Doctoral Research Proposal: “Spilaxem”
Reconciliation and Resurgence in Contemporary Aboriginal Storytelling
Nicola I. Campbell
“One way or another we are living the stories planted in us early or along the way … If we change the stories we live by, we can also change our lives.” (King 153)
I’ve always been a reader. Yet, when I was first learning to understand my identity the only publications that I remember reading with Aboriginal “content” were books written by my Aunt Maria Campbell and The Indian in the Cupboard. While the images and children’s stories conveyed within me a sense of “location,” validation, and awareness, The Indian in the Cupboard mainly provided inspiration for imaginative play. In my teens, I read Anne Cameron’s Legends of Copper Woman and was happy to discover The Frank Fencepost series by W.P. Kinsella and then the work of Sherman Alexie. I remember feeling incredibly inspired and I fell in love with the concept of “Aboriginal stories” in published literature.
During my undergraduate studies my Aunt, whom I revere, came to visit me in Vancouver. She happened to stand in front of my bookshelf and was unimpressed with what she saw on the shelves. Afterwards, she very passionately explained to me the concept of “cultural appropriation” and the negative stereotyping of Aboriginal people. She made direct reference to Cameron and Kinsella as authors. As non-Aboriginal authors they had appropriated stories about and belonging to Aboriginal people without having followed the appropriate protocols of acquiring permission from the Nation prior to the publication of their work. At the time, I felt stunned, embarrassed, and saddened; I struggled to let go of those stories because they were the only Indigenous stories I had. They were the only reflection, the only mirror that showed myself, my community, my nation. A mirror that I now realized provided a warped reflection back to me.
At eighteen years of age I made a decision to change my life. This meant no more alcohol and no more partying. It meant no longer considering suicide as an option when I didn’t know how to cope with generations old unresolved despair. It meant learning more innovative ways of thinking and healing. It also meant learning the term “intergenerational survivor of residential school.” However, everything that I saw and read by and about Aboriginal people focused on addictions, violence, despair and suicide—definitely not on fun times, creativity, or transformation. I grew up with violence. I grew up watching and crying with my elderly godmother each time she tried to commit suicide. I wanted to learn a new path but I didn’t know how and this was one of the reasons I sought out artistic works by and about Aboriginal people.
My aunt said:
In my community you walk into a classroom and when you look at the bookshelves, which is something that I always do when I go into communities, in the bookshelves are stories that are written not by our people, but by Anne Cameron, Kinsella, and a whole number of white people. And that is how our children learn about themselves. (Campbell qtd. in Fung)
As a young woman, this is exactly what I was doing: searching, not just to learn about myself but to understand my environment and to learn what other Aboriginal youth were doing. I wanted to feel as inspired while also learning from other Aboriginal-authored works. I came to realize that while the stories by authors like Kinsella and Alexie engaged Aboriginal characters, they did so in ways that sustained negative stereotypes about Aboriginal people. I wanted stories in which youth found hope and achieved the courage and determination necessary to drastically transform their lives and the lives of those around them. Perhaps without realizing it, I was searching not just for truth but also resurgence and reconciliation because through our resurgence, only then can we achieve healing, transformation and reconciliation.
As a reader, as a creative writer, and as a researcher, I became interested in the responsibilities of storytellers. I began to take note of every Aboriginal film, song, or book that I read that did not engage violence, death, and drugs within the body of the story. I felt this was important because, as Lenore Keeshig-Tobias asserts, “Stories, you see, are not just entertainment. Stories are power. They reflect the deepest, the most intimate perceptions, relationships and attitudes of a people. Stories show how a people, a culture thinks” (Keeshig-Tobias 71).
As a writer of children’s books I gave great consideration to my creative license. I reflected on my role in a contemporary context and my potential “responsibilities” as informed by traditional values from my own nation, other nations, and from the Aboriginal storytelling and academic community. Some of these include: where possible engage cultural values, language, teachings; maintain integrity to the best of my ability; always consult and acquire permission regarding the representation of cultural content particularly if it is of a more sensitive topic (this should occur before, during and at final draft prior to publication); be mindful of the types of stories told, and be accountable by asking: what is my purpose, what is my goal?
Throughout this process and by reading articles such as Lenore Keeshig-Tobias’s “Stop Stealing Native Stories,” I realized that I consider our contemporary storytellers in the context of our traditional Nłeʔkepmx storytelling tradition. In the Nłeʔkepmx tradition, “‘sptákwelh’ or creation stories…tell of events that occurred when the world was populated by animals in human form”; “‘spílaxem’ or non-creation stories… tell of events that occurred during historical time” (Hanna and Henry 12). As Hanna and Henry explain, “elders recall when they were children, being told stories at night (these stories, told repeatedly, taught them about nature, respect, morality, and proper behavior; they also served as a form of entertainment” (11). It is my understanding that tellers of spílaxem-type stories narrate a truth-telling about who we are today.
The Responsibilities of Storytellers
This research project is concerned with storytelling practices in contemporary Aboriginal literature, film, and performance. The project asks: As storytellers within a contemporary society, who are we writing for? What are our responsibilities as storytellers? Who are we accountable to? What are the functions of Aboriginal stories in a contemporary society? How can we draw ethically from cultural practices in ways that resist colonialism while furthering the projects of resurgence, resistance, healing, reconciliation and transformation?
Through my explorations of Indigenous stories and storytelling—both as an author and as a student—I have read and witnessed a variety of Aboriginal stories in traditional and contemporary forms from Indigenous nations around the world. In a traditional context stories would have included those performed as well as those spoken; as a result my research will consider published texts of fiction, non-fiction prose, poetry, as well as film, music and performance. My reason for not limiting my research to published texts is because I want to explore the function of stories in Aboriginal knowledge systems.
Critical and Historical Context
Historically, oral traditions were used as an educative tool for sustaining intricate memory systems and the transmission of detailed histories such as: land stewardship, land rights, ceremonial practices, tribal law, ethics, governance and maintaining a record of daily news and current events. Stan Persky’s commentary on, Delgamuukw: The Supreme Court of Canada Decision on Aboriginal Title describes in detail a landmark court case where on December 11, 1997 the Supreme Court of Canada overturned Judge Allan McEachern’s decision and ruled:
…unanimously and more forcefully than ever before that Native people in Canada have a unique claim to their traditional lands, that provinces don’t have the power to arbitrarily extinguish aboriginal title, and that future courts must accept valid Native oral history as a key ingredient in proving such claims. (Persky 2)
The, “Delgamuukw Decision” had a huge impact on Indigenous people nationally and internationally because for the first time The Court said that, “ in future cases, aboriginal oral history ought to carry equal weight with written Canadian history” (2). The decision also recognized that Aboriginal “stories matter” (13).
Our oral traditions remain embedded within daily tribal functions, through the making of tribal governance policies, First Nations education policies, research policies, interactions with elders, cultural protocols and practices, environmental landscapes and seasons of harvest. This is demonstrated in the Stó:lō Heritage Policy Manual Preamble, which was approved by the Stó:lō Nation Lalems ye Stó:lō Si:ya:m (LYSS):
In our Stó:lō culture a special link exists between the past, present and future. We express this connection in many ways. In our Halq’emeylem language, for instance, we have the word tómiyeqw which translates into English as both great-great-great-great- grandparent and great-great-great-great-grandchild. The relationship expressed in this word connects people seven generations past with those seven generations in the future. The connection between the past and future rests with those of use living today, in the present. (Stó:lō Heritage Policy Manual 1)
“Oral traditions are distinct ways of knowing and the means by which knowledge is reproduced, preserved and conveyed from generation to generation” (Hulan 7). Embedded within these oral traditions is a connectedness and responsibility of teaching and hands-on-learning: mouth to mind, heart to hands and feet, so that those learning would also impart teachings forward to our future generations.
Colonization has transformed our Indigenous societies through cultural genocide, the establishment of the reserve system, residential schooling, permanent housing and infrastructure, addictive substances, technology, and formal Western education. With those transformations, our Indigenous oral traditions have changed, too. The English language, English literary traditions, English grammatical structures, and contemporary storytelling practices are all part of those changes. In the English tradition, conflict is the root and drive of contemporary stories and their elements (including setting, plot, language, narrative voice, and point of view). “Fiction” as a genre is also a new form of storytelling, one entirely based on imagination, whereas in the past, our stories were memorized and passed down through the generations. Our stories never had plots that were so enmeshed within such cycles of despair and violence until Aboriginal storytellers, devastated by colonization, adapted to the English language and contemporary English literary traditions. Even when we sit at the table and have tea and pie with our elders, what are the stories they tell? While our personal truths are our reality, our elders to not repeatedly retell these stories our of the genocide and violence that has shattered and dispossessed so many generations of our Indigenous people so completely. They tell the stories that make us laugh. They tell the stories that lift us up and bring joy to our hearts.
If we look within at Aboriginal stories, what are the themes? How strategic are Aboriginal authors with their stories and characters? Are contemporary Aboriginal stories moving forward exemplifying a balanced narration of contemporary Aboriginal society where many are healing, achieving personal success and empowerment through education, personal healing, transformation and cultural resurgence? Or are storytellers relying on colonial stereotypes and disempowering techniques?
It often seems that many gifted Aboriginal storytellers do not grasp their full potential in story writing. They repeatedly rely on the “easy-write,” narrating a plot about violence and the colonial disease rather than a transformative plot about resurgence. There are certainly numerous barriers, opportunities, and choices that storytellers experience in achieving mainstream recognition. For the contemporary storyteller, this can include conforming to mainstream expectations. For example, Warren Cariou comments in the Introduction to W’daub Awae Speaking True: A Kegedonce Anthology: “But all too often, aspiring Aboriginal writers were rebuffed or hampered by a publishing industry that didn’t understand them and didn’t know how to value the uniqueness of what their stories offered” (2).
Years ago, I happened to read a book by Elizabeth Cook-Lynn titled, Anti-Indianism in Modern America: A Voice from Tatekeya’s Earth. There, she states:
many of the new novelists and writers are rewarded for describing the “deficit” model of Indian life. They are rewarded for many reasons, but for no reason more dangerous than America’s need to see us as non-players in developing the human dialogue. (179-80)
Thus, I believe a storyteller’s ability is a powerful one, one that records the truths of not just the past but also the present. It is one that can bring medicine into the world and manifest positive change simply by strategic choices in characters, conflict, setting and how the story ends. Through my explorations I have found that many contemporary stories can be listed under two possible headings: stories inspired by “colonial despair” and “stories of resurgence.” While my thesis will briefly explore the “deficit model” theory as it pertains to stories of colonial despair, my interest lies in stories of resurgence.