My job as a writer is to tell stories. My stories—fiction and non-fiction—are driven by my need to figure out how I fit into this world, how we all fit into this world. My writing is inspired by my experiences, by people I meet, stories I hear. When my stories are fiction, they still inhabit a truth—my truth.
A good writer, I believe, has the gift of imagining oneself as another, and has the ability to understand feelings and emotions that are not one’s own. But is this enough when it comes to writing about a culture in which one did not grow up?
In 2013, I had the fortune of participating in a five-day writing retreat led by the late Richard Wagamese. Writers, and those who had stories to tell but had not yet written them, came together, and Richard helped us find the storytellers within us. We laughed, we cried, we grew together as a group. But then during a panel discussion, the question of cultural appropriation came up and the atmosphere became heated.
At the time, I was working on a story for Prairies North titled “On the Caribou Trail” which was about my recent dog sledding expedition from the most northern community in Saskatchewan to the Northwest Territories. We travelled the ancient portages that led to the traditional hunting grounds of the Black Lake Denesuline First Nation. The barren ground caribou had just started their spring migration and were in the area. Naturally, we met lots of hunters. They enriched our journey with stories of times when they—or their fathers—would come up here by dog team, and we hopefully enriched theirs by offering cold and tired hunters the warmth of our tent.
I was working on putting my experiences into words, which raised red flags amongst some of the participants. “As a non-Indigenous writer, it was not appropriate to write about Indigenous people,” someone said. “I wasn’t writing about Indigenous people,” I argued back. I was writing about my experience and what I experienced no one had the right to silence. The argument went back and forth. A long, long list was hurled at me of non-Indigenous writers who had appropriated Indigenous traditional stories. But what did this have to do with me?
At the end of the discussion I think we all felt hurt, violated and misunderstood. There was something bigger in the room than just us—a history of appropriation, of stealing stories, of misrepresenting culture, of disrespecting ceremony. And we didn’t know how to move on. This was until Allan Adam, who comes from the Fond du Lac Denesuline First Nation near Black Lake, suggested I bring the article the following day and he would read it.
So Allan—a Dene language translator and instructor—and I sat together. He liked my article, but in his opinion, there was cultural appropriation. You see, the hunters not only shared stories of life in the past. They also shared their customs and protocols around the hunt and ceremonial places on the land with my travelling companion and me and asked us to respect them. By sharing this information, our understanding of the land we travelled was profoundly enriched andI wanted to share that with my readership. Allan explained to me that they trusted me when they shared their traditional knowledge and that I had no right to write it down unless I had their permission—which I didn’t.
I went home and rewrote my story with Allan’s edits. I still talked about my feelings and experiences, but I left out descriptions of the ceremony and protocols. It didn’t hurt the story.
So what had happened? We were strangers and were caught in a loop of prejudice against each other. But, when we actually worked together, we got to know one other. Our focus shifted from judging me based on the errors of past writers to judging my writing only. We both walked away with mutual respect for each other.
Read the rest of the article in the Special Double Fall/Winter issue, available online now.