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  • On Critical Humility
  • Warren Cariou (bio)

Tawnshay. Sit down, my friend; have some tea. This is not the usual kind of discussion we have around here, but it's something I hope you'll find useful. It's not an article exactly, but rather a meditation on the state of things in our discipline and the future we will make for it. I've taught Indigenous literatures for quite a few years now, yet sometimes I still think of myself as a beginner, especially when I visit with the Elders, the storytellers, the knowledge-keepers. I'm going to tell you about something I've learned from their examples, something I should have understood long ago, but I didn't pay close enough attention. I guess I was in too much of hurry to become an expert. Somewhere along the way, I forgot or didn't notice the most important things.

I'll start with a common story, one that has repeated itself so often in the last few years that you have likely heard a version of it, or witnessed something like it yourself. In fact it has happened so many times that I'm going to tell a composite version of it, built out of several such incidents, and with names changed to avoid embarrassing anyone. It began at a gathering—a literary and academic gathering, held at a university that was taking its first steps toward what it called Indigenization. Many prominent Indigenous writers had been invited, along with publishers and scholars who were interested in their work. It was the opening reception for a week-long series of meetings, and excitement was in the air. People were mingling, recognizing names and publishing houses, trying to make a good impression. But in the midst of the laughter and the somewhat nervous conversation, I noticed a small, white-haired man sitting by himself, looking relatively uninterested in what was going on. I felt bad that he was alone, so I sat down and introduced myself and asked how he was doing. "Not bad," he said, and he told me his name was Dan. I asked Dan where he was from, and he said he had lived near one of the neighboring cities for a few years, but he had traveled quite a lot for his work. He didn't mention what his work was. But we [End Page 1] talked about travel, and it turned out that he had visited my hometown a few times, and we made the usual attempts to figure out whether we knew some of the same people. Gradually I learned that Dan had "done some teaching" for a while, and that he had also worked in counseling. He never did mention why he was there at the gathering, and I felt like it might be rude to ask. He didn't seem to like talking about himself. Nonetheless, we had plenty to talk about for the next hour or so, and by the time the reception was winding down, I felt like I was getting to know this Dan, and I was thankful to have a chance to talk with him. "Hope to meet you again," I said when it was time to leave. He smiled and said, "You just might."

The next morning, we assembled for the beginning of the sessions and we received the official greeting from one of the figureheads of the institution where we were located. And as such people are wont to do, this figurehead spent a lot of time talking about how great the institution was, and how accomplished the faculty were, and how this was the beginning of a very important relationship. And finally when everyone was nearly asleep, this figurehead person said, "Oh, and we have an Elder here and he has a few words to say as well. Dan? By the way, Dan, we're running a bit late so we don't have much time." And then this figurehead excused himself and left the room before the Elder could speak.

The room was dead silent for a few seconds after the door closed behind the fleeing administrator. But eventually, there was the sound...


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