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Reviewed by:
  • Why Indigenous Literatures Matter by Daniel Heath Justice
  • Kate Rose (bio)
Daniel Heath Justice. Why Indigenous Literatures Matter. Wilfrid Laurier UP, 2018. ISBN: 978-1-7711-2176-7. 260 pp.

Daniel Heath Justice begins this book by talking about stories, those told by Indigenous peoples and those told about them. Whereas the first are crucial to the continuance of identity, the second can be "toxic." Similarly, applying theories from outside Indigenous worldviews to the study of Indigenous literatures not only can miss the main points but also can reduce and/or co-opt Indigenous cultures and world views. Thus, the need for Indigenous theory.

Justice himself uses stories frequently to make his points, writing in language that is accessible (and beautifully precise) yet rigorous and meaningful from an academic perspective and for a general readership of anyone interested in Indigenous lives today. In this politically engaged, substantiated, and rhetorically sound book, Justice argues in favor of telling different kinds of stories within academia. The implications stretch far beyond the field of Indigenous literatures to potentially shake the foundations of the academic canon. They parallel a small but growing movement to take Indigenous knowledge seriously within all fields of study, including, for example, climate change research, which incorporates traditional environmental knowledge (TEK), with papers coauthored by Indigenous scientists who have no training in a Western system but who provide valuable insights that Western science cannot. I have long felt this is also true for literature, and it is time we stopped pretending that the perspective anchored in white, male culture is objective and universal. This means a radical revision of the tools we use, which is easier said than done.

Reading Justice's enactment of different kinds of theory makes this goal suddenly seem more feasible. Feminist, civil rights, and Native American movements during the 1960s paved the way in academia for subjects of study that were previously rare and allowed us to ask [End Page 226] questions we could not previously ask, at least in academia. However, it now seems that we are forced to answer these questions using a specific kind of discourse determined by a reductive framework anchored in Eurowestern history or we are not taken seriously. We can choose our subject but must interpret it with the literary equivalent of mainstream Western science. Justice's book is key in changing this problematic situation through challenging what is a valid source and angle for approaching literary study. Which questions really matter, and which sources can we use to answer them?

Justice not only discusses Indigenous authors but also cites a wide range of scholars from a variety of Indigenous traditions rather than applying Eurowestern criticism to non-Eurocentric texts, which is still the norm in academia. He challenges the assumption that serious analysis must address the canon, respond to the canon—criticize it if you want, but never leave it behind. He enacts a new kind of theory not by discussing it more than necessary but by applying it to the study of texts and, in a cyclical fashion, using the texts to inform the theory. He not only argues for why we need Indigenous theory and elaborates on what it would look like but also shows us how to apply it. Most of this book is devoted to analysis of literary texts.

Why Indigenous Literatures Matter is accessible enough to be used as a textbook for undergraduates not only in fields related to Indigenous studies but more broadly in literature courses or anything regarding race, North America, or queer studies, as Justice frequently references the experiences of Two-Spirit people, which he describes as an Indigenous term to name and honor nonbinary people as being closer to the divine. Although written clearly and accessibly, the arguments themselves are not simplistic, nor are the issues discussed; therefore, it is a book of great importance to scholars specializing in Indigenous theory and related fields.

Why Indigenous Literatures Matter is structured around four central chapters regarding human existence, thus firmly and refreshingly placing literature in relation to real life: "How Do We Learn to Be Human?," "How Do We Behave as Good Relatives?," "How Do We Become Good...


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pp. 226-228
Launched on MUSE
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