Globe and Mail – Kateri Akiwenzie-Damm

In 1989, my cousin, Chippewas of Nawash poet Lenore Keeshig, took the issue of “appropriation of voice” to The Writers’ Union of Canada to tell non-Indigenous writers to “stop stealing our stories.” The controversy she sparked raged for months afterward. Some writers were supportive of the call while others were vehemently opposed. In 1990, Lenore wrote an op-ed, in this very newspaper, titled, “Stop Stealing Native Stories.” In it, she wrote that, “Critics of non-native writers who borrow from the native experience have been dismissed as advocates of censorship and accused of trying to shackle artistic imagination …”

Since that time, the issue has simmered, occasionally boiling over as it did at the end of 2016, when issues around the writing of one of Canada’s bestselling authors and his “shifting” stories about his identity were finally made public after years of questions quietly swirling in conversations among Indigenous writers and artists.

This controversy continued into 2017, a year that, for Indigenous people, marks 150 years of colonial oppression. As the Canadian government unrolled its Canada 150 budget and agenda, Indigenous people across the country recoiled. Canada “150”? Really? To suggest that this country didn’t exist for us before 1867 is a punch to the gut – a half-billion-dollar, year-long celebration that hammers home the message, over and over again, that Canada depends on our erasure. The reality of our existence does not fit the official national narrative and so it must be dismissed, ignored and forgotten. Whether that erasure is attempted through the Indian Residential School System, the ongoing apprehensions of our children by Child and Family Services, the murder and disappearance of Indigenous women and girls, “starlight tours” conducted by police in Saskatchewan, the wildly disproportionate incarceration of Indigenous peoples in Canada’s prison system, the theft of our lands and resources, the stealing of our stories or the inequitable policies of a party on Parliament Hill, the message is persistent – and devastatingly familiar.

From the archives: Stop stealing native stories (1990 essay by Lenore Keeshig)

Read more: First Nations leaders question safety of youth in Thunder Bay

This past week, I reread my cousin Lenore’s article. How heart-breakingly familiar it is 27 years later. In her piece, she cites the same objections to our concerns today, the same disingenuous reframing of the issue into one about freedom of speech, the same subtext embedded in arguments that suggest we are not capable of telling our own stories with the skill, beauty and depth that white middle-class writers could, or that, unlike them, we are too biased. And there are similar explanations from us that our stories are ours to tell, that they have power, and that we can tell them best.

Since the publication of Hal Niedzviecki’s “Appropriation Prize” editorial in The Writers’ Union of Canada’s Write magazine, white Canadians from powerful media corporations have attacked and insulted us for opposing the idea that cultural appropriation doesn’t exist. They imply that we have the power to censor, to ban and to deny their creativity. They assert that they are sure this is our real goal, despite at least 28 years of clear articulations from us that this is not the case. If that were true, if we were that powerful in this Canadian society, there would be no issue of appropriation of voice and no call for relentless debate because there would be no need.

Even though we know the history of this issue – and have witnessed the inability of many white Canadians to hear our voices in this debate – many of us have continued to engage in discussions about cultural appropriation, including Alicia Elliott, Joshua Whitehead, Daniel Heath Justice, Ryan McMahon, Jesse Wente, Zoe Todd, Drew Taylor, Niigaan Sinclair, Trevor Greyeyes and Al Hunter. We have been interviewed on radio and TV by Indigenous, alternative and mainstream media. We’ve written articles, blogs and poems. We have closely followed social media, correcting misinformation, suggesting resources, promoting Indigenous literature, publishers and writers and tackling antiquated notions that we are incapable of telling our stories effectively and that we are unworthy objects of ridicule. In doing so, we have shouted from the rooftops that we refuse to be erased. It has been exhausting.

But this has also brought us closer together than we have been in a long time. This fight has made it easier to see our allies, to let go of false friends, and to identify our enemies. In the past month, we have said many of the same things Lenore was saying in 1990 and we have added many more voices to those responses. We have opened our hearts to talk about the pain that the Write editorial and the fallout from it has caused us, our children, our families, our friends and our communities. We have shared our frustrations, anger and tears.

I was interviewed as an Indigenous publisher in that same issue of Write magazine. I am a writer, poet and publisher. I have put my own writing career on hold many times to fight for respect and space for Indigenous writers and our books. I am also a consultant and have worked with Indigenous groups and organizations across the country, including the Aboriginal Healing Foundation (AHF) in the early stages of its mandate. (Established in 1998, the foundation was an Indigenous-managed non-profit dedicated to responding to the impact of residential schools in Canada.)

There were three employees busily and excitedly working in a newly rented office space. The empty offices spoke of the potential: An opportunity for Indigenous people to tell the truth about residential schools, not only to themselves, but to the Canadian public and to start a long and painful process of healing and recovery.

Those empty offices were soon filled, and I worked, off and on, with the organization until its final project: a history of the foundation. I wrote a chapter about emerging issues that the foundation wasn’t able to address before its funding was cut in 2014 – among them, the Scoops of the 1950s and ’60s (when the Children’s Aid Society “scooped up” Indigenous children and placed them in foster homes or offered them for adoption) and the continued apprehensions of our children. I was especially excited to write about the CAS apprehensions, because my sons are Anishinaabe and are adopted. I wrote that chapter with passion because that story of the link between residential schools and the CAS is one that needs to be told and because it is part of my sons’ stories as well.

As part of my work with the AHF and later, the Legacy of Hope Foundation, I listened to residential school survivors such as Garnet Angeconeb speak about their experiences and their dreams for the future. I sat in an office for days reading survivor testimonies. I watched in awe as survivors came together to heal the wounds they carried, tell their stories and work with a gritty determination to create a better world for their families and communities. It was both gut-wrenching and profoundly inspiring.

I listened with outrage when their voices were pushed out of the way and silenced and the residential school stories were distilled down, primarily, to one writer’s voice. I saw the harm it caused when someone who admitted that none of his family attended residential schools became the voice sought out by media and publishers. It was a singular voice, unable to tell a story that could possibly carry the depth and breadth of the many stories the survivors and members of their families and communities had been telling.

So it’s time to say it: The appropriation debate needs to end. But not because the war has been won or because our stories are no longer being stolen. Young Indigenous women and men are still sleeping in stairwells or dying alone in tents after they become too old for foster care; apprehensions of Indigenous children are continuing to rise; Indigenous families have to fight for things such as dental care (one family recently took the federal government to court to force it to pay for care for their daughter so that she could eat, speak and live without chronic pain); First Nations students go missing and are pulled, lifeless, from rivers in Thunder Bay; residential-school experiences are still publicly denied and degraded, even by mainstream “award-winning” journalists; and the federal government keeps selling reconciliation, even though far too many Canadians still do not know or cannot handle the truth.

It’s time to stop the debate because fighting these battles is getting us nowhere. What’s the point in setting ourselves up so that some of the dinosaurs around us can roar out the same worn out stereotypes about who we are, replicating once again a power imbalance that serves their interests at our cost? Why bother responding to proudly ignorant tweets that whisk us back almost three decades or, perhaps, three centuries? After all, who needs this debate? I certainly do not.

Had I known that the Write editorial would try to dredge up the appropriation issue again, I would not have participated in the issue. But none of us were given that opportunity and so we have found our lives and time hijacked, discussing an issue we have already discussed many times, with people who still are not listening.

Don’t get me wrong: I am strongly in favour of educating and raising awareness. My mother, Julie Damm, was a teacher. Her mother, Irene Akiwenzie, was a teacher. I have spent a huge amount of my life speaking in schools and universities and working in various ways to live up to my ancestors’ name, Kegedonce, “little orator.”

But if the past 30 years have taught us anything, it is that there is a powerful, loud bunch of privileged white settlers who do not want to learn about us or from us. They spew out their impressions of our experience and double down when confronted with research and data and our first hand accounts. They want to “debate” appropriation, on their terms and make these demands as if it has not been done before. As if the past 30 years of our work is meaningless because they are unaware and do not have to bother doing the research. For us, to continue to debate at this point is nothing but a type of busy work that pulls Indigenous writers and publishers away from what we ought to be doing – namely, writing, telling and publishing our own stories.

The world is shifting. Here’s a hard truth that may move us closer to reconciliation: We do not need them. We do not need to debate them because they demand it and we do not need them to tell our stories. It is time now for us to refocus our energies on what matters to us: first and foremost, working within our communities to strengthen, empower and build each other up. We need to envision, together, the world we want to create and work without this distraction. Many Indigenous writers are writing with a reinvigorated drive, heartened by the way so many of us came together and talking about new collaborations and new projects. It is exciting. We’re dreaming about a future and how to get there.

For me, this work includes reaffirming my commitment to my own writing, continuing to publish and promote Indigenous literature and writers through the publishing company I started, Kegedonce Press, and helping to establish an Indigenous writers organization. I’m also working with non-Indigenous friends and allies to create new, impactful and long-lasting opportunities for Indigenous writers.

Some of this work is already under way and has been since before this latest controversy. Among the new initiatives is the Emerging Indigenous Voices fund for a “Canadian literary award to support the vision of emerging Indigenous writers.” It was the response of one person, a non-Indigenous lawyer named Robin Parker, who truly listened to what was happening and instead of “debating” it endlessly, took action. Her initial fundraising goal was a modest $10,000. Within a few days of its two-month long campaign it had raised $66,556 from 913 backers. She’s working with Indigenous organizations to set up the details of the award. Meanwhile, contributors and Indigenous people are dreaming about the possibilities.

That is far more important than parsing terms, restating again why we want to tell our own stories, and engaging with bullies online or wherever they may be. We need long term, sustainable change. Not one-off interviews or invitations to speak. We need to move this issue away from debate into action.

My sleeves are rolled up. Let’s get to work.

Kateri Akiwenzie-Damm is an Anishinaabe writer and editor from the Chippewas of Nawash First Nation, Saugeen Ojibway Nation. She is the founder and managing editor of Kegedonce Press, a publishing house devoted to Indigenous writers.