There’s a lot of good work by ethical and thoughtful individuals in the archive of writing about Indigenous peoples, but there’s also a great deal of bad work by non-Indigenous writers with a vested interest in either Indigenous deficiency or diminishment, often with the assumption (or outright assertion) that all Indigenous peoples are the same in some set of essential values, perspectives, or characteristics. Indigenous writing–by Indigenous peoples, with self-determined concerns, ideas, and priorities at the center–offers an important corrective to these reductive ideas.
Beauty is as much a purpose of Indigenous writing as anything else; beauty is multidimensional, as much about language and structure as content, theme, or form. With the dominant narratives about Indigenous peoples in popular and political discourse being largely stories about Indigenous deficit and dysfunction, we can’t underestimate the importance of other stories, the ones that show the full, rich depths of Indigenous humanity and creative spirit, and which offer both Indigenous and non-Indigenous readers, viewers, and listeners the possibility of encountering and perhaps being changed by the diverse aesthetic practices and traditions at work in these texts.
This is an overused and sometimes hackneyed term, but it nevertheless seems entirely appropriate here. At its best, literature can reflect back an image of ourselves that affirms our humanity and dignity, even when it might also articulate the challenges and painful woundings that impact our lives. To see ourselves as complex and richly textured people–individually and collectively–is to see ourselves beyond the narrow and pathologizing limits of the settler imaginary, where Indigenousness is generally a “problem” to be ignored, dealt with, or fixed, until commodifying modernity triumphs and Indigenous peoples vanish.
In her 2009 book, Taking Back our Spirits: Indigenous Literature, Public Policy, and Healing, Métis scholar and educator Jo-Ann Episkenew has made an important argument about the capacity for Indigenous literature to not only help Indigenous individuals and communities to heal from the generational assaults of colonialism, but also for its potential in creating empathy between Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples.
Indigenous literatures aren’t simply a contemporary phenomenon: Indigenous peoples have always been textually expressing their dreams, fears, visions, ceremonial practices, and aesthetic priorities in alphabetic as well as non-alphabetic forms. Literature, then, is an ancient legacy, one that connects us to the past and extends well into the future. It’s an inheritance.
Indigenous texts also affirm our textualized presence in the world. The “Vanishing Indian” of stereotype and colonial myth is as fleeting as a breath in the wind; alone and isolated, this figure passes away without leaving a mark on the land or on memory (except, perhaps, settler nightmares of the Poltergeist kind). Real, dynamic, and fully present Indigenous peoples are fully part of the world, not apart from it in some nebulous space of eternal stasis.
The last area of significance I want to offer here (though certainly not the last to consider, as there’s much more than I can cover in this piece) is the possibility inherent in Indigenous literature: that of imagining otherwise, of considering different ways of abiding in and with the world that are about Indigenous presence, not absence, Indigenous wholeness, not fragmentation, Indigenous complexity, not one-dimensionality. When Indigenous writers take up pen or keyboard or carving knife or bead and sinew, they bring their talents and visionary capacity to the work, and in so doing help to create a different world for themselves, for their communities, and for their neighbors (friend, foe, and unaffiliated alike).
For more on the subject, see Tucson's Mexican American Studies Rejected and Why Write About Native Americans?