How often, when reading a work of literary criticism, does one get a genuine sense of who the writer is, how they relate to the works under discussion, and how they might connect to us as readers? This feeling of connectedness between writer and reader is all too rare in the practice of criticism, and it is something to be treasured when we find it, because it highlights the true importance—the affective, spiritual, and intellectual stakes—of the stories that nourish us and help to show us who we are. Autobiography as Indigenous Intellectual Tradition is suffused with that precious sense of connectedness, which is why I consider it a remarkable work of relational reading. Deanna Reder shows us what is really possible in literary criticism here, not only by interpreting works of literature, but also by enacting a crucial form of relationship-building that is so important in Cree and Métis cultures—and indeed in all Indigenous cultures I am familiar with. She does this by bringing her own stories into the work and highlighting the role of story in her family and her communities. The autobiographical elements of this book are not merely prefatory, are not a separate “position statement,” but are in fact deeply connected to the arguments Reder makes about the works of autobiography she studies. Knowing the stories of her family helps readers to understand the complex forms of knowledge she brings to these works and the insights she finds therein. In addition, these family stories welcome readers into a circle and ask us to be part of a relationship that goes beyond a straightforward interpretive practice, toward something that is more deeply tied to ethics and community-building. “Including one’s story,” she writes, “is not a way to take centre stage as much as to share and visit together” (9). Indeed, this book is written in the spirit of sharing and visiting, and it is so much more powerful and profound for that.
As a scholar of Indigenous storytelling, I am struck by the ways that Autobiography as Indigenous Intellectual Tradition brings the ethos of oral stories into its interpretive practice. I am reminded that storytellers are not only the performers of traditional stories but are also often the most skilful interpreters of those stories. For example, in his discussions with me, Omushkego Elder Louis Bird has often made fascinating observations about the meanings of stories he has told me over the years. Quite often, these observations take the form of other stories. In other words, the act of storytelling itself is not clearly demarcated from the storyteller’s role as interpreter. This is so different from the history of literary criticism within the academy, where the story and the interpretation have usually been separated into two different realms. Reder, in contrast, utilizes the blended creative-interpretive practice of oral storytellers by bringing her own family stories into the analysis, and this choice has important effects upon the reader.
In an oral storytelling session, listeners have a clear, though often unstated and sometimes unacknowledged, role within the storytelling—they are called upon to respond to the gift of the story with a gift of their own: their attention, their ability to listen carefully and with humility. I feel that readers of Autobiography as Indigenous Intellectual Tradition are called to a similar kind of ethical engagement with the stories that begin each chapter of this book and, by extension, with the primary texts that are under discussion as well. Reder explicitly refers to the importance of listening when she describes the Cree relational ethics of wâhkôhtiwin in Maria Campbell’s Halfbreed, writing, “If people refuse to listen, or refuse to consider they have obligations to their neighbours, then the system collapses” (48). It’s important that listening is linked here to the idea of ethical obligations—meaning not that one is obliged to listen, but that the very act of listening is an opening of the self toward ethical responsibility. I believe that Reder does something similar to this through the medium of text. This book approaches readers in a spirit of wâhkôhtiwin, inviting us into a relationship that develops from the gift of Reder’s own stories of herself and her family. wâhkôhtiwin is, after all, an extension of family relationships beyond the strict bounds of blood and toward a broader sense of kinship. Like all gifts within the context of wâhkôhtiwin, Reder’s story-gifts also contain an expectation that readers will carry a responsibility for what they have learned and that they will be expected to give back. How we choose to do that—through teaching, writing, or sharing our experience of the stories in other ways—is up to us. The key is that we have been welcomed into this circle of ethical relations by the author’s choice to break with standard critical conventions, to show us how her own stories are interconnected with the primary texts she is studying. The result might be called “visiting on the page,” and it evokes the very deepest and most thought-provoking kind of conversation that one could imagine.
Deanna Reder’s approach here is perfectly suited to the works she is studying, which are all, in different ways, about the paramount importance of relations in the creation and maintenance of Indigenous selves. The book also provides an incredibly valuable model for other scholars—especially Indigenous scholars—who are seeking the most appropriate and fruitful ways of interpreting Indigenous literature.
I predict that it will have a large influence on the future of critical work in our discipline and that it will continue to call scholars into the practice of story-based relational interpretation for years to come.
Reder, Deanna. Autobiography as Indigenous Intellectual Tradition: Cree and Métis âcimisowina. Wilfrid Laurier UP, 2022.
Warren Cariou was born and raised in a family of Métis and European ancestry in Meadow Lake, Saskatchewan. He has published works of fiction and memoir as well as critical writing about Indigenous storytelling, literature and environmental philosophy. He is the general editor of the First Voices, First Texts series of critical editions at the University of Manitoba Press, and he has edited several collections of Indigenous Literature. His films and his bitumen photographs document the experience of Indigenous communities in the Athabasca tar sands region, and he is a member of the Wa Ni Ska Tan Hydro Alliance, studying the effects of hydro projects upon Indigenous communities. He is a Professor in the department of English, Theatre, Film, and Media at the University of Manitoba.
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