Indigenous, Aboriginal, Indian, Native canadian and being a poet
So the challenge in being Nish and a writer or graphic novelist and I imagine anything creative that brings your work into the public light is being asked to represent the opinions of your people on stuff like pipelines, land rights, reservations, murdered and missing Indigenous women and girls, two-spirit, residential schools, the 60's Scoop, decolonization, reindigenizing, and of course reconciliation. You always get asked to comment on any number of these things, as if your voice carries with it the voice of all Nish across Turtle Island. For the record, it doesn't and it never will, and something that we constantly find ourselves having to say is, “I can only speak for myself and share with you my teachings.”
That's a cultural thing in itself.
These are things that we all have opinions on for sure, and we don't all agree on those subjects, but what we agree on about them is they are all bad. I don't shy away from sharing my thoughts and feeling about these things when I'm asked, that being said I do pay attention to who the audience is and I say something reflecting that, including “This isn't the time or place for me to speak about that,” because when you're standing before an audience with a number of kids present it's not really the time to talk openly about the genocide of your people. When I say that, I'm referring to the first-hand stories of witnesses who were children at the time they watched babies being thrown into furnaces by nuns and priests and employees of the residential school, that kind of thing isn't for children to hear. In fact, I'd go so far as to say that no one should ever have to hear such a story, but that's the reality of survivors of those schools; they live with those memories.
It's not that we feel compelled to write about the horrific atrocities being done to our people, (yup, “being done” was entirely intentional because atrocities are still being committed against my people) but we do in a sense have to do exactly that because these are our stories and for too long, since forever actually, our narrative has been dictated by colonizers. Who we are in your eyes, the audience, the Non-Nish audience has been shaped by colonizers from first contact and that needs to stop. So as writers, artists, poets, filmmakers, and creative types yeah, we do feel the need to take control of the narrative and talk about being Aboriginal, about life as Native people, being an Indian artist, an Indigenous poet, and what it's like constantly being referred as Native canadian. Controlling our narrative is why we often (it's actually always, but who's counting) begin our creative journeys into the mainstream by sharing our very Indigenous stories in our own words, through our own eyes, and most often that need is an unconscious one and at the same time, it is expected, even demanded that we tell those stories to our non-Indigenous audience.
In a very real sense, it's as if we're being told that these are the only stories that we can tell. So when you wonder why, if you do wonder at all about it, there are so many stories out there about Indigenous issues like pipelines and Residential schools and Murdered and Missing Indigenous Women and Girls it's because that's what we're being asked to write about, to film, to share by mainstream media and society. It's how I got my start, with a story about an Elder's first experience with Residential school when he was a child. But are they the only stories that we can tell, of course, they are not and slowly we're telling more and more varied stories still touched with our history and how it's scarred our existence, but that's also the point of our controlling our narrative. Slowly we'll move on from those stories and tell fantasy and science fiction that has nothing to do with colonization, we'll write poetry that speaks of wonders undreamed and we'll carry ourselves into the future where our stories are free to wander down paths meandered never before.
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But we're not there yet, and I suspect it will be many years before we are because the wounds have not been heard, the scars not fully seen, and the pain and suffering not yet breathed across the souls of all those who walk this way under the sun. Our tears, our cries, our frustration, our spite, and our vitriol anger at having been . . . has yet to be felt in any real manner, because we haven't really begun to share all of it, because we're only beginning to learn how to control our narrative. Eleven Residential schools and ten thousand dead children buried beneath their grounds, over one hundred more Indian death camps to explore. Not a blip on the mainstream media anymore for that news eh, that's okay we're sick and tired of talking about it too, we're sick and tired of bringing home all the dead children, our children, not your children, ours. See what I did there, that's me talking about being Indigenous, that's me talking about our history, and me being the narrator of my people. Well, that's me whispering softly to you about it, don't get me actually started because my words will sear your soul and that's what I'm really talking about; the challenge to get you to actually truly hear our stories and not just listen to forget.
I'm aware that I haven't really touched on pipelines, land rights, reservations, murdered and missing Indigenous women and girls, two-spirit, residential schools, the 60's Scoop, decolonization, reindigenizing, and of course reconciliation. This is all I have to say about this today though.
The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book.
NShannacappo is a Nakawe graphic novelist and poet from Rolling River First Nation in Manitoba. He's Eagle clan and currently living, working and playing in Ottawa. You can find his stories in the Indigenous anthologies called Sovereign Traces - Not (Just) (An)other, Vol 1 and Sovereign Traces – Relational Constellation, Vol 2. The graphic novel Mashkawide'e (Has a strong heart) was published by Senator Kim Pate and copies can be found by contacting her office. Neal published his own creation, The Krillian Key in November 2020, and is working on If I Go Missing which is being published by James Lorimer & Company Ltd., and Niikaniganaw (All My Relations) commissioned by a group of healthcare researchers.