Indigenous Literatures and Writing Histories

Charlie Ward, Writing Consultant

Land is sacred. It provides us with nourishment and safe keeping: our strongest relationships are born from shared homes, gently rocking us to sleep like a mother and her newborn. We cannot survive without the land; yet, this land has not always been ours.

October 10 is Indigenous Peoples’ Day: an observation and commemoration of Native and Indigenous histories and cultures. This is the second year the United States has officially observed the holiday; however, its creation spans back as far as 1977. The International Conference on Discrimination Against Indigenous Populations in the Americas is attributed with first suggesting its observation to combat the revisionist history presented during Colombus Day celebrations.

Fundamental misunderstandings of Indigenous history permeate the cracks of western academia. Many are unable to identify the cultural nuances of the Indigenous peoples, as well as their influence on writing and literature. Consider your knowledge of Indigenous history: what land is Louisville, Kentucky is on? Are you able to name the tribes of the Anishinaabe? Why do some people use Indigenous versus Native American versus American Indian?

Here are the answers:

1.) Louisville, Kentucky is on Adena, Cherokee, Hopewell, Miami, Osage, Seneca-Iroquois, and Shawnee land.

2.) The Anishinaabeg consist of the Algonquin, Mississaugas, Nipissing, Odawa, Ojibwe, and Potawatomi peoples.

3.) Various names exist for various reasons. American Indian has been reclaimed by many Native and Indigenous peoples. Native American was coined around the 1960s as a response to anti-Indigenous racism. Indigenous considers the origins and the claim to land that Indigenous peoples hold. First Nations, Aboriginal peoples, and Native Canadians may also appear in works regarding discourse around Indigenous peoples of Canada. You may notice that I switch back and forth between my terminology in this piece, but identity is preferential and personal: always ask before you ascribe a label.

How many of these did you all get right—even partially? Western academia has long withheld Indigenous history from us: we are not the first to be required to learn these things in our own time, and we will not be the last.

What does this all have to do with writing? Well, a lot.

As I mentioned previously, Indigenous culture has influenced writing and literature. The oral traditions of many tribes aided in the development of literature as a shared medium. People gathered to share many fictional narratives, characterized by experiences with the metaphysical world and transformative identities; the indulgent details furthered the performance of storytelling. Indigenous myths and legends explored the role of animals, one’s relationship to the earth, and morality. For example, Ababinili And The Humans is a Chickasaw myth about how humans came to be. The first line mentions the “moon, sun, wind, rainbow, thunder, and fire”—they don’t exist as symbolic figures, but instead as characters that propel the plot.

While it was important for generations to pass down oral traditions, colonization hierarchized written works. Settlers found writing to be indicative of a more enlightened people, i.e., a more western-ized people. I think it’s good to note that Indigenous peoples in the United States and Canada experienced colonialism differently; my historical account is simplified, but it’s necessary to understand that tradition was influenced by outside pressures. In addition, settlers imposed barriers to publishing for Indigenous authors—barriers that Indigenous authors broke and continue to combat today.

Looking at the historical development of writing and literature can aid us in our understanding of the current climate. For Indigenous peoples, writing and oral tradition were both a form of resistance. Writing combated settler’s notions of civilization, revealing rich cultural narratives; oral tradition built the foundation of writing, as well as uniting community and family. I think miseducation can prevent us from viewing Indigenous history as something innate to the development of literature—Indigenous cultures have existed longer than we know, therefore it’s right to assume that they have an influence on the way we write.

Colonialism’s desire to view Indigenous culture as anything beyond uncivilized pervades in modern discourses: we turn ourselves away from oral communication and struggle to acknowledge its importance in cultivating ideas and identity. Talking builds communities, unites enemies, and keeps us mentally sound. What’s better than discussing your ideas with a friend before writing them down?

We see imagery from Indigenous literature in contemporary narratives: heroes, villains, and moral quandaries are more popular than ever! Indigenous writing isn’t just mythological tales, but shared discourses. There There by Tommy Orange, The Plague of Doves by Louise Erdrich, and Where the Dead Sit Talking by Brandon Hobson all explore ideas of community and identity; they’re read by audiences world-wide, and well worth a read.

When teaching in the writing center, I think it’s important to keep the historical and cultural identities of our students in mind. The priorities of western academia aren’t always going to be the priorities of writer’s—and that’s fine! We should also be looking at the influences of non-western and non-white people on writing: we owe a lot of respect and recognition.


Bibliography

“Ababinili and the Humans.” Accessed October 7, 2022. https://www.firstpeople.us/FP-Html-Legends/Ababinili_And_The_Humans-Chickasaw.html. “Indigenous Writing since 1867: Once Neglected Now Celebrated.” Indigenous Writing since 1867: Once Neglected Now Celebrated – Indigenous Studies – Simon Fraser University.

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