23+ Reading Suggestions for National Indigenous Peoples Day 2022
June 21 is National Indigenous Peoples Day in Canada, and we're marking the holiday by taking a look at the depth and breadth of Indigenous lit on offer. Whether its poetry exploring identity or form, Elder wisdom, Indigenous dystopias (or utopias), kids' books, or humour; browse our picks and find a new book for your shelf.See more details below
Indigenous poetry offers a rich exploration of language; sometimes co-mingling the languages of the poet's nation(s) with English. Quoted in a piece by Cherie Dimaline, Leanne Betasamosake Simpson says of this practice: "I think there is merit for non-Indigenous peoples to come across an Indigenous word in an English language text and realize that they do not know the meaning... I think it is important to feel unsettled and challenged about one's entitlement to grasp the full meaning of Indigenous literature. I think it is important for non-Native readers to consider whether or not they are the primary intended audience."
Indigenous poets play with form in new and unexpected ways. In a collaboration between North and South American Indigenous folks, 16 spoken-word poets performed work at the Festival of the Peripheries (FLUP) in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil and the Toronto International Festival of Authors (TIFA) in Toronto, Canada. An anthology from Kegedonce Press called Slam Coalkan Performance Poetry: The Condor and the Eagle Meet transcribes these performed poems and links to them within the text, so that the reader can experience the works in their full spoken glory.
Other collections that play with form include Armand Garnet Ruffo's TREATY# (Wolsak & Wynn) - check out the concrete, earth-shaped poem of "Terra Nullius Lingus(1)" here. See also: Undoing Hours by Selina Boan (Nightwood Editions), Blueberries and Apricots by Natasha Kanapé Fontaine (Mawenzi House), and Girl Running by Diana Hope Tegenkamp (Thistledown Press).
Sometimes, the poetry collection serves to help the poet explore facets of their own identity. Marilyn Dumont - descendent of Métis leader Gabriel Dumont - did so in A Really Good Brown Girl in 1996 (republished by Brick Books in 2016), examining coming into her Métis heritage in the face of myriad institutional and cultural obstacles. In the poem "Letter to Sir John A. MacDonald," she writes: "Dear John: I’m still here and halfbreed, / after all these years / you’re dead, funny thing, / that railway you wanted so badly, / there was talk a year ago / of shutting it down"
Other collections to check out about Indigenous/mixed identity: Lunar Tides, Shannon Webb-Campbell (Book*hug), contrasting the moon with the loss of the poet's mother, and Occasionally Petty, Michelle Lietz (At Bay Press): grounding the poet's life against that of Tom Petty's music.
Elders keep and share knowledge in Indigenous communities, and it's a great privilege for Indigenous peoples and settler Canadians alike to access their wisdom through the written word. Dene author and Elder George Blondin (1923-2008) wrote works of history and children's books as well as the spiritual guidebook Yamoria the Lawmaker (NeWest Press), recounting the story of Yamoria, who some believe was the Creator who lived among the Dene people and encouraged them to care for each other and establish equality before going away.
Issac Murdoch (Ojibway name Manzinapkinegego'anaabe / Bombgiizhik) spent years learning Anishnaabe cultural practices and shares creation stories in The Trail of Nenaboozhoo (Kegedonce Press), a collection edited by renowned Métis artist Christi Belcourt.
Special to the discussion of Indigenous literature and Elders is Lee Maracle (1950-2021); a member of the Sto:Lo nation and a lifelong champion for Indigenous writers across the continent. She was one of the founders of the En'owkin International School of Writing and the cultural director of the Centre for Indigenous Theatre. Maracle's collection of oratories and lectures Memory Serves (NeWest Press) and her candid book of essays My Conversations with Canadians (Book*hug) are just two works in an illustrious 30-year career that always saw her lifting up, supporting, and fiercely protecting her fellow Indigenous writers.
Dystopian Fiction (+ one Utopia)
Indigenous writers skillfully capture and twist true-to-life events for readers to better understand what happened (or is currently happening) while granting renewed agency to the heroes and heroines of their works in dystopian fiction.
Take Cherie Dimaline's bestselling, Canada Reads finalist YA/crossover novel The Marrow Thieves (Cormorant Books), which follows a small group of Indigenous fugitives running from a dark government plot to forcibly harvest their bone marrow and regain the ability to dream. Like The Marrow Thieves, Waubgeshig Rice's Moon of the Crusted Snow (ECW Press) draws on the climate crisis to paint a picture of a northern Anishinaabe community thrown into tumult with the arrival of a stranger from the south; and how they turn to traditions and customs to restore order. J.D. Kurtness's Aquariums (Rare Machines/Dundurn) also references climate change: this time through the eyes of a young marine biologist who works to preserve failing aquatic ecosystems in the oceans by recreating them for zoos. As seen in these three examples, dystopian narratives are a place for authors to explore the grave effects of climate change, and how they disproportionately affect Indigenous communities whose relationship to and guardianship of the land is so important.
Of course, a hallmark of dystopian literature is the glimmer of hope that things can be better, and these books don't disappoint on that front. On the other hand, there is also Indigenous Futurism: stories that discover the impact of colonization, remove its psychological baggage, and recover ancestral traditions. In Chelsea Vowel's Buffalo is the New Buffalo (Arsenal Pulp Press), Métis traditions meet speculative fiction in a collection of stories that posit ancestral ways are ready to come back, if we can only imagine them so.
These beautiful, funny, and heartfelt books for kids are a great way to introduce elements of Indigenous cultures at home and in the classroom. There are picture books like Bedtime in Nunatsiavut (Arsenal Pulp Press) by debut children's author and illustrator Raeann Brown, which depicts a young Inuk girl who seeks to dream her way into the bodies - and capabilities - of the animals she admires by day. Willie Sellars' Hockey with Dad (Caitlin Press) shows how a community comes together for a big hockey game, and the little boy who finds himself in net. His family members impart Secwépemc values and their own hockey tips to help him out.
For middle-grade readers, Leslie Gentile's multi-award-winning Elvis, Me, and the Lemonade Stand Summer (Cormorant/DCB Young Readers) is set in 1978, where 11-year-old Truly Bateman believes the King of Rock and Roll - Elvis Presley - isn't dead, but living nearby in the Eagle Shores First Nation trailer park on Vancouver Island. Truly's lemonade stand and the connections she makes outside of her home with Andy El, the Salish woman who runs the trailer park, as well as her investigation into her new neighbour, all serve as distractions to troubles she has in her own home life.
Young adult readers can check out My Indian (Breakwater Books), by Chief Mi'sel Joe and Sheila O'Neill, a retelling and reclaiming of the life story of Sylvester Joe, the previously unnamed guide from William Epps Cormack's journals when he searched for the remaining Beothuk camps on the island of Newfoundland. The authors said of writing the book: "We wanted to introduce another perspective, and we wanted to give readers pause for thought that maybe there is more than one perspective, and to place value on the perspective and position of oral history."
Indigenous peoples are known for their incredible senses of humour, and this is a huge feature in Indigenous lit, too. Take playwright and author Drew Hayden Taylor, who dramatized the real-life conflict between cottagers and Anishnawbe man James Whetung (Arthur Copper in the play), who decides to repopulate his home lake with wild rice. The play - Cottagers and Indians (Talonbooks) was longlisted for the 2020 Stephen Leacock Medal for Humour. Another play, Cliff Cardinal's Too Good to Be True (Playwrights Canada Press), is a dark comedy exploring family relationships and relentless positivity in the face of desperate circumstances.
Of course, no list on comedic Indigenous writing would be complete without Dawn Dumont, a Plains Cree writer and stand-up comic whose latest novel The Prairie Chicken Dance Tour (Freehand Books) is also on the 2022 Stephen Leacock Medal longlist. Said Dumont in an interview about humour: "I am happiest when I'm riffing with another person about serious stuff — so I guess humour is my attempt to find riffing partners. Humour is fun in a world that we cannot control — I'd rather have fun than be sad."
Which Indigenous-authored book are you reading this NIPD? Let us know at @alllitupcanada. For more reading recommendations, check out Michelle Porter's reading list for NIPD from 2019, or browse All Lit Up's Indigenous Litspace.
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