By Kai Minosh Pyle
Crossing an international boundary in the current social climate is not easy for anyone, but when you’ve got a Native man, woman, and two-spirit trying to cross in a borrowed car using only the Indian status card of the driver, things get complicated fast. As my friends and family who make the point of using their tribal ID at the airport know all too well, asserting Indigenous sovereignty in the face of settler colonial bureaucracy is a tricky thing. Explaining the Jay Treaty to a white customs officer on the way back from ceremony at two in the morning is not my idea of a good time, but these seemingly tiny pushbacks against restrictions on Indigenous movement are still meaningful. All three of us in the car were Anishinaabeg trying to go from Sault Ste. Marie (Ontario) to Sault Ste. Marie (Michigan)—both sides called in our language Baawitigong. My ancestral homeland.
I cross the border often these days, the work I do with my languages (Michif and Anishinaabemowin) frequently taking me to parts of Anishinaabewaki and La Naasyon Michif that are legally considered “foreign lands.” Being a writer as well as a language supporter, I have become intimately familiar as well with the literatures of each side of the border. #CanLit, #AmLit, these literary constructs have become more important to my life than I could have imagined when I first started writing a decade ago. In both the U.S. and Canada, critics like Julian Brave Noisecat and Alicia Elliott have proclaimed a second renaissance of Indigenous literature. As a U.S. citizen living in the U.S. but with Indigenous ancestry from what is called Canada, though, I often find myself unable to participate in the making of either #CanLit or #AmLit’s Indigenous resurgence.
In the United States, virtually all opportunities for Native writers include a stipulation that the writer must be enrolled in a federally recognized tribe. While this protects against a wave of what Native people often call “pretendians” with “blood myths,” it also locks out Indigenous people who don’t meet blood quantum requirements, citizens of non-federally recognized tribes, and those who have been disenrolled. And of course, people whose Indigenous heritage is considered “foreign.” The Canadian literary establishment is in some ways more inclusive: the newly created Indigenous Voices Awards and the Indigenous-owned publishing establishment Kegedonce Press allow submissions from Indigenous people with roots in any Indigenous community around the world. The catch? You have to be a resident of Canada to be considered.
Unenrolled and nonstatus, foiled by the “transnational” movements of my ancestors, the infrastructure of Indigenous literature in Canada and the United States—writing contests, magazine submissions, publisher’s criteria—leave me without a literary home in my own homeland. For me, like my Anishinaabe and Michif forebears, the problem continues to be that the border runs right through my land, my ancestors, and my life. But the effects of literary boundary policing are bigger than just a single writer’s livelihood or recognition. The continued division of Indigenous literature in Anishinaabewaki by settler colonial nation-states also prevents us from thinking about another entity, one that predates and transcends both #CanLit and #AmLit: Anishinaabe literature.
It begins with the songs and scrolls and stories of our distant ancestors who lived before Europeans had ever heard of the place that we know to be Turtle Island. This tradition gets little credit among literary scholars; it is more likely to be scrutinized by anthropologists than anyone in the world of literature. From the first Anishinaabeg to pick up a pen and write in European letters, however, we have been drawing on it and refashioning it in new forms.
In the early 1800s, Bemwewegiizhigookwe, more well-known as Jane Johnston Schoolcraft, was likely the first Native woman to have poetry published in North America. She lived her life in what had only been recently declared Michigan Territory; her mother Ozhaawashkodewikwe was born on the British Indian Reserve. Ozhaawashkodewikwe was the one who instructed her daughter in the stories and songs of her ancestors, and some of Ozhaawashkodewikwe’s stories were translated by her daughter into English and published in a local paper.
It is in Bemwewegiizhigookwe’s poetry, however, that the ways she drew on Anishinaabe literary traditions are most visible. Several of her poems, written in Anishinaabemowin, clearly are based on Anishinaabe songs that she would likely have heard, using expressions like “nyaa nindinendam,” a common lyric in certain types of traditional songs. But what sticks out to me is the word “endanakiiyaan.” In one poem, she laments leaving her children at school far away from “endanakiiyaan;” in another she rejoices in seeing the pine tree on her return to “endanakiiyaan.” Literally meaning “where I dwell,” Bemwewegiizhigookwe simply translates it as my homeland.
In the 20th and 21st centuries, Anishinaabe writers have become some of the most visible names in Indigenous literature in both the U.S. and Canada. Louise Erdrich, for example, is one of the few Indigenous authors whose books can be found in mainstream stores in the United States. Basil Johnston’s writing is used in schools across Canada to teach about Indigenous experiences. In the academic field of Indigenous studies, Gerald Vizenor and Leanne Betasamosake Simpson have had impacts beyond just among Anishinaabe scholars. By sheer numbers alone, Anishinaabe people have been some of the most-published Indigenous writers in both countries. Yet the most powerful aspects of the media and literary institutions have largely ignored the trans-border, intra-Anishinaabe nature of this phenomenon.
What is lost when these brilliant Anishinaabeg’s writing is always narrated as a part of #CanLit, or when we only talk about them as part of “American Indian” writing within the U.S.? What would it mean to think about Anishinaabe literature in its own terms? To put Gwen Benaway in conversation with Carole laFavor, Kimberly Blaeser alongside Kateri Akiwenzie-Damm? What could be revealed in considering the full breadth and depth of Anishinaabe literature together? What might the world look like when young Anishinaabe students learn about their literary heritage beyond colonial borders?
The truth is that Anishinaabeg have never forgotten that Anishinaabewaki, Anishinaabe territory, transcends what Native people sometimes call the medicine line. We travel across it for powwows and ceremonies, hold responsibilities to our kin on either side, and when we write, which is often, we write into existence Anishinaabe literature. This literature—should we call it #NishLit?—may be imagined by its authors as a part of #CanLit or #AmLit or even as some kind of transnational literature, but it is always also rooted in and responsible to the Anishinaabe people who gave those authors life. From the most “traditional” to the most seemingly un-Indian in form and content, this fact holds together Anishinaabe literature as an entity.
In the world we currently live in, nation-state borders define to a large extent our literary “homes.” Instead of border patrol and customs officers, these boundaries are policed and enacted through publishers, literary magazines, awards, popular media, and even our own writing and reading habits. Make no mistake: money and powerful institutions back up the divide between #CanLit and #AmLit, and they shape how we interact with the literature we read down to the very categories we use to think about what “Indigenous literature” means.
What could the literary landscape look like if we centered Indigenous literatures without forcing them into nation-state-shaped boxes?
#NishLit awaits those who are ready to find out.
Kai Minosh Pyle is a Michif and Nishnaabe Two-Spirit writer and Indigenous language advocate originally from Green Bay, Wisconsin. While living on the Dakota people’s homelands in Bde Ota Otunwe (Minneapolis, Minnesota), they are working on their PhD project researching Anishinaabe Two-Spirit memory.