The de­bate is over

The Globe and Mail (Alberta Edition) - - FRONT PAGE - KATERI AKIWENZIE-DAMM

End­less dis­cus­sion about cul­tural ap­pro­pri­a­tion is a dis­trac­tion. Stand aside as we write, tell and pub­lish our own sto­ries

End­less dis­cus­sions about cul­tural ap­pro­pri­a­tion are dis­trac­tions that pull In­dige­nous writ­ers and pub­lish­ers away from what we ought to be do­ing: writ­ing, telling and pub­lish­ing our own sto­ries, writes Kateri Akiwenzie-Damm

In 1989, my cousin, Chippe­was of Nawash poet Lenore Keeshig, took the is­sue of “ap­pro­pri­a­tion of voice” to The Writ­ers’ Union of Canada to tell non-In­dige­nous writ­ers to “stop steal­ing our sto­ries.” The con­tro­versy she sparked raged for months after­ward. Some writ­ers were sup­port­ive of the call while oth­ers were ve­he­mently op­posed. In 1990, Lenore wrote an op-ed, in this very news­pa­per, ti­tled, “Stop Steal­ing Na­tive Sto­ries.” In it, she wrote that, “Crit­ics of non-na­tive writ­ers who bor­row from the na­tive ex­pe­ri­ence have been dis­missed as ad­vo­cates of cen­sor­ship and ac­cused of try­ing to shackle artis­tic imag­i­na­tion …”

Since that time, the is­sue has sim­mered, oc­ca­sion­ally boil­ing over as it did at the end of 2016, when is­sues around the writ­ing of one of Canada’s best­selling au­thors and his “shift­ing” sto­ries about his iden­tity were fi­nally made pub­lic af­ter years of ques­tions qui­etly swirling in con­ver­sa­tions among In­dige­nous writ­ers and artists.

This con­tro­versy con­tin­ued into 2017, a year that, for In­dige­nous peo­ple, marks 150 years of colo­nial op­pres­sion. As the Cana­dian gov­ern­ment un­rolled its Canada 150 bud­get and agenda, In­dige­nous peo­ple across the coun­try re­coiled. Canada “150”? Re­ally? To sug­gest that this coun­try didn’t ex­ist for us be­fore 1867 is a punch to the gut – a half-bil­lion-dol­lar, year-long cel­e­bra­tion that ham­mers home the mes­sage, over and over again, that Canada de­pends on our era­sure. The re­al­ity of our ex­is­tence does not fit the of­fi­cial na­tional nar­ra­tive and so it must be dis­missed, ig­nored and for­got­ten. Whether that era­sure is at­tempted through the In­dian Res­i­den­tial School Sys­tem, the on­go­ing ap­pre­hen­sions of our chil­dren by Child and Fam­ily Ser­vices, the mur­der and dis­ap­pear­ance of In­dige­nous women and girls, “starlight tours” con­ducted by police in Saskatchewan, the wildly dis­pro­por­tion­ate in­car­cer­a­tion of In­dige­nous peo­ples in Canada’s prison sys­tem, the theft of our lands and re­sources, the steal­ing of our sto­ries or the in­equitable poli­cies of a party on Par­lia­ment Hill, the mes­sage is per­sis­tent – and dev­as­tat­ingly fa­mil­iar.

This past week, I reread my cousin Lenore’s ar­ti­cle. How heart-break­ingly fa­mil­iar it is 27 years later. In her piece, she cites the same ob­jec­tions to our con­cerns today, the same disin­gen­u­ous re­fram­ing of the is­sue into one about free­dom of speech, the same sub­text em­bed­ded in ar­gu­ments that sug­gest we are not ca­pa­ble of telling our own sto­ries with the skill, beauty and depth that white mid­dle-class writ­ers could, or that, un­like them, we are too bi­ased. And there are sim­i­lar ex­pla­na­tions from us that our sto­ries are ours to tell, that they have power, and that we can tell them best.

Since the pub­li­ca­tion of Hal Niedzviecki’s “Ap­pro­pri­a­tion Prize” edi­to­rial in The Writ­ers’ Union of Canada’s Write magazine, white Cana­di­ans from pow­er­ful media cor­po­ra­tions have at­tacked and in­sulted us for op­pos­ing the idea that cul­tural ap­pro­pri­a­tion doesn’t ex­ist. They im­ply that we have the power to cen­sor, to ban and to deny their cre­ativ­ity. They as­sert that they are sure this is our real goal, de­spite at least 28 years of clear ar­tic­u­la­tions from us that this is not the case. If that were true, if we were that pow­er­ful in this Cana­dian so­ci­ety, there would be no is­sue of ap­pro­pri­a­tion of voice and no call for re­lent­less de­bate be­cause there would be no need.

Even though we know the his­tory of this is­sue – and have wit­nessed the in­abil­ity of many white Cana­di­ans to hear our voices in this de­bate – many of us have con­tin­ued to en­gage in dis­cus­sions about cul­tural ap­pro­pri­a­tion, in­clud­ing Ali­cia El­liott, Joshua White­head, Daniel Heath Jus­tice, Ryan McMa­hon, Jesse Wente, Zoe Todd, Drew Tay­lor, Ni­igaan Sin­clair, Trevor Greyeyes and Al Hunter. We have been in­ter­viewed on ra­dio and TV by In­dige­nous, al­ter­na­tive and main­stream media. We’ve writ­ten ar­ti­cles, blogs and po­ems. We have closely fol­lowed so­cial media, cor­rect­ing mis­in­for­ma­tion, sug­gest­ing re­sources, pro­mot­ing In­dige­nous lit­er­a­ture, pub­lish­ers and writ­ers and tack­ling an­ti­quated no­tions that we are in­ca­pable of telling our sto­ries ef­fec­tively and that we are un­wor­thy ob­jects of ridicule. In do­ing so, we have shouted from the rooftops that we refuse to be erased. It has been ex­haust­ing.

But this has also brought us closer to­gether than we have been in a long time. This fight has made it eas­ier to see our al­lies, to let go of false friends, and to iden­tify our en­e­mies. In the past month, we have said many of the same things Lenore was say­ing in 1990 and we have added many more voices to those re­sponses. We have opened our hearts to talk about the pain that the Write edi­to­rial and the fall­out from it has caused us, our chil­dren, our fam­i­lies, our friends and our com­mu­ni­ties. We have shared our frus­tra­tions, anger and tears.

I was in­ter­viewed as an In­dige­nous pub­lisher in that same is­sue of Write magazine. I am a writer, poet and pub­lisher. I have put my own writ­ing ca­reer on hold many times to fight for re­spect and space for In­dige­nous writ­ers and our books. I am also a con­sul­tant and have worked with In­dige­nous groups and or­ga­ni­za­tions across the coun­try, in­clud­ing the Abo­rig­i­nal Heal­ing Foun­da­tion (AHF) in the early stages of its man­date. (Es­tab­lished in 1998, the foun­da­tion was an In­dige­nous-man­aged non-profit ded­i­cated to re­spond­ing to the im­pact of res­i­den­tial schools in Canada.)

There were three em­ploy­ees busily and ex­cit­edly work­ing in a newly rented of­fice space. The empty of­fices spoke of the po­ten­tial: An op­por­tu­nity for In­dige­nous peo­ple to tell the truth about res­i­den­tial schools, not only to them­selves, but to the Cana­dian pub­lic and to start a long and painful process of heal­ing and re­cov­ery.

Those empty of­fices were soon filled, and I worked, off and on, with the or­ga­ni­za­tion un­til its fi­nal project: a his­tory of the foun­da­tion. I wrote a chap­ter about emerg­ing is­sues that the foun­da­tion wasn’t able to ad­dress be­fore its fund­ing was cut in 2014 – among them, the Scoops of the 1950s and ’60s (when the Chil­dren’s Aid So­ci­ety “scooped up” In­dige­nous chil­dren and placed them in fos­ter homes or of­fered them for adop­tion) and the con­tin­ued ap­pre­hen­sions of our chil­dren. I was es­pe­cially ex­cited to write about the CAS ap­pre­hen­sions, be­cause my sons are Anishi­naabe and are adopted. I

wrote that chap­ter with pas­sion be­cause that story of the link be­tween res­i­den­tial schools and the CAS is one that needs to be told and be­cause it is part of my sons’ sto­ries as well.

As part of my work with the AHF and later, the Legacy of Hope Foun­da­tion, I lis­tened to res­i­den­tial school sur­vivors such as Gar­net Ange­coneb speak about their ex­pe­ri­ences and their dreams for the fu­ture. I sat in an of­fice for days read­ing sur­vivor tes­ti­monies. I watched in awe as sur­vivors came to­gether to heal the wounds they car­ried, tell their sto­ries and work with a gritty de­ter­mi­na­tion to cre­ate a bet­ter world for their fam­i­lies and com­mu­ni­ties. It was both gutwrench­ing and pro­foundly in­spir­ing.

I lis­tened with out­rage when their voices were pushed out of the way and si­lenced and the res­i­den­tial school sto­ries were dis­tilled down, pri­mar­ily, to one writer’s voice. I saw the harm it caused when some­one who ad­mit­ted that none of his fam­ily at­tended res­i­den­tial schools be­came the voice sought out by media and pub­lish­ers. It was a sin­gu­lar voice, un­able to tell a story that could pos­si­bly carry the depth and breadth of the many sto­ries the sur­vivors and mem­bers of their fam­i­lies and com­mu­ni­ties had been telling.

So it’s time to say it: The ap­pro­pri­a­tion de­bate needs to end. But not be­cause the war has been won or be­cause our sto­ries are no longer be­ing stolen. Young In­dige­nous women and men are still sleep­ing in stair­wells or dy­ing alone in tents af­ter they be­come too old for fos­ter care; ap­pre­hen­sions of In­dige­nous chil­dren are con­tin­u­ing to rise; In­dige­nous fam­i­lies have to fight for things such as den­tal care (one fam­ily re­cently took the fed­eral gov­ern­ment to court to force it to pay for care for their daugh­ter so that she could eat, speak and live with­out chronic pain); First Na­tions stu­dents go miss­ing and are pulled, life­less, from rivers in Thun­der Bay; res­i­den­tialschool ex­pe­ri­ences are still pub­licly de­nied and de­graded, even by main­stream “award-win­ning” jour­nal­ists; and the fed­eral gov­ern­ment keeps sell­ing rec­on­cil­i­a­tion, even though far too many Cana­di­ans still do not know or can­not han­dle the truth.

It’s time to stop the de­bate be­cause fight­ing th­ese bat­tles is get­ting us nowhere. What’s the point in set­ting our­selves up so that some of the di­nosaurs around us can roar out the same worn out stereo­types about who we are, repli­cat­ing once again a power im­bal­ance that serves their in­ter­ests at our cost? Why bother re­spond­ing to proudly ig­no­rant tweets that whisk us back al­most three decades or, per­haps, three cen­turies? Af­ter all, who needs this de­bate? I cer­tainly do not.

Had I known that the Write edi­to­rial would try to dredge up the ap­pro­pri­a­tion is­sue again, I would not have par­tic­i­pated in the is­sue. But none of us were given that op­por­tu­nity and so we have found our lives and time hi­jacked, dis­cussing an is­sue we have al­ready dis­cussed many times, with peo­ple who still are not lis­ten­ing.

Don’t get me wrong: I am strongly in favour of ed­u­cat­ing and rais­ing aware­ness. My mother, Julie Damm, was a teacher. Her mother, Irene Akiwenzie, was a teacher. I have spent a huge amount of my life speak­ing in schools and uni- ver­si­ties and work­ing in var­i­ous ways to live up to my an­ces­tors’ name, Kege­donce, “lit­tle or­a­tor.”

But if the past 30 years have taught us any­thing, it is that there is a pow­er­ful, loud bunch of priv­i­leged white set­tlers who do not want to learn about us or from us. They spew out their im­pres­sions of our ex­pe­ri­ence and dou­ble down when con­fronted with re­search and data and our first hand ac­counts. They want to “de­bate” ap­pro­pri­a­tion, on their terms and make th­ese de­mands as if it has not been done be­fore. As if the past 30 years of our work is mean­ing­less be­cause they are un­aware and do not have to bother do­ing the re­search. For us, to con­tinue to de­bate at this point is noth­ing but a type of busy work that pulls In­dige­nous writ­ers and pub­lish­ers away from what we ought to be do­ing – namely, writ­ing, telling and pub­lish­ing our own sto­ries.

The world is shift­ing. Here’s a hard truth that may move us closer to rec­on­cil­i­a­tion: We do not need them. We do not need to de­bate them be­cause they de­mand it and we do not need them to tell our sto­ries. It is time now for us to re­fo­cus our en­er­gies on what mat­ters to us: first and fore­most, work­ing within our com­mu­ni­ties to strengthen, em­power and build each other up. We need to en­vi­sion, to­gether, the world we want to cre­ate and work with­out this dis­trac­tion. Many In­dige­nous writ­ers are writ­ing with a rein­vig­o­rated drive, heart­ened by the way so many of us came to­gether and talk­ing about new col­lab­o­ra­tions and new projects. It is ex­cit­ing. We’re dream­ing about a fu­ture and how to get there.

For me, this work in­cludes reaf­firm­ing my com­mit­ment to my own writ­ing, con­tin­u­ing to pub­lish and pro­mote In­dige­nous lit­er­a­ture and writ­ers through the pub­lish­ing com­pany I started, Kege­donce Press, and help­ing to es­tab­lish an In­dige­nous writ­ers or­ga­ni­za­tion. I’m also work­ing with non-In­dige­nous friends and al­lies to cre­ate new, im­pact­ful and long-last­ing op­por­tu­ni­ties for In­dige­nous writ­ers.

Some of this work is al­ready un­der way and has been since be­fore this lat­est con­tro­versy. Among the new ini­tia­tives is the Emerg­ing In­dige­nous Voices fund for a “Cana­dian lit­er­ary award to sup­port the vi­sion of emerg­ing In­dige­nous writ­ers.” It was the re­sponse of one per­son, a non-In­dige­nous lawyer named Robin Parker, who truly lis­tened to what was hap­pen­ing and in­stead of “de­bat­ing” it end­lessly, took ac­tion. Her ini­tial fundrais­ing goal was a mod­est $10,000. Within a few days of its two-month long cam­paign it had raised $66,556 from 913 backers. She’s work­ing with In­dige­nous or­ga­ni­za­tions to set up the de­tails of the award. Mean­while, con­trib­u­tors and In­dige­nous peo­ple are dream­ing about the pos­si­bil­i­ties.

That is far more im­por­tant than pars­ing terms, re­stat­ing again why we want to tell our own sto­ries, and en­gag­ing with bul­lies online or wher­ever they may be. We need long term, sus­tain­able change. Not one-off in­ter­views or in­vi­ta­tions to speak. We need to move this is­sue away from de­bate into ac­tion.

My sleeves are rolled up. Let’s get to work.

To read Lenore Keeshig's 1990 es­say, Stop Steal­ing Na­tive Sto­ries, visit tgam.ca/stop­steal­ing

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