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Future of URP Indigenous anthology uncertain as six authors pull work

Six women and two-spirit authors have pulled out of a forthcoming anthology from the University of Regina Press that includes work by Cree-Scottish poet and painter Neal McLeod, who, in 2014, pleaded guilty to domestic assault.

Kisiskâciwan: Indigenous Voices from Where the River Flows Swiftly, edited by Jesse Rae Archibald-Barber, a University of Regina associate professor of Indigenous literature, features writing and oral narratives from historic and contemporary authors and storytellers. An open letter, signed by six of the anthology’s contributors, states, “We cannot consent to publish our work alongside Neal McLeod, whom to the best of our knowledge has not made amends to those that he has harmed.” The letter asks for the removal of McLeod’s work, and for URP and other cultural bodies “to recognize the lifesaving necessity of supporting Indigenous women, girls, and Two-Spirit people who name abuse and abusers.”

The letter – which includes “in solidarity” support from more than 50 notable Indigenous authors and artists, including Alicia Elliott, Christi Belcourt, Jesse Wente, Ryan McMahon, Leanne Simpson, Paul Seesequasis, Lee Maracle, Katherena Vermette, and Giller Prize finalist Eden Robinson – was initiated after the contributors’ request that URP remove McLeod’s work from the anthology was turned down.

URP publisher Bruce Walsh says the press learned about the protest via a post on its Facebook page. After many meetings and discussions with academic and Indigenous community members, the press contacted the contributors to inform them that McLeod would remain in the anthology. URP scholarly acquisitions editor Karen Clark offered the signatories additional space in the book to discuss issues around violence against women, but was refused. Walsh says URP’s proposal of a separate anthology of Indigenous women writers was also declined.

“From our point of view, really what we’re doing is respecting that long tradition of academic freedom and backing up our editor on the project, which brings real consequences for the press, and for the anthology, and for the women, the people standing up. This is not easy for them. This is a difficult moment both culturally, and at the press,” Walsh says.

The letter’s six signatories are Erica Violet Lee, Nickita Longman, Sylvia McAdam, Lindsay Knight, Night Kinistino, and Dawn Dumont. Longman submitted several poems to the anthology, unaware that McLeod was a fellow author until another contributor noticed his name in the catalogue. Longman knew of McLeod’s history, and had previously held back work from another anthology that he edited. Even now, if his work were to be removed from kisiskâciwan, Longman is not interesting in participating in the project.

“Unfortunately, the accounts of six women have been portrayed as a less valuable account than comprehensiveness and chronology,” says Longman. “In the name of publishing houses providing safe spaces for Indigenous women and two-spirited folks for authorship, I would not re-submit my work to this particular project at this time. My work is too close, and too personal, and too vulnerable.”

Robert Alexander Innes, an associate professor and graduate chair of the department of Indigenous Studies at the University of Saskatchewan, who helped the contributors craft the letter, believes that McLeod’s writing should be removed because he has never spoken publicly about his personal violence. Last May, at a conference in Toronto, Innes discussed the issue with Clark. “I told them that as a public figure and as a person who garners much respect and admiration from many people for the work [McLeod] does on Cree language revitalization (which is significant work), it becomes crucial that he is open and honest about his past abuse and talk about exactly what he is currently doing to address his issue of violence and publicly take a stance against violence against Indigenous women. He has not done any of these things.”

In 2014, McLeod was charged with domestic violence. According to a publisher’s statement on the URP website, “People have been hurt both directly and indirectly by him.” He pleaded guilty and was discharged after undergoing therapy. McLeod resigned from Trent University, where he was an associate professor of Indigenous studies, and moved back to James Smith Cree Nation in Saskatchewan, where he now teaches Cree, and is a prolific writer and editor. In 2016, URP published his 100 Days of Cree, a well-received cultural language guide, and Theytus Books put out mitêwâcimowina: Indigenous Science Fiction and Speculative Storytelling, an anthology edited by McLeod. His novel, Neechie Hustle, with Kegedonce Press, came out in August.

“It is clear that McLeod will always have a publishing platform,” says Longman. “As for the women who have pulled, many of us are emerging writers and have limited platforms. That’s probably the part that stings the most.”

URP was set to publish McLeod’s new epic poem, the book of ayâs, described as “both an important work of Cree narrative history and a profound and moving meditation on cultural violence and rejuvenation.” Originally scheduled for this fall, the book has been pushed back indefinitely. “There’s a feeling in the community that he has not done the work,” say Walsh. “So, as I said to him, we will bring this out when the community and Neal feel it’s ready. It’s very vague, but I can’t respond beyond that at this point.”

Kisiskâciwan: Indigenous Voices from Where the River Flows Swiftly remains scheduled for a May 2018 publication, “but what it looks like at that point is another question entirely,” says Walsh. “We’ll have to see how it all unfolds.”

Walsh says he is aware that this decision may also have damaging consequences to the press, including the loss of future authors. “We’re tried so hard to do the right thing, and to listen to people because Indigenous voice in Canada has been censored, and that’s specifically why I went out to Regina to take on this job, was the possibility of telling a story that haven’t be told before,” Walsh says. “We’re not always going to get it right and despite this moment, we will continue to do the work. I realize that some people will not publish with us because of this, and that is the reality, but that’s not a reason to stop.”

Longman personally hopes that this protest will stand as a wider message to all cultural institutions. “We see it time and time again, that despite a history of abuse, men continue to be upheld in positions of power, and often, over the voices of women. This is not new. It has to stop,” she says. “Unfortunately, even institutions that pride itself on inclusiveness and progressiveness are subject to reinforcing these colonial standards. This is a really big teachable moment for many. We must expect better of our institutions and hold them accountable when they reinforce patriarchy.”