Aboriginal Writers Make Their Mark on Canada

By Morgan O’Neal

During the past few years, three aboriginal writers (Richard Wagamese of the Ojibway, Eden Robinson of the Haisla, and Joseph Boyden of the Métis Nation) have deservedly taken home about every literary award worth winning. If there are any side effects from this good medicine, the possibilities are well examined in the short story “Bearwalker” in Joseph Boyden’s first book Born With a Tooth, a brilliant collection of connected stories exemplary of the intricately polished nature of his writing. In the story, members of the Bird family discuss the problematic return of a daughter and her man, who has recently gone over to the shape shifting realm of the Bearwalker, becoming one with the bush:

“Wouldn’t you feel lost wandering around in crowds of people like that?” I ask. “You’d always feel like you were”—I pause for the word to come —”surrounded … by a bunch of white people.”

“That’s never a good situation for an Indian.” Michael says.

“We’re already surrounded by them,” Raymond speaks up.

One thing is certain, these awards require an author to be “surrounded by white people” often enough to get recognized. This may be the beginning of an unexpected new reign of terrific Native writing. It may also mean being surrounded a lot.

Wagamese, Boyden, and Robinson have mastered the English language in order to widen their audiences. It is this mastery of English that allows them to gain recognition for the finesse and subtlety in their expression. Many poets and prose masters have long practiced their craft with the same severe concentration a master carver applies to a traditional pole or mask in a given tribal tradition, and aboriginal authors working in the field of creative writing have risen to match and conquer mentors and teachers such as Rita Joe, Maria Campbell, and Thomson Highway.

Rita Joe, one of the matriarchal rocks upon which indigenous writing has built its house, died in 2007, leaving a legacy strong enough to sustain indigenous writing into the future. Known as the Poet Laureate of the Mi’kmaq Nation, she was appointed to the Order of Canada and awarded an honorary Doctor of Laws degree from Dalhousie University. Maria Campbell is another elder who laid a strong foundation in prose and truth-telling that reached beyond her own Métis community. In 1973, the year Halfbreed was published, the Métis were not even considered to be aboriginal people at all under The Indian Act in Canada. As Agnes Grant has observed, “Until [Maria] wrote the book, ‘halfbreed’ was nothing but a common derogatory term; now it means a person living between two cultures.”

Thomson Highway stands stalwart as a wooden Indian guarding a burgeoning library of indigenous literature. He gives us a joyful image of ourselves, all biologically hilarious and hairless upright two-leggeds. In his a collection called Me Sexy edited by Drew Haydn Taylor, Highway’s “Why Cree is the Sexiest of All Languages” leaves no dirty laundry unhungout. The answer is nearly always funny and true and intellectually stimulating. The English language is designed for dissimulation, a Renaissance word that means lying) and, as Highway says, European cultures are based in the idea of power that rests in the accumulation of property and riches and armies and warfare. Native languages bring the mind and body together again in the telling of truth.

As Thomson puts it, the Greek/Hebrew source of Western morality and literary propriety originated in a garden, along with an estrangement from body, biology, and sexuality that had dire consequences for the civilization which grew out of that book: the Bible. In his work, Thomson describes a figurative garden where a “tree of knowledge stands at stiff attention,” a garden from which the English language has been evicted. Of his own language, Thompson says, “The dialect of Cree that I speak is arguably the fastest in the world . . . full of such succulent remarks as ‘it was so hot that day that I had rosary beads of perspiration clinging to the crack of my ass.’” An aboriginal author writing award-winning novels in English can still tell the truth in indigenous dialect because he or she is still thinking in Cree or Haisla or Ojibway, and because of this, can ignore ancient prohibitions against truth-telling that continue to censor even the best writers in English.

Eden Robinson quite significantly took her first name from that famous biblical garden. Her first book of stories, Traplines, was received with shock and awe by readers all across North America precisely because it could tell such normally censored truths. Eden (born Vicki Lena in 1968 on the Haisla Nation Kitamaat Reserve in northern B.C.) became successful quickly, but ask her who is responsible for her achievement and the answer is “definitely family.” As she told Suzanne Methot in a January 2000 Quill & Quire article, “I am surrounded by a family that supports artistic drive. I never felt like I was letting anybody down by being a crazy artist. I’ve only found out lately how rare that is.” Her book Monkey Beach, set on the Kitamaat reserve, won the Ethel Wilson Fiction Prize, was short listed for the IMPAC Dublin Literary Award, and was nominated for both the Giller Prize and the Governor General’s Award. Blood Sports was marketed as a “Canadian bestseller, written with the cunning of Alice Munro and the twisted violence of Stephen King.” Robinson credits King’s The Shining with making her want to write in the first place because his novels “are full of working-class people who have shitty jobs and live in small towns. They’re people I know.” Thankfully, you can take the woman out of the rez, but you can’t take the rez out of the woman.

In the introduction to his collection of short essayistic memoirs, One Native Life, Richard Wagamese writes, “Stories are meant to heal.” These days, cities and states and whole countries need to heal. And so, we await the third book in Joseph Boyden’s proposed trilogy begun with Three Day Road and Through Black Spruce. He wishes to establish an Aboriginal Student Scholarship Fund with some of the financial portion of the Giller Prize he just received for the second novel. Joseph Boyden and his comrade in letters and CAA Canadian Author’s Awards winner Richard Wagamese are now recognized among the greatest writers Canada has ever produced.

Wagamese is a wise man, who has lived a life as difficult as any, and has taught himself to write in a way that strikes straight to the heart of things. This unique Canadian master of prose aspires to greatness and shrinks away from absolutely nothing.

In the history of our nation, stories can remain untold for decades—even centuries—for all the wrong reasons of racism, marginalization, dishonesty, even censorship and all manner of media manipulation. But in the end, aboriginal authors write from the heart about the truth of living as a nation within a nation. In the last decade, Canada has seen a remarkable flowering of truth-telling fiction, a number of novels that aspire to greatness and are recognized as such. Joseph Boyden, Eden Robinson and Richard Wagamese have written books that transcend the particular of characters and events and soar like an eagle.