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Editing circle: empowering future generations of editors to better serve aboriginal stories

Marilyn Dumont, a Cree/Métis poet and AEC participant, agrees that the greatest challenge to editing indigenous texts is maintaining the integrity of an indigenous perspective, despite the linguistic and conceptual hurdles involved in communicating across cultures. For publishers, this means considering how copyright laws should be applied to collectively owned oral stories, in addition to being sensitive to narrative traditions. In Dumont’s view, the more technical editorial concerns with grammar and mechanics should be secondary priorities.

As a writer, it’s an extra step to translate things into my understanding of the world,” says Dumont. “It’s really time for people to read materials that aren’t so one-sided and skewed, particularly around issues of history.”

The physical setting for the AEC reflected this philosophical orientation. Discussions were held in a talking circle – an approach to group communication that encourages equal input from participants – with a medicine wheel at its centre. Each day opened with prayers and the option to smudge.

Greg Younging, a former managing editor at Theytus Books and assistant research director of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, and director of indigenous studies at the University of British Columbia-Okanagan, was brought in to the AEC as lead instructor. Younging, a member of the Opsakwayak Cree nation, has been advocating for capacity-building programs for indigenous editors since the mid-1990s, but observes that only recently has the publishing industry begun to rally around the cause. He chalks this up to a heightened awareness of aboriginal concerns that’s come as a result of a more outspoken younger generation.

“Indigenous people have been speaking out in public more often in general,” he says, describing a generation of politicized young adults who are less wary than their forebears of speaking out against the repercussions of colonialism. This emerging cohort has also been less tolerant of misrepresentation of indigenous peoples in media, expressed both in blatant stereotypes and less-than-accurate depictions of traditional worldviews. It’s Younging’s hope that training a new crop of aboriginal editors will empower communities to reclaim their own stories.

“We’re taking back control over the image of ourselves and trying to deconstruct stereotypes of indigenous peoples,” says Younging, who is returning as lead instructor for the next meeting, set to take place in summer 2015. Meanwhile, Gerber is working to secure funding and faculty for subsequent gatherings, and, after a near-decade of planning, to keep her cool over the slow-moving process.

“The aboriginal people on our working group have been frustrated about claims of various kinds for a very long time, and they’ve been more patient than I have been,” says Gerber. “They have the long view. I’ve learned a lot from working with them.”

From the November 2014 print edition