“Writing Back with an Aboriginal Pen”

By Shurli Makmillen

Writing can be a particularly stressful part of academic life. In the Writing Centre we often hear students say things like “I’m just not good at writing,” or “my grammar is bad,” or even “I hate writing!” On top of this, Aboriginal students—for whom the legacy of residential schools and mainstream Eurocentric schooling practices have delegitimized traditional modes of learning and centralized the role of writing in learning—have been left in a complex position in relation to how they choose to participate in the university’s forms of knowledge making. In the Writing Centre we are committed to supporting students as they negotiate these choices, and develop their identities as informed, proactive and impactful knowledge makers. We don’t see writing as a decontextualized skill; we see writing as an important (but not the only) aspect of knowledge making practices in the “indigenizing” university.

In my research I came across a quote from a 19th Century Lakota Chief, Four Guns, who put it this way:  

“Whenever white people come together, there is writing.... The white people must think paper has some mysterious power to help them on in the world. The Indian needs no writing. Words that are true sink deep into his heart where they remain. He never forgets them. On the other hand, if the white man loses his paper, he is helpless.” (In Dyc 215)

This is a telling account of what the traditional European dependence on writing can look like from outside its sphere of naturalization! More locally, Wenona Victor (with Ted Palys) reports on a negotiation between some elders right here on Stó:lō territory. In restorative justice processes she noted a similar stance towards writing:

The emphasis on paper records and ‘case processing’ can create conflicting demands for [Stó:lō]. On one occasion, for instance, a Smóyelhtel [a Stó:lō leader or guide] was publically chastised by an elder for having notes written on paper in the circle. The elder reminded the circle participants that everyone there was equal and that by having written notes a Smóyelhtel could, however unintentionally, relay the message that he or she was more important than the others. (Palys and Victor 27)

It seems, then, that there can be good reasons to be suspicious about writing. But we also know of some excellent writing that has come from Aboriginal students here at UFV, students who are using writing continue important conversations, bringing different perspectives into their disciplines and fields. Sheila Marsden is one of those students. She has graduated from UFV now, with a general studies degree that includes a double minor in English and History, and she took some time out from her busy life to tell me a bit about her writing life. When I asked her to tell me her writing experience at UFV, she told me a story about how it was in her upper division courses in her two minors that she struggled the most. In them, she just couldn’t find an entry point into the material, and certainly couldn’t relate anything to her own experiences and knowledge as a First Nations woman. Who cares about Victorian history? Exactly what was Avant Garde poetry?  This confusion was threatening her usually good grades. After feeling ripped off, frustrated, and confused, she nonetheless forced herself through the assignments through writing and revising. Eventually, she said, these courses and their requirements became meaningful for her. She said the course content “filled in parts of the story of my life,” and, bolstered by the solid grounding she had gotten in the First Nations Studies courses she had taken at UFV, she succeeded in writing through the difficulties these courses presented. Writing very successfully, in fact. She is being encouraged by one of her professors to revise a play script for publication. The words that resonated with me from my conversation with Sheila are that for her “writing was always the way out."

So, when we hear from students that “writing is hard,” we say yes it is! In fact academic writing is a bit of a struggle for all those who do it well, including for your professors. Think of it this way: If what you’re working on isn’t hard to write, then how could it be contributing new and interesting perspectives and critical insights? This doesn’t mean that writing can’t be satisfying, or even fun, too. 

When we hear “I’m just no good at writing,” we tell students about research that shows how students who hold on to  the belief that writing is a gift—that you either have or don’t have—are less likely to develop their writing ability. How about seeing yourself as a developing writer. This attitude may inspire you to see writing as meaningful, as one way you can make a contribution to your UFV academic community.    

Lastly, when we in the Writing Centre hear “my grammar is bad” we say back to you there is no such thing as bad grammar. “Grammar” is just the word for how we structure our speech and writing, and most of the time it is pretty functional. The more complex the problem you are grappling with in your writing, then the more complex your reasoning and ideas are; it logically follows that the grammar of your sentences will become more complicated too. If you think your grammar is “bad,” maybe that’s a sign that you’re on your way to making an interesting (and complex) claim!

I talked with UFV’s Senior Advisor on Indigenous Affairs, Shirley Hardman, about the history of Aboriginal people’s relationship with writing. She coined the phrase “Writing back with an Aboriginal pen,” which can usefully encapsulate how Aboriginal students might see their writing.  We hope that we have dispelled some of the myths about writing, myths that can stand in the way of getting down to the business of academic reading, writing, and speaking. It’s not that academic language is perfect. It isn’t. For one thing, it needs more of the perspectives, knowledges, and voices of Aboriginal people. We in the Writing Centre offer our services to support you in how you understand what it means to “write back with an Aboriginal pen.”

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