Indigenous Literatures, an English course taught this semester by Dr. Daniela Janes, explores work by writers from Canada’s First Nations, in the context of global Aboriginal cultures and oral traditions. Janes, an instructor in the Department of English and Drama at UTM, graduated from the University of Toronto with a Ph.D. in English Literature, and has published in various scholarly publications in areas ranging from social reform in the 19th century, to historical fictions and reader-writer interactivity.
“I developed an interest in Indigenous literature back when I studied Canadian literature during my undergraduate years,” says Janes. Learning about the Canadian female Indigenous writer named Pauline Johnson, daughter of a Mohawk chief and an English woman in the later 19th century, Janes says, “She created her own Indigenous costume for her poetry performance without reference to the clothing worn by her contemporaries on the Six Nations Reserve, where she was raised.” The professor also adds that Johnson “recited poems about First Nations subjects to audiences that were eager to hear about Indigenous traditions.” Quoting Beth Brandt, another female Indigenous writer, Janes says she described Pauline Johnson as the “spiritual grandmother to those of us who are women writers of the First Nations.” Inspired by Johnson’s work and tradition, Janes began to pursue her interest in Indigenous literatures.
Speaking in the context of understanding literature in the current political landscape, the English professor notes the importance of the document “Honouring the Truth, Reconciling for the Future: Summary of the Final Report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada.” As noted in the Indigenous literatures course description, the authors of the reconciliation document stressed that “History plays an important role in reconciliation; to build for the future; Canadians must look to, and learn from, the past.” In response to the reconciliation between the First Nations and Canada, as informed by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada, Janes believes that as Canadians, we should take part in this social change. In doing so, she emphasizes diversity and decolonization as the main objectives in learning about the indigenous traditions through literature.
“Many of the literatures here are written about the connectedness between people, tribal identities, geographical areas, world views, cultural communities like kinship ties, language, spirituality, family, and communal history of the First Nations during the period of colonialism,” says Janes.
In the Indigenous Literatures course, Janes also encourages students to participate in intellectual discussions about various literatures across a range of genres written by different Indigenous authors. She also highlights the importance of being aware of “the family narratives from the First Nations, and the colonial history that they have been through such as intergenerational traumas, residential schools, and government-sponsored culture genocide,” and other themes that are central in these literary works.
Janes aims to bring her students into critical engagement with the literatures without biases or through a lens that will prevent them from truly appreciating and understanding the world from the perspectives of the Indigenous Peoples.
Most importantly, she notes again that decolonization is largely the central theme in reading these Indigenous literary works as she quotes Thomas King, an American-Canadian Indigenous writer, who said “The truth about stories is that that’s all we are.” Janes shares an example about how Monkey Beach, an Indigenous story with monsters, was read by one critic as a Gothic tale. This was an example of colonizing Indigenous stories through literary criticism. “Using the conventions of Western criticism and imposing them onto Indigenous stories will distort our views of what Indigenous stories are truly like,” she says. Reaffirming King’s quote, she adds, “It’s an important idea, as it reminds us of how identity is constructed and reinforced by the stories that we tell. It captures the power of stories too.”