1555 Affirming Indigenous learning

Literatures, Communities, and Learning: Conversations with Indigenous Writers
by Aubrey Jean Hanson

Waterloo: Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 2021
$29.99 / 9781771124508

Reviewed by Harper Campbell


Indigenous literatures are relational. They are “moves” within existing relationships, calls to action, therapeutic texts, books that change the world simply by existing in a society that silences Indigenous voices. They emphasize the particularities of who you are as a reader, how you relate to the author and their community, and they make demands of you in real life.

As scholar Aubrey Jean Hanson (Métis) notes in the introduction to Literatures, Communities, and Learning: Conversations with Indigenous Writers, the relationality of Indigenous literatures gives them a special usefulness in an educational context. And yet that full potential hasn’t been really tapped into. “One spark for this project,” she explains, “was the disconnect I perceived in the early 2010s between the vibrant artistic practices taking place in Indigenous literary arts and some of the calcified practices, when it came to text selection, that often persisted in English language arts education.”

Author Aubrey Jean Hanson

It’s vitally important to find some way better to incorporate Indigenous literatures into education. Education as currently practiced doesn’t reflect or validate the experiences and cultures of Indigenous students, and it perpetuates ignorance among other students about Indigenous experiences and cultures. Thus Hanson quotes the scholar Eber Hampton (Chickasaw): “education, as currently practiced, is cultural genocide.” Immediate action must be taken to transform education into something empowering and affirming for Indigenous students and truly educational for settler students.

Hanson lists six dimensions to Indigenous education, each of which can be improved with the use of Indigenous texts:

  • Teaching to Indigenous students
  • Teaching about Indigenous content
  • Teaching with Indigenous pedagogies
  • Teaching by Indigenous educators
  • Preparing society for social change
  • Transforming education systems through decolonization

But how to do it? Rather than give us a book-length essay on the subject or write a manual, Hanson has conducted a series of interviews with Indigenous authors. Together Hanson and her interlocutors make their way through all of these topics and more.

Contributor Marilyn Dumont. Courtesy Writers’ Trust of Canada

The interviews are conducted according to the same idea of relationality that Hanson discusses in the introduction. Rather than guide them straight to her stated concerns, or grilling the interviewees, Hanson allows a great interplay as each partner responds to the other. Thus the interviews wind along their own paths, unpredictably. Likewise, the overall set of interviews were planned in a similar way: “I did not select writers with any overarching representative aim in mind, but rather worked step by step to have one conversation after another—responding to relationships, connections, and circumstances of time and place.” This is the list of authors interviewed for this book:

  • Richard Van Camp (Tlicho Dene)
  • David Alexander Robertson (Norway House Cree)
  • Katherena Vermette (Métis)
  • Warren Cariou (Métis)
  • Lee Maracle (Stó:lō)
  • Sharron Proulx-Turner (Métis)
  • Daniel Heath Justice (Cherokee)
  • Tenille Campbell (Dene, Métis)
  • Marilyn Dumont (Métis)
Lee Maracle (1950-2021). Photo courtesy Black Coffee Poet

Just to give a sense of what reading the interviews is like, let me include an extended excerpt. This is from the interview with the late, great Lee Maracle (Stó:lō). (I should mention that Maracle was friends with my mother, Joanne Arnott, and half the authors interviewed in this book are friends or acquaintances of hers too.) It’s a typical example of the kind of exchange found in this book, and I like this part because it touches on literary analysis and pedagogy while also being a great act of storytelling itself:

Lee Maracle: …We can know this poem because it manifests in real life, and any piece of writing that doesn’t manifest in real life is a pile of guck. That’s what I think about all the stuff that’s written about our work, that calls me monologistic, polyglot, post-colonial, postmodern, blah, blah, blah. It’s guck. My writing comes from thousands of years, way before post-colonial or colonial. It’s older than that. You want to tell them, “It’s older than you, you turtle.” Same thing with Tom King—he hates it when they call him post-colonial. [Laughs] “Not likely,” he says. It’s so arrogant to think that everything begins with them.

That’s what I call the “knower’s chair.” You have to remove your own knower’s chair if you’re teaching. You have to have a facilitator’s chair. What I’m here to do: I know more, that’s something that I have to just accept, because I’ve lived longer. I’ve spent my life learning, as opposed to these young people, who are just beginning. But that doesn’t mean I know better than them. You can know more, but not better. I know about tsetse flies but it doesn’t fucking help them a bit! [Laughs] You know what I mean?

Lee Maracle, I Am Woman (1st edition 1988)

Aubrey Hanson: And you can’t know for them.

LM: Yeah, you can’t know for them. And it’s not necessarily better. Most of what I know is probably pretty useless. … You know, you have to find out what helps people to learn, and I think it’s that business of what struck you. Because it’s sharp. [Claps] Bang! This is what struck me. Then, when they start to talk about it, they automatically theorize. Even a three-year-old will theorize.

My little girl came back from day care and said, “The students are noticing I’m turning brown.” I said, “Oh, really?” She wasn’t turning anything, but I didn’t want to say that to her. [Laughs] Obviously she had some idea, had thought about this. I wanted to know what her thinking was. And she says, “So I told them, ‘everybody’s born white, but if you’re beautiful, you turn brown, and if you’re really beautiful, when you grow up you turn Black.’” And I thought, “Oh, is she in for a big surprise when she gets older and she doesn’t turn Black!” [Laughs]

AH: She’s got a sophisticated system of—

LM: A very sophisticated system of reasoning.

And I just tried not to laugh. I didn’t say a word, but I thought, “That’s magnificent reasoning, and all I’ve got to do is keep that process alive.” And so, I said, “Is that what struck you, when your classmate said that?” And she says, “Yes! And I was struck, just like you strike a tree and all the leaves scatter. All my thoughts started swimming around inside my head! All in different directions!” [Laughs] She was just cracking me up. It was even funnier than the first idea.

Contributor Richard Van Camp. 2017. Photo by William Au

If you enjoyed that, please consider reading Literatures, Communities, and Learning: Conversations with Indigenous Writers. With its conversational tone, it feels like reading a podcast, a relaxing bit of entertainment that also educates. The educational part is quite significant, though, and I recommend this book to teachers (and not only English teachers). Every interview here has something to get a teacher’s mind swimming like the leaves scattering from a tree.

If I have any criticism, it’s just that the introduction could be made clearer and more forceful. The ideas it lays out are very interesting and shed light on the interviews that follow, but the contents seem to be struggling to find a concise and memorable form. I think there must be a better style that can meet the requirements of academic prose while still being approachable and fun.


Harper Campbell

Harper Campbell has published poetry in Salish Seas: An Anthology of Text + Image (Aboriginal Writers Collective West Coast, 2011), an essay in The Salt Chuck City Review (volume 1, 2019), and translations of the Indonesian poet Chairil Anwar in Columbia Journal (2021) and Ezra (forthcoming). He has an honours degree in philosophy and Asian studies from the University of British Columbia. Editor’s note: Harper Campbell has also reviewed books by Michelle Good, Joseph DandurandMargaret Laurencejaye simpson, and Joshua Whitehead for The British Columbia Review.


The British Columbia Review

Publisher and Editor: Richard Mackie

Formerly The Ormsby Review, The British Columbia Review is an on-line journal service for BC writers and readers. The Advisory Board consists of Jean Barman, Wade Davis, Robin Fisher, Cole Harris, Hugh Johnston, Kathy Mezei, Patricia Roy, Maria Tippett, and Graeme Wynn. Provincial Government Patron (since September 2018): Creative BC. Honorary Patron: Yosef Wosk. Scholarly Patron: SFU Graduate Liberal Studies.

“Only connect.” – E.M. Forster

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