Indigenous Identity and the Responsibilities of Telling Stories

By Waubgeshig Rice

Eden Robinson and Grace Dove

Writing the stories of your people is the ultimate honour. It is also a privilege, and carries immense responsibilities. This is especially true of Indigenous communities in Canada, who continue to recover from the ravages of colonialism. Claiming connection to these nations and cultures is never to be taken lightly, particularly if one is in the public sphere and working with a community’s stories. If done properly, creating art based on Indigenous stories can be a beautiful triumph. But missteps through identity and representation can be severely damaging. As someone from a First Nation who writes stories about Anishinaabe culture and realities, it’s always been imperative for me to get this right.

I highlight this issue as another identity controversy booms through the Indigenous arts community. Last week, CBC reported on uncertainty around the Indigenous heritage claimed by Michelle Latimer, co-creator and director of the CBC series Trickster, based on the Trickster series of novels by Haisla and Heiltsuk author Eden Robinson. Latimer has stated her Indigenous roots are Métis and Algonquin, drawing a line to the community of Kitigan Zibi Anishinabeg in Quebec, but that has been disputed by that First Nation. She has since issued a statement saying she is working to further clarify her heritage.

The Latimer saga is reminiscent of the Joseph Boyden controversy that shook up Canadian literature back in late 2016. After years of making various claims of Indigenous identity, reports emerged in the media outlining these inconsistencies and bringing his background into question. I was friendly with Boyden for years, but I have not heard from him since, and he has offered me no explanation.

The fallout from this latest instance of misrepresentation will be heavy. The discussions to come will be hard, but important. And my hope is once the dust settles, there’ll be a clearer path forward for creative industries like literature and film and television production. Because this kind of deception can undo some of the hard work of artists like Eden Robinson, who have worked for decades to achieve success in an already hostile environment, while representing their home communities in a good way. I can’t say that I have the answers, nor would I ever tell anyone what to do, especially with something so sensitive as Indigenous identity and representation. But I can share how I approach writing about my people in hopes of potentially offering some examples.

Before I write anything, I believe it’s crucial for me to understand the history of my community and wider nation. I fortunately grew up in my home community of Wasauksing, and since I was a kid, I’ve heard the stories of where and how the Anishinaabeg I’m descended from lived before contact with Europeans. I was raised in an era when people in my community were reconnecting with culture and ceremony, so I understood the values and beliefs that thrived on the land since time immemorial.

And then, my elders painted a clear picture for me of how being displaced and brutalized by colonialism changed everything. The sweeping damage continues to cycle through many communities, and the traumas and responses shape our cultures and stories in many ways. This historical knowledge informs almost everything I write, because I feel I need to always look back to the past before I document anything in a book that will be widely available in the future.

How this history is orally shared with me creates the foundation of my writing. Many Indigenous cultures are based on spoken stories, which are passed down from generation to generation. This oral tradition has kept Anishinaabe stories alive despite all efforts by settler governments to destroy them. I must carry on this tradition by hearing and speaking these stories as much as possible, and then carefully discern how I adapt any of them to written literature.

And understanding what I can and should share in the written realm is perhaps the most important part of the process. I consult with elders and family members before I commit anything to the page. These histories and experiences are very sensitive. Writing about them carelessly could cause further harm and damage relationships. When telling a community’s truths for wider public consumption, trust is both vital and vulnerable.

That’s why claiming connection to an Indigenous community can never be a frivolous act. I proudly proclaim that I am from Wasauksing. I identify as Anishinaabe and Canadian. As such, I must be accountable to the people of Wasauksing, and Anishinaabe communities everywhere. It is a daily responsibility that takes priority over all of my creative practices. To me, that identity embodies all the triumphs and tragedies that have come to define it. I must live all of it before I claim to represent it.

But having a strong community connection and understanding the role of the storyteller isn’t as easy for everyone. We have all been impacted by colonialism in terrible ways. Many Indigenous people were removed from their families and communities, and have a more difficult time finding their way back. It can be a lifelong journey with no simple resolution. But that is a valid Indigenous story, too, and it’s worth writing about and sharing.

And my own writing journey hasn’t been free of missteps. I’ve written about things in the past that I should have perhaps kept in my community. But because I have deep respect and admiration for my people, they have lovingly shown me how to be a more considerate and careful writer. It’s all about nurturing good relationships with the people who have helped shape us, underlined by a key sense of mutual respect.

These are not answers for everyone. But they’re principles and values I’ve tried to abide by over the course of my writing life. As the creative realm in Canada continues to wrestle with identity issues, there’ll likely be more controversies to come, especially as Indigenous stories become a greater commodity in the entertainment industry. However, I’m hopeful for an era when these identity questions are settled early and properly. We owe that to the ancestors that fought for the stories and cultures that hold us up today.

The views expressed by Open Book columnists are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book.

Waubgeshig Rice is an author and journalist from Wasauksing First Nation on Georgian Bay. He has written three fiction titles, and his short stories and essays have been published in numerous anthologies. His most recent novel, Moon of the Crusted Snow, was published in 2018 and became a national bestseller. He graduated from Ryerson University’s journalism program in 2002, and spent the bulk of his journalism career at CBC, most recently as host of Up North, the afternoon radio program for northern Ontario. He lives in Sudbury, Ontario with his wife and two sons.