May 9, 2017

Reading for Resurgence

The Werklund School's Aubrey Hanson explores the role of literature in Indigenous learning

Literature can be a powerful tool, particularly as a space of possibility for social change. Whether inside or outside the classroom, when people see themselves storied in the world, they are represented and shown they have a place. Reading similar and different accounts may help people of all ages find themselves.

Indigenous literatures may play an important role in reconciliation and Indigenous resurgence. While reconciliation involves the process of building better relationships between Indigenous and settler peoples, resurgence involves growth and revitalization within Indigenous communities. The arts can be particularly important to this revitalization, inspiring and enacting expression and regeneration. In literature, storying experiences and reclaiming culture, language, and traditions can help restore notions of who people are in and as a community.

With the growth of Indigenous literatures, Dr. Aubrey Hanson wondered if and how Indigenous stories are presented in classrooms. How teachers and students engage with Indigenous writing, and if they do so in ways that are responsive to communities, were central ideas in her doctoral and subsequent research. Working with secondary school teachers who teach with Indigenous literature, as well as with Indigenous writers, Dr. Hanson sought to understand why Indigenous literatures matter for Indigenous communities.

 Reading in Relation to Indigenous Communities

Dr. Hanson’s study revealed numerous insights into the importance of Indigenous literature and engagement with the literary arts in classrooms. By weaving together the accounts from the teachers and writers, she saw four key understandings emerge.

Connected to her initial question, the idea that communities are created in and around literature arose through the discussions. Communities naturally come together around the story, such as in the classroom, and this can generate further activity, discussion, and engagement. Positive and uplifting stories can inspire (self-)empowering and affirming perspectives, while more difficult stories may represent the realities of colonialism in Canada. Either way, they can be powerful and compelling ways of creating community.

Indigenous literatures can also create tensions and open up a space to confront colonial contexts. While this can be a difficult conversation, and the teachers recognized these uncomfortable feelings, there is a need to learn about the context and background of these stories. To present Indigenous stories, to teach and learn about these stories in respectful ways, requires such conversations to take place in order to fully appreciate the need for social change.

By getting to know the community and the story behind the story, readers enter a space to build relationship and work towards reconciliation. Indigenous literatures can inspire empathy and interest, promote engagement, and entertain, all while connecting readers to significant social and historical contexts. In oral storytelling traditions, there is a relationship and a responsibility between speaker and listener: to respond to the story – whether through action, thought, or change – is inseparable from the hearing. Similarly, by introducing students to the works of Indigenous writers responsibly, teachers can create spaces in classrooms to promote the understanding and relationship building that make reconciliation possible.

Dr. Hanson highlights that engaging with Indigenous literatures can inspire transformation. Literature has a deep connection with and impact on people’s lives. The inherent relationship that forms between the reader, the community, and the author can be taken up to spark meaningful conversation and change. Such transformation can contribute to reconciliation and resurgence.

Teachers Working for Social Justice

There is a social responsibility to approaching Indigenous literatures in a way which honours their background.  Through Indigenizing pedagogy and attending to the text in community-responsive ways, teachers can create opportunities for students to engage in learning and reconciliation, contributing to ethical relationships between Indigenous and non-Indigenous communities.

In order to make such change possible, there is a need to support teachers in their explorations and efforts to respectfully include Indigenous literature in the classroom. Curricular demands, access to knowledge, pedagogical supports, and the reality of difficult conversations may be daunting barriers for many. However, Dr. Hanson reinforces that continuing to seek professional development, guidance from community members, and collaboration are essential to increasing capacity. Seeking to hear Indigenous voices, to engage youth with this literature, and to continue to learn is critical to this ongoing process.