Kwahiatonhk! A journey along the indigenous writing trail

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Photo: Juanita Craig

Stuart Myiow, a Wolf Clan representative of the Kahnawake Mohawk Nation, chanting to the rhythm of his drum. 

Wendake's fifth First Nations Book Fair,  Kwahiatonhk!, dominated the events calendar in the community last weekend.  

Kwahiatonhk's official opening was held on November 25 at the Maison de la Littérature in Old Quebec, but the main events took place in Wendake on Saturday and Sunday. On Friday evening, poetry and women were celebrated. Homage was paid to Innu poet Joséphine Bacon, whose literary piece Meshkanatsheu was explored by several Aboriginal writers and musicians. 

For the second consecutive year, the program included breakfast-poetry symposiums at the Sagamite restaurant in Wendake, as well as panel discussions in English and encounters with Indigenous writers. 

The Saturday evening open-mike literary evening, complete with musical accompaniment, was held at Bistro 1760. Families with small children were entertained at the Hôtel-Musée Premières Nations by writers who interpreted their stories using song and gesture. 

There was a tremendous range of literary genres being explored and on sale at the First Nations book fair this year, including works by Innu and Haitian writers. 

Illustrator Jay Odjick has just published the graphic novel The Outsider. Ojick shared his experience of breaking into the fields of comic books and television with his graphic novel Kagagi: The Raven (Arcana Comics) and Kagagi: The Animated Series, which was broadcast in Canada, the U.S. and Australia. He sees Kagagi as "bridging the gap between the stories elders told me and the younger generation." 

At the age of five, Odjick moved from his birthplace in Rochester, New York, to his father's community in Kitigan Zibi Anishinabeg (about 100 km north of Ottawa). "In terms of cultural knowledge, unless you were lucky enough to have access to the stories from the elders in Kitigan Zibi, you were more or less out in the cold," he said. Odjick hopes his work will create a spark, and will help young people learn about themselves. "So, when some kid asks me ‘Did you create that?' I will say ‘No, but you can go to the library on the reserve and learn more about that story.'"

Ethnologist Josée Laflamme was motivated to write about First Nations oral traditions when she discovered that their stories were not being passed on to younger generations. "It wasn't just because I was white that I hadn't heard about the stories. When researching their history and culture, I discovered that the First Nations people didn't know the stories either." 

Anishnaabe writer, poet and editor Kateri Akiwenzie-Damm, from the Chippewas of Nawash First Nation, views the passing down of traditional stories as a way for Native people to reclaim their self identity. "Thinking of where our literature comes from, we have our own stories, forms and genres, whether that be through invocations, chants or story cycles. It's not because we were illiterate before we were colonized that our literature is less worthy. We define success on our own terms, a best-seller would be great, but it is not what motivates us. It's about prosperity for our people, our communities. I love my people and I want a better future for us. It's not just about surviving, [it's about] thriving."

Akiwenzie-Damm sums up the success of the book fair by saying, "Our literature belongs on the world stage. It is not only worthy of it, but deserves it."