Unseen Governance: The Impact of Settler Colonialism on Indigenous Literature

By: Alana Sayers

On December 6th, 2016, I spoke about my research on Indigenous literature.

With the release of the Truth and Reconciliation Calls to Action, many universities across the country want to answer the call by incorporating Indigenous content into literature courses. However, there is currently minimal scholarship in Indigenous literature that provides an extensive analysis of how power structures and relationships have shaped the field of Indigenous literature, making it a colonial space that perpetuates what Native Hawaiian scholar Ku’ualoha Ho’omanawanui calls “the violence of translation.” Without an understanding of the power structures of colonialism, Indigenous literature being taught by non-indigenous people may potentially continue the harmful legacy of western education systems whose main goal has been to erase and/or mistranslate history, knowledge, and cultures of indigenous peoples.

My talk brought select examples of how settler colonialism and Indigenous literature intersect. One example was of how the “Indian” has been legally constructed through legislation and legal cases such as the Indian Act (With specific mentions of the Potlach Ban, Bill C-31 and the MacIvor case), Calder case, Delgamuuk, Haida case, and the Tsilhqot’in Decision and how this applies to literature. I also drew upon personal experience growing up on a reserve and witnessing the various forms that stories from my nation have taken. I provided three examples of this for my section of a larger exhibit (in UVic Special Collections) that was curated by Janelle Jenstad and the students of the 2015 ENGL500 class.


The first piece (bottom) was grass weaving pieces my great-grandmother, Annie Mack, had created which stand as stories on their own. The second piece was a book entitled Indians: Of the Northwest Coast by D. Allen (a non-indigenous person) who has a photograph of her in this book with misinformation written about her (top right). The third piece was a painting my Uncle Rodney Sayers did of this photograph (top left). To me, this highlights how colonialism can extract our stories for its own purposes, and how indigenous people are now reclaiming things that have been taken from us.

The focus of many previous generations of indigenous scholars have been creating a space in the field of literature and asserting indigenous literature as a valid form of literature as well as beginning the conversation on approaches to indigenous literature. As new generations of indigenous literature scholars emerge, this conversation is shifting. In Canada, Indigenous knowledges constantly need to combat the structural violence of imposed western logic in the on-going settler-colonial relationship. Assertions by indigenous scholars are happening in many disciplines in the western academy which have produced anti-colonial frameworks but have not yet been applied extensively to Indigenous literature. My thesis explores literature as a colonial space that urgently needs to be understood as such in order to fully understand indigenous literature and how all of the strands can be reconciled into a stronger present so that Indigenous literature can be taught without perpetuating the violence of the past.

Alana Sayers is a 2nd year MA student from the Hupacasath (Nuu-Chah-Nulth) and Kipohtakaw (Cree, Treaty 6) First Nations. She is a winner of the SSHRC Graduate Scholarship and her research interests include indigenous literature, settler colonialism, and indigenous resurgence.

Works Cited and Further Reading

Allen, D. Indians: Of the Northwest Coast. Saanichton: Hancock Publishers Ltd., 1977.

Ho‘omanawanui, Ku‘ualoha. Voices of Fire: Reweaving the Literary Lei of Pele and Hi‘aka. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2014.

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