Resources for teaching non-alphabetic Indigenous literacies

How does one read a basket? How does one read a stick of white spruce jutting out from a snowbank, left there by a family of Innu hunters? How, in other words, do non-alphabetic literacies signify, where do they signify, and what can these means of signification tell us about larger literary traditions?

Once or twice before, you have probably heard a literary critic say that in contemporary Indigenous literature, oral and alphabetic traditions occupy the same space. What you may have never heard is an adequate or thorough explanation of how this double-occupancy actually works, and this blind spot generally circumscribes the relationship between Settler scholars/students and Indigenous texts and voices.

Today, in most Canadian literary studies departments and classrooms, Indigenous texts and histories are treated and taught as what the Creek literary nationalist Craig Womack would call a “minority extension” of a larger Canadian multicultural tradition. In 2011, for example, Richard J. Lane’s Routledge Concise History of Canadian Literature reinforced a deep conceptual line between Indigenous “orature” and “Canadian” literary production without pausing to consider how this set of distinctions has always functioned to protect partisan North American narratives of Western cultural conquest and superiority against Indigenous correction. By adhering to an unnecessarily narrow definition of literature, which, for the purposes of this Routledge history, “implies a written down text,” Lane relegates all oral and non-alphabetic literacies to what he calls an “alternate expressive paradigm,” and his story of CanLit goes confidently on without them – that is, until the inevitably awkward moment late in the text, when the writings of people like Eden Robinson, Tomson Highway, and Thomas King are re-inserted, without any true sense of context or continuity, into a “Canadian” multicultural tradition.

Courses that engage non-alphabetic forms as a primary focus in the specific context of literary studies can offer cursory investigations of Indigenous national traditions from the pre-contact period to the present: how those literacies function(ed), how they have changed shape or form over time, how they are (mis)represented in Settler and colonial traditions, and how, when property acknowledged, they can significantly deepen understandings of the more popular Indigenous writings that so many English students are familiar with today.

In an essay from the collection Colonial Mediascapes (University of Nebraska, 2014), Germaine Warkentin urged literary scholars from across the Americas to divest themselves of terms like “book” altogether and to instead refer to all works of literature as “objects of knowledge transfer” – a clunky but fundamentally useful reclassification meant to help us see the continuities between non-alphabetic literacies and other texts and writing. We can follow her lead in this respect, endeavouring to become better listeners as we grapple with the many ways in which all literary forms continue to transfer knowledge across time and space.

This working list of possible texts and pairings reflects my own research emphasis on northeastern Turtle Island. For more help with this and other regions, keep up with essential and ongoing work by Niigaanwewidam James Sinclair, Daniel Heath Justice, and The People and the Text research project.

1 thought on “Resources for teaching non-alphabetic Indigenous literacies”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s