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Q&A: Greg Younging on editing indigenous works, story ownership, and Canadian publishing

Joseph Boyden was recently in the media again, following questions about his indigenous ancestry. This time, he is facing accusations of similarities between his 2001 short story “Bearwalker” and a story by Ojibway storyteller Ron Geyshick. Although Boyden is staunchly defending his work, the situation brings up many longtime issues surrounding ownership and permissions of indigenous texts.

Greg Younging, who is a member of Opaskwayak Cree Nation in northern Manitoba, was the managing editor of Theytus Books from 1990 to 2004. He returned 18 months ago to the Penticton, B.C., press as publisher. He is a professor of indigenous studies at the University of British Columbia–Okanagan, and was the assistant research director of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. In 2014, he joined the Indigenous Editors Circle program (formerly the Aboriginal Editors Circle) – an initiative established by the Saskatchewan Arts Board – as lead instructor, where he’s taught both indigenous and non-indigenous editors how to better serve traditional knowledge and cultural protocols.

Quill & Quire spoke to Younging about some of the key concerns and issues around editing and publishing aboriginal texts.

What are some of the key editorial issues that you’ve faced in your work?

There are a lot of editorial issues that are particular to writing by and about indigenous peoples. There are a lot of internal protocols and laws around indigenous knowledge and stories that non-indigenous people just don’t know. For example, some traditional stories are sacred, and there’s a training process required before you have the right to tell them. Some have an apprenticeship-like system, where someone has to train under an elder or master storyteller before they’re allowed to tell the stories.

A lot of the traditional stories are seasonal. For example it’s forbidden for winter stories to be told in summer, spring, and the fall. If they’re told out of season, it’s very offensive and it breaks indigenous laws. Some are only to be told in certain ceremonial settings, for example, in a Longhouse. Non-indigenous people wouldn’t know that.

During the period of colonization – which we’re still in – but during the period of intense colonization, a lot of anthropologists heard stories and wrote them down in collections. There are hundreds of these books. Sometimes they wrote them down wrong or they didn’t follow protocols. Generally, non-indigenous people have looked at indigenous people as “the other” and analyzed who they are from an outsider perspective. So really, the whole body of text written by non-indigenous people – which is a huge body of text, thousands of books in the last 400 to 500 years – indigenous people don’t approve of. There are also so many problems with terminology that have always been part of the status quo. For example, indigenous institutions are often not capitalized. The Longhouse is an institution of government and religion to the Haudenosaunee Six Nations, but you’ll often find it not capitalized, yet House of Commons or Parliament is. It’s as if indigenous people don’t have legitimate institutions, even though they’re parallel institutions in aboriginal society.

Are there any methods of recourse or copyright protection within the legal system to protect stories or knowledge?

Part of the problem with the western intellectual property rights system is that it has a time period of protection, 50 years after the writer’s passing. Trademarks and patents have their periods of protection too, roughly between 12 to 18 years, depending on the type. When the intellectual property system is imposed on traditional knowledge its defined as being part of the public domain because the age exceeds those time periods of protection.

Traditional knowledge is treated as if it’s in the public domain, so anyone can write about it, or use it, or misrepresent it. That’s part of the problem. It’s another angle of colonization. We’re told this is the only legal protection that you can use. It’s another imposing of a system – like legal or government or land tenure – on people who already have their own protocols and laws of protection.

Is it up to editors to ensure that any traditional stories or knowledge in a manuscript have proper permissions?

If there was some traditional knowledge or a story where I wasn’t sure the proper permissions had being granted or were being represented in the proper way, I would contact someone from that indigenous nation – I have a lot of contacts around the country – like an authoritative storyteller, better if it was an elder, and ask them to look at the text and see if it they approve. I’d basically ask for permission from the indigenous nation to use text in this manner.

All indigenous editors would just do that if they’re not sure. Because we were brought up to respect the traditional stories and knowledge. We know that if we don’t represent it in a proper way there will be repercussions from the community. What I tell the participants in the Indigenous Editors Circle is that you may not have a contact in every indigenous nation, but you have to have the ability to find it; you should know someone from that indigenous nation. That’s why we need more indigenous editors.

Are Canadian publishers responding to the need?

There’s an awareness now in the Canadian publishing industry that there have been a lot of books put out that are offensive to indigenous peoples or have not followed proper protocols. This awareness is very recent, in the last four to five years or so. But Canadian publishers want to get it right. They know they need indigenous editors, and that’s one of the roles the Indigenous Editors Circle plays.

That awareness started back in the early 1990s when indigenous authors who are members of the Writers’ Union of Canada started talking about what they called, at the time, “cultural appropriation.” They were raising issues in the Writers’ Union that non-indigenous writers should not write about indigenous people, because there was such a dark history of misrepresentation in Canadian publishing. Things have changed a bit since then, and the discourse has evolved. Most indigenous people and authors aren’t saying, “Don’t write about us if you’re not one of us.” There have been some good books written by non-indigenous authors. We have a lot of allies who understand indigenous peoples. Now it’s more: “If you’re going to write about us, make sure you understand these editing issues.”

Do you think the controversy surrounding Joseph Boyden’s writing has helped spread awareness to book-buying consumers as well?

I think it had already, even before the Boyden controversy. A lot of the reading public has been exposed to this idea and are aware that there are books that indigenous people are complaining about. When I started at Theytus in 1990, BC Ferries, for example, would sell a lot of books to tourists with indigenous topics. They thought they were buying something indigenous – even if it wasn’t written by an indigenous author – and that they were exposing themselves to another cultural experience. It’s not like that anymore. The book-buying public is more aware there are good and bad books, and they’re trying to read those that indigenous people would approve of, or are written by indigenous peoples.

This interview has been edited and condensed.