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Why Indigenous Literatures Matter

by Daniel Heath Justice

Unless you’ve been living in a cave, you’ve no doubt encountered ongoing public conversations about Indigenous writing and storytelling. What is it? Whom should we read? And perhaps the most contentious debate: who gets to tell these stories? Why Indigenous Literatures Matter addresses all these questions and more. Building on an extensive oeuvre of Indigenous literary studies, Daniel Heath Justice, a Colorado-born Canadian citizen of the Cherokee Nation, offers generous and clear points of entry for readers of all backgrounds, incorporating accessible scholarship, personal anecdotes, and close readings of texts.

Writing a book on “Indigenous” literatures is no simple task, as there are more than 600 unique First Nations in Canada alone. Justice emphasizes the need to avoid pan-Indigenous literary groupings for the sake of scholarly ease, since erasing cultural nuance has already proven to be destructive to first voices. He writes: “These diverse textualities and interpretive traditions generally require … extensive specialized training that [is] most often limited to specific community members, with specific cultural knowledge.” However, Justice’s observation that, at their core, Indigenous literatures focus on the art of relationships – with ourselves, our living relatives, our ancestors, and the land – should meet with no resistance from fellow writers.

Keep in mind the context of colonization – an oppressive regime that has attempted to eradicate Indigenous languages, art, and spirituality. These things are necessary for understanding who we are and where we fit in the world, and this makes Indigenous storytelling a powerful act of survival. As Justice states: “If our humanity is defined in large part by the stories we tell, then the storytellers have a vital role to play in bringing us back to healthier relationships with ourselves and with one another.”

Whether through fiction, poetry, essay, or memoir, Indigenous literatures embody a responsibility to maintain these relationships. But there are many ways to articulate lived experience and many different experiences. Justice affirms and supports the broad range of Indigenous stories, regardless of their “ethnographic accuracy” or ability to “reflect cultural contexts.” He says that “to reduce these imaginative works to a simple cultural reportage is to diminish the visionary commitment and creative capacity of the writers and their creations.”

In an extremely personal section of Why Indigenous Literatures Matter, Justice outlines his youth as a “nerdy, light-skinned, mixed-blood queer kid in the working class mining town of Victor, Colorado.” He continues:

Our fractured family history led me to a state of abject terror as a three-year-old when I found out Daddy was “an Indian”; it made me impatient when Dad watched his TV westerns, especially if there were Indians on the screen; it led me to associate my mixed heritage with class shame and want to escape to something more “respectable,” something far from the place I increasingly associated with a whole range of deficiencies.

Justice doesn’t spend a long time unpacking the issues with misrepresentation of Indigenous peoples by non-Indigenous writers, but he does focus on the problematic “deficiency narratives” alluded to above. Well-intentioned writers who choose to focus entirely on what our communities have lost through colonial occupation present a questionable and potentially damaging representation of those they hope to honour. Rather than linger on the harm done by this narrative, a topic that has been extensively discussed by writers like Philip J. Deloria (Dakota) and Thomas King (Cherokee, German, Greek), Justice focuses instead – and to great effect – on cultural abundance. 

Why Indigenous Literatures Matter feels a little on the short side. A section on Indigenous Wonderworks – Justice’s proposed term for writing that embodies elements of fantasy and futurism but retains the integrity of our cultures and relationships – reads like it is begging to be its own book. To be fair, many other talented Indigenous writers such as Lindsay Nixon (Cree-Métis-Saulteux) and Elizabeth LaPensée (Anishinaabe, Métis, Irish) are already in the process of exploring Indigenous futurisms, and Justice’s The Way of Thorn and Thunder fantasy series is available for those who wish to see his theories in action.

Justice includes an appendix that reproduces his #HonouringIndigenousWriters Twitter list. In 2017, Justice tweeted an author and recommended title every day. These provide only a taste of the vital writing Justice has affirmed in his powerful and essential book.