“Once neglected, now celebrated”

This is how Cree-Métis literary critic Deanna Reder describes writings and storytelling by Indigenous authors in Canada. As associate professor in the departments of First Nations studies and English at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, Reder is principal investigator of the project The People and the Text: Indigenous Writing in Northern North America to 1992, a Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC) funded project for 2015–2020.

Reder is also a founding member of the Indigenous Literary Studies Association (ILSA), and served on the ILSA council from 2015–2018. In 2018 she was elected to the College of New Scholars in the Royal Society of Canada.

The Source asked her what Indigenous writing means.

Deanne Reder: In recent years we have begun to use the term “Indigenous” instead of Native, Aboriginal, or Indian, because it has an international dimension that allies ourselves with Indigenous peoples in other countries as we all fight to have our rights recognized. As one of the organizers of the Indigenous Voices Awards, I have delighted in reading the entries by an amazingly bright, brave, brash, compassionate new generation of Indigenous writers.

Deanna Reder says everyone should read Métis writer Maria Campbell’s Halfbreed.

TS: Would you say that the Indigenous peoples of Canada are culturally diverse?

DR: Yes, while there are some similarities among us produced by a common experience under Canadian rule, there is no generic Indigenous culture. There are over fifty Indigenous languages in Canada, with oral and written stories significant to each.

TS: What is “The People and the Text” project?

DR: The aim of the project is to collect and study one of the most neglected literary archives in English and French Canada. The project focuses on all modes of Indigenous storytelling in what is now called Canada, from the beginning up to 1992. The goal is to identify as many writers as possible and champion their work. This involves providing a short biography and bibliography, or posting taped “conversations with Canadian Native Authors” or collecting the unpublished writings of Secwepemc and Ktunaxa writer Vera Manuel, recently released as Honouring the Strength of Indian Women: Plays, Stories, Poems (2019).

TS: Is there a particular author that you would like to mention?

DR: There are so many! Everyone ought to read Métis matriarch Maria Campbell’s Halfbreed, first published in 1973. Another matriarch of the field is author, educator, and activist Dr. Jeannette Armstrong, who is fluent in Sylix and English and grew up on the Penticton Indian reserve in British Columbia’s Okanagan Valley. Her writings are very well known and loved. And any reader who wants to discover a new generation focused on poetics, love, and sexuality ought to seek out: Oji-Cree writer Joshua Whitehead’s Jonny Appleseed; Cree poet Billy-Rae Belcourt’s The Wound is a World; Ktunaxa poet Smokii Sumac’s You are Enough: Love Poems for the End of the World, or Dene writer and photographer Tenille Campbell’s #IndianLovePoems. 

TS: Maria Campbell did not think of herself as a writer at first, but she began writing by sending letters to her grandmother. Did your grandmother influence your way of thinking, your work?

DR: Yes, my grandmother was a healer and my mother was a storyteller. I remember Mom telling the story about how Kohkum, my grandmother, cured a man from blindness after dreaming of a bear with a necklace of willow around its neck. I realize now that Mom was sharing not just that the bear is a symbol for medicine but that dreams are powerful and stories can preserve that power.

To learn more, go to www.thepeopleandthetext.ca