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Tomson Highway’s From Oral to Written is a study of Native literature published in Canada between 1980 and 2010, a catalogue of amazing books that sparked the embers of a dormant voice. In the early 1980s, that voice rose up to overcome the major obstacle Native people have as writers: they are not able to write in their own Native languages, but have to write in the languages of the colonizer, languages that simply cannot capture the magic of Native mythology, the wild insanity of Trickster thinking. From Oral to Written is the story of the Native literary tradition, written – in multiple Aboriginal languages, in French, and in English – by a brave, committed, hard-working, and inspired community of exceptional individuals – from the Haida Nation on Haida Gwaii to the Mi’kmaq of Nova Scotia’s Cape Breton Island.
Leading Aboriginal author Tomson Highway surveys the first wave of Native writers published in Canada, highlighting the most gifted authors and the best stories they have told, offering non-Native readers access to reconciliation and understanding, and at the same time engendering among Native readers pride in a stellar body of work.
Here’s a taste of Tomson Highway’s prologue, excerpted from pages xxvii to xxx of From Oral to Written.
When I entered the University of Manitoba in the fall of 1970 – a first for Brochet – there was no such thing as Canadian literature. At least there wasn’t in the public mind. If it did exist, few knew about it. Certainly as a body of work, as a national voice, it was unknown. Not like the Americans had with their Melvilles and Faulkners and Hemingways and Dickinsons. Not like the Irish with their Yeatses and Shaws and Joyces and Becketts. And not like the English and the French and the Germans. Margaret Atwood’s seminal assessment of Canadian literature as it existed up to that time changed all that. Published in 1972, the book was titled Survival, and I picked it up in third-year university (in 1973) in what was one of the first courses in Canadian literature ever to be offered at a university anywhere on Earth, so far as I know. I was astonished. Here, all of a sudden, were writers such as Susanna Moodie who had written, in Canada, as early as the 1850s. Sir Charles G.D. Roberts, E.J. Pratt, Frederick Philip Grove, Sinclair Ross, Gabrielle Roy, Al Purdy, Earl Birney, Sheila Watson, Margaret Laurence, James Reaney, Robertson Davies, the names popped out one after the other, after the other. I was astonished. Here, finally, were stories that took place in Neepawa, Manitoba, on the prairies of Saskatchewan, in London, Ontario, in Montreal. I was walking, one day, on a stretch of road where a Donnelly (from James Reaney’s famed Donnelly trilogy of plays) had driven a stagecoach, I saw Margaret Laurence’s stone angel at the cemetery in Neepawa, I walked one day on Mordecai Richler’s St. Urbain Street in Montreal. And as I studied this material – still struggling with the English language as I was – a voice inside me said: “if they can do it, maybe I can, too, one day, with Brochet, with Reindeer Lake, with the Guy Hill Indian Residential School in The Pas, Manitoba, with Winnipeg.” And one of those writers, poet-playwright James Reaney who taught at London’s University of Western Ontario to which I had transferred for my fourth year (in 1974), gave me the courage. And the encouragement. So I started writing, secretly, timidly, clumsily, but I started. As had other young Indigenous people in other parts of Canada who, like me, had survived impossible geographies and suicidal self-images.
They started telling their own stories about their own people in their own voice from their own perspective. And suddenly, things were happening in Indigenous communities, including – wonder of wonders – on reserves, in Cree, in Ojibwa, in Inuktitut. Our people were having love affairs inside books and on stages. They were walking, they were dancing, they were singing, they were arguing, they were getting drunk, they were fighting, playing hockey, playing bingo, baking pies, they were laughing and crying. And looked at through the warp and weave of languages and linguistic architecture, their ancestral memory went back way beyond the year 1492, to the very dawn of time itself, some might say – for Cree, as it turns out, is older than English, Blackfoot older than French.
If as recently as forty years ago, there was no recognizable body of work by Canadian writers, as recently as thirty years ago, there was no Indigenous literature in this country. There were, perhaps, five or six books that had made a dent on the national consciousness, so few that one can practically count them on the fingers of one hand: The Unjust Society by Harold Cardinal, Halfbreed by Maria Campbell, and the poetry of Pauline Johnson and even Louis Riel. And there were a handful of others much less well-known. As recently as thirty years ago, there was no such thing as a professional Indigenous writer in this country, “professional” meaning one who makes a living at a profession, in this case, the profession of writing.
Now, thirty years later, there exists an entire community of Indigenous writers that stretches all the way from Cape Breton Island, Nova Scotia, to Old Crow, Yukon. Professional, semi-professional, it doesn’t matter, we are here by the dozen if not by the hundred, writing in English, in French, and in Cree, Innu, and other Indigenous languages. Against all odds, this handful of intrepid revolutionaries had learned the English and French languages to the point where they could write their own novels, that most British of narrative forms, their own plays, own books of poetry, own books of non-fiction in the form of biography, autobiography, history, and social and political analysis. The floodgates had opened. The sparks that Riel, Johnson, Cardinal, and Campbell had lit had at last burst into flame. And out of that flame came an entire industry, one that employs small armies of workers in the form of publishers, editors, booksellers, teachers, university professors, social workers, agents … Out of that flame came this voice that is now heard not only clean across the country but clean around the world.
Still, in all this excitement, one must not forget that the most important element is this: finally, there is something for Indigenous children to read and something to hold the interest of adolescents going to school. If before 1980, we couldn’t have cared less about what we were reading, now we couldn’t wait to turn that page and see who was doing what to whom, how many times they were doing it, how hard, why, when, where, and what the results were. Finally, Spot was barking in Cree – “Eemik’simoot Spot, ‘neeeee,’ kaa-itweet.” (“Barking, Spot said, ‘neeeee’ [“good grief”]”). Finally, his master, David, was talking to trees – “taansi igwa keetha, mistik?” (“How are you, you creature of wood?)
If in my part of the world when I was a child, acquiring grade seven was a miracle, to be able to say “I saw you stoling” or “you want some the coffee” an act of magic, that situation has changed dramatically. If thirty years ago, it was rare that Indigenous people finished high school, that situation has changed dramatically. If when I was a teenager it was almost unheard of that an Indigenous person went to university much less finished an undergraduate degree much less a master’s, that situation has changed dramatically. When I entered the University of Manitoba in the fall of 1970, there were only fifteen Indigenous students in a student body of some 22,000 white students. And believe me, they were white – all them coloured folks came later, God bless our country’s immigration policy. When I transferred to the University of Western Ontario in the fall of 1974, same thing – fifteen Indigenous students in a student body of 22,000. That’s a ratio of less than .10 percent. Today, Indigenous students at university are legion. At Brandon University alone, eight hundred of the 3,500 students are Indigenous, a ratio of nearly 25 percent. Lakehead University in Thunder Bay, Laurentian University in Sudbury, Trent University in Peterborough, the University of Manitoba in Winnipeg, they’re all there. Indigenous students are getting B.A.s and M.A.s. They are getting Ph.D.s in English literature, Ph.D.s in Canadian literature, Ph.D.s in Indigenous literature in Canada, Ph.D.s in northern Manitoban Indigenous literature in Canada. Thirty years ago, not a single university in Canada had an Indigenous Studies program. Now they all do.
Read on! Order your copy of From Oral to Written for $29.95.