How we refer to an author tells a story. A disinterested scholarly tone, in analysis of “Reder’s work,” risks concealing meaningful relationships contributors to this forum hold with the volume’s author—as friends, colleagues, mentees, and beneficiaries of the field-building work in which she has engaged for decades.1 Calling the author “Deanna” risks relinquishing a level of scholarly esteem expected of those involved in critical discussion of one of the most important works of literary theory to emerge in lands claimed as Canada in recent years. Yet, as Autobiography as Indigenous Intellectual Tradition: Cree and Métis âcimisowina both argues and models, personal stories and relationships are not antithetical to intellectual work of value; they are integral, particularly in Indigenous literary studies. And relationships carry responsibilities.2
Deanna Reder reminds us, in her discussion of Cree intellectual Harold Cardinal’s writings, that “knowledge [is] intertwined with self-knowledge,” which “prods” Cree and Métis scholars to consider their “responsibilities to Cree knowledge and to generations before and after [them]” (Autobiography 122). Cree and Métis âcimisowina—stories about oneself, or autobiographies—are tools of understanding that weave personal experience into the layered fabric of familial, community, and cultural knowledge. For Reder, sharing âcimisowina constitutes “an act of autonomy in that it expresses the values of one’s own story while at the same time an act of generosity, of sharing, that contributes to the history of the community” (18). To be fully oneself, to be the holder of one’s story, is not, therefore, an act of individuation, but a catalyst to community engagement as an expression of responsibility: “Including one’s story is not a way to take centre stage as much as to share and visit together” (9).
By narrating her personal journey as critical praxis, Reder empowers Indigenous scholars and others to trust the intuitive and affective sites of knowledge formation that academia often conditions us to disavow; in this way, she engenders new horizons of critical possibility and authorizes intellectual work of heightened integrity. Anishinaabe scholar Johannah Bird discusses the world-building value of such authorization below—of celebrating, in Deanna’s case, being “both an academic and a Métis woman without contradiction” (Autobiography 126). “Instead of considering my experiences as a deficiency,” she writes, “I began to consider my life story as method, as a tool to rely upon when evaluating texts by Indigenous writers” (8). Such shifts in scholarly expectations, the contributors to this collaborative piece believe, demand that critics rethink even the genre of the readers’ forum. For whom do we share
these reflections? To whom are they directed? Where is each of us in the process? And how might our words express and honour our relationships and responsibilities? If I’m honest, the primary audience I imagine for these words is Deanna herself, followed closely by the other contributors to this forum. As Reder shows us in her book, engagement with another’s words, experience, and story—with another’s âcimisowina—is an act of trust that carries obligations not only to the author, but also to the communities and knowledge systems out of which a work emerges. This is why she takes such care with the stories of George Copway, James Settee, Maria Campbell, Edward Ahenakew, Absolom Halkett, Harold Cardinal, and her own mother: Reder is writing for them, to them, and for their families.
In the pages that follow, we spend a good deal of time considering the ethical and methodological implications of Reder’s gently radical interpretive practice, which weaves together personal stories with familial, community, and cultural stories to develop layered understandings that are embedded in relationships—what Warren Cariou refers to as “relational reading” (170). The integrity of such praxis, however, is dependent upon and emboldened by meticulous primary research—research, in this case, that is expressive of Reder’s decades-long honouring of Cree and Métis thought by raising up the voices of Cree and Métis intellectuals and artists. Autobiography as Indigenous Intellectual Tradition is field-altering because it challenges how Indigenous literary studies is imagined and conducted, but it is also field-altering because of the sources it brings to light for Cree and Métis communities. These include a never-before-studied essay by nineteenth-century Cree writer James Settee, a passage from Métis author Maria Campbell’s pathbreaking autobiography Halfbreed that had been “expurgated against her wishes in 1973” and was believed lost (Autobiography 16),3 and multiple unpublished “Life-Inspired Stories” by Cree intellectual and Anglican cleric Edward Ahenakew.
We shouldn’t be surprised that Reder’s work encourages us to share analysis and critical dialogue differently. In a critical reflection on “Thinking Together: A Forum on Jo-Ann Episkenew’s Taking Back Our Spirits: Indigenous Literature, Public Policy, and Healing,” which won the Canadian Literature Essay Prize in 2014, Reder and settler scholar Susan Gingell expose the inconsistencies between author-meets-critics panels and Indigenous ethics of relational accountability. Unlike dominant dialectical models reliant on “academic competitiveness,” Reder and Gingell advocate for a modality of communication that foregrounds “critics’ accountability to the author” in efforts “to achieve the goal of building and maintaining a lively, healthy, productive, and respectful critical community” (Gingell and Reder 92). Here, as elsewhere, Reder (1) recognizes the tensions between standard scholarly expectations in the Western academy and Indigenous knowledge systems, (2) enacts an alternative more in keeping with Indigenous ethics and values, and (3) renders those alternatives legible in a manner designed to provoke further developments that might foster scholarly environments more inclusive of Indigenous thought. When we tend with care, humility, and rigour to our responsibilities and relationships, what emerges is intellectual work of greater value—even to those outside the immediate circle; in fact, such work might open up spaces of possibility for inviting others in.
After Reder’s keynote address at the 2022 Indigenous Literary Studies Association (ILSA) gathering hosted by the Gabriel Dumont Institute on Treaty 6 Territory, I had several conversations with colleagues and friends about the significance of Autobiography as Indigenous Intellectual Tradition, not only to Indigenous literary studies, but to CanLit, to autobiography studies, to decolonial studies, and to Indigenous studies more broadly. A readers’ forum seemed like a good way to illuminate the book’s interventions and to bring it to the attention of those outside the ILSA community. Perhaps unsurprisingly, given all that Reder has done to support others in our field, every person I asked about contributing agreed enthusiastically. Our conversation in this forum is buoyed by Cree and Métis thinkers; involves creative writers, literary critics, and those who are both; and includes contributors at diverse stages of their careers. Johannah Bird lauds below the sustaining impact of Reder’s validation of the knowledge emerging Indigenous scholars carry within themselves—knowledge that often presents itself through “instincts, hunches, signs, inklings” (163). Where Bird finds inspiration and confidence for a younger generation, NunatuKavut scholar Kristina Fagan Bidwell recognizes “the value of revisiting stories, ideas, and relationships over time” (176), lessons that those of us later in our careers would do well to take seriously. Foregrounding the humour in Reder’s work and the stories she recounts, Cree creative and critical writer Dallas Hunt investigates the “ruptures” and “possibilities” that can be “generated out of laughter or ‘the rolling of [one’s] eyes’” (175). Acholi poet Otoniya Juliane Okot Bitek amplifies Reder’s theorization of autobiography as a form of what she calls “world-making” urgently needed in the face of forces that would “erase us from ourselves” (168). Against such attempted erasure, Métis scholar and creative writer Warren Cariou emphasizes in Deanna’s work the “true importance—the affective, spiritual and intellectual stakes—of the stories that nourish us and help to show us who we are” (170). To produce the forum you are reading, each contributor drafted an initial reflection; we then circulated them as a group and held a virtual conversation to think together about our insights, analyses, and ideas, and to identify areas of significance not yet covered in the dialogue. After that conversation, we all spent a little more time with our thoughts and words. What you read here is the result of those conversations and reflections—and an expression of our commitments and our gratitude.
1. Such field-building work includes, but is not limited to, Reder’s participation on the inaugural council that launched the Indigenous Literary Studies Association and her service to that organization as vice-president, president, past president, and acting president; her co-chairship, with Sophie McCall, of the Indigenous Voices Awards; her work with the Indigenous Editors Association; and her work as principal investigator for The People and the Text: Indigenous Writing to 1992.
2. I note that our community of contributors did not reach easy consensus on the question of how to refer to the author throughout this forum (as you’ll see). And that’s to be expected. This is not a problem to solve or a critical choice to make and then justify. Characteristically, Reder’s work challenges us to think about the complexities—about what we can say, about what we ought to say, and about the relational and ethical dynamics that arbitrate the difference. Such is among the many gifts of her scholarship.
3. The passage, which was “incriminating [to] the RCMP,” was located by Reder’s research assistant Alix Shield, who, “following Indigenous protocols, return[ed] it to Campbell, which initiated the publication of a new edition of Halfbreed in 2019” (Autobiography 16).
Episkenew, Jo-Ann. Taking Back Our Spirits: Indigenous Literature, Public Policy, and Healing. U of Manitoba P, 2009.
Gingell, Susan, and Deanna Reder. “Introduction: Indigenizing the ‘Author Meets Critics’ Forum.” Canadian Literature, vol. 214, 2012, pp. 91-93.
The People and the Text: Indigenous Writing to 1992. Edited by Deanna Reder, Alix Shield, and Margery Fee, thepeopleandthetext.ca.
Reder, Deanna. Autobiography as Indigenous Intellectual Tradition: Cree and Métis âcimisowina. Wilfrid Laurier UP, 2022.
Sam McKegney is a white settler scholar of Indigenous literatures. He has published three books—Carrying the Burden of Peace (2021); Masculindians (2014); and Magic Weapons (2007)—and articles on such topics as masculinity, environmental kinship, prison writing, and mythologies of hockey. He is a researcher with the Indigenous Hockey Research Network and Head of the English Department at Queen’s University, which occupies lands of the Haudenosaunee and Anishinaabe Peoples.
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