Wednesday, July 26, 2017

Christy Jordan-Fenton's Response to Conversations About USBBY's Oct 2017 "Indigenous Experience" Panel

Eds. note: At 9:00 CST, on July 27th, Therese Bigelow, USBBY's Board President, announced that Nancy Bo Flood would not be on the panel. Bigelow said
We are changing the program on Indigenous Voices in Children’s Literature. Nancy Bo Flood will no longer participate. Panel presenters are all from Canada which reflects the international scope of the conference theme. The panel had already begun working on their program together and the Fenton's, through Christy Jordan-Fenton, have requested that Sarah Ellis continue In her role as moderator. This change will be reflected on the program schedule as soon as I return to my home computer next week.

25 July 2017

About a year ago, myself, and my mother-in-law, Margaret/Olemaun Pokiak-Fenton (Inuvialuk), were invited to attend the 2017 IBBY Regional Conference in Seattle, to sit on a panel about “The Indigenous Experience in Children’s Literature”. At the time, the only other participant we knew of was Lisa Charleyboy (Tsilhqot'in), and we assumed there would also be Indigenous authors from the US included. We were thrilled to accept the invitation, especially Margaret/Olemaun, who as an 81 year old great-grandmother, still finds herself overwhelmed by gaining a measure of fame and attention so late on, and to her shock, for sharing stories she had been ashamed of her entire life.

To explain a bit about who we are, Margaret/Olemaun is a Inuvialuk Indian Residential School (Indian Boarding School) survivor, best known as the indomitable character in Fatty Legs (Annick Press 2010), along with three other books. Having been raised by a residential school survivor myself, it was important to me to have my children see their grandmother as the strong resilient hero she is, and not through a lens of colonial suffering that has become so much a part of Indigenous identity (one dictated by a colonial narrative, and not an authentic Indigenous one). And so in 2008 we began the slow, extremely painful process of sharing her story. It was a two year ceremony of transmutation we held each other through. I don’t think I could possibly convey how much this journey has asked of Margaret/Olemaun, and how much she has put into it for the future generations, and for herself, or given to me toward my own intergenerational healing, and how far she has come on that journey. What she has given with that journey…what any elder who shares such a journey gives, is sacred, and needs to be held as such.

My job when we speak, which we do about 100 times a year, is to help her in sharing her voice, sometimes to encourage her to share that story she didn’t think was a big deal but was phenomenal and I know the audience will love (she tells great stories), and also sometimes to buffer questions and comments that dig very deep into the trauma she carries from her years at residential school, and a life of experiencing subtle, overt, and systemic racism (think: What are some examples of how they physically hurt you at the school? Or on the other end of the spectrum: Weren’t there any good things about the schools?) A major part of my job is maintaining a good space for her to share her truth and shine as the beautiful elder she is.

It is from this place of needing to hold a good space for her, that I am now addressing the situation that has arisen in an unexpected change of dynamics on the “Indigenous Experience in Children’s Literature” panel. First, I admit it was very naïve of me not to look further into who we would be sharing that space with. I took for granted that the other authors would all be Indigenous. I took for granted that the focus would be about “Indigenous Experiences”. As of a few days ago, it was communicated to me that the dreaded “permission” question of appropriation was one that we should all strategize about ahead of time, for the sake of not letting it hijack the forum (at this point I didn’t realize why that was going to be such a major issue).

However, I have found out today, in a public comment from Ed Sullivan of IBBY, that Nancy Bo Flood was invited to be a part of the panel precisely so that this question could be debated. Normally I would be discreet in handling these matters, but as I myself only found out about this other agenda today, and publicly… and really, I think too many of us spend too much time trying to negotiate and navigate these situations in private, or remain silent, when transparency is needed, here I am responding publicly.

What was originally a panel about “Indigenous Experiences” where we believed Indigenous experiences would be the focus, is now being shifted to a situation that calls the attention to being a discussion on “White Authors’ Experiences”. The panel is now made up of a non-Indigenous moderator, an author called out numerous times for appropriation, and well…if I look in the mirror, I present pretty white too. My role in the panel is not supposed to be to explain why I felt I could represent my mother-in-law’s voice, or about who claims me, what traditions I practice, and the lineage of my teachings. It’s to support Margaret/Olemaun. (And I am completely open to sharing those things. Find me on Facebook if you feel compelled to discuss it and we’ll start a dialogue). But I see no good way to do that when it takes away from the voice of Margaret/Olemaun, and from Lisa Charleyboy. I see no respectful place to discuss that in the setting of this panel.

But more importantly, why has the responsibility of defending their culture and their right to control how their stories are told, been assumed? Why does the IBBY committee feel that it is acceptable to place this, without even asking, on the shoulders of an 81 year old elder who is still working through her healing from trauma, who is still navigating her relationship with decolonization (a journey her great-grandchildren’s grandchildren will be working through generations from now), who was expecting to go and share her childhood experiences in a children’s literature context, in a safe way…why is it deemed acceptable to assume it is her place to educate others against appropriation and defend her indigeneity against it? Again, she wasn’t even asked. Why is it deemed acceptable to assume Lisa Charleyboy, who has so much to offer when it comes to discussing carving out space for modern Indigenous identity…why is it assumed she wants to attend to instead discuss why non-indigenous authors shouldn’t appropriate, thus giving the floor over from what Indigenous artists themselves are doing, so white permission can be the focus?

I am left feeling that if I sit visibly white on this panel, as it is currently composed, next to an author very arguably guilty of appropriation, at a conference where last I knew of the keynote speaker was slated to be an Indigenous author who repeatedly claims to be the only one out there with books people read (despite knowing better), I will be contributing to that message—the message that there are no Indigenous authors out there, and so we need to have white people discuss Indigenous experiences. I know different. I know this isn’t true. My shelves are filled with works by Indigenous authors. And so to stand in my truth, and above all ensure safe space for Margaret/Olemaun, and to honour what my elders and mentors have taught me about my responsibility as someone entrusted to amplify (not appropriate) a small portion of the Indigenous experience, my integrity asks that we, Margaret/Olemaun and myself, do not participate in this panel, as it currently is, with Nancy Bo Flood participating.

What I would suggest, is that if the conference committee deems the topic of appropriation one worthy of exploring, and I think it is, this conversation take place within the context of a separate panel, and I would also like to suggest that such a panel include Indigenous voices like Lisa Charleyboy’s (provided she was asked respectfully and wanted to participate), and that such a panel be moderated by an Indigenous voice who knows Indigenous literature, such as Debbie Reese (Pueblo), or Louise Erdrich (Anishinabe).

And, I suggest that the “Indigenous Experience in Children’s Literature” panel be left as a space to discuss “Indigenous Experience”.

As my elders have taught me, mistakes are really just opportunities to learn, in disguise. I invite the committee of the IBBY to please examine their decision to include Nancy Bo Flood, knowing it would co-opt the conversation from Indigenous voices to a discussion on appropriation. Please make space for Margaret/Olemaun and Lisa Charleyboy to share what they are doing and what they have experienced, and also consider adding an Indigenous voice or two to represent peoples from territories within the colonial boundaries of the US.

Indigenous peoples and all peoples of colour are constantly expected to defend their cultures against appropriation at the cost of opportunities to discuss their own art. Please, make space for the art. And as this incident demonstrates, there is a need for the appropriation conversation also. We should have it. I would like to have it. I think the attendees would like to have it. But that needs its own forum, and to be guided by Indigenous experience and knowledge.

It is not my mother-in-law’s job to defend her people’s right to control how their stories are told. Her voice is for sharing her experiences. It was under an invitation for her to do so that we agreed to participate. If the panel is now openly forcing her into a position of defence, we will have to decline the invitation. However, if we can all work together to realize our learning opportunity from this, and use it as a catalyst to find a better way together, we would be honoured to participate.

Christy Jordan-Fenton
coauthor of Fatty LegsA Stranger at HomeWhen I Was Eight, and Not My Girl

See also:

Naomi Bishop's Open Letter Regarding USBBY's 2017 "Indigenous Experience" Panel in Seattle

Debbie Reese's Open Letter Regarding USBBY's 2017 "Indigenous Experience" Panel in Seattle

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