The Decolonizing Poetics of Indigenous Literatures

Wednesday, January 27, 2016


Mareike Neuhaus, Independent scholar

Can Indigenous literature written in the language of the colonizer truly be considered Indigenous? In her ASPP-funded book The Decolonizing Poetics of Indigenous Literatures Mareike Neuhaus, a specialist in North American Indigenous literatures and Canadian literature, offers a fresh approach to this question. By uncovering holophrases--or traces of ancestral languages--in the writings of Indigenous authors, Neuhaus situates these works as part of a rich and diverse collection of Indigenous literatures that, though written in English, maintain their own traditions. In the following post, Neuhaus shows how these "word bundles" survive and thrive.

This is the story of a sentence that is as long as a word. She takes on different forms and names but for the sake of this story let's call her One-Word-Sentence. One-Word-Sentence was born in North America long before Columbus decided to sail to India. One-Word-Sentence loved travelling and could be found all across the continent, from the Arctic down to the far south, and from the Pacific to the Atlantic, moving across the prairies in the form of kisiskâciwan’sîpiy* - the river that flows swiftly. You could hear her in the people’s stories and songs. She kept them alive and strong. But then Columbus got lost and shortly afterwards colonizers and settlers from Europe arrived, thirsty for land and resources. They prohibited the languages that were the homes of One-Word-Sentence, threatening her survival and that of the people.

Centuries after Columbus first got lost—at a time when many of the old homes of One-Word-Sentence had been lost forever and others were severely damaged—people from Europe who call themselves tongue scholars came to North America. They studied the old languages and discovered what they decided to call the Holophrase, which is just a very fancy way of describing One-Word-Sentence to make the tongue scholars' “discovery” sound original and important. The tongue scholars documented the old stories to study the Holophrase, thus saving what was left of some of One-Word-Sentence's abandoned homes. Little did they know that One-Word-Sentence had already shape-shifted to survive in a different form. As the people were adapting to the colonial onslaught happening in their homelands, they picked up the colonizers' languages. One-Word-Sentence lives there now in the guise of Relational Word Bundle, giving the people space to express themselves and tell their stories their way. Once you get a glimpse of Relational Word Bundle in Indigenous writing, you enter a world where the rules of the colonizers' discourse are suspended and Relational Word Bundle performs her magic. She carries story, just like a skeleton carries a body or a hinge carries a door or One-Word-Sentence carries the old languages. Shhhh, can you hear her speaking to you?

*kisiskâciwan’sîpiy is a Cree holophrase that gave Saskatchewan its name.

Mareike Neuhaus, author of the acclaimed book "That's Raven Talk" and now, The Decolonizing Poetics of Indigenous Literatures, is an independent scholar specializing in North American Indigenous literatures and Canadian literature






Bookmark It!

As the voice of the humanities and social sciences in Canada, the Federation is a great supporter of books. Our Awards to Scholarly Publications Program (ASPP) has supported the publication of important Canadian scholarly books since 1941. Bookmark it! shares the story behind some of these fascinating books. Occasionally, we’ll also highlight other books that are significant to Canadian culture, society and research. Read more posts.

Livres à vous!
En tant que porte-parole des sciences humaines au Canada, la Fédération est une fervente défenseuse des livres. Notre Prix d’auteurs pour l’édition savante (PAES) soutient la publication d’importants livres savants canadiens depuis 1941. Livres à vous! dévoile les coulisses de ces livres fascinants. De temps en temps nous mettrons en avant d’autres livres qui jouent un rôle important pour la culture, la société et la recherche canadiennes. Lire d’autres billets.




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Award to Scholarly Publications Program