Editing Indigenous Writing: A Nuanced Partnership
A lot of Indigenous writing is under-edited, because many non-Indigenous editors don’t feel like they have a way in to the text and are scared of making a mistake. Other times, it can be over-edited, because the editor has shoehorned the story into a format that reflects European values and beliefs. Some Indigenous writers are fiercely opposed to being edited, because settler-colonial society has often misinterpreted, appropriated or attempted to control or erase Indigenous stories. And when it comes to Indigenous publishers and publications, writing is often not edited at all, at least in my experience.
Editing can make a good article or manuscript a whole lot better, but it can also be a traumatic experience for Indigenous writers — and a discomforting one for editors — so let’s talk about what makes the process more complicated than editing the average piece of text.
Building a foundation
Good communication is central to the editing process — but communicating across cultures can be fraught with assumptions and expectations. Add in the inequitable power relations that characterize colonization, and it leads to distrust (for the writer), trepidation (for most editors) and, in some cases, oppression by publishing professionals who are still catching up with recent changes in Canadian society.
Editors who work with Indigenous writers need to be very intentional about not taking up all the space. Sit back, give up your “expert” title and use your skills to support the author in realizing their vision. Listen to their stories and their ideas for the work, and you will co-create a beautiful thing.
Many Indigenous writers speak about having a responsibility to family and community when they tell a story. Writing down a story commits Indigenous lives and experiences to the page — and unlike Indigenous oral traditions, written stories remain unchanged over the course of time. It’s tricky terrain, which means Indigenous writers need to balance truth-telling, perceptivity, cultural reclamation, context, compassion, trust and relationships.
The editor’s job is to support the writer and show them the care that enables them to do the work. The writer’s job is to work at being comfortable with showing vulnerability inside a foreign/imposed system, staying open to editorial and design changes, and speaking up when something isn’t working for them.
When an editor is working with an Indigenous writer, they need to maintain the cultural integrity of the story and shape the text so that non-Indigenous readers can enter that story. Striking this balance requires editors to be aware of their own cultural frameworks. They also need to understand when and how standard professional approaches (such as insisting on a beginning–middle–end story structure) turn into oppression.
Editors working in-house must create relationships with Indigenous peoples. The easiest way to do this is to create an advisory circle (and to pay them fairly). The circle can be created for a specific project or it can be an ongoing group that meets on a quarterly basis or is contacted when necessary.
Cultural practices change from family to family within Indigenous communities and certainly between communities (whether urban, rural or on-reserve).
It’s an editor’s job to be familiar with cultural concepts like collective ownership of stories versus individual authorship. It’s also an editor’s job to gently push back against rigidity — a colonial hangover linked to Christianization — which brings us back to “reciprocity” at the top of the list. Editors must know that the balance and interconnection found in the circle is central to Indigenous cultures.
To build trust with an Indigenous author, editors need to frame their skills as beneficial to the author. Editors must be familiar with and comfortable discussing the following topics.
Research and citations in scholarly or non-fiction works
Post-secondary institutions are developing citation protocols for knowledge gained from community and through spiritual means such as dreams. By following these protocols, editors create space for Indigenous cultural and spiritual knowledge to be seen as equal to book- or research-based knowledge. The University of Toronto and the University of Lethbridge are good places to start.
Non-standard grammar, punctuation and terminology
There are times when non-standard approaches better demonstrate the art of meaning, but if an Indigenous writer is writing in English, then the mechanics of writing still matter. Allowing an Indigenous author’s work to stay first-draft-level messy is not an act of allyship; it’s a dereliction of duty that leads to Indigenous writing being seen as unsophisticated.
Using anything non-standard takes great skill, so writers need to be prepared to explain why that approach is needed and what it accomplishes.
Certain words have become standard in Indigenous writing. As an Indigenous editor, I routinely question them. What does “traditional” mean? (Cultures change.) What does “sacred” mean? (What is sacred to one person may not be to another.) What is “harm”? (Do you mean that someone is feeling hurt? Or has experienced physical violence? Be specific.) What is “community” in this context? (Community is different for every person, and many Indigenous people have more than one.)
Indigenous authors need the distance an editor provides.
Myths and stereotypes
Indigenous people in Canada and the US are 60 to 80 per cent urban depending on the demographics, and research indicates that up to 70 per cent of Indigenous people practice Christianity — but the vast majority of contemporary books and periodicals reflect a much different kind of Indigenous life. The editor’s job is to question everything, so that an author’s mistakes don’t contribute to the inaccuracies surrounding Indigenous peoples.
Choice and control are central to creating safety. Safety creates trust — and trust is central for creating strong relationships.
Rates of Christianity
- Hayes, Alan L. “Indigenous and Settler Christianities in Canada.” University of Toronto.
- “Majority of indigenous Canadians remain Christians despite residential schools.” The Current. CBC Radio.
- “How the Census counts Indigenous people in urban areas.” Statistics Canada.
- “Surveys/Data.” Urban Aboriginal Peoples Study.
- “Urban Indian Health.” Urban Indian Health Institute.
- “Urbanization and Indigenous Peoples in Canada.” National Association of Friendship Centres.
- Whittle, Joe. “Most Native Americans live in cities, not reservations. Here are their stories.” The Guardian.
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