Indigenous Literature: Providing Knowledge and Creating Empathy

“[Literary] … criticism has for too long been invested in dehumanizing Indigenous peoples while furthering a project of colonialism in the Americas.  To invest in a criticism that explores the full humanity (which includes tribal-specificity) of Indigenous peoples is to invest in a truly revolutionary act.  Most of all, engaging this wide-ranging complexity is part of upending colonial discourses and meaningfully participating in the interests of Indigenous knowledge systems. … Human beings (and their stories) come with interests and ties that are political, social, sexual, material, and more.  These must be included in studies of Native literatures.”

Niigaanwewidam James Sinclair Troubling Tricksters: Revisioning Critical Conversations (2010)

In Niigaanwewidam James Sinclair’s chapter “Responsible and Ethical Criticisms of Indigenous Literatures,” he explores the different ways that literary scholars can approach Indigenous literature in a respectful and aware manner.  This includes treating and viewing Indigenous peoples and nations as equals in Canada, emphasizing context within each book or story, implementing Indigenous practices when analyzing the texts, and understanding the complete history of Indigenous peoples from their point of view rather than Western history books.  I believe that Sinclair’s article offers the perfect foundation upon which to make the argument for a greater collection of Indigenous literature in school libraries and in school curricula.  By introducing and encouraging more Indigenous literature in schools, both Indigenous and non-Indigenous students can be set on a positive journey towards a cooperative, nation-to-nation relationship in Canada.

For too long, Indigenous nations and individuals have been subject to offensive stereotypes, particularly in literature, film, and television.  From Hollywood Westerns to James Fenimore Cooper’s frightfully racist and woefully inaccurate The Last of the Mohicans (1826), Indigenous peoples have been portrayed as uncivilized, undynamic, and simply inhuman.  This is rather shocking considering there are so many Indigenous authors and artists who have penned fiction, non-fiction, plays, poems, films, and TV series which demonstrate the true Indigenous reality in today’s world, along with the complexity and pluralism of Indigenous nations and individuals. To bring more of these stories forward, we need to start by emphasizing them in places where people have the greatest access to them: libraries.  Specifically, school libraries.

Why start here? 

School libraries are places of learning for kids and young adults.  They are being taught about the world around them, skills for later life and professions, and about their country, Canada.  It is only logical that Indigenous writers and their works be featured in Canadian schools so that students may learn about the history of Indigenous peoples as well as present day Indigenous peoples and nations.  Just as importantly, Indigenous students will see their own stories and cultures represented in their schools.

The following Indigenous literature is a great starting point for high school students.

Aaron Paquette’s Lightfinder (2014) is a fantasy novel that sees a Cree siblings Aisling and Eric try to save the environment from the poisons of greed and settler colonialism through the support and wisdom of their aunt and kokum.  (* Trigger Warning: addiction, loss).


Patti LaBoucane-Benson’s graphic novel The Outside Circle (2015) uses a story about brothers Pete and Joey to explore the systematic prejudice and racism that Canada has and still does inflict on Indigenous peoples, ranging from the residential schools to the Indian Act. (** Trigger Warning: addiction, residential schools, 60s Scoop, loss).


Lastly, Thomas King’s One Good Story, That One (1993) is a collection of short stories both touching and humourous.  They promote critical thinking about our past and present as Canadians as well as offer tools and learning for bettering the future as we move forward together.


Overall, Indigenous literature provides cultural context that is severely lacking in school libraries at this time.  For Canada’s Indigenous and non-Indigenous youth to have greater access to and higher learning of Indigenous literature, could set the foundation for a better and healthier nation-to-nation relationship.