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Elements of Indigenous Style
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CHAPTER 1: WHY AN INDIGENOUS STYLE GUIDE? The need to Indigenize publishing

The paramount purpose of literature focusing on a specific cultural group should be to present the culture in a realistic and insightful manner, with the highest possible degree of verisimilitude. However, the body of literature on Indigenous Peoples mostly fails to achieve this standard. The failure has been a long-standing concern of Indigenous Peoples in Canada.

The failure comes from a colonial practice of transmitting “information” about Indigenous Peoples rather than transmitting Indigenous Peoples’ perspectives about themselves. The anthropologist Franz Boas put a name on this perspective in the mid-twentieth century. He called it ethnocentrism, which he recognized as a barrier to cultural understanding. Cultural understanding, he realized, can only be achieved by a “perspective from the inside.” Indigenous and other scholars have since coined other terms for this perspective, such as Eurocentrism, and have written about, for example, the British-centrism of Canada.

Some members of the Canadian literary establishment have also long recognized the damage of this perspective. Margaret Atwood wrote in 1972, “The Indians and Eskimos have rarely been considered in and for themselves: they are usually made into projections of something in the white Canadian psyche.”

The need to Indigenize writing, editing, and publishing in many ways parallels the evolution of writing about African Americans and women in the late twentieth century, and the development of concepts such as “Black History” and “Herstory.” Indigenous writers, editors, and publishers have asserted that the experience of being an Indigenous person is profoundly different from that of other people in North America. Many Indigenous Peoples and authors have cited cultural appropriation, misrepresentation, and lack of respect for Indigenous cultural Protocols as significant problems in Canadian publishing. Indigenous Peoples have frequently taken the stand that they are best capable of, and morally empowered to, transmit information about themselves. They have the right to tell their own story. When an author is writing about them—even in established genres such as anthropological studies, history, and political commentary—Indigenous Peoples would at least like the opportunity for input into how they are represented on the page.

Indigenous Peoples add their voices to the argument that it is important for any national or cultural group to have input into the documentation of its history, philosophies, and reality as a basic matter of cultural integrity. In some respects, this is especially pressing for Indigenous Peoples in Canada and other parts of the world, because they have been misrepresented for so long, which has created a body of literature inconsistent with, and often opposed to, Indigenous cultural understandings.

In So You Want to Write About American Indians, Devon Abbott Mihesuah writes, “If you plan on writing about Natives you must know much more about them, such as tribal history, their language, religion, gender roles, appearances, politics, creation stories, how they dealt with Europeans, and how they have survived to the present day.” Mihsuah further contends, “Can you secure tribal permission for your topic? If you are doing a serious study of a tribe, you can not do the work adequately without conversing with knowledgeable members of the tribes.”

Some improvements in Canadian publishing have come from a slow awakening to the impact of colonial ethnocentrism on who has been writing about Indigenous Peoples, with what process, and in what words. But works are still being produced that contain old stereotypes and perceptions, and that lack respect for Indigenous Protocols and perspectives. In 2017, for example, I asked a well-respected Indigenous colleague, who works as a freelance editor and validator of Indigenous content in a variety of Canadian publishing contexts, for examples of projects that had gone well from her point of view. Her frustration showed in her answer, which was “really none.”

Many Canadian publishers have a sense that they’re not editing work by and about Indigenous Peoples as well as they could. For the most part, they want to do it right, but often they don’t know how to do it right. Part of the solution is to develop and train more Indigenous editors and publishers, so they can work in publishing. Part of the solution is also to train more non-Indigenous editors and publishers so they can better work on Indigenous titles. I take heart from the responses of the more than forty Indigenous and Canadian editors who attended the Indigenous Editors Circle (IEC) and Editing Indigenous Manuscripts (EIM) courses offered at Humber College in Toronto in August, 2017. The IEC faculty (which I was part of until 2017) has been surprised by the increased number of Canadian publishers who are interested in attending the sessions.

Another part of the solution is to recognize work already in progress. Indigenous writers, editors, and publishers are developing and defining emerging contemporary Indigenous Literatures, and they are establishing culturally based Indigenous methodologies within the editing and publishing process.

This style guide aims also to be part of the solution—part of the process of instilling Indigenous Peoples in the heart of Canadian publishing.

Principles of Indigenous style

The twenty-two principles of this style guide are placed in the context of the discussion where they arise.

They are also collected at the end of the guide as an appendix.

Here is the first principle, based on the discussion above about the need to Indigenize publishing:

Principle 1: The purpose of Indigenous style

The purpose of Indigenous style is to produce works:

- that reflect Indigenous realities as they are perceived by Indigenous Peoples;
- that are truthful and insightful in their Indigenous content;
- and that are respectful of the cultural integrity of Indigenous Peoples.

The place of non-Indigenous style guides

This style guide does not replace standard references on editing and publishing, such as the Chicago Manual of Style or the MLA Handbook. Neither does it replace the house styles of individual publishers.

You should still follow these styles, in general, when you are writing, editing, or publishing Indigenous authors and Indigenous content. In some cases, however, Indigenous style and conventional style or house style will not agree. When that happens, Indigenous style should override conventional style and house style. If you are not familiar with Indigenous style, this may not feel right to you at first. Indigenous style uses more capitalization than conventional style, for example, and it incorporates Indigenous Protocols, which require time and attention to observe correctly.

It is helpful to keep in mind that Indigenous style is part of a conversation that aims to build a new relationship between Indigenous people and settler society. Indigenous style is conversing with you, perhaps for the first time, in an ongoing decolonizing discourse.

Principle 2: When Indigenous style and conventional styles disagree

Works by Indigenous authors or with Indigenous content should follow standard style references and house styles, except where these disagree with Indigenous style.

In these works, Indigenous style overrules other styles in cases of disagreement.

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