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.
- Early Native Literacies in New England: A Documentary Anthology, ed. Kristina Bross and Hilary Wyss – includes images and critical readings of baskets, signatures, petitions, pictographs, last wills and testaments, medicine bundles, etc.
- Josephine Bacon, Message Sticks (Tshissinuatshitakana) // a description of message stick usage from Henry Youle Hind, Explorations of the Interior, Vol. 2 // a description of “tshishkaikan” from Kaniuekutat, an Innu Hunter, in I Dreamed the Animals
- Mi’gmaq petroglyphs // Rita Joe, Song of Eskasoni // Maureen Googoo, “Protecting Mi’kmaq Petroglyphs in Bedford” // Alan Syliboy’s Petroglyph Humans series
- See the Frank Speck papers at the American Philosophical Society for images of Innu and Wabanaki Confederacy material culture. Wabanaki wampum belts are referred to in Speck’s records as “Penobscot.”
- Darren Bonaparte’s The Wampum Chronicles // E. Pauline Johnson, The White Wampum
- Some Passamaquoddy maps are available through the Maine Memory Network.
- Garrick Mallery, Picture-Writing of the American Indians // From The Common Pot, “Alnobawogan, Wlogan, Awikhigan: Entering Native Space,” Lisa Brooks
- Gabriel Acquin, Pictograph, in Dawnland Voices: An Anthology of Indigenous Writing from New England, ed. Siobhan Senier