Where Some Ideas Are Stranger Than Others...
Are You Sure?
To be sure, we may all react differently to the same article or editorial, and indeed that is the writer's expectation. Their purpose in writing their article editorial is to catch our interest, and encourage us to discuss the topic they have taken up. That's why no newspaper or magazine has ever lacked for editorials, even if sometimes the number of articles seems a bit sparse. We are prone to arguing and worrying at editorials, and to following regular columnists who mostly please us, mostly annoy us, or better yet, please us, annoy us, and scandalize us by turns. It may be hard to believe in our current period of pressure to group think, but such writers are gifts to us as thinkers and active members of society. One such gift published a key essay in 1990, so key that it was republished in 2017, both times in the globe and mail, a national canadian newspaper. The (in)famous essay/editorial, written by Lenore Keeshig-Tobias, is titled Stop Stealing Native Stories, and while you can certainly read it at the globe and mail's website, I think the version with footnotes hosted at broadview press is even better, because you can then chase Keeshig-Tobias' references if you wish. There is no change to the content otherwise.
As it happens, my own opportunity to read Keeshig-Tobias' editorial came in the context of a graduate-level seminar, so I had to look up the original context of her powerful words. She was critiquing the way in which non-Indigenous artists, at that time especially writers and film makers, took Indigenous stories to textualize or film in their own terms. She considered the questions of how and why those non-Indigenous artists came to be in the position to do such things, why french canadian stories and culture are not treated similarly, and the ethics of this frankly colonial habit. Oddly, or perhaps strategically, mainstream canadians tied themselves in knots arguing about whether Keeshig-Tobias was effectively demanding censorship while apparently sidestepping the comparative case of french canadian cultures and stories. Of course, québec separatism was at a high ebb at that point, so maybe it made sense to many people not to take up that last point, even though the very fact of that high ebb must have made the differences in treatment of francophone and Indigenous cultures in canada easier to see. There is more to the previous response, but this is the very basics of the information about it that we were discussing in the seminar.
The cover of Bird Talk
by Lenore Keeshig-Tobias, illustrated by Irving Toddly courtesy of the internet archive
, march 2021.
The seminar discussion of Keeshig-Tobias' editorial was intriguing, and to me at least, also very puzzling. All she is saying, really, is that non-Indigenous people should not be stealing Indigenous stories, to anachronistically use the terminology of the present. My non-Indigenous classmates were in the main stymied by this. It seemed like they couldn't see their way to any other means of engaging with Indigenous stories than stealing them, that is, taking them away in some form via textualizing, filming, or recording, and then proclaiming some form of settler ownership and control over the result. To this day this seems so strange to me, and now I wish that it had dawned on me to ask then the question I have now: Are you sure? Are you sure that the only way you can engage with Indigenous stories is to steal them? It is so hard to believe! But maybe the difficulty was that they couldn't imagine, and at first I couldn't properly describe, that recording Indigenous stories need not entail pretending to own them instead of the Indigenous peoples. It was already happening at the time of the seminar – that is a big part of what we were learning about in that seminar – and is certainly happening now.
Before considering any real life examples, let's consider what it would entail for a non-Indigenous person to do just that, to work with an Indigenous story or stories, without stealing them. Ideally, that person would contact an Indigenous community in order to learn from them the correct protocol to work with the story, and to find Indigenous people to work with on the story. So, suppose a non-Indigenous person wanted to dig into windigo stories, which are properly only told at certain times of the year. They would need to learn about those proper times, and who to work with to handle the stories in a spiritually appropriate manner. By collaborating with selected and willing Indigenous community members, who in this case would be Cree or perhaps Anishinabe, they would be better equipped to explore the specific settler relationships to these stories, which are unique, and perhaps they would be able to present Cree or Anishinabe perspectives, with care. The eventual product, be it an essay, film, or what have you, might be published in a familiar settler sort of way, such as in a documentary, academic paper, or magazine article. Or if the project develops that way and the Indigenous partners recommend it, it may be released in those ways and provided free for access and use by at minimum the Indigenous community, and at maximum Indigenous scholars and artists in general. There is not a single answer for all time, because different topics and different stories will have different protocols.
Even this mostly generic description shows that not stealing Indigenous stories entails more than many settlers are used to. They can't just waltz in, record whatever, and waltz out to produce the next great film, book, or painting. This entails a relationship, and time, not a quick turn around to catch the latest wave in the market for whatever final product the non-Indigenous person expects to make. And indeed, this is exactly what makes not stealing Indigenous stories so hard for many non-Indigenous people to imagine. Not that they are ignorant, or intend to steal necessarily, although tragically, more than a few do intend to steal. No, the difficulty lies in the presupposition that anything anyone does in settler society must hinge upon making a profit off the latest trend. By nature that disallows developing and pursuing principled relationships, let alone implementing and sticking to ceremonial protocols. At first glance, many of my fellow students simply could not see another way to do be, because in the context of the world we are all experiencing right now, it certainly isn't obvious. It wasn't "obvious" to me either, I too had to learn that I couldn't just take and use what I wanted in any way that pleased or otherwise profited me. It just so happens that my good fortune led me to learn this early enough not to make appalling mistakes that would be hard to make up for. Instead I got to make low stakes, easily fixable mistakes.
All of which is to acknowledge and reiterate that my colleagues were temporarily stuck, and our group discussion helped do a lot of unsticking. Nevertheless, it is worth reiterating, there is no need to steal Indigenous stories. In fact, there is a need to treat them with the care and respect that spiritually potent materials should always have, and as human beings we are all capable of carrying out that treatment. For those who are unwilling to eschew stealing and treating Indigenous stories inappropriately, they are no more being censored than a lawyer is being censored who is prevented from misrepresenting the law. When a lawyer is prevented from misrepresenting the law, they are being held to an ethical standard, not simply prevented from saying or publishing something deemed politically unacceptable. The added element in the case of Indigenous stories is acknowledging and respecting Indigenous ownership, which can be very uncomfortable for settlers accustomed to treating only what fellow settlers have as "real" or "intellectual" property. Indigenous peoples do have property regimes, and a great way to do something real towards reconciliation, insofar as that is a real thing, is to actually respect Indigenous property. If like me a settler has doubts about reconciliation as a reality, it would still be an excellent start towards to the conciliation that hasn't happened yet. That step would help get us all to a place where we could share our cultures without being threatened, and that sounds like a very good thing.