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How and Why Indigenous Literature Approaches Decolonization Essay (Critical Writing)

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Updated: Nov 26th, 2019

Problem Statement and Purpose

From 1892 to 1969, Canada forced many Aboriginal children to join public funded schools under the administration of churches like the Anglican Church and Roman Catholic Church. During this period, these children experienced both physical and sexual abuse besides the forced separation from the family and society.

This abuse left scars that have seen transmission across generations. To fill this gap, many writers have come up with indigenous literature that focuses on decolonizing the minds of the Aboriginals. Indigenous literature seeks to construct positive identities for people, families and societies as well as repossess economic, political, cultural and social independence. It is for this reason that most literature by non-native indigenous writers focuses on forgetting the past and obliterating narratives of colonization (Justice 335).

On the other hand, most indigenous writings by natives consist of narratives of dispossession, loss of land as well as language and identity. Thus, while both native and non-native indigenous writers aim at reducing the impacts of colonialism, they use different approaches. Indigenous literature by natives tries to build a common truth that can lead to healing though revisiting negative colonial aspects, while non-native indigenous writers seem to hide negative aspects of colonialism from their work.

Background Information

Writing in English is a political and therapeutic act that offers the basis for the process of decolonization. Elucidation of indigenous literature in English focuses on the theme of communism.

According to Episkenew, literature is communist as far as it has a positive commitment to the native society (12). To encourage communalist values means to take part in the healing of the pain and sense of isolation felt by native societies, especially in communities that have often been broken and made dysfunctional by the results of over 500 years of colonialism.

That is to say, indigenous literature is communal since it attempts to heal psychological wounds caused among the natives in the process of colonization, and the main goal of communalism is to heal native communities by reconnecting native people to the larger society (Mosionier and Suzack 5).

The practice of writing in English is revolutionary in nature, as it seeks to recover indigenous societies through restructuring the language of the enemy (Episkenew 14).

Restructuring language in the colonizer’s dialect and revolving those images around to show pictures of the colonized to the colonizers, through a process of decolonization, denotes that something that will politicize and transform literary expression is happening and at the same time evolving. Reformulation occurs as a way of undoing some of the challenges that came with colonization.

The irony in the whole process is although the language and literary customs, which the colonial systems of education forced on indigenous people, caused vast damage to both communities and people, contemporary indigenous literature in English uses the very language and literary customs in its development (Weaver and Robert 22).

Contemporary indigenous writers maneuver the English language and its literary customs to recount indigenous experiences during colonialism with the intention of healing themselves and their audience from the colonial sufferings. While the English language cannot convey perfectly the practices and customs of indigenous communities, it does offer indigenous writers with several benefits on the distribution of their literary works.

Another irony is that we have come to get more commonalities than there were, since the colonizers started to group the many, different people indigenous to Canada using generic expressions “Aboriginal”, “Native” and “Indigenous” (Episkenew 13). Thus, we share a history of related experiences from colonial policies, and our societies experienced similar wounds.

A majority of these communities, including those who know their indigenous language prefer to speak in English apart from some natives living in Quebec, speak. Therefore, through writing in English, modern indigenous writers can reach a big and diverse audience that not just includes ethnic relations (Womack 17). For instance, they can reach Indian readers from similar or different ethnic cultures who are not conversant with the customary elements central to the work but who may recognize the strong power of language.

Modern indigenous writers can also reach non-Indian readers who look at the novel with a very different set of values and assumptions. Since indigenous writers are aware of their varied audience, they use different characters and themes to suit different implied readers in the text of their literature, so that every group of implied reader will comprehend the narrative quite differently, depending on their communal perspectives.

Gold, in his work of “Reading Fiction as a way of Enhancing Emotional and Mental Health,” explains that it is possible to differentiate people from other conscious animals in how they build and understand their lives through making narratives (Episkenew 14). Gold examines how we structure and restructure our autobiographies daily in our dreams and concludes that human beings are stories in themselves. He sees this as true for all communities, irrespective of race or culture, both individually and collectively.

Thus, he concludes that people in every society build and express their shared realities through narratives. Tafoya, a native psychologist shows that from an indigenous viewpoint, narratives are a type of therapy and like drugs can cure or kill depending on the prescribed amount or type (Episkenew 14). He explains that the natives have heard poisonous accounts in the colonial disclosure.

Thus, he supports that people must write or make a new narrative or script of their lives to heal. Anishaubae novelist Johnstone also supports that words are a remedy that can cure or hurt and have an aspect of the Manitou that allows them to build ideas and images from nothing (Episkenew 14).

Several native writers reverberates Tafoya’s and Johnstone’s opinions referring to their conventional indigenous knowledge about the healing characteristics of language and narrative. Harjo, a poet, explains that free expression without considering the cost leads to empowerment and not victimization through destruction (Episkenew 14).

Ethnic customs in a society realize the power of language to cure, to restore and to generate. Armand Ruffo, an Anishiaubae intellectual reiterates the words of Art Solomon, that “the need for expression and the need for healing and are inseparable. Ruffo further says that Art Solomon encouraged native writers to write for the promotion of their community, particularly the children and youths” (Episkenew 14).

Loyie, a Cree playwright of Oskiniko, explains that indigenous writing encompasses more than just the traditional narratives. From Loyie’s standpoint, writing is healing, or else a good way for people to manage the fury that exists among them. Masak, an Inuvialuit writer, portrays the way writing enabled her to manage the repressed sentiments allied with her residential school encounters (Episkenew 14).

Campbell writes a letter to Culleton expressing her feelings about his work on In Search of April Raintree (Episkenew 14). This piece of work involves its readers in April’s fights with internalized racism and colonialism as she alternately escapes and faces the social situations that portray her identity as Métis.

Cheryl, her sister develops the passage, providing significant characters of an anti-racist and anti-colonial viewpoint to the story (Mosionier and Suzack 5). As Cheryl falls apart, terminating her life and losing her earlier might and agency, April gets a new admiration of the views that Cheryl symbolizes. In a memo to Culleton, Campbell explains that the story is a powerful account because with calmness, it handles the illness in people and communities.

She describes the writing as one that will start the healing of the community, and let a dominant society appreciates and experiences the lives of a group it almost ruined. Thus, indigenous writing is not just like any other writing. Campbell recognizes literature potential to both heal native groups from post-colonial traumatic experiences and to cure the colonists from the mirage learned from their traditions. From this perspective, indigenous literature has power to build a common truth on our common past.

As Mosionier and Suzack state, “a non-native friend is one who acknowledges the confines of her or his comprehension, but does not hide himself under those limits” (65). A true non-native ally knows that he has to get knowledge on the cultures and societies whose artistic conceptions he evaluates before entering the decisive fray and giving public interpretations.

A true non-native ally assesses the work of indigenous scholars, authors and community members as a genuine effort to produce the most valuable criticism, but not as a political action. Nevertheless, he does not acknowledge their work without critic, as he knows that critical debate and good skepticism are symbols of commitment and respect.

Further, a non-native ally understands that profound and eventually valid perceptions of societies, cultures, and histories cannot emerge from book studies exclusively. Besides, he must understand that the continuing vigor of native communities should serve to increase and correct the alienated forms of library material. Lastly, the non-Native ally should act with a sense of responsibility to native societies in general and most specifically to those whose artistic work is under study.

Mosionier and Suzack show that indigenous literature develops from indigenous communities and as a result influences native societies (72). In exploring, conceptualizing and explaining indigenous stories, literary criticism tries to intervene in this common process. Criticism of indigenous literature usually tries to take part in the shared lives of stories. Stories affect the world outside.

Although not directly, or obviously, stories and significant discourses about stories do affect how people live. In the area of Native studies, some stories quite forthrightly, influence some lives far more intensely than others do. Given that intellectual understanding and ethical obligation can permeate the work of an intellectual with neither biological nor direct social relationship to native communities, the feeling of that person’s work cannot have a similar strength as one whose daily lived experience is being native (Warrior 75).

This critical consciousness, while necessary for morally suitable critical and political relations with indigenous literatures, has created great anxiety among non-indigenous scholars working in the area for the past several years, resulting in a line of critical reactions (Mosionier and Suzack 64). At the same time, main strategies assumed by non-indigenous critics to evade doing harm to native texts have had unintentional inverse (and adverse) impacts of concealing native voices and damaging the critical field.

The perspective of indigenous literature by natives and non-natives on decolonization faces lots of criticism. Some critics support the standpoint of indigenous literature on decolonization, while others oppose it. Apparently, most indigenous literature focuses on negative aspects of colonialism such as racism, oppression as well as loss of land and identity.

Proponents of how indigenous literature approaches decolonization explain that overemphasis on racism and identity is crucial as it facilitates cultural awareness and the impacts of colonization among both native and non-native people ( Mosionier and Suzack 7).

As McKegney explains, “…given colonial intervention, not all Native people have inherited full understandings of their tribal cultures and histories, let alone those of other Native nations” (57). Thus, indigenous literature facilitates healing through acceptance that follows knowledge dissemination.

On the other hand, opponents of indigenous literature on decolonization explain that most writers rely on secondary resources, or incorrect primary resources. As Mosionier and Suzack expresses, neither objective interpretation of individual research nor use of secondary material can offer full explanation of Aboriginal experiences due to inadequate cultural knowledge on various details and peculiarities of the indigenous population (5).

However, the fact is that unlike non-native literature that ignores the concepts of oppression targeting Aboriginal people, indigenous literature highly emphasizes on these issues. As Culleton states, “without a critical approach, the potential exists to perpetuate or exacerbate systems of oppression targeting Aboriginal people, particularly in that Aboriginal literatures often look at such oppression” (16).

From this perspective, contemporary indigenous writers take an objective approach in using literature as a tool of decolonization. These writers use English as a language and its literary customs to recount indigenous experiences during colonialism in with the aim of healing themselves and their audiences from the colonial sufferings.

Unlike their non-native counter parts who refuse to express negative aspects of colonialists, indigenous writers do not shy away from expressing themselves in English, which is a language of the colonists. This demonstrates their objectivity and honesty in their work, unlike non-native writers.

Thus, indigenous writers seek to write literature that will start the healing of the community, and let the colonialists appreciates and experiences the lives of a group it almost ruined. They also seek to build a common truth on their common past. These goals lack among non-native writers.

Possible Solutions

Native writers should write indigenous literature in the native language. Contemporary indigenous writers maneuver the English language and its literary customs to recount indigenous experiences during colonialism. However, we know that English language cannot convey perfectly the practices and customs of indigenous communities.

To find the real reasons why native writers of indigenous literature emphasize on themes like racism and violence, studies about how colonialists treated natives are essential Issues such as land alienation, physical as well as psychological abuse should get a closer look.

To solve the problem of stereotyping in indigenous literature, we should avoid using native-oriented works and focus on cultural study of the aboriginal population. This approach should emphasize on the role of history, culture and social processes in explaining how colonization occurred in a broader context of indigenous history. This can occur through constant interaction between native and non-native populations.

Lastly, Canadian authorities should try to prove genuineness of their information sources before implementing policies on the native people. Canadian authorities rely predominantly on myths and stereotypes while forming their policies related to the Aboriginal culture (Episkenew 70).

In conclusion, indigenous literature from natives and non-natives approach the issue of decolonization from different perspectives. Most writings of native writers include narratives of dispossession, loss of land as well as language and identity. Native indigenous writers take an objective approach in using literature as a tool of decolonization.

These writers recount indigenous experiences during colonialism with aim of healing themselves and their audience from the colonial sufferings. On the other hand, their non-native counterparts refuse to express negative aspects of colonialists. Non-native writers do not show racism, violence, and inequality as the main underpinnings for depicting the relationships between native and non-native population during colonial times.

This inadequacy of non-natives is due to lack of cultural knowledge on various details and peculiarities of the indigenous population. Neither objective interpretation of individual research nor use of secondary material can offer full explanation of Aboriginal experiences. Indigenous literature seeks to heal and let a dominant society appreciate and experience the lives of a group it almost ruined.

Criticisms of indigenous literature usually try to take part in the shared lives of stories. As far as intellectual understanding and ethical obligation can permeate the work of an intellectual with neither biological nor direct social relationship to native communities, it is impossible to feel the effects of that person’s work individually with a similar strength as one whose daily lived experience is being native. Thus, indigenous literature from native writers is more precise than from non-native writers.

Works Cited

Culleton, Beatrice. “Through White Man’s Eyes.” Studies in American Indian Literatures 24.1 (2012): 15-30. Web.

Episkenew, Jo-Ann. Taking Back Our Spirits: Indigenous Literature, Public Policy, and Healing, Ontario, Canada: University of Manitoba Press. Print.

Justice, Daniel Heath. “Current of Trans/national Criticism in Indigenous Literary Studies.” American Indian Quarterly 35.3 (2011): 334-352. Web.

McKegney, Sam. “Strategies for Ethical Engagement: An Open Letter Concerning Non-Native Scholars of Native Literatures.” Studies in American Indian Literatures 20.4 (2008): 56-67. Web.

Mosionier, Beatrice and Cheryl Suzack. In Search of Appil Raintree, New York: Portage & Main Press, 1999. Print.

Warrior, Robert. Tribal Secrets: Recovering American Indian Intellectual Traditions. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1995. Print.

Weaver, Jace and Robert Warrior. American Indian Literary Nationalism. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2006. Print.

Womack, Craig S. Red on Red: Native American Literary Separatism. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota, 1999. Print.

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IvyPanda. 2019. "How and Why Indigenous Literature Approaches Decolonization." November 26, 2019. https://ivypanda.com/essays/how-and-why-indigenous-literature-approaches-decolonization/.

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