Three Books for Indigenous History Month 2023

June is Canada's National Indigenous Heritage Month, and June 21 was National Indigenous Peoples Day. From this page on the Government of Canada's website:

For generations, many Indigenous groups and communities have celebrated their culture and heritage on June 21 or around that time of year because of the significance of the summer solstice as the longest day of the year.

National Aboriginal Day, now National Indigenous Peoples Day, was announced in 1996 by then Governor General of Canada, Roméo LeBlanc, through the Proclamation Declaring June 21 of Each Year as National Aboriginal Day. This was the result of consultations and statements of support for such a day made by various Indigenous groups:
  • in 1982, the National Indian Brotherhood, now the Assembly of First Nations, called for the creation of National Aboriginal Solidarity Day
  • in 1995, the Sacred Assembly, a national conference of Indigenous and non-Indigenous people chaired by Elijah Harper, called for a national holiday to celebrate the contributions of Indigenous Peoples
  • also in 1995, the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples recommended the designation of a National First Peoples Day
On June 21, 2017, the Prime Minister issued a statement announcing the intention to rename this day National Indigenous Peoples Day.

This year, I decided to pair two books by an author new to me, Joshua Whitehead. Whitehead is an Oji-Cree member of the Peguis First Nation in Manitoba, and a two-spirit novelist and poet. It was timely to read his books in June, as it is also Pride Month. The two books were very different in style and tone. Jonny Appleseed is an accessible, engaging novel that draws the reader in and explores the depth of kin relationships. His more recent book of essays (or perhaps more accurately, experimental musings) takes effort and attention and demands a thoughtful response from the reader. It was a good pairing. To complete my reading for IHM, I decided to introduce myself to Richard Wagamese, an Ojibway Canadian author from the Wabaseemoong Independent Nations in Ontario, though he lived his later years in Kamloops, BC.

Jonny Appleseed by Joshua Whitehead

Arsenal Pulp Press (2018); Bespeak Audio Editions

"I am my own best medicine."

Jonny Appleseed is Whitehead’s debut novel published in 2018, nominated for the Governor General’s Award and the ScotiaBank Giller Prize. It won Canada Reads in 2021. Whitehead is an Oji-Cree member of the Peguis First Nation in Manitoba, and a two-spirit novelist and poet.

At its heart this book spoke to me about self-acceptance and relationships. Whitehead read his audiobook, and I loved the way his voice enhanced the tone of the story. Sometimes I could hear a faint chuckle as he would read a humorous line. This is the story of Jonny, a young man who’s left his reserve and moved to Winnipeg. He’s carved himself a niche on the internet as a sex worker, and hangs out with his friends, and lover Tias. He has to get money to travel back for his stepfather’s funeral in a week, and for that week we follow his life in the city, seeing his past through flashbacks.

Words that came to me to describe this book: connection, love, kinship, bonds, sadness, loss, joy.

For all the difficult things that have happened to Jonny, the overwhelming feeling I got was of self-acceptance and love. Kindness. But it was also realistic and unsentimental. I think it’s remarkable that the book presents things that we might assume only create trauma, but it’s not so simple for Jonny. Life can be difficult–growing up two-spirit in a heteronormative community, living with poverty, navigating issues of substance abuse, being the object of threats of violence–but it doesn’t have to be the dominant factor for experience. It shapes but doesn’t rule.

Jonny is so accepting. He loves his kokum (grandmother) unreservedly. He loves his mom, who struggles but in her own way but cares and gives him astutely practical advice for life. The book is incredibly sex-positive as Jonny takes unabashed joy in sex and bodies and pleasure. He’s got a cynical, realistic side too, but it’s also non-judgy and he just calls it as he sees it.

A wonderful queer, Indigenous book!

Making Love With the Land by Joshua Whitehead

Alfred A Knopf Canada (2022)

Deep and personal, this was a challenging book that left me with some insights to ponder. I imagine Whitehead using the words to investigate his experiences and the writing process itself. Bits from his past surface (how can they not when we write about our present?) and there's much reference to writing his 2018 novel Jonny Appleseed: how it was received, and even discussion of the Canada Reads competition. I was glad to read about this, just having finished that book. He also writes about his recent difficult experiences, including assault, the pandemic, and supporting others in challenging times. It is the personal on the page.

Whitehead delves into the process of writing itself–of exposing himself in the form–and of what it means to be read by others. The long essay at mid-point is physically book-ended by blank sheets of paper and titled, “Writing As a Rupture.” I pondered how I was engaging with the writing, and how I in turn can write about it. The act of Whitehead writing, and me reading and commenting, is a transaction of sorts; he discusses autobiography as “treaty-making,” as he struggles to discover how he might label–or de-label–his work. “Is autobiography a treaty-making, if the treatise is the narrator as subject?...What forms of colonial violence do I underpin when I mark myself with form and genre as glyph and brand?”

I wondered if I should even be writing down my thoughts about the book, but because he decided to offer his writing to us, I as a reader have decided to take that as a gift. Here, I am making use of the notion of reciprocity that Robin Wall Kimmerer introduced me to in her book Braiding Sweetgrass. That with a gift comes responsibility. I pondered what that responsibility would be here, and I think it is to witness the words that Whitehead writes, and to be truthful about my own thoughts.

Some essays spoke loudly to me (I Own a Body That Wants To Break, My Body is a Hinterland) and some less so, but because this collection is so varied and at times even abstract and free-flowing, each person is going to come to this book from a different place and see different things. Sometimes, the writing was opaque to me, and I couldn’t engage easily; sometimes I felt a connection even with someone so different to me. Though we are in different situations, I was moved by the universality of this passage about supporting others.
“Like a salve, I spread myself across my kin and their injurious scars. I find myself to be a pain eater; I swallow whole wounds and dissolve them in the pit. My gift, if not my role, is that of a listener, advice giver, holder…

This is an act of reciprocity I enact with kin. These many months have been a gluttony of pain eating–from witnessing Black and Indigenous death, the collapse of our social and intimacy networks, the skyrocketing of COVID cases and negligence, the isolation and loneliness of monotonous being, the glare of pixel and snowfall. My stomach swelled into a junkyard, the pain I ate a boulder in the gut. I dragged this weight of hurt across the floor to pour myself a glass of water ,then shouldered myself along the wall to return to my bed. I pummelled my most intimate flora with the fatty gels of this eating and made a graveyard of a flower bed.”
Again, a message about gifts, and how we can give and receive. I think this book will be a gift and experience that is different for each person who meets Whitehead here.
“I do not know if I yet have a word that I can solidify and consolidate as the word for a wonderworking, boundary-defiant, biotextual, temporally oral, Two-Spirit exquisite vessel that is grounded within a nehiyaw epistemology–I am still reeling in the at rupture.”

Embers: One Ojibway’s Meditations by Richard Wagamese

Douglas & McIntyre; Blackstone Publishing (audio)

I am very aware of Richard Wagamese as a well-known Canadian Indigenous writer, but have never read any of his works. I was perusing the Vancouver Public Library's Indigenous audiobook collection and saw this brief volume. Wanting an introduction to his work, I downloaded it. It is only about two hours long but I found it an intimate “get to know you” type of book.

Truly a window into Wagamese’s morning musings, this made a wonderful audiobook companion to my daily walk. It is wholly simple and unaffected. Wagamese notes in his introduction that these meditations come from his quiet morning writing:
“The words in this book are embers from the tribal fires that used to burn in our villages…They are embers from every story I have ever heard. They are embers from all the relationships that have sustained and defined me. They are heart songs, they are spirit songs, and shared with you they become honour songs…Bring these words into your life, feel them, sit with them, use them. For this is the morning, excellent and fair.”
He divides his meditations into Stillness, Harmony, Trust, Reverence, Persistence, Gratitude and Joy. He says many wise things that I bookmarked, and there are just some everyday commonsensical notions. But I liked this to sum things up in particular:
“I am not here in this life to be well balanced or admired. I'm here to be an oddball, eccentric, different, wildly imaginative, creative, daring, curious, inventive and even a tad strange at times.”
Living near Kamloops BC later in life, Wagamese died in 2017, two days after this book was nominated for a BC Book Award (one of which it won!). This small book allowed me to peer into Wagamese’s character, and I felt that I got to know him just a bit. Now that I’ve heard his morning musings, I look forward to reading more of his writing.