- Taking Back Our Spirits: Indigenous Literature, Public Policy, and Healing
Jo-Ann Episkenew’s much-anticipated book, Taking Back Our Spirits: Indigenous Literature, Public Policy, and Healing, analyzes the capacities of Indigenous literatures to “de-educate” both settler-colonial and Indigenous communities from the trappings of colonialism. Written by a respected community educator, social activist, and literary scholar who has played a foundational role in transforming the public’s awareness of Indigenous issues in their one-sided characterization by the nation-state, Episkenew’s work examines a dialectical tension in contemporary Indigenous debates in order to address the following questions: How have Indigenous stories addressed the trauma of colonial policies, and how have Indigenous artists chartered a path toward community healing and renewal in response to these imposed colonial practices? Episkenew asserts that healing is at the centre of the individual and collective stories that Indigenous artists tell about their experiences of colonialism and that these stories have the power to heal communities from the trauma of settler occupation. Their writing not only illustrates how colonial policies caused a breach in family and community relationships but also envisions counter-discursive reading strategies that call attention to writing as an ‘implement of social justice’ and as a ‘tool of anti-racist education.’ Works by Basil Johnston, Maria Campbell, Beatrice Culleton Mosionier, and Richard Wagamese are explored for their engagement with the systemic implications of cultural genocide through land dispossession and residential school experiences, in juxtaposition with plays by Daniel David Moses and Ian Ross that show the continuum of colonial trauma across historical and literary forms.
Written in an engaging style that foregrounds the complexities of ‘implicating Indigenous readers/audiences’ while also ‘giving voice and validation’ to Indigenous peoples’ collective experience, Taking Back Our Spirits practices the dialectic of decolonization that it sets out to test. Each chapter underscores the capacity of the artist’s Indigenous voice and vision to redirect the reader’s awareness from the collective myth of benign nation-building that justifies settler-colonial status and occupation to the devastating individual, family, and community consequences that follow from unavoidable policies of re-education and removal that altered spiritual and ancestral relationships. One of the many achievements of Episkenew’s study is its attention to documenting the connection between suffering ‘grievous emotional wounds’ and [End Page 718] the impact of these wounds for the wider health of Indigenous peoples’ community and spirit. Episkenew validates these experiences without requiring more of readers than a demeanor of ‘empathy’ and ‘understanding’ in the pursuit of de-education as a model of social change. In this regard, the book is both compelling for its subtlety in framing the ongoing political and social vulnerability that confronts Indigenous communities as a form of consciousness-raising and curtailed in refusing to underscore more than the literature’s socio-pedagogical function. Episkenew’s message is thus one of political oscillation guided, on the one hand, by expressions of hope and confidence that literature will direct the capacity within communities ‘to take back our spirits’ and, on the other, by uneasiness and gravity should that direction go forward without the involvement of Indigenous epistemologies and practices that were so effectively eradicated by colonial actors and policy makers. Given the enormity of the colonial impacts that Episkenew explores, her position argues ethically for the project of literary decolonization and social justice for Indigenous peoples as a future objective still to be written.
Department of English, University of Toronto