maar bidi: Carving Sovereignty and Desire in Indigenous Youth Storytelling

By , and | 1 February 2021

Indigenous storytelling and desire

Colonial narratives about Indigenous peoples continue to pervade representations of Indigeneity and Indigenous cultural heritage in the 21st Century.1 Indigenous scholars argue that in Western education systems, which historically have perpetuated colonial narratives and ideologies, Indigeneity and Indigenous cultural heritage is defined by ‘damaged-centered frameworks.’2 These frameworks only recognise and account for histories of colonisation and their recurring traumas. The Oppressor and Oppression continue to exert power and control over Indigenous people by defining Indigeneity. Alexis Wright describes damage-centered frameworks as a storyline to ‘… erode Aboriginal belief in sovereignty, self-governance and land rights’, and reflects that ‘… it has gotten to the point where most Aboriginal people have been silenced, or feel too overwhelmed to fight any more’.3

Indigenous scholars continue to advocate for decolonisation and self-determination in Indigenous-centered education.4 Critical Indigenous pedagogies create shared senses of place which acknowledge Indigenous people’s sovereign relationships with Country, center Indigenous knowledge and stories of Country, and recognise Indigenous people as story custodians. These pedagogies enable Indigenous people to deconstruct colonial narratives about who we are, and where we come from, and construct transformative narratives of identity and belonging. Minnesota Chippewa Tribe man Gerald Vizenor argues that Indigenous-determined stories and storylines assert ‘survivance’:

Survivance, in my use of the word, means a native sense of presence, the motion of sovereignty and the will to resist dominance. Survivance is not just survival but also resistance, not heroic or tragic, but the tease of tradition, and my sense of survivance outwits dominance and victimry.5

These narratives of identity recognise and account for histories of strength, courage, resilience and persistence – the human agencies of Indigenous people to survive, resist and renew.

Indigenous scholarship asserts story custodianship and Indigenous people’s rights to define Indigeneity and Indigenous cultural heritage. Unangax woman Eve Tuck teaches us that ‘… a desire-based framework is an antidote to damage-centered research … concerned with understanding complexity, contradiction, and the self-determination of lived lives’.6 Desire recognises and accounts for loss on the one hand, and hope and imagination on the other, to renew and rematriate Indigenous cultural life ways. These frameworks recognise Indigenous people’s sovereign agencies to speak, and to account for their survival, resistance and renewal, unbound by colonial ideologies of who we are and where we come from.

Desire-based frameworks nurture new story cycles which imagine and enliven self-determined futures for Indigenous people. In creative writing teaching and learning, these frameworks further unbind Indigenous youth storytellers from unending story cycles of survival and resistance. As critical Indigenous pedagogy, they acknowledge the sovereign agencies of Indigenous youth to speak for their diverse and complex ways of being in their many worlds which pattern the mosaic of lived experience of being young, black and passionate in the 21st Century.

In our creative writing teaching and learning practices, we are able to respond to the 2019 Imagination Declaration, and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander youth’s calls for ‘the freedom to write a new story’. This asks us to dismantle the ‘ceilings’ and ‘boxes’ referred to in the Declaration, even while academy remains of colonial bricks. Through storytelling, students located on Whadjuk country can travel to the universe. Alexis Wright reflects:

There are in Aboriginal culture ancestral stories of sky travel, some that involve types of ladders reaching into the sky country, and about the moon. In our dreams and aspirations, it often feels as though we are reaching for the moon. 7

The Imagination Declaration reflects the desire of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander youth to: ‘let us spread our wings and soar higher than ever before.’ As educators, we cannot imagine the heights to which next generation Aboriginal students will fly. As space-makers, we have the agency to create spaces in which students can write and practice a sovereignty of the mind and the self, and manifest this on the page. Within these spaces, sovereign presents expand and sovereign futures flourish; we reach from Whadjuk boodja (country) to meeka (the moon).

To nurture next-generation Indigenous storytelling is to make spaces that transcend the failings of academia. This is our katitjin bidi (knowledge pathway) that we walk on. By engaging with critical Indigenous pedagogies and desire-based frameworks, we are able to create transformative pedagogical spaces which acknowledge Indigenous sovereignty, or ‘60,000 years of genius and imagination’, and re-situate and re-embed this sovereignty in Indigenous systems of knowledge, ways of knowing and cultural life ways. Within these spaces, we attempt to find freedom in storytelling, and free Indigeneity and Indigenous cultural heritage from the power and control of the Oppressor or Oppression. We acknowledge Aboriginal youth as custodians of their stories, as well as their sovereign relationships with Country and stories of Country.

Maar bidi, as pen as sword, represents overwriting colonial narratives about Indigenous people, writing new stories, and determining new storylines. Next generation Indigenous storytellers carve a pathway, with their hands, between ancient and new worlds. In this way, Indigenous youth storytelling becomes a praxis of restoring humanity and integrity to intergenerational Indigenous story cycles, bringing renewal through hope for and imagination of Indigenous-determined futures.

Symphony upon symphony, harmoniously stacked
Only the finest musicians there playing melodies unimaginable
– that’s what waking up
early in the morning feels like,
you’re on top of the world!
Crown caresses the sun as my curtain opens
The world at my feet

I can do anything.

Nancy Murray, ‘I can do anything’8
  1. Watson, I 2016, ‘First Nations and the Colonial Project’, Inter Genes, 1, 1, pp. 30-9.
  2. Tuck, E 2009, ‘Suspending damage: A letter to communities’, Harvard Educational Review, 79, 3, pp. 409-427. See also Leane, J 2018, ‘Subjects of the imagination: on dropping the settler pen’, Overland, np; and Behrendt, L 2016, Finding Eliza, University of Queensland Press, Brisbane.
  3. Wright, A 2016, ‘What Happens When You Tell Somebody Else’s Story?’, Meanjin, Summer, np.
  4. See Coburn, E, Moreton-Robinson, A, Sefa Dei, G and Stewart-Harawira, M 2013, ‘Unspeakable Things: Indigenous Research and Social Science’, Socio, 2, pp. 121-34; Denzin, N and Lincoln Y 2008, ‘Introduction: Critical Methodologies and Indigenous Inquiry’ in (eds) N Denzin, Y Lincoln and L Smith, Handbook of Critical and Indigenous Methodologies, Sage, Los Angeles, p. ix-xv; Nakata, M 2004, ‘Indigenous Australian Studies and Higher Education’, The Wentworth Lectures. Online; Styres, S 2019, ‘Literacies of Land: Decolonising Narratives, Storying and Literature’ in eds L Tuhiwai Smith, E Tuck and K Yang, Indigenous and Decolonising Studies in Education: Mapping the Long View, Routledge, New York, pp. 24-37; Tuhiwai-Smith, L 2013, Decolonizing Methodologies: Research and Indigenous Peoples, Zed Books, London.
  5. Vizenor, G 1994, Manifest manners: Post-Indian warriors of survivance, Wesleyan University Press, Middleton, CT, p. 93, cited in Tuck 2009.
  6. Tuck 2009, np.
  7. ‘In the Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish’s poem ‘The Phases of Anat’, the first line is, ‘Poetry is our ladder to the moon’. In Wright, A 2020‘A Self-Governing Literature’, Meanjin, Winter np.
  8. Extract from ‘I can do anything’ by Nancy Murray, in maar bidi: next generation black writing (Shiosaki and Martin 2020, p. 28). Reproduced with the author’s permission.
This entry was posted in ESSAYS, SCHOLARLY and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Related work:

Comments are closed.