Books by indigenous writers serve a special function in Canada. Not only do they preserve stories from within their originating communities, they help to disseminate ideas and opinions to the larger Canadian populace, thereby aiding non-indigenous Canadians in developing a deeper understanding of aboriginal cultures and traditions.
Drew Hayden Taylor, an Ontario-based Ojibway playwright, journalist, and novelist, understands how to write books that celebrate and showcase aboriginal culture. As a complement to his own writing, his new edited anthology, Me Artsy, consists of 14 essays by prominent aboriginal artists (including Taylor himself). Me Artsy is the third in a series that also includes the volumes Me Funny and Me Sexy. All of the essays in Me Artsy address questions of how their authors became artists – what inspired them to engage in their chosen profession, and how their aboriginal identity affects their art and their relationship to it.
One of the major strengths of this book is that the term “art” is interpreted broadly. Contributors include David Wolfman, a chef and professor of culinary arts who helped popularize aboriginal fusion cuisine; traditional aboriginal drummer Steve Teekens; blues singer and piano player Murray Porter; as well as writers, dancers, visual artists, theatre professionals, and filmmakers. This pan-artistic approach celebrates aboriginal people in a wide variety of disciplines, along with their contributions to the Canadian artistic landscape.
All the essays are written in the first person, which recalls the tradition of oral storytelling, adding to the reader’s sense of intimacy and connection with the speaker and the material. For example, fashion designer Kim Picard relates the importance of her ancestors and dreams for her artistic creations, which include the making of a dress to commemorate Canada’s missing and murdered Indigenous women. Zacharias Kunuk, the Inuk director of the acclaimed motion picture Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner, shares his life story and relates how he became the first filmmaker to make a feature film entirely in the Inuktitut language.
It’s impossible to read this book without wanting to know more about the work of the artists included. The essays deal with the artistic process and artistic journeys, but they also deal with First Nations identity, politics, and larger issues. Hayden Taylor and his contributors have created a vital, imaginative, humorous, and inspiring anthology that offers a deep and engaging view into the world of Canada’s contemporary aboriginal cultural producers.
Sylvia McAdam, a Cree woman from Saskatchewan and one of the co-founders of the Idle No More movement, also attempts to share reflections on indigenous culture in Nationhood Interrupted, but isn’t as successful. It’s hard to criticize the intent of her book, which is to preserve Cree laws that have been shared and passed through generations in an oral tradition, via stories, songs, and ceremonies. The loss of indigenous language and traditions inspired McAdam to write down the laws of the Cree in the hope that future generations will use them as a means to reclaim indigenous nationhood from a history of colonial attack and erosion. This is a noble goal, and McAdam’s effort deserves recognition and acknowledgement.
Throughout the text, McAdam includes bits of her personal story alongside Cree laws, customs, legends, and teachings, interspersed with wisdom from Elders. The text employs many Cree words, but this is done in a way that makes the meaning clear to non-indigenous readers, and there’s a glossary for those who don’t know the language.
Unfortunately, the book itself is a bit of a jumble. It is possible that McAdam’s text would convey a deeper meaning to someone with more experience of indigenous storytelling, but for a reader from outside the culture, the arrangement of the text seems disjointed. Information shared in the foreword, preface, acknowledgements, and disclaimer is repeated later on, and the tone meanders from personal, first-person writing to a detached and more formal description of aboriginal laws without much in the way of connective tissue. The random nature of the book makes it feel less sacred than clearly is intended, which detracts from McAdam’s vision and purpose.