Seeking 'Debwewin': Literary Journalism Through an Indigenous Lens

Interpreting works of literary journalism through an Anishinaabe analytical framework for truth.

Aaniin! Aankwadaans n’dzhinikaaz. Maiingan n’dodem. Chippewas of Georgina Island n’doonjiba. Anishinaabe n’dow.1

This is a traditional greeting, in the language of my people. It’s how I identify myself among my people: my name, clan, community, Nation. But, like many people, I have multiple identities. I recently became a visiting journalist at Ryerson University’s School of Journalism in Toronto. This essay arises from a question Bill Reynolds, my colleague at Ryerson, asked me. In an effort to help Indigenize the curriculum at Ryerson — which, in fact, is happening across Canada right now in the wake of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission report’s Call to Action 86 — Bill approached me and said, “Can you recommend any literary journalists that I can discuss in my class?”2

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I said, “That’s a great question, Bill.”

Initially, I couldn’t come up with any names. There are a few, such as Dan David, but there were so few that I thought to myself, What’s up with that? Why are there so few Indigenous writers who have taken up the form of literary journalism? So I would like to walk through my thinking process after I asked myself that question.

I’m also going to talk about my own book, The Shoe Boy, my venture into literary journalism outside my CBC career. The book itself I won’t talk about too much, but rather the challenges I faced. There were two.

My primary struggle was simply recalling the story. The Shoe Boy is about the five months I spent hunting and trapping with a Cree family in northern Quebec, near the community of Chisasibi on the shores of James Bay. I’m Ojibway, so this is a different tribe among whom I lived. The trip occurred in 1988, so writing the memoir was a search-and-rescue mission in some ways, writing when I was in my forties about my 17-year-old self. That was a typical challenge that anyone writing a memoir would face.

The second challenge, as an Indigenous author and journalist, was to deconstruct the two-dimensional, imaginary portrait of the Indian that, unfortunately, still exists in North America. When I start to think about Indigenous voice I have to go back to Canadian literature itself. Historically, in Canadian fiction, the Indian has been a pretty conventional figure. There are lots of them and they share one common trait — they have little or no voice. For example, Duncan Campbell Scott’s work is often included in the canon of Canadian poetry, yet his writings about Indigenous people portray a noble yet vanishing race whose ways of life were doomed. When Indigenous characters literally spoke they often used florid, romantic language. Consider, for example, the fearsome Iroquois in E. J. Pratt’s long poem, Brébeuf and His Brethren: “I have had enough… / Of the dark flesh of my enemies. I mean / To kill and eat the white flesh of the priests.” Indigenous people in these works are often subordinate characters because their movements are always in relation to the white figures in the story — their existence, in other words, is contingent upon the white person. The Indian is either shown as a kind of faithful friend (Tonto the sidekick, speaking in monosyllabic grunts), or the savage foe (“the Indians are coming to surround the wagon trains!”).

In Canadian literature we see the denial of Native voice, all of which helped the colonial project, which ultimately was about land dispossession. So, when Margaret Atwood wrote her seminal survey of Canadian literature, Survival, she did not include or comment on any Indigenous authors. Fortunately, since the early 1970s, when Survival was published, Indigenous authors are becoming increasingly well known to readers in Canada and around the world: Tomson Highway, Thomas King, Drew Hayden Taylor, Eden Robinson, Katherena Vermette, Lee Maracle, Tracey Lindberg, Richard Wagamese, and Richard Van Camp, to name but a few. Thanks to them, we are now beginning to see Indigeneity expressed in more full and complex ways as they give Indigenous perspectives on human relationships, on relationships with the land, on relationships with the spirit world.

Turning to Canadian journalism, sadly, many journalists in this country have continued the same tropes that we’ve seen in Canadian literature. Indigenous people certainly have been underrepresented in journalism — there is a lack of stories about Indigenous people and their communities — but they have also been misrepresented. Many journalists — ostensibly in the pursuit of truth — have presented Indigenous characters as nothing more than pitiful, penniless, and powerless.

Over and over again, on the front pages of our newspapers and leading our news broadcasts, the stories of Indigenous peoples are presented through a narrow lens by journalists who fail to identify or appreciate the complexities of Indigenous culture, history, or politics. First Nations in the news are often cast only as burdens upon Canadian taxpayers, or impediments to Canadian progress.

For me, The Shoe Boy was about getting beyond news coverage that, in Canada, so often rehashes those tired victim and warrior narratives. Let me briefly use my experience writing The Shoe Boy to illustrate some important tenets of Indigenous literary journalism, and perhaps you’ll see how they dovetail with some key principles of literary journalism.

Pablo Calvi has described concerns about journalists being “extractive” in gathering their information from Indigenous peoples. The way I describe it to students is that journalists have often been not so much storytellers as story-takers.

As an Indigenous journalist, I could not be a story-taker when it came to The Shoe Boy. The book is about a real family, a Cree family, who are very much still alive. Robbie Matthew, Sr., is still very much a well-respected elder in the Cree community. And so, unlike my practice with my CBC work, I shared the text with him and his family and asked for their blessing to publish it. That was important — to be part of the circle, to share the story, to gain consent.

In the work of Indigenous writers, we see Indigenous peoples presented not as a homogenous group but heterogeneous, with as many differences as similarities. As an Ojibway writing about the Cree community in The Shoe Boy, it was important for me to convey the diversity among Indigenous peoples. I ventured to the trap line in James Bay to learn more about my own Indigenous heritage, but not being able to communicate in the Cree language of my hosts, I was a fish out of water. The irony of being the Other during this cultural journey wasn’t lost on me, even as a teenager.

Another aspect of literary journalism as practiced by Indigenous writers is an exploration of duality. In my own work I see splits between urban and rural, contemporary and traditional life, Indigenous spirituality and Christianity. These splits aren’t problematic; they’re part of Indigenous life. Where non-Indigenous writers may interpret such divisions as antagonistic, Indigenous writers are more apt to explore Indigeneity as a broad spectrum of experiences.

Finally, when we begin to examine Indigenous literary journalism, more humor shows up in the representation of Indigenous people. There’s a scene in The Shoe Boy where I receive some letters from my girlfriend, who lived far away, near the city of Toronto. I’ve been in the bush for four months — I’ve had no contact with her. Robbie looks over at me and smells the scented Coco Chanel that she has dabbed all over the letter — which was quite exciting to a 17-year-old — and he says, “Those videos — all the kids wanna do it doggie-style now.” For the record, this is not how a traditional elder typically talks — but that sense of humor is common among Indigenous people.

If I were to apply an analytical lens to the few examples of Indigenous voice in Canadian literary journalism, I would use debwewin, an Anishinaabe word that roughly translates to “truth.” Truth is one of the Seven Grandfather Teachings, a set of principles my people believe help ensure the survival of our communities by teaching us the important ways to live as a human being.3 I don’t speak Anishinaabe myself, although I am learning. When I think about debwewin I look to the writings of Basil Johnston, a famous Anishinaabe writer, storyteller, language teacher, and scholar. In addition to publishing 16 books, from novels to memoirs, Johnston was a foremost authority on Anishinaabemowin (the Ojibway language), who produced numerous language resources, teaching guides, thesauruses, and dictionaries. Johnston said that, when you literally translate the word debwewin, it means that you “speak from the heart” and, he said, “a speaker casts his words and his voice only as far as his vocabulary and his perception will enable him.”

The elders often say, “Don’t talk too much.” That’s a common teaching among our people. The point is not to keep children quiet, but to talk about things that you know. That’s what Johnston is getting at when it comes to debwewin. That’s at the heart of David Treuer’s work as well, in his first work of full-length nonfiction, Rez Life. Treuer turned his eye for detail as a novelist upon his own people, the Ojibwe of northern Minnesota, to produce a work that combines history, journalism, and memoir. In examining his own reservation, Treuer in Rez Life delivers representations of the Ojibwe as a complex and humorous people who defy stereotypes.

When we look at truth and literary journalism and the whole narrative framework, debwewin means there is no absolute truth. The best a speaker can achieve, and a listener can experience, Johnston tells us, is a very high degree of accuracy.4

I believe we will see more Indigenous literary journalism in the future, as Indigenous writers and journalists continue to grow and flourish. And, if we begin to apply debwewin as an analytical lens to Indigenous literary journalism, then we’re heading for a very exciting place indeed.

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The Postscript

Additional content and context, added to everything we do.

Collaborate: Partnership Credit

A version of this story was first published in the Spring 2018 issue of LJS, a peer-reviewed journal from the International Association for Literary Journalism Studies, a multi-disciplinary learned society whose essential purpose is the encouragement and improvement of scholarly research and education in literary journalism (or literary reportage).

Meet: About the Author

Duncan McCue has been a journalist at CBC (Canadian Broadcasting Corporation) for almost 20 years, as a television news correspondent and, more recently, as host of the national phone-in radio show Cross Country Checkup. He also teaches a course called Reporting in Indigenous Communities at the University of British Columbia’s Graduate School of Journalism.

Read: Footnotes

1

Hello! My name is Aankwadaans. I am Wolf Clan. I am from the Chippewas
of Georgina Island. I am Anishinaabe.

2

Commonly known as The Truth and Reconciliation Report (TRC), Call to Action 86
states: “We call upon Canadian journalism programs and media schools to require
education for all students on the history of Aboriginal peoples, including the history and legacy of residential schools, the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of
Indigenous Peoples, Treaties and Aboriginal rights, Indigenous law, and Aboriginal-Crown relations.

3

The Seven Grandfather Teachings are Nibwaakaawin (Wisdom),
Zaagi’idiwin (Love), Minaadendamowin (Respect), Aakode’ewin (Bravery), Gwayakwaadiziwin (Honesty), Dabaadendiziwin (Humility), and Debwewin (Truth).

4

Basil Johnston, quoted in Renate Eigenbrod’s Travelling Knowledges, said: “In so doing the tribe was denying that there was an absolute truth; that the best a speaker could achieve and a listener expect was the highest degree of accuracy.”