- Centering Anishinaabeg Studies: Understanding the World through Stories ed. by Jill Doerfler, Niigaanwewidam James Sinclair, and Heidi Kiiwetinepinesiik Stark
For many non-Indigenous peoples in Canada and the United States, the stories that shape our lives are normalized as truth, while Indigenous stories, such as those discussed in Centering, are designated as simple, primitive, and historical myth. However, as Doerfler, Sinclair, Stark, and the excellent contributors to this volume show, Anishinaabe stories are not merely entertainment; they are active, living beings in Anishinaabe culture, life, and identity.
The preface, a contemporary Trickster narrative written by John Borrows, sets the tone of this valuable collection. Nanaboozho is hungry and looking for food. Along the way, he meets three scholars, Doerfler, Sinclair, and Stark (represented as a lynx, a fish, and a bear), who need help gathering the stories that constitute Centering. Still searching for food, Nanaboozho lures them into an outhouse and convinces them to jump through the hole. In a retelling of an Anishinaabe creation story, they land on Turtle’s back and are asked to dive into the depths of the outhouse and swim through the seven layers below. While they consider their task, the hole above is covered, and leaves of paper rain down. These are the stories they’ve been searching for, and only after gathering the stories are they able to ascend through the hole into what seems, by comparison, a bright and shiny world. This Trickster narrative underscores [End Page 431] the goal of Centering: stories are not static entities, and once we understand that “stories have the potential to transform how we relate to the world; [we] will more clearly understand our place within our Anishinaabe-akiing” (xiii).
Divided into seven sections representing the prophecy of the seven fires— a creation story explaining how the Anishinaabeg came from the East to where they are now—Centering Anishinaabeg Studies emphasizes that stories are simultaneously cultural roots, relationships, and revelations, as well as indicators of resiliency, resistance, reclamation, and reflection. Each section investigates these topics from three different perspectives, highlighting the complex nature of Anishinaabe storytelling. This overall structure both reiterates and reinforces the role stories play in cultural preservation and evolution in the face of colonial erasure.
Language is at the heart of all storytelling. While nonspeakers may be able to glean a surface meaning from stories translated to English, we miss the subtleties of linguistic inflection that make them inherently Anishinaabe. In the opening chapter, Basil H. Johnston argues that stories are foundational elements of Anishinaabe culture and identity because they are inextricably linked to language. To know a language, he suggests, is to know a people. “Without the benefit of knowing the language of the Indian nation that they are investigating,” he writes, “scholars can never get into their minds the heart and soul and spirit of a culture and understand the Native’s perceptions and interpretations” (5).
Lacking a connection via language, non-Indigenous readers also risk overlooking the contemporary role story plays in asserting sovereignty and contesting colonialism. In “Theorizing Resurgence from Within Nishnaabeg Thought,” Leanne Betasamosake Simpson and Edna Manitowabi show that contemporary storytelling includes not only the retelling of traditional stories but also the creation of new ones, and storytelling “is at its core decolonizing, because it is a process of remembering, visioning, and creating a just reality where Nishinaabeg live as both Nishnaabeg and peoples . . . . Storytelling becomes a space where we can escape the gaze and the cage of the empire, even if it is just for a few minutes” (281). Storytelling is thus a responsibility of all; it enables the storyteller to accept and articulate that “there is no limit to Indigenous intellect” (289) and revises Western stories that define Indigenous peoples, and their stories, as primitive, fictional, and insignificant.
Each chapter in Centering reaffirms Anishinaabe perceptions of storytelling [End Page 432] while redefining non-Indigenous expectations of it. Stories are more than oral or written narratives— traditional and contemporary laws, religious...