Wednesday, June 21, 2017

The Writing Stick: Sharing Indigenous Stories

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The Writing Stick: Sharing Indigenous Stories
Recently, almost two years of planning culminated in a thought-provoking, passionate conference about publishing Indigenous authors and stories. The Writing Stick: Sharing Indigenous Stories was held at the University of Alberta on June 8, 9, and 10 and over 230 people registered. The conference was the brainchild of the director of the University of Alberta Press, Linda Cameron, who was answering a challenge Gerald Beasley (Vice-Provost and Chief Librarian of the University of Alberta) put to all of his directors to find innovative ways to respond to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

In the planning stages, I asked Linda how many people she thought might attend the conference. She suggested 30 to 40 people would come, to which I responded, “All this work for 40 people? I want to see 200!” Our partners all agreed we wanted to think big: Alberta Aboriginal Arts, Alberta Magazine Publishers Association, Book Publishers Association of Alberta, Dreamspeakers Film Festival, Edmonton Public Library, Theytus Books, and the Writers’ Guild of Alberta. When our registration numbers hit and then exceeded our “stretch goal,” we were elated.

Who came? Writers, publishers, editors, librarians, journalists, filmmakers, educators, students, and others. We recruited more than 20 phenomenal presenters from BC, Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba, Ontario, and Massachusetts. More than 40% of the attendees self-identified as Indigenous, which was a key statistic: one of my many fears was that we would have non-Indigenous publishers talking to themselves about best practices in publishing Indigenous works.

We worked our way through the fundraising, wondering at times if we would be able to hold a physical conference or have to be satisfied with a virtual meeting. When we hit our fundraising goal two months prior to the conference, there was huge relief. Having the first promise of funding come in from the U of A itself was like seeing a light at the end of the tunnel. Additional funding came from the Government of Canada through the Department of Canadian Heritage, the Government of Alberta, the City of Edmonton, the Edmonton Arts Council, and Access Copyright Foundation.

This was the first conference several of us had ever organized, and it amazed us how much work it was. The planning was intense as this was the first conference of its kind, and everything had to be built from the ground up. What kind of conference was it going to be? When would it be held? What would we call it? What would the logo look like and who would design it? How could we build bridges and relationships with Indigenous communities to ensure that our planning team had enough Indigenous representation? How could we balance ideas presented in a lecture format with the art, performance, and reflection aspects we envisioned? How would we handle the cultural protocols and who would be our Elders for the event? In preparation, I attended many of the TRC-inspired events on campus and around Edmonton; checked out a local powwow; attended a round dance; participated in a cultural protocol training session at Maskwacis. It was exciting, educational, challenging work.

We were fortunate to work with one of the U of A Library’s first Indigenous interns, Tanya Ball, who was completing her Masters in Library and Information Science. She worked with the University of Alberta Press one day a week for several months and was the linchpin for all of the activities we undertook—from taking minutes to contracting presenters to arranging logistics. On the days of the actual conference, we learned that months of planning could come to naught if we didn’t execute with precision. While there were hiccups, the Steering Committee members and our amazing group of volunteers—mainly students—made it all work. Both during and after the event, we heard that it was one of the most important, valuable, and meaningful conferences people had ever attended.

During the conference I learned many things, particularly that many well-intentioned, well-educated people don’t understand Canada’s full history of colonization and the depth of resilience exhibited by Indigenous communities. Together, attendees took part in cultural activities, experiencing the power of a Sunrise Ceremony and relying on the knowledge of our four Elders, Wilson Bearhead, Martha Campiou, Theresa Strawberry, and Harry Watchmaker.

Over and over again, we heard about the importance of developing ongoing, respectful relationships with Indigenous people and communities. Our hope of creating conversations became a reality, with people involved in powerful exchanges in every corner. As first steps toward continuing the conversations we started, we will maintain the conference website, develop greater linkages amongst conference attendees, and continue to build our relationships with one another.

The conference has several legacy pieces that will extend its influence. Most of the sessions were videotaped and will be housed in ERA, the digital repository at the University of Alberta. Dawn-Marie Marchand created an original piece of art in response to the presentations and conversations while Joleyne Mayers-Jaekel developed a graphic recording of the information.

The most common question at the end of the three days? “When is the next Writing Stick?”
Any volunteers?



Cathie Crooks - Associate Director / Manager Planning & Operations, University of Alberta Press




Cathie is the Associate Director / Manager Planning & Operations at the University of Alberta Press. She is a publishing, marketing, and communications specialist and experienced project manager.

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