“We know ourselves only through stories,” writes Prof. Daniel Heath Justice of the University of British Columbia. Canadians define themselves through stories of pipelines or Catholicism or the fisheries or our grandparents’ ethnicity. In Why Indigenous Literatures Matter Justice tells a poignant story of discovering his Cherokee roots through a 1976 bestseller The Education Of Little Tree by Forrest Carter, the biography of an Indigenous boy raised by Tennessee mountaineers.
“I read it every year,” writes Justice. “I suggested it to others. It told me a story that was so familiar; it became part of my story of self. But it wasn’t until I was an undergraduate that I learned the shattering truth.”
The Education Of Little Tree was a literary hoax. The author was Asa Carter, a Ku Klux Klan organizer and former speechwriter for Alabama Governor George Wallace who turned a quick buck with a false account of “simplistic, noble savages”, writes Prof. Justice.
“Many of the stories about Indigenous peoples are toxic,” he says, from the romantic German novels of Karl May to Kevin Costner’s Dances With Wolves and Disney’s Pocahontas. Faux Indigenous literature is so popular it’s corporatized, and as corrosive as depictions of Chinese culture in a Charlie Chan movie.
Why Indigenous Literatures Matter examines colonialism through popular culture. It is devastating. Prof. Justice depicts it as an act of vandalism. “Without those ancestors, without their stories, there is nothing to carry forward,” he writes. “There is nothing to bring to future generations. Fortunately, our storykeepers are also our storytellers, and the possibilities for restory-ing those connections are limited only by our imaginations and the futures we envision.”
Even legitimate Indigenous literature is scrubbed to the point of misrepresentation, writes Prof. Justice. Mohawk poet Pauline Johnston in 2017 was shortlisted by the Bank of Canada for depiction on a banknote. Johnson’s nature poems were a staple of high school English courses for generations. Lesser known, the author notes, are the “scathing lines” of Johnson’s The Cattle Thief that tells of the hanging of an Indigenous man:
- “You have cursed and called him a Cattle Thief, though you
- Robbed him first of bread –
- Robbed him and robbed my people – look here at that shrunken
- Starved with a hollow hunger, we owe to you and your race.”
Why Indigenous Literatures Matter is more than an eloquent protest. It is a damnation of the subtle propaganda that turned First Nations, Inuit and Métis into literary caricatures.
“Today’s Indigenous people in North America are the descendants of those who survived the colonizing apocalypse that started in 1492 and continues today,” writes Justice. “We are more than just ‘of descent’ from those initial survivors, however – we’re survivors, too, every one of us.”
By Holly Doan
Why Indigenous Literatures Matter, by Daniel Heath Justice; Wilfrid Laurier University Press; 260 pages; ISBN 9781-77112-1767; $19.99