The Elements of Indigenous Style: A Guide for Writing By and About Indigenous Peoples
July 28, 2020
Review By Mercedes Peters
Gregory Younging’s (1961-2019) The Elements of Indigenous Style is a testament to how prioritizing listening to Indigenous peoples, instead of merely writing about them, can both change the way settlers view their relationship with Indigenous peoples and affirm the validity of Indigenous thought, story structure and contemporary existence. Although the book is a short guide consisting of twenty-two “principles” for writing with, for, about, and by Indigenous peoples, as well as a series of brilliant “case studies” to illuminate these principles, those looking for a simple, quick-reference guidebook will be disappointed. In very little space, Younging (Cree) poses an important challenge that unseats a colonial practice of placing Indigenous nations under a microscope for settler consumption and instead pushes readers themselves to do the work of listening to, centering, and valuing Indigenous voices in their writing practices.
The Elements of Indigenous Style is not so much a how-to guide as it is an invitation for readers of all backgrounds to listen intently to Indigenous voices and to participate in respectful, reciprocal relationships with Indigenous people if they are to do any writing about Indigenous people in the first place. In a Canada where Indigenous stories are often hot media topics, and Indigenous studies continues to grow as a field with interested parties within and outside Indigenous nations, the conversation that Younging starts with this book makes an intervention with a wide reach. Younging himself admits that the intervention is not his alone; aside from the knowledge in this style guide coming from Younging’s years of experience in Indigenous publishing, he also dedicates uninterrupted space in the book for other Indigenous people to speak about the principles, as well as their own writing, research and thought. Presenting our work in conversation with other Indigenous people in ways that honour a wide range of unaggregated Indigenous experiences is not something we often get a chance to do in “Canadian” publishing streams.
Importantly, Younging puts each of the principles listed in the book into the context in which they were conceived, and discusses how they developed over time in conversation with Indigenous writers and broader Indigenous communities. Here, Younging demonstrates the kind of dedication and time required to tell Indigenous stories at all. These conversations must be had if we are going to develop a style of reading, writing and thinking that lets Indigenous people out of the realm of the theoretical and imagined, and into the tangible and contemporary world in which we’ve always existed (and written about) (6).
So often academics and journalists write as though there will be no retort to their words, paying no mind to the stakes of their work. The Elements of Indigenous Style, in all of its pocket-sized glory, presents a long-awaited retort to decades of writing about Indigenous people, but at the same time opens up a conversation, posing questions that demand engaged response from those writing about Indigenous topics. In practice, this book demonstrates not only how to write about Indigenous peoples but how to think about research and writing in a respectful way that neither sets up a rigid outline to follow, nor places the onus on Indigenous peoples to educate non-Indigenous people about how they want their stories told.
I also want to make a crucial note about what this book might mean for Indigenous readers. I was not expecting the ways in which The Elements of Indigenous Style validated my own work as a Mi’kmaw scholar. In one particularly memorable moment, Younging includes a conversation with Sto:Loh author, Lee Maracle, and her editor, who provide inspiration to Indigenous readers to continue fighting to tell our stories the way we want to tell them. Maracle reminds us that our stories are valid, and that they are worth fighting for in a world where editors are taught to shoehorn Indigenous work into easily digestible (colonial) formats (21-24). While this book seems at first to be directed toward a mainly non-Indigenous audience, this Indigenous student could not recommend it to other Indigenous readers enough.
The quest for the answer on how to write about Indigenous peoples is rooted in many cases in what Younging describes as “a colonial practice of transmitting ‘information’ about Indigenous Peoples rather than transmitting Indigenous Peoples’ perspectives about themselves” (1). Writing about Indigenous peoples is no easy task, and the call for more respectful and meaningful representations of Indigeneity in literature and media has in many cases triggered a wave of demands on Indigenous time to offer a catch-all checklist to Do The Job Well, and efficiently. Younging, graciously, and with as much gentle and crucial guidance as possible, replies to these demands by reminding readers that there are no easy answers and there are no quick solutions. There is only dedicated work; The Elements of Indigenous Style is an invitation to begin doing that work.
Younging, Gregory. The Elements of Indigenous Style: A Guide for Writing By and About Indigenous Peoples. Brush Education Inc., 2018. 168 pp. $19.95 paper.