Thursday, July 27, 2017

Christy Jordan-Fenton's Response to Therese Bigelow's Announcement Regarding Change to "Indigenous Experience in Children's Books" Panelists at USBBY's October 2017 Conference

27 July 2017

Often when issues are raised in the literary world, over appropriation, representation, and making space for Indigenous voices, they are met with justifications, or are ignored all together. The very nature of the mythology upon which the colonial societies of this continent rest, are at the core, stories of taking up Indigenous spaces…quite literally. It is such a rooted part of our collective consciousness that Indigenous voices remain marginalized, even when it comes to talking about Indigenous traditional cultures and contemporary perspectives. And while the appropriation debate has only recently been engaged in by the gate keepers of mainstream institutions, actual understanding and protocols have yet to become a mainstream part of the literary world. Indigenous voices often remain unvalidated and unanswered, while non-indigenous voices are brought in to fill the void created by the marginalization of Indigenous perspectives.

I was very concerned that this would be happening at the 2017 IBBY Conference in Seattle, on the “Indigenous Experiences in Children’s Literature” panel, where space was given to a non-indigenous author, who is largely considered by the Indigenous community to have violated numerous general protocols on appropriation. A large part of my concern with this panel was that the addition of this author would co-opt the topic of Indigenous experiences, making it about appropriation, thus centring around non-indigenous authors, instead of being focussed on Indigenous voices. If you would like to read more about my concerns, you can find them here:

I brought my concerns to the attention of Ed Sullivan and the IBBY committee. And as any of you out there who have been fighting to maintain space for authentic Indigeneity know, it can be a very cynical process where all too often, nothing is done. However, in this case, I am very pleased to say that the outcome of this week’s dialogue is IBBY’s announcement that the panel’s original arrangement has been restored. It is back to being a space intended for Indigenous voices. We greatly appreciate the consideration of the IBBY Committee over the concerns raised, and appreciate that the space will be held in a good way, allowing for Margaret/Olemaun Pokiak-Fenton and Lisa Charleyboy their space to have the floor, with Nancy Bo Flood stepping aside.

I understand that to many in the non-indigenous literary world, the issue of appropriation feels like navigating a mine field. However, the ultimate goal is not conflict, but rather finding a better way together. When Indigenous perspectives are considered and dialogue is opened, everyone benefits. As I said previously, the act of appropriation or taking up Indigenous spaces is ingrained in our society, and in the mythologies that society is raised on and maintained by. Issues such as the one with the “Indigenous Experiences” panel will come up. And when that happens, they need to be validated and addressed so that we can all work toward a better way. The change in the make up of the panel shows that we can find that better way together. I hope that in the future other organizations will be open to such dialogues and to listening and acting on ways to facilitate and maintain Indigenous space.

I further hope that when respected Indigenous scholars and artist raise these issues, their wisdom and experience will be heeded, even when they are outside of the organization involved, as they often will be, so that uncomfortable situations between panelists and artists involved are not necessary.

We look forward to participating in this panel. I am encouraged by the IBBY’s actions, and that the matter was used as an opportunity for learning how to better allow such platforms to be about the amplification of Indigenous experiences. The willingness of the IBBY Committee to address the issue shows that we can navigate a better way together. By keeping the matter transparent, and committing to a continued dialogue in the future, everyone who must navigate such situations can advance toward evolving past the ways things have been done in the past.

While I would still like to have seen Indigenous voices from within the colonial borders of the US represented on the panel, space has been made for the current participants, which was the biggest concern. Though I will add, with having a keynote speaker who makes repeated claims to be the only strong Indigenous literary voice out there, I am concerned that a lack of American Indian writers on the panel confirms what that keynote speaker says. There many strong Indigenous voices that could have been included.

For those who will be attending the panel, I don’t want anyone to be scared that the topic of appropriation is entirely taboo. It isn’t, but I ask respect be given to the participants to share their truths and experiences on their terms, and that you reflect on how it is for Indigenous artists to constantly have to contend with the “white permission” question at the expense of being able to speak about their own art.

That said, I would encourage everyone to further engage in conversations concerning appropriation, and to seek opportunities to listen to what Indigenous artists themselves have to say. It is unfortunate that within the scope of the conference as it stands, space could not be found to have this conversation as a separate topic, but that should not dissuade anyone from continuing to learn more. It cannot be assumed that Indigenous artists have the responsibility to educate anyone, but I can guarantee there are many out there who do want to be heard.

To address the question of a non-indigenous moderator conducting the panel, I have no issue with Sarah Ellis as moderator, now that the panel has been restored to its original composition. There are a few issues that can happen with a non-indigenous moderator. One is that when there are diverse voices on the panel, and the moderator belongs to the non-marginalized group, those voices can be drowned out. Even when moderators have the best intentions, ultimately their perspectives and experiences will, in most cases, resonate closer with the panelists who share similar perspectives and experiences. This becomes problematic where the panelists view the issues from very different perspectives. That will no longer be a concern for this panel. Also, there can be times when audience members ask disrespectful questions or ask questions in inappropriate ways, and in my experience, non-indigenous moderators do not always catch what is actually being said, or they do not intervene where they should and give too much space to those voices. However, in the communications we have had with Sarah, she has demonstrated that she is sensitive to the fact these things do happen, especially on indigenous panels, and she has actively sought input from the panelists. I have been very pleased with her approach. This has not been a race issue, but rather one of shifting the balance to maintain the voices of the Indigenous panelists, and I feel confident in Sarah’s desire to give those voices their due platform.

Thank you to the IBBY committee for hearing us. This is a meaningful step in the right direction, and we hope that others take this as an example of how we can all work together toward restoring Indigenous space. I look forward to seeing how the committee carries this experience into the future planning of its events, and how this dialogue can move from being a discussion into meaningful practice for the entire literary community.

Christy Jordan-Fenton
Coauthor of Fatty Legs, A Stranger at Home, When I Was Eight, and Not My Girl

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