Performing Turtle Island. University of Regina Press (purchase at Amazon.ca) , and
Literatures, Communities, and Learning: Conversations with Indigenous Writers. Wilfrid Laurier University Press (purchase at Amazon.ca)
Mainstream Canada’s current passion for Indigenous narratives is often overshadowed by Eurocentric interpretations, curtailing these narratives’ transformative potential. Both Literatures, Communities, and Learning and Performing Turtle Island respond to this colonization of Indigenous stories in literatures and the performing arts, respectively. They delineate strategies for critical engagement and culturally responsive methodologies that strive not only to decolonize, but also to reclaim while navigating the paradoxes of working in settler-colonial structures.
In Literatures, Aubrey Hanson (Métis) interviews nine Indigenous writers from diverse heritages, generations, gender identities, and preferred genres, all with teaching backgrounds. A professor at the University of Calgary’s Werklund School of Education, Hanson shapes the collection as both an Indigenous literary studies project and an Indigenous education project. She investigates how Indigenous literatures can contribute to the self-determination and health of Indigenous communities since they embody interrelationships between each author and their kinship networks, personal and community histories, and Indigenous intellectual traditions. She sets out to learn about these authors’ perspectives on “writing-in-relation”—with no misguided claim of exhaustivity or representativeness, but by following a chain of connections. Thus, the collection adopts a chronological order that reflects the order of the interviews as they were conducted with the various authors: Richard Van Camp (Tłı̨chǫ); David Alexander Robertson (Cree); Katherena Vermette (Métis); Warren Cariou (Métis); Lee Maracle (Stó:lō); Sharron Proulx-Turner (Métis); Daniel Heath Justice (Cherokee Nation); Tenille Campbell (Dene/Métis); and Marilyn Dumont (Métis).
This structure brings the conversations within the book into dialogue, as Hanson shares what she has learned from previous authors and from her interviews with Indigenous and non-Indigenous teachers about their experiences teaching Indigenous literatures (also part of her dissertation work). Hanson draws on Cree scholar Dwayne Donald’s concept of “ethical relationality” to Indigenize the interviewing process by cultivating reciprocity and care rather than focusing on producing contents. The result is a journey, or a crossroads of journeys: we witness nuanced exchanges and Hanson’s growth as an interviewer, conveying a vivid, intimate feel and precluding homogenization. For example, Hanson’s rootedness in the Métis Nation of Alberta highlights the plurality of Métis communities: unlike her, Cariou did not grow up knowing he was Métis, but the two relate to each other’s identity negotiations. Also noteworthy is Justice’s complication of the mirror metaphor used by most participants in their discussion of literature: fearing that the need for Indigenous students to see themselves reflected might lead to narcissism, he suggests the image of literatures as windows into inclusive realities.
Indeed, recurring threads across the interviews are the power of stories to foster empathy in non-Indigenous readers and the urge to use Indigenous pedagogies in the classroom—not only to decolonize curricula and the legacy of the residential schools, but also because such methodologies are student-centred and mindful rather than hierarchical and regurgitative. The authors all demonstrate, in different ways, that stories are the theories, epistemologies, and methodologies. Maracle decries the abstract, technical literary jargons that reduce her works to comparatively recent Eurocentric paradigms, as if Indigenous peoples had no history and arts before 1492. She shows what responsibility, critical thinking, and engaged learning entail through thought-provoking stories about her students and family, foregrounding the continuity of guidance and love from her ancestors to herself to future generations. Other strategies used by contributors include embracing visual storytelling through graphic novels, film, or photography; bringing a storyteller into the classroom; consulting Elders; or asking students to discuss what struck them in the work of an Indigenous writer. Indeed, beyond the impetus to give Indigenous youth the connectedness and pride that many of its participants did not have themselves, this collection also strives to help build bridges with settlers and newcomers. Accordingly, Hanson places two frameworks in dialogue: while “resurgence” focuses on cultural revitalization by and for Indigenous peoples, “reconciliation,” as defined by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada (TRC), requires the active commitment of non-Indigenous communities, including readers and teachers of Indigenous literatures.
Performing also responds to the post-TRC context, albeit from a different angle. While Literatures foregrounds the First Peoples of Turtle Island as the cores of Indigenous education, Performing situates the debate within a transnational framework to honour one of the TRC Calls to Action, which the book uses as an epigraph: it “call[s] upon Indigenous and non-Indigenous artists to undertake collaborative projects and produce works that contribute to the reconciliation process” (vii). This interdisciplinary anthology aims to place Indigenous performing arts in Canada “in dialogue with other nations, both on the shores of Turtle Island and on the world stage” (xiv). Its impulse was a “simultaneously local and global” gathering (xv): Performing Turtle Island: Fluid Identities and Community Continuities, held in Regina, was the main Canadian node of Performance Studies international’s (PSi) 2015 conference and involved online exchanges with other communities of established and emerging performers, playwrights, directors, and scholars, among others.
Like Hanson, the Indigenous and non-Indigenous editors and contributors in Performing problematize how the term reconciliation suggests closure or a harmonious past while colonialism and systemic erasure are ongoing. Instead, they propose that “public, live interaction produces a space of equanimity and empowerment through an embodied mutual call to action” (xvii), while remaining aware that decolonization, reclamation, and social transformation, on the one hand, and co-option and cognitive imperialism, on the other, often intersect. Part I, “Critical Self-Representation in Production and Training,” demonstrates different attempts to map out “the processes of performing Indigeneity and what this means to contemporary theatre and performance arts” (xx). Part II, “Performance in Dialogue with the Text,” complicates Eurocentric notions of performance as the fleeting realization of a written text, notably in reference to the oral tradition, transnationalism, and creative subversions and blends.
The PSi network theme of “UnKnowing” provides a lens to unsettle or move beyond colonial hierarchies of knowledge. Eschewing the notion of a pan-Indigenous aesthetics, the eleven essays are grounded in specific traditions, stories and histories, and landscapes, especially the Treaty 4 territory. The keynote by Michael Greyeyes (Cree) emphasizes physicality as embodied, experiential knowledge, as it avoids text-based psychological approaches like method acting and connects Indigenous performers to a past when survival relied on physical prowess. Holistic modes of knowing are also central to Kahente Horn-Miller’s (Kanien’kehá:ka) account of her performance We Are in Her and She Is in Us. By revisiting the Haudenosaunee creation story through words, song, dance, body language, traditional regalia, and narrative tattoos, she transcends linear views of time and identity and becomes Sky Woman. The concepts of rematriation and cultural fluency enable her to reclaim storytelling as ceremony, pedagogy, and sharing: she connects her audiences, both Indigenous and non-Indigenous, with Kanien’kehá:ka culture and Sky Woman’s humanity, then integrates their responses into the next iterations. Each performance is part of her journey of critical engagement with her interconnected roles of researcher, performer, Kanien’kehá:ka woman, and mother. Other essays depict fruitful collaborations with allies, like the opera Giiwedin by Spy Dénommé-Welch (Anishnaabe) and Catherine Magowan (Hungarian Canadian); Delaware playwright Daniel David Moses’ partnership with Jamaican Canadian director Colin Taylor; and Floyd Favel’s (Cree) coda, a narrative poem concluding on “the dream of an impossible theatre,” from a dream conversation with Jean Genet about renewing theatre through Indigenous sacred cosmologies.
Both collections focus on hope and possibilities in uncertain times. Through the aliveness of stories, they challenge their reader-audiences in generous ways, emphasizing that resurgence, decolonization, and reconciliation are ongoing processes that require settler accountability and the shared unlearning of colonial patterns. With humility, they chart multiple journeys and underline the absence of totalizing answers: as Maracle underlines, “there’s an infinite number of pathways to the centre of the circle” (92).