Storying Responsibilities – Revisiting in Autobiography as Indigenous Intellectual Tradition

In his contribution to this forum, Warren Cariou argues that Deanna Reder’s Autobiography as Indigenous Intellectual Tradition constitutes an act of “visiting on the page” (171). Building on Cariou’s insight, I would add that we can further read Reder’s book as enacting a process of revisiting, of repeated returning over a long period of time. This revisiting is sometimes literal, as in Reder’s descriptions of her repeated visits to family on the prairies, visits that often bring new revelations and deepening understanding. But revisiting also has a more figurative sense, meaning to return to a subject from a different perspective and to revise one’s initial thoughts. Autobiography as Indigenous Intellectual Tradition is built upon revisiting in both senses. By showing how Reder’s work has evolved over decades, this book powerfully claims the value of revisiting stories, ideas, and relationships over time and of not rushing to conclusion or publication.


By integrating Reder’s individual and familial autobiography into her literary scholarship, Autobiography as Indigenous Intellectual Tradition, as Sam McKegney puts it, “engender[s] new horizons of critical possibility” (159). While such autobiographical material may appear to be readily available to scholars, the academy, as Johannah Bird argues, often teaches us that “knowledge is not within us” (164), and so working with our own stories within academic spaces can be a difficult process. Reder emphasizes that, for her, this process of integration has taken a lifetime. She recalls that her early experiences of school and university felt fundamentally separate from her Indigenous self: she found no Indigenous teachers or professors (Autobiography 116), no reflection of herself in the curriculum (25, 115, 125), and no vocabulary to describe herself or her family (115-16). Her undergraduate education in literature was, she writes, “completely separate from being a member of my family” (116). With her 2007 doctoral dissertation, Reder pushes back against that sense of separation by rooting her study of Indigenous autobiography in her mother’s storytelling. She would go on to rethink and revise that dissertation project extensively over many years, focusing it ever more closely on the language, concepts, and people of her Cree-Métis community of northern Saskatchewan. The revision of the dissertation was a process of repeatedly revisiting her own stories and those of her community. While revision is a usual part of the writing process, Reder’s book is unusual in the way that it makes her revision explicit, emphasizing her own growth and change, her formative collaborations, her discoveries, and her consequently changing view of texts. Her writing is peppered with phrases like the ones she uses in recollecting two very different encounters with Edward Ahenakew’s âcimisowina: “Little did I know that a decade later . . .”; “It is only now . . .”; and “I have come to realize . . . ” (Autobiography 66).


Reder’s academic revisiting is grounded in her understanding of revisiting as an Indigenous storytelling practice. Over the course of the book, she again and again returns to the story, first heard from her mother, of how her kôhkum cured a man of blindness (Autobiography 23-24). Over time, she learns that this is a story shared by her wider family, with different members holding different pieces of it (59, 110). Perhaps most strikingly, she eventually learns from her uncle that the man in her mother’s story was Absolom Halkett, who mysteriously disappeared with Jim Brady in 1967.1 Her subsequent search for the remains of the missing men is an effort to complete Halkett’s story. While she is not able, for now, to explain the men’s disappearance, by placing it among several “unexplained deaths” in her family (108), Reder develops the story as more than simply one of loss. She comes to understand it as part of a pattern of systemic racism in policing which devalues Indigenous lives. And, in the face of this devaluing, she celebrates the ways in which Halkett’s and Brady’s lives “continue to be named and remembered” and emphasizes that there are, in Indigenous communities, “fragments waiting to be collected together” and continuing to be revisited and reassembled (135, 130).


Reder’s attention to revisiting also shapes her reading of Cree-Métis literature. For example, in her analysis of the manuscripts of Edward Ahenakew, she focuses on Ahenakew’s process of rewriting. She explains that he wrote at least four versions of his autobiography (Autobiography 61, 85), and she looks at these writings together, revealing the themes, motifs, and incidents to which Ahenakew returns repeatedly. Because she reads Ahenakew’s writing as a lifelong process, she does not judge his words at any one moment. For example, Ahenakew’s character Young Hawk buries the ceremonial pipe he has been given, an image that could be read as Ahenakew advocating for the abandonment of Cree culture. Instead, Reder reads this moment in the context of Ahenakew’s body of writing, comparing it to similar moments from his other works and contemplating various possible meanings of the scene. By attending to how Ahenakew revisited questions about nêhiyaw spirituality over his lifetime, Reder is able to view with compassion the difficult choices he made and also honour his “great devotion to his nation” (93).


In her conclusion, Reder makes clear that this book does not represent an end to her revisiting process: “while we speak from specific positions, these shift and change as we grow and move and learn and age. We are hurtling through time and space, connected by these stories to those who have preceded us and those who will come after us” (Autobiography 135). With these words, she extends revisiting beyond her book and herself, reaching into future generations. In her acknowledgements, she writes to her children, “I hope this work resonates with you” (137). This metaphor of resonance—the creation of a full sound through the synchronous vibration of neighbouring objects—is perhaps the best way to describe Reder’s book. Her own, her family’s, and her community’s stories reverberate with one another, becoming richer and fuller, and then extend further out across time and space to resonate with her readers.


For me, Autobiography as Indigenous Intellectual Tradition resonated deeply. I’ve grappled with how to be part of an academic world that often feels, to draw on Reder’s words, “completely separate from being a member of my family” (Autobiography 116). To pursue my academic career, I have spent much of my life far from my Indigenous community and extended family, and I’ve struggled with the sense that being academically “productive” often seems at odds with family life. But I read Reder’s book during my own time of revisiting. During the pandemic, my husband, my two young sons, and I moved temporarily to my hometown of St. John’s, NL, and have been taking time to connect more deeply with family and community. In this context, I felt like Reder’s book was speaking directly to me. Through presenting her own revisiting process as slow and ongoing, Reder creates an open, compassionate space for other Indigenous scholars to value our own stories and relationships and our own slow process of putting them together. I am grateful that this book tells me that I don’t have to know it all, write it all, and tie it all together today. Instead, it opens up inspiring possibilities for work that slowly, thoughtfully, and vulnerably includes more of who we are—and who we are in the process of becoming.



1. Reder greatly expands on Brady and Halkett’s disappearance and on her efforts to solve it in Cold Case North: The Search for James Brady and Absolom Halkett.


Works Cited

Nest, Michael, Deanna Reder, and Eric Bell. Cold Case North: The Search for James Brady and Absolom Halkett. U of Regina P, 2020.

Reder, Deanna. Âcimisowin as Theoretical Practice: Autobiography as Indigenous Intellectual Tradition in Canada. 2007. U of British Columbia, PhD dissertation.

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


Kristina Fagan Bidwell is a member of NunatuKavut, the Inuit community of Southern Labrador, and she grew up in St. John’s, Newfoundland. She currently lives with her husband and two sons in Saskatoon, where she is Canada Research Chair in Indigenous Storytelling at the University of Saskatchewan. Her current research project, in collaboration with Sophie McCall, explores Indigenous-led collaborations in the Indigenous literary arts.

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