07/19/2013 08:02 EDT | Updated 09/18/2013 05:12 EDT

Stories of My Life: Sharing Aboriginal Experiences Through the Written Word


Is it enough to strive to be a nation that knows how to read? Or must we strive to be a nation of readers?

In this four-part series on behalf of the National Reading Campaign, five readers with backgrounds in journalism, broadcasting, writing, and education frame their personal experiences of reading enjoyment within the context of a burgeoning national conversation. Today, Waubgeshig Rice shares his insights into the role reading is playing in Aboriginal culture.

Stories have enriched my life for as long as I can remember. I heard them first from my parents in a variety of narratives by my bedside and on long walks and trips. These ranged from classic children's stories by authors like Robert Munsch, to funny anecdotes from our family's own history, to tales from my mom and dad's own wild imaginations. They were storytelling experiences shared by most other Canadian kids.

Then, as the Anishinaabe culture began to flourish once again in my community of Wasauksing after decades of repression, stories became an integral part in teaching me and my peers about our collective cultural background. Stories about the character Nanabush - who was often portrayed as the classic "trickster" - explained how certain things in the world around us came to be. These lessons on creation led to deeper and more comprehensive anecdotes of spirituality and traditional ceremony. As more children started dancing at powwows and singing in sweat lodges, there were more stories to hear. We learned about who we were as First Nations children in Canada through traditional storytelling. The oral narrative is what kept our culture alive.

With that oral tradition, strong First Nations storytellers have turned to the written word in recent decades to share their experiences. Authors like Thomas King, Richard Wagamese, Lee Maracle, and Basil Johnston have created a canon of literary works that are essential reference points for First Nations culture. Their books have appealed to both Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal readers alike, garnering acclaim and awards. Despite the many successes of authors, though, there's still a lot of work to do to encourage young people to start picking up books and reading.

Statistics from the federal government show that literacy rates among Aboriginal people are much lower than their non-Aboriginal counterparts in regions across Canada. Studies point to a number of factors contributing to this trend, such as poverty and underfunded education systems on-reserve. But there are initiatives underway to promote reading in young people in communities. For example, when he was lieutenant governor of Ontario, James Bartleman (who is also Anishinaabe) spearheaded a book drive to get books to children in remote communities. Also, the new Burt Award for First Nations, Metis, and Inuit Literature aims to promote literacy and readership by awarding cash prizes to authors and distributing their books to young people across Canada.

With new resources in place, the seeds of literacy are in the ground for young Aboriginal people. For me, following those childhood stories, the influence of the written word grew as my path in education led me to secondary school. I became infatuated with the literary classics in English class, and I took these new storytelling tools home with me from the high school in town back to the rez. Writing stories became my creative outlet. Somehow I knew that the Aboriginal experience in Canada was a unique one, so I documented as best I could the poignant, funny, and sometimes tragic things I saw happening around me in a literary way.

When I wasn't writing, I was reading feverishly. Novels of all genres captivated me, and took me to worlds and adventures far from the rez life I interacted with on a daily basis. Authors like Hemingway, Orwell, Coupland, and Asimov helped my imagination run wild. It was crucial to read the classics and understand the power of the written word. But, more importantly, authors like King, Wagamese, Maracle, and Jordan Wheeler spoke directly to my background and reaffirmed my passion for telling my people's stories. I saw experiences similar to my own reflected on the page. That inspired me to further pursue the written word as a viable method to share our stories with each other, and also to provide a window for non-Aboriginal Canadians into the vibrant, complicated, and rich lives of First Nations Canadians. The spoken word kept our culture alive, and the written word further bolsters it.

PREVIOUSLY: Maureen Dockendorf and Faye Brownlie on spreading the joy of reading one child at a time, Julie Wilson on reading and community, and Najwa Ali on the complex situations in which we turn to books.

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