Cultural Literacy, First Nations and the Future of Canadian Literary Studies

By Hulan, Renee; Warley, Linda | Journal of Canadian Studies, Fall 1999 | Go to article overview

Cultural Literacy, First Nations and the Future of Canadian Literary Studies


Hulan, Renee, Warley, Linda, Journal of Canadian Studies


First Nations literature presents a variety of challenges to scholars and teachers of Canadian literature to which we have a responsibility to respond. Studying First Nations literature is one means by which we can increase our understanding of and respect for First Peoples and create the political will to involve ourselves in the social justice issues that concern them. In this paper, we discuss the reasons for promoting greater cultural literacy (by which we mean the mainstream becoming acculturated by aboriginal cultures) in Canadian students, and we offer pragmatic suggestions as to how it might be achieved.

La Litterature des premieres nations presente une variete de de defis aux disciples et aux professeurs de la litterature canadienne auxquels nous avons une responsabilite de repondre. Etudier les premieres nations que la litterature est une signifie par de ce que nous pouvons augmenter notre comprehension et le respect pour les premiers peuples et creent la volonte politique de se faire participer dans les issues sociales de justice qui les concernent. En cet article, nous discutons les raisons de favoriser une plus grande instruction culturelle (par ce que nous voulons dire devenir de courant principal acculturated par les cultures indigenes) dans les etudiants canadiens, et offrir pragmatique suggestion quant comment pouvoir realiser.

The more you know, the more you will trust, and the less you will fear.1

First Nations present the national government and culture in Canada with a challenge; in fact, the kind of federation Canada will be in the future depends on how this issue is resolved. In this paper, we argue that Canadian literary critics have a responsibility to find ways of responding to First Nations literature and promoting the cultural literacy of Canadian readers. Because First Nations literature represents a fundamental challenge to constructions of fields of literary studies or canons of texts organized by nation-state, we struggle to understand how the concept of "nations within," as well as the ongoing debates about Canadian unity, constitutional crisis and aboriginal self-government, reconfigure national literature in particular, and national identity in general.

The urgency and importance of these issues call for a sophisticated approach to subjects pertaining to aboriginal peoples. For this reason, and because the position of the earth's aboriginal peoples will continue to be an urgent social issue in the twentyfirst century, Canadian academics, along with politicians and other policy makers, have a responsibility not only to attend to the concerns of First Nations in Canada but also to involve themselves in the work of decolonization. Scholars and teachers of Canadian literature turn our attention to literary writing by First Nations peoples as one sphere in which such political action takes place.

1: The Paradox of (in)Visibility

Histories concerned with the colonization and settlement on which Canada is built are necessarily replete with references to aboriginal peoples, but such accounts rarely deal with the history of First Peoples, leading Bruce Trigger to call for a historical understanding of "native people in terms of their own beliefs and perceptions" (436). Whereas the erasure of "the Native" as the dying and disappearing "Indian" in American culture betrays, in Louis Owens's words, "an unmistakable yearning to be Indian" (31) and inspires the romantic nationalist moments in English-Canadian literature identified by Margery Fee, the erasure of "the Native" in Canada has more often been signified by absence and forgetting. Paradoxically, First Peoples are an (in)visible presence in the Canadian mainstream, including the official history most of us learned in school - there but seldom represented except in relation to the dominant culture - a position in which "the Native" signifies the abject, pushed to the fringes of consciousness and the edge of town. …

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