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How a scholarly association is helping Indigenous writers to thrive

The Indigenous Voices Awards are just one way the Indigenous Literary Studies Association is building reciprocal relationships with artists.


On its face, the Indigenous Voices Awards gala that took place in Regina this spring was a celebration of Indigenous writers. Part book launch, part musical performance and part pub night, the event offered a supportive platform – and $26,000 in prizes – to a group of exceptional emerging artists. Behind the scenes, the night was also a major accomplishment for the scholarly association that put the whole thing on.

The Indigenous Literary Studies Association, or ILSA, is a relatively new association in Canadian academia that traces its roots to a “visioning meeting” at the University of British Columbia in 2013. That fall, a council of Indigenous and settler scholars met to address the need for a network dedicated to discussing, promoting, celebrating, and fostering relationships around the ethical study and teaching of Indigenous peoples’ literatures in Canada.

The group included Cherokee scholar Daniel Heath Justice; Sam McKegney associate professor at Queen’s University; Armand Ruffo, an Anishinaabe poet and associate professor at Queen’s; Rick Monture, a member of the Mohawk nation, Turtle clan, from Six Nations of the Grand River Territory, and an assistant professor at McMaster University; Keavy Martin, an associate professor at the University of Alberta; Kristina Bidwell, a member of the Southern Inuit community of NunatuKavut in Labrador and associate dean of Aboriginal affairs in the College of Arts and Science at the University of Saskatchewan; Renate Eigenbrod, the late head of Native studies at the University of Manitoba; Jo-Ann Episkenew, a Métis writer and the late director of the Indigenous Peoples Health Research Centre at the University of Regina; and Cree-Métis scholar Deanna Reder, an associate professor of First Nations studies and English at Simon Fraser University.

Deliberations went on over several days, recalls Dr. Justice, who holds the Canada Research Chair in Indigenous Literature and Expressive Culture at UBC. By the end, the group had drafted a statement of principles to guide its development.

“The whole point of the organization is how do we support and sustain the writing, the study of the writing and the people who are part of both,” Dr. Justice says. Mentorship, he adds, plays a significant role – particularly for “scholars in institutions where maybe Indigenous literature wasn’t very well represented, or not very well-supported, or where scholars may have felt vulnerable studying minoritized literature.” Dr. Justice says that in nearly five years since that first meeting, ILSA has “grown by leaps and bounds.” Still, he adds, it remains “mindfully different” from other literary studies associations in ways that “attend to our needs as a field.”

One way that ILSA has set itself apart is in the format of its signature scholarly event. Every year, it co-hosts a roundtable discussion with the Canadian Association for Commonwealth Literature and Language Studies. This year’s roundtable was ILSA’s biggest yet. Nearly 100 people showed up at First Nations University of Canada in Regina for a discussion titled “Sovereign Solidarities: Autonomy and Accountability in BIPOC [Black, Indigenous and People of Colour] Alliances.” According to Dr. Justice, that’s five times the crowd they usually draw.

Besides the roundtable, ILSA hosts an annual public gathering. It alternates locations between the Congress of the Humanities and Social Sciences, where it was held this year, or “in community.” The first ILSA annual conference, for example, took place in 2015 at Six Nations of the Grand River in Ontario. In the conference program, organizers stated that the event strives to “move beyond academic lip-service regarding ‘community consultation,’ which too often replicates colonial power structures, and instead to build relationships among educational institutions and Indigenous groups based on reciprocity and respect.” For 2017, they moved the meeting to Stó:lō Territory in B.C.

Dr. Justice says these community-based gatherings are profound and “reaffirm the ethical commitments that we have as scholars to one another, and to the communities with which we are in a relationship. As an Indigenous writer myself,” he adds, “it’s always really heartening to talk with scholars in the field and other writers; to have this as a place where we come together in shared purpose and not where writers feel like they’re being interpreted by scholars. We are in partnership.”

A commitment to partnership is also how ILSA came to be hosting the Indigenous Voices Awards gala this past May – almost a year to the day that the Writers’ Union of Canada magazine published an issue dedicated to Indigenous writing, which included an editorial in support of cultural appropriation. That opinion piece and the outrage that sprung up around it ignited both the “Appropriation Prize” controversy and a grassroots campaign that ultimately funded the IVAs.

“When the Appropriation Prize controversy emerged, there were a few different people who wanted to figure out a way of responding that was constructive and useful,” Dr. Justice says. Among them were Robin Parker, a lawyer in Toronto, and Silvia Moreno-Garcia, a writer in Vancouver, who were instrumental to the success of a crowdfunding campaign that raised more than $117,000 for emerging Indigenous writers. Dr. Justice connected the campaigners with ILSA because it “seemed like a good fit.”

Dr. McKegney at Queen’s and SFU’s Dr. Reder, ILSA president at the time, agreed. In sorting out the details of organizing a literary award, Dr. McKegney says ILSA executives regularly stepped out of their skill set as literary scholars. He notes that within four months he and IVA co-chair Dr. Reder had established an awards program that would be “ongoing in perpetuity, which was really the goal – to have a sustainable series of awards that can support and foster writing among Indigenous writers in Canada.”

By bringing in the IVA program as part of its activities, Dr. Justice and Dr. McKegney say that ILSA members have intentionally set out strengthen its mentorship activities, and its ties to Indigenous creators and communities. “As an association dedicated to Indigenous literature, we need to be at the forefront, pointing to what are our ethical protocols for supporting Indigenous work,” Dr. McKegney says. “[The awards] are causing us to recommit to that, and to really think rigorously about how we as academics can leverage the platform and power that we have in support of Indigenous writing and other arts. It’s reaffirmed a commitment to the writers without whom we cannot do our work.”

And in the end, says Dr. Justice, by putting direct support for, and reciprocal relationships with, Indigenous communities at the heart of everything it does, ILSA has embraced a unique mandate. “Different associations do good work, but this is more than an academic group,” he says. “These are our relations. Because we understand that to be the case, we come to it with a desire to be good to our relations.”

Winners and finalists of the inaugural Indigenous Voices Awards

Most Significant Work of Prose in English by an Emerging Indigenous Writer
Winner: Aviaq Johnston, Those Who Run in the Sky (Inhabit Media)
Finalists: Carleigh Baker, Bad Endings (Anvil Press); Dawn Dumont, Glass Beads (Thistledown Press); Joanne Robertson, The Water Walker (Second Story Press)

Most Significant Work of Prose in French by an Emerging Indigenous Writer
Winner: J. D. Kurtness, De vengeance (L’instant même)
Finalist: Naomie Fontaine, Manikanetish (Mémoire d’encrier)

Most Significant Work in an Alternative Format by an Emerging Indigenous Writer
Winners: Mich Cota, musical selections; Mika Lafond, nipê wânîn (Thistledown Press)
Finalists: Keith Barker, This is How We Got Here (Playwrights Canada Press); Cliff Cardinal, Huff & Stitch (Playwrights Canada Press)

Most Significant Work of Poetry in English by an Emerging Indigenous Writer
Winner: Billy-Ray Belcourt, This Wound is a World (Frontenac House)
Finalists: Tenille K. Campbell, #IndianLovePoems (Signature Editions); Joshua Whitehead, Full-Metal Indigiqueer (Talon Books)

Unpublished Poetic Piece(s) by an Emerging Indigenous Writer in English
Winner: Smokii Sumac, “#haikuaday and other poems”
Finalists: David Agecoutay, “Poetic Selections”; Brandi Bird, “Two Poems”; Francine Merasty, “Poetry of a Northern Rez Girl”

Unpublished Poetic Piece(s) by an Emerging Indigenous Writer in French
Winner: Marie-Andrée Gill, “Uashteu”

Unpublished Prose Piece by an Emerging Indigenous Writer
Winner: Elaine McArthur, “Queen Bee”
Finalists: Treena Chambers, “Hair Raizing”; Nazbah Tom, “The Hand Trembler”; Amanda Peters, “Pejipug (Winter Arrives)”

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