Reflections on Indigenous Voices and Issues from the Contributors of In Our Own Aboriginal Voice 2
August 27, 2020
Published by Rebel Mountain Press, In Our Own Aboriginal Voice 2collectsshort fiction, non-fiction, personal essay, poetry, and original Indigenous artwork by thirty Indigenous authors and artists across the many traditional territories throughout Canada. Recently, the anthology's editor Michael Calvert asked some of the contributors for their perspectives on Indigenous Peoples, issues, and the importance of Indigenous voice in literature. Read on for their insightful responses that shed a light on the challenges of Indigenous writers and the need for visibility.
According to Michael Calvert (Mid-Island Metis Nation), editor of In Our Own Aboriginal Voice 2: A collection of Indigenous authors and artists in Canada: "Indigenous voice has a power that can only be attained through lived experience. For readers with that lived experience, the voices in this anthology will resound in your hearts and in your memories. For those of you without that lived experience, these voices will gift you with an understanding of what it means to be Indigenous in a colonized Canada. In guiding these amazing writers through this publication of their works, I was often brought to silent contemplation of the varied experiences within this anthology. Inspiring, powerful, and agonizing lived experiences that can’t help but touch the hearts of readers just as they touched mine. I'll be forever grateful for having been part of this project."
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Michael Calvert: Why was having your voice included in the In Our Own Aboriginal Voice 2 anthology important to you?
Sheena Robinson(Heiltsuk Nation): I have sometimes felt that I did not have the right to share my Indigenous voice because I do not look Indigenous and grew up in an urban setting, away from my culture and community. I realize now there are a lot of others that feel the same, and I wanted them to know they’re not alone when they read my writing – that they are still Indigenous, and their voice matters.
Dennis Saddleman (Nlaka’pamux Nation): My Aboriginal voice was stifled, it was smothered in the residential school. The first thing they said to me, “You're in our school now. You will eat when we say. You will sleep when we say. You will pray when we say. You will play when we say. You got that!” Every day they told us, no talking during meals. No talking in church. No talking after lights out. Many times I was innocent. Many times I was blamed for things I never did. Many times I was severely punished for being innocent. I tried to have my say, but they said I'm guilty. I was sexually abused by someone in a black robe. My abuser told me to be silent. Do not say anything to anyone or else. I will hurt you. I will hurt your family, I know where they live.
Many years later, someone discovered my hidden talents of writing. I became a writer. I became a poet. I started reading my poetry to the audience, that's where I discovered I had a voice. I learned to use my voice in writing. I learned to listen to other voices, the voices of my ancestors and the voices spirits, living or non-living. My voice needs to be heard. My voice needs to be in books. I need everyone to hear my voice.
Jo Chrona(Ts’msyen, Kitsumkalum Band): It was important to me on a personal level. I used to write fairly often, but kept most of my more creative writing limited to a (relatively) anonymous blog. Putting my name to a piece in an anthology was creating a space of vulnerability for me. This is a necessary space to be in to write honestly, again.
Jeremy Ratt (Metis, Peter Ballantyne Cree Nation): There’s always been a sense of calling when it comes to my relationship with writing. In high school, I was contemplating what I was going to do with my life. Whatever I was going to choose, I knew I wanted to share my stories and experiences in some form or fashion, and creative arts seemed to be the perfect field to fulfill that goal. In Our Own Aboriginal Voice 2 is an outlet to voice who I am as an Indigenous artist, as it is for the many other voices included in this anthology.
Darlene McIntosh (Lheidli T’enneh Nation): Silence does no one any good. We as Aboriginal people have had silence ingrained in us for over 100 years of colonialism, residential schools, a production of the Indian Act which kept us, in the white man’s belief, that we were nothing but savages.
Who knew...Yes, we did know we were wise beyond belief...
Our connection to our “Creator” and “Mother Earth” gave each of us innate knowledge of our surroundings, not only the physical but beyond.
The White man couldn’t stand this and did everything they could not to have us acknowledge what was already there.
The intergenerational trauma kept surfacing, time and time again saying, Who do you think you are? “You” people are lazy, stupid, drunks, calling our beautiful women “Squaws.”
The rose bud that was kept from blooming into the beautiful Rose is now happening. The world is now in full bloom...
Our connection is our Spirit connection. When we pray, smudge, give thanks and be grateful every moment of the day. When I feel the sun shining, giving me warmth, the wind blowing softly, speaking to me as only the wind can. I know how connected I am...
I share this through my prayers as I open up to receive and then I am able to share, planting the seeds in all peoples...
I then see all the beautiful flowers bloom and the energy of the heart being shared in unconditional love.
Eliot White-Hill, Kwulasultun (Snuneymuxw First Nation): This was very important to me as my first publication, and as my first experience going through the editorial process and engaging with a publisher. That experience was incredibly valuable. But also, on a personal level, this was so special because it feels like my voice has been recognized and held up and it feels like the voices of the other writers in the collection have been help up and celebrated, too. I write magical realism that tries to speak to both our traditional world views and ways of knowing and the modern context for Indigenous peoples here in Canada. I find that the genre of magical realism can break down barriers of understanding of place and being that is intrinsic to our way of life as Indigenous peoples by framing our spirituality and the supernatural aspects of our world within the every day. I hope that it will create space where empathy and understanding can flourish through the connection and engagement with the audience; but I don’t only write to a broader audience, I write to the new generations of our people as Coast Salish and Nuu Chah Nulth. I make very specific reference to the way that we as Coast Salish and Nuu Chah Nulth peoples see the world. I gather the teachings that have been passed down to me from my family and through my research and I try to make them accessible and I try to ensure that when our people look to the world of literature and fiction and all of the magical, amazing, and heart-wrenching stories that exist there, that they find themselves and their experiences reflected and that they see themselves and their worlds represented.
Artwork by Nikki Watts from In Our Own Aboriginal Voice 2
MC: Why do you think this book is important right now?
Eliot White-Hill, Kwulasultun: This book represents a broad range of Indigenous perspectives. It represents such a deep wealth of teachings and experience. These are writers and artists at all different stages of life and career. For their voices to be heard is powerful. I feel strongly that if people want to learn about who we are as Indigenous peoples, what our experience has been like in this country, and what is profound and beautiful about who we are and our strength, our art and stories are the way to do so. Instead of reading colonial textbooks or ethnographies or court cases, read our novels, read our poetry, look at the wealth of visual narrative across a broad range of traditions in art. I say that not to diminish the value of research along academic pathways, for learning and doing the work to learn in all forms is sacred (and too often there is not access to traditional transfer of knowledge), but rather to show that if you want to get to the core of our being, then sharing in experience of our artistic expression is the way. This book presents that opportunity.
Darlene McIntosh: This would be the perfect book now for the educational system. There are Aboriginal Strategic plans being implemented in elementary, secondary, post-secondary and universities that have mandated that their courses have to put in an Indigenous format of teaching the history of First Nations people. I believe you can talk yourself blue in the face trying to explain what we have experienced throughout history. The western world will never understand what we have gone through, but if you can touch their emotional aspect, then the beginning of understanding will happen.
Again, it’s about planting seeds of understanding; reconciliation is a responsibility of both parties. We know we can’t change the minds of all peoples, but the few that open up to a new experience, are the ones we will reach. If one mind opens, the rest will follow.
Jeremy Ratt: I think the importance of the book lies in the greater significance of inclusiveness. The integration of the internet in our daily lives has brought out a yearning for diverse voices to come out and express themselves. Whether they have a culturally diverse background, or they are a part of the LGBTQ+ community, minority groups have the power and audience that they never had before, and they can use that to share their experiences. And by telling these stories, there is a hopeful intention that it can inform, inspire, and enlighten those who may be unfamiliar to these artists and their diverse backgrounds.
Sheena Robinson: This anthology is important because it offers an array of Indigenous voices and perspectives that aren’t always the focus of mainstream literature. Short stories, poems and creative non-fiction often aren’t held in as high regards as books, but they still deserve an audience.
Dennis Saddleman: This book is important because it carries spiritual stories, stories of experiences and truths. A good book was born and it will live forever.
I'm an Indian book. I have stories of long ago. I have campfire stories. I have creation stories.
I have legends. Legends of rivers. Legends of eagles. Legends of my ancestors. I'm an Indian book. I have no contents. Someone ripped my leaves. Broke my backbone. Removed my cover. I'm an Indian book. Someone threw me in the trash can. I'm an Indian book. I went to residential school. I drank and drank. I did a lot of drugs. I was crawling in darkness. I'm an Indian book. A little girl from the rez, she picked me up from the trash can. She found out what I was. She repaired me internally and externally. I'm an Indian book. The little girl read my stories over and over and over.
In my own Aboriginal Voice 2, you're an Indian book.
MC:What are you hoping readers of the book will come to understand about Indigenous Peoples and/or issues?
Jo Chrona: We need more Indigenous voices shared in this country. We need to saturate the land we are on with our varied voices and experiences.
There is a tendency to see Indigenous peoples as a homogenous entity, but the reality is that there is so much diversity within Indigenous people and experiences in Canada. We need to challenge some of the narrow images Indigenous peoples are framed in.
I also hope that readers are reminded that we all have stories to share about who we are, and these stories can be expressed in so many different ways. The important thing to me is that we honour those stories, the hard ones and the joyful ones, as they are the way that we make space for who we are in this world.
Sheena Robinson:Many people have perceptions of Indigenous peoples that are outdated and misinformed. I hope that readers will see how unique our situations, stories, and backgrounds are from this anthology, and realize that there is not one solution to fixing our problems, nor should there be.
Eliot White-Hill, Kwulasultun:One that stands out is to dispel the presumed extinction of Indigenous culture and tradition. Our culture and tradition are alive and well. They continue to exist and are practiced in ways that Canadians fail to comprehend. So often colonial mythology attempts to transcend time, this nation is not old. What it has done is not long in the past. The lives of those of our ancestors prior to contact is not a blip in the primordial depths. Here on Vancouver Island, the first recorded contact took place in 1778, and on the East Coast where I live, it wasn’t until even later than that. My great-great-great-great-great grandfather Xulqalustun, a chief in Penelakut, was one of those points of first contact. He is seven generations back from myself. So much has changed in those seven generations, but to presume that our culture is extinct and that our connections to that past are severed is so grossly disrespectful to who we are. Today, my brother Ethan carries Xulqalustun’s name. My late great-grandmother, Dr. Ellen White, Kwulasulwut, who shared teachings and stories with me, would talk about how she was taught by her late grandmother, Mary Rice, Xalunamut, who was the granddaughter of Xulqalustun. The transfer of knowledge from generation to generation continues to flow like the rivers upon which we have depended, for thousands upon thousands of years; even if the course has had to alter and evolve over time.
Darlene McIntosh:As I read through all the stories and poems and looked at the beautiful artwork of Indigenous story tellers, I felt such a connection to most of the stories. I was very surprised at what was internally brought up for me. And if this happened to me, I know it will bring up memories that all people will be able to connect with, whether you are First Nations or not.
The experience of residential school is a hard one for Western people to wrap their head around, to them it’s unbelievable. They can’t fathom the reality of the harshness of what these children went through. Reading some of the stories will allow them to realize the truth of what took place.
Our people up to now were powerless over Social Services coming and deciding that the First Nations home were supposedly unfit for children. The parents and older children were always walking on egg shells waiting for the knock on the door. What a tragedy, the stress level the parents endured daily.
The ‘60s scoop disheveled so many children and destroyed many families.
“The Attempted Assassination on my Spirit” was a very powerful poem. It was raw and to the point. I can see people feeling uncomfortable reading this.
“The Indian Act” again, to the point of feeling the knife touching your skin...
“Yes, yes, teach the Indian how to Act!
“We must contrive...to break their soul”
Well...they didn’t, we are still here, and with each step becoming stronger as our voices are being heard.
Dennis Saddleman: You be the readers of the book and I'm the story. Readers of the book, you are the rainbow. You have many colours. You are red. You are white. You are yellow and black. Me! I'm brown. My skin is brown. The residential school didn't understand me. The churches didn't understand me. The governments didn't understand me.
Readers of the book. I'm an old man. Old man walking on the sidewalk. Old man he met many people. Many people gave the old man a disgusted look, gave the old man a strange look. On the sidewalk many people walked around the old man. They walked and walked and walked. Many years later. It was a cold day. The sidewalk was empty. The old man was gone. Readers of the book, the old man was a storyteller, his poems and stories will live forever.
Art by Jerry Smaaslet from In Our Own Aboriginal Voice 2
MC: What are your next steps as a writer/author? Do you have any new project coming up?
Sheena Robinson:I am currently taking a poetry course in hopes that I will be able to confidently send in some poetry submissions to magazines. The next project is to work on a short story to submit to the 2021 CBC short story prize. I also have a book for young adults in the works, but it’s a slow process between working full-time and completing my MA.
Dennis Saddleman:Recently the Anglican Church of Canada helped me publish a book with their finances. The book called "Wordwarrior" is about my experiences of, before, during, and after residential school, and also my healing journey.
There are some friends and some people I know; they're doing well with their publishing and they're up on the ladder with recognition. That's where I want to be. My published friends said they get recognized and they win awards and they get invited to be guest speakers at all sorts of events. That's what I want to do. I want to write and publish another book.
The last few months, I've been busy writing new materials, poems and short stories. I started my second book, it's at early stages.
My next book I'm hoping to find another publishing house. Maybe Rebel Mountain Press may consider my work? That's where I'm at.
Jo Chrona:I am back to writing after a long time away from it. I am working on some educational material, but also beginning to create what I hope will turn itself into a novel of sorts. I don’t know for sure what it will end up looking like; I just know that I feel more alive when I can express some of the ideas and feelings that swirl around in my head into words on a page.
Eliot White-Hill, Kwulasultun: My goal is to continue to develop my style and continue to research traditional storytelling practice on both my Coast Salish and Nuu Chah Nulth sides. My great-grandmother’s passing two years ago, (almost to the day as I write this) was what drove me further towards learning more about our culture. When she passed, I realized how spoiled I had been being able to just go and sit with her and listen whenever I wanted. I realized how much had went with her that we might never get back. But I also learned how much she had left, how much her generation gave and continues to give. Her voice and teachings still reach out to me through time in the work that she did, and the people she connected with. And so, I decided to move in that direction. I began to read all of the stories I could find from the Salish peoples, I read all of the ethnographic and anthropological texts I can find, I began attending Hul’qumi’num classes and learning more about our language. What also emerged was our art. I felt like it was all guiding me towards our visual art forms. So, I researched that too. I focused on Coast Salish art, which nearly did go extinct as it was misrepresented and disrespected within our own territory, and as other styles from the Pacific Northwest became more popularized through the mid-20th century. Fortunately, a small group of artists, such as Susan Point, Simon Charlie, Charles Elliott, and the Sparrow family in Musqueam, along with others, revitalized our art. There has been such a resurgence, new generations of Salish artists are flourishing. I am now practicing my own visual art, alongside written narrative, in traditional Salish style. Visual art has been a bit of a focus over the past year or so as I learn more and introduce myself to it, but I am always finding ways to weave my storytelling into it, whether through companion pieces or through thinking about narrative and storytelling visually. I have some exciting projects that I am working on around my art. I am doing a public installation for the City of Nanaimo at Beban Park Pool, where I will be putting in murals, wall paintings, and banners in traditional Salish style that tell the stories of our estuary on the Nanaimo River and talk about Snuneymuxw culture and connection to land. I also will be having an exhibit in town that I am developing for the fall. In combination with my storytelling and art, I am (in the very early stages) of writing and illustrating a children’s storybook that will tell one of the stories from the Snuneymuxw community. I am very excited about what the future has in store as I continue to walk along this path, and try to follow in the footsteps of my ancestors and the people who have inspired me, like my great-grandma.
Darlene McIntosh: That is a big question! With COVID here to stay for a while, our lives as we know it have changed. The future will be different, we have to adapt to the new reality.
I never perceived myself as a writer/author. As an Elder, the most important contribution that I can make is to continue to plant seeds of Reconciliation. I will continue to write prayers, guided by Creator, the Grandfathers and Grandmothers. And maybe, try my hand at writing a short story.
As for any new projects coming up? I see all the online connection for people through Zoom, Microsoft Team, Bluejeans, seeing and talking to people online will be what I see myself doing.
I am involved with the university, doing a worldwide conference next June, hopefully on Land, Health, and Healing. This is by invitation only, as we have done our first of four Touchpoints, introducing Lheidli T’enneh Nation to those who will partake the conference on our territory. This is very exciting. I am also involved on an Aboriginal Housing project with CNC, the first of its kind in BC. This will be for Aboriginal students, but with Covid, the entrance date is unknown.
I would like to thank Lori and Cheryl Ann from Rebel Mountain Press for the opportunity to have my prayers published.
I am so grateful for the experience.
Snachaillya to you both….
Congratulations to all the contributors as I loved all the stories, poems, and art work.
Art by Leanna Raven Paul from In Our Own Aboriginal Voice 2
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A big thank you to Michael Calvert, Rebel Mountain Press, and the contributors of
In Our Own Aboriginal Voice 2 for their insights and reflections. Miigwech.
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