Resistance and Protest in Indigenous Literature

By Sinclair, Niigonwedom James | Canadian Dimension, March-April 2010 | Go to article overview

Resistance and Protest in Indigenous Literature


Sinclair, Niigonwedom James, Canadian Dimension


AT THE 2009 OGAMAS Native literature conference in Brandon, Manitoba, Mohawk scholar Paul DePasquale hosted a panel entitled "What is Aboriginal Literature?" For those on the stage and in attendance, including many of Canada's finest Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal writers and Literary critics, the topic seemed somewhat straightforward. The week's near-constant readings, after all, provided variable answers to the question.

But, as most things happen in Indian Country, the script didn't go according to plan. After asking how literary artists, critics, publishers, and readers can collectively contribute to Indigenous "individual and communal empowerment and independence," DePasquale incited a minor revolution by posing the following question to his panel: "So, does Aboriginal literature now extend beyond 'protest' literature?"

A stream of offended voices found their way to the audience's microphones. "What's wrong with writing 'protest' literature?" one Native writer bluntly demanded. "Colonialism isn't over!" added another. Several more pointed out that there remain count-Less political struggles still to be won for Indigenous peoples and communities and "resistance" writing (as many called it) is a necessary corrective in the struggle for liberation.

Of course, they are correct. An ongoing 500 plus years colonial assault on Indigenous lands, knowledge systems, and cultures continues. There simply must be resistance, in all shapes and forms and at all levels, for Indigenous lifeways to survive. As Acoma Pueblo poet Simon J. Ortiz sums up in his long and complex poem "Memory, History, and the Present":

  Indigenous peoples have been in resistance
  for more than 500 hard years.

  Without resistance guided by memory as a
  living history we could not have continued.

  And today in the present, we live.
  In resistance, in the present we live!

Literature as Resistance Still

Today, Indigenous peoples resist projects like such as the Alberta tar sands, hydro-electric dams in Manitoba, and the Olympics all built off Indigenous lands and resources. Indigenous peoples resist the continued murder, mistreatment, and disappearance of Native women and children in cities and reserves. We resist governments that refuse to recognize traditional languages, histories, and intellectual properties. We protest and resist because, as Ortiz writes in the poem, "We have no choice."

If we consider for a moment just those literatures written in English (merely a part of the canon of Indigenous literatures in North America), themes of protest and resistance encompass much of these texts. For example, as Muskogee critic Craig S. Womack points out of the nineteenth century (often considered the beginning of "modern" Native literature), "Indian resistance did not merely take the form of plains warriors on horseback; Indian people authored books that often argued for Indian rights and criticized land theft." Or, take twentieth century authors like Wayne Keon and Maria Campbell, who have argued against cultural appropriation and historical erasure. Even for today's Native writers, such as Robert Arthur Alexie and Louise Halfe, resistance to the devastation wrought by the residential school legacy and Linguistic genocide is a central inspiration.

Many Literary criticisms of Aboriginal literatures have in turn focused on unearthing "protest" and "resistance" as a tradition of Aboriginal literatures. Emma LaRocque (whom DePasquale was referencing in his question) stated in a 1991 essay that "much of Native writing, whether blunt or subtle, is protest literature in that it speaks of the processes of our colonization, dispossession, objectification, marginalization, and that constant struggle for cultural survival expressed in the movement for structural and psychological self-determination." In his 1997 article "Why Native Literature?" Armand Ruffo describes Native literature as produced by "people under siege" and though "grounded in a traditionally spiritually based world view, is no less a call for liberation, survival and beyond to affirmation. …

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