stereotypes, class, and gender that impacted the medical establishment’s interpretation of her mother’s health before she was diagnosed with myotonic dystrophy.2 All at once, Reder narrates the inciting moments and instincts that motivated her research path, honours her mother with warmth and humour, and emphasizes the stakes of interpreting stories by drawing connections between the physical and conceptual effects of intergenerational colonial trauma and their impact on her mother’s experience. As she describes her mother’s skill as the family storyteller, Reder also locates herself in relation to Cree storytelling history by way of âcimowina, stories from daily life, and âcimisowina, stories from one’s own life and experience (6). These kinds of stories, Reder argues, are necessary components of understanding Indigenous story histories and practices, in addition to more collectively held stories such as âtayôhkêwina (sacred stories), kayâs-âcimowina (history), or kakêskihkêmowina (counsel).


For many of us who research and write, Reder’s emphasis on âcimowina and âcimisowina works to authorize the presence of our experience and our selves in our scholarly work as they form in relationship with other stories and knowledge. Somewhere along the way, we acquire the idea that knowledge is not within us—that we must first gather other stories, learn “the field,” and fully apprehend the critical discussion before we can know how to make our own contributions or even what contributions to make. Of course, work should be tested, and research involves seeking out what others have done while learning new information and approaches. These necessary practices of care and accountability, however, are not often framed as such, leading to fundamental distrust of one’s own instincts and the forms of knowledge-in-relation Reder describes, thereby pressuring us to defer the articulation and sharing of what may be our most significant interventions.3


For Indigenous and other racialized scholars, the problem of disavowal is compounded by the effects of colonial erasure and displacement, which continue to assert themselves and which Reder addresses in her work. I have felt, myself, the strangeness as a child, without having words to express it, of noticing how Indigenous people kept disappearing from my history and social studies texts once Cabot and company appeared (only, sometimes, to reappear later as protestors). I recall picking up Penny Petrone’s First People, First Voices for the first time as an undergraduate and feeling intuitively that I did not have what I needed to read it in the way I had hoped.4 I remember the excitement of reading the first pages of Maria Campbell’s autobiography, realizing only later that I was responding to how she wove together Métis history, her family stories, and her personal experience.5 These moments of intuition, these inklings I now recognize as part of a heavy inheritance that writers like Reder and Campbell have addressed directly, generate innovative work in life writing and Indigenous literary studies that challenges the inheritances of settler colonialism in Canada as they directly impact Cree and Métis people.


Research grounded in âcimisowin led Reder to the archive, as she identified problems in the work of scholars like Penny Petrone and Arnold Krupat, and to centring relationality in her approach. While I, as an undergraduate, was only beginning to learn about the contributions and limitations of Petrone’s work, Reder was developing a critical analysis of scholarship on Indigenous life writing that was clearing the path for other researchers to follow—researchers who were also concerned with how we relate to our discursive histories in and through the archive. Through her own research and work on the project The People and the Text, Reder developed practices for studying early Indigenous writing informed by Indigenous relational thought, engaging with the archive, working with authors and their families in respectful ways, and cultivating the relational context of research with students and colleagues. This work has yielded significant contributions to Indigenous literary studies in collaboration with her research team, resulting in a restored publication of Maria Campbell’s Halfbreed, a detailed manuscript comparison of editorial changes to Edward Ahenakew’s Voices of the Plains Cree, discussions of accountability in research methodology and process, and many other contributions to the study of early Indigenous writing. In her narration of the research process in Autobiography as Indigenous Intellectual Tradition, Reder shows how such projects require honouring âcimisowina and the relational contexts that support them. For Reder, âcimisowina are necessary precisely because they may be what we have to start with, the place from which to begin.


I use words like instinct, hunch, intuition, and inkling to indicate how many of us are often prompted in research by the somatic, affective, and intuitive. The instigating moments of our research can be deeply felt or sensed even before they can be described. A sense of something can become a wondering, and the work of âcimisowina often begins in this place before we have the story formed. Thus, âcimisowin requires a practice of attunement to the sensory and affective dimensions of intellectual work. In her address at the 2022 ILSA gathering, Reder described her experience of researching Absolom Halkett’s disappearance using language of instinct and intuition. As she noted in her talk, a research process that is responsive to these instincts helps mitigate the perfectionistic impulse cultivated in academia, which seems to demand that researchers achieve possessive or dominating control over both the search and the material. Even as she develops a literature review in her book, Reder weaves her discussion of scholarship with her own stories, citing her experiences of noticing how other writers incorporate autobiography as a research practice in their work. Even as she fulfills the requisite situating of herself and her research in relation to previous scholarship, she does so in a way that narrates her own experience of making the trail, with its movements and stalls, thereby refusing a depersonalized, dispassionate method. As she writes in her book, Reder found others whose work “emboldened” her to continue and to approach the experiential as a site of inquiry (8), especially in resistance to the gaps she worked to bridge. Similarly, Autobiography as Indigenous Intellectual Tradition emboldens others to honour the places from which they begin in ways that expand our definitions of what “counts” as scholarship.



1. Visit for an introduction to Warren’s petrography practice.

2. Reder notes “few” people know “the characteristics of myotonic dystrophy: how it only takes effect in adulthood, slowing down one’s metabolism and sapping energy as one’s muscles slowly waste away” (5).

3. For a fuller discussion of this topic from a Michi Saagiig Nishnaabe perspective, see Leanne Betasamosake Simpson, “Land as Pedagogy: Nishnaabeg Intelligence and Rebellious Transformation.”

4. As Reder notes, the 1983 publication of Petrone’s First Peoples, First Voices from University of Toronto Press was a “path-breaking” moment for the study of Indigenous writing (25). However, Reder and other scholars have also written about the problems in Petrone’s analysis. For more, see Reder, Autobiography as Indigenous Intellectual Tradition, 25-30.

5. See Maria Campbell, Halfbreed, 1973, as well as the 2019 restored edition.


Works Cited

Campbell, Maria. Halfbreed. 1973. McClelland and Stewart, 2019.

The People and the Text: Indigenous Writing to 1992. Edited by Deanna Reder, Alix Shield, and Margery Fee,

Petrone, Penny. First People, First Voices. U of Toronto P, 1984.

Simpson, Leanne Betasamosake. “Land as Pedagogy: Nishnaabeg Intelligence and Rebellious Transformation.” Decolonization: Indigeneity, Education & Society, vol. 3, no. 3, 2014, pp. 1-25.

Reder, Deanna. Autobiography as Indigenous Intellectual Tradition: Cree and Métis âcimisowina. Wilfrid Laurier UP, 2022.


Johannah Bird is a member of Peguis First Nation, PhD candidate in English at McMaster University, and creative dabbler. She is currently writing her dissertation on late-nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century Cree and Anishinaabeg writing from the prairies. Her research interests include life writing, poetry, archives, and Indigenous literatures.

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