Growing Up In A Literary Wilderness

IndigNation  | by Bev Cardinal

I can’t imagine going through life without reading — books, magazines, catalogues, pamphlets, junk mail, coupons and yes, even the allegedly obsolete print newspaper (but we all know the hipsters will revive it the second it dies). In fact I’m probably one of the last subscribers to the Leader Post. And, oh yeah, I now write for the preeminent Planet S.

My passion for reading started young. It was encouraged by my Norwegian mother (a former teacher) and Métis dad (a self-described “graduate of grade three” who left school to work as a farm hand and never looked back). I read what was available: Tom Sawyer, Oliver Twist, Heidi, Little Women… white writers promoted by white teachers and white librarians.

But the seminal novel that eventually “flicked the switch” for me was To Kill a Mockingbird. A study in small-town racism, exclusion of “the other”, fear and the search for justice? I related!

Tectonic Shift

By the time I got to high school I realized how confused I was about my identity. I asked a lot of questions about myself — as most adolescents do — and the two cultures inside me moved against each other like tectonic plates ready to shift. How Métis are we (myself and my siblings)? Why don’t I see a Norwegian face in the mirror? What does it mean if I’m not really white growing up in a white world?

There must be more to being Métis than being called “fucking squaw” and spit on by the neighbour’s white son, I thought.

Aside from my Métis family, I was the only one in my circle of friends — a few of us wonderfully continue to remain bonded at the hip and call one another “sister” today —  who wasn’t white. By asking myself questions about myself, I forced a confrontation about my identity. And I realized I wasn’t going to find answers in the stuff I was reading.

But was it even possible that authentic, genuine Indigenous stories existed and could be called literature?

The answer: yes. I found Dee Brown’s Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee; Maria Campbell’s Halfbreed; Howard Adams’ Prison of Grass; Rita Joe’s Poems of Rita Joe; Jeannette Armstrong’s Slash; Harold Cardinal’s The Unjust Society; Duke Redbird’s Loveshine and Red Wind; Lee Maracle’s I am Woman and E. Pauline Johnson’s The Song my Paddle Sings.

This was just the beginning! Over the decades my “tectonic shift” has resulted in the discovery of a wondrous proliferation of First Nation, Métis and Inuit writers, playwrights, poets and storytellers. There’s more and more every year: Sherman Alexie, Rita Bouvier, Joseph Boyden (yes, he’s on my list!), Wilfred Burton, Lisa Bird-Wilson, Tenille Campbell, Doug Cuthand, Dawn Dumont, Alicia Elliott, Louise Halfe, Thomson Highway, Thomas King, Randy Lundy, Lindsay Nixon, Tommy Orange, Eden Robinson, Zoey Roy, Blair Stonechild, Arielle Twist, Jody Wilson-Raybould, and the late, forever great Richard Wagamese.

The dog days of summer are upon us but there’s still tons of time to laze on the patio, a cool beverage in hand, and read a book that will take you into a new world. Do it! I dare you.

Miigwetch/Marci!