Geist - - Geist - —Jor­dan Abel

As a Nisga’a writer, I’m of­ten deeply in­vested in not only how other po­ets are tack­ling is­sues through po­etry but also how Indige­nous writ­ers are nav­i­gat­ing that same ter­rain. Read­ing po­etry is nec­es­sary. Read­ing Indige­nous writ­ing is es­sen­tial. I think th­ese are more or less the start­ing points for my read­ing prac­tice. Should I read po­etry? Should I read Indige­nous po­etry? Should I read Cana­dian work? Should I read Amer­i­can work? And what does that mean any­way to choose to read a book based on an au­thor’s na­tional iden­ti­fi­ca­tion? Don’t Indige­nous peo­ples pre­fer to iden­tify through their Indige­nous na­tion? And sub­se­quently re­ject na­tional, colo­nial la­bels like Amer­i­can and/or Cana­dian and/or Aus­tralian? I’ve been think­ing about this a lot re­cently. There are many that con­cep­tu­al­ize Indige­nous writ­ing within the scope of Canada. For ex­am­ple, the Na­tive Po­etry in Canada: A Con­tem­po­rary An­thol­ogy, edited by Jean­nette Arm­strong and Lally Grauer (Broad­view Press, 2001), sug­gests that there is such a thing as Na­tive Cana­dian writ­ing, and edi­tor Neal Mcleod’s an­thol­ogy Indige­nous Po­et­ics in Canada (WLU Press, 2014) sug­gests some­thing very sim­i­lar. Even Tom­son High­way’s From Oral to Writ­ten: A Cel­e­bra­tion of Indige­nous Lit­er­a­ture in Canada, 1980−2010 (Talon­books, 2017), seems to pro­pose that there is a group of Indige­nous Cana­dian authors. But who gets to de­cide this?

Let’s talk about Sarain Stump and Chrys­tos. Stump was born in Fre­mont, Wy­oming, in 1945, moved to Al­berta in 1964 and lived in Canada un­til his death in 1974. He wrote, pub­lished and ex­hib­ited his work ex­ten­sively in Canada, and his writ­ing is in­cluded in Na­tive Po­etry in Canada. In the book There Is My Peo­ple Sleep­ing, Stump bal­ances po­etry with draw­ing. Each page is a dip­tych, ask­ing the reader to nav­i­gate through word-im­age pat­terns that of­ten con­tain both lit­eral and me­taphor­i­cal con­nec­tions. There Is My Peo­ple Sleep­ing is a beau­ti­ful and sur­pris­ingly min­i­mal book that can ap­par­ently be la­belled Cana­dian Indige­nous writ­ing de­spite the na­tional plu­ral­ity of Stump’s his­tory.

On the other hand, we have Chrys­tos, whose work is not in­cluded in Na­tive Po­etry in Canada. Chrys­tos is a two-spirit Menom­i­nee writer and also ap­par­ently an Amer­i­can. They were born in San Fran­cisco and iden­tify as liv­ing for a sub­stan­tial time on Bain­bridge Is­land in Wash­ing­ton State. The thing is that Chrys­tos pub­lished sub­stan­tially in Canada. In fact, they pro­duced four books with the Van­cou­ver pub­lisher Press Gang (1975−2002), in­clud­ing Not Van­ish­ing (1988), Dream On (1991), In Her I Am (1993) and Fire Power (1995). Chrys­tos pub­lished more in Canada than they ever did in Amer­ica. And yet their ex­clu­sion from Na­tive Po­etry in Canada might sug­gest that they are not part of the same group­ing of Na­tive Cana­dian writ­ers.

For a reader, both Stump and Chrys­tos of­fer in­cred­i­bly pow­er­ful vi­sions of the world as seen through the lens of Indi­gene­ity. And I think both writ­ers are ab­so­lutely in­valu­able. What is of the ut­most im­por­tance when read­ing Indige­nous work is to read beyond our own na­tional bound­aries and/or to re­sist how those bound­aries shape our read­ing prac­tices. Even though Chrys­tos’s work is in­cred­i­ble, I of­ten won­der if Cana­di­ans over­look it just be­cause it isn’t “Cana­dian.” And that, in my opin­ion, would be a loss.

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