By Paul Seesequasis
“For the storyteller, for the arrowmaker, language does indeed represent the only chance for survival.”
– N. Scott Momaday
Standing by the fire on Victoria Island, on what is day 18 of a protest fast by Chief Theresa Spence, I am thinking about our stories. Indigenous stories. Indigenous writers. “Things happen when they’re supposed to,” my mooshom used to say and there is much to adhere to in that.
Idle No More is happening because it is meant to. The resurgence of Indigenous writers, storytellers, and poets is happening because it also is meant to. Contrary to doomsayers — none of them, by the way, Mayan — December 21, 2012 was never the end of the world. It does, however, signify a new dawn, a new beginning, a new time.
Today there are more Indigenous writers and publishers in Canada than ever before. There are active writers collectives in Vancouver, Saskatoon, Winnipeg, and Toronto, and smaller groups in other cities. This is not coincidental. In the words of
Elder William Commanda, we are entering the prophesized time of the Seventh Fire when “new people will emerge. They will retrace their steps to find what was left by the trail. Their steps will take them to the Elders who will guide them on their journey… there will be a rebirth and a rekindling of old flames. The Sacred Fire will again be lit.”
This is also the time when the eagle meets the condor. “Do you hear that? It is the sound of their world crumbling,” Subcomandante Marcos said, on the eve of the silent marches when 50,000 Mayans descended from the mist-shrouded hills of Chiapas State in Mexico, not uttering a word but saying more than a thousand speeches could. They were heralding a new era. Similarly in Aotearoa, Australia and around the world as the Indigenous rights moments rise, and the Idle No More movement gains traction, there is a momentum for change.
In these times our writers and story-keepers have a sacred role as chroniclers, both of the past and to envision the future. As creators each of us carries our own unique flame but, in the
Indigenous cosmology, that spark is infused by our family, our kin, our clan, our community. It is what roots us, gives us specificity, a unique voice and yes, a sacred mission. We are free to interpret it as we may. We may choose to embrace our community, our ancestral roots; we may choose not to. But many are choosing to.
On October 19 and 20, Indigenous writers will gather in Vancouver for a National Indigenous Writers Conference, sponsored by the Canadian Centre for Studies in Publishing. The two-day event will be historic. It is not a set of literary readings or signings, but a special space — a moment — created for Indigenous writers to discuss where they are at and where they wish to go.
The discussions are beginning. The dialogue has begun. The circle is coming together. Input has come in from across the country. There is a shared enthusiasm for the conference amongst Indigenous writers. A desire to exchange ideas, build a consensus, build toward a future with a brighter legacy that will benefit upcoming generations of Indigenous writers.
The agenda will shape itself, holistically, over the next few months. It is in the hands of the community of writers to mould. The initial framework for the Vancouver meeting is divided into five areas for discussion:
• A national network which could potentially include a relationship with The Writer’s Union of Canada;
• A website as a communicative hub;
• International linkages;
• Sharing resources and support across the country (workshops and training)
• Theory and issues specific to Indigenous writers.
Clearly, now is the time for The Writer’s Union of Canada to reach out to Indigenous writers. As a national organization with the mandate to represent and advocate in the interests of all professional Canadian writers, the Writer’s Union has an obligation and a responsibility to be there for Indigenous writers. I know there is awareness amongst its leadership that representation within the membership can be greatly improved, but there is much more to this than simply saying, “Yes the membership is there for you — $95. Be published and come join us. We are family.” It must be more than this. The invitation to “come sit by the fire” must acknowledge that for a dialogue to occur, one needs to listen first. The specific issues facing Aboriginal writers must be appreciated and understood and then the room can be made for discussions to take place, in partnership with, or, in consultation with, whatever entity comes to represent Aboriginal writers.
Indigenous writers have a circle to build. It is beginning. It is my personal opinion that it would be unfortunate for that circle-building to take place with TWUC on the outside, exempt from awareness and not “on the radar” of any of the Indigenous writers attending in Vancouver. There is room to work together. There is much to be gained in that but there is also an imperative to come and listen.
Respectfully. There will be many voices to be heard. And they will be. It is time.
Paul Seesequasis is a writer and consultant living in Quebec. The author of the acclaimed Tobacco Wars, his non-fiction book, Eighth Fire Raging: Idle No More, The Indian Act and the world-wide resurgence of Indigenous peoples will be published in 2014. He is one of the organizers behind The National Indigenous Writers Conference in Vancouver, Canada, taking place on Saturday, October 19 and Sunday, October 20, 2013.