January 30, 2019

Listening to the voices we need to hear

Before beginning any one of my classes, we spend some time acknowledging the people that were here before us. I start each class not with a territorial acknowledgment, but with a few minutes on what it means to be on the land that was stewarded and cared for by the indigenous people of our country. Each class, we try to contextualize this history with what we are learning in the course.

This is my small way of acknowledging that I am a settler on this land, and that my relationship to it can only be defined in the context of those who were the custodians of the land throughout the ages.

A few classes ago, after reading Tommy Orange’s There There, we spent the first few minutes in class talking about urban indigeneity. It is too easy for us to think of our relationship to indigenous people as a historical one; it is more important to understand that the relationship is an ongoing one, a contemporary one, an evolving one, and one that needs to be looked at anew with justice, reconciliation, and decolonization as its core tenets.

Teaching at a university, working in the public service — these are both inherently acts of perpetuating colonial structures. I acknowledge that, and while I grapple with that reality, I also try to think how I can practice decolonization in my own small way in these colonial structures. I don’t have answers, but it’s something I try to think about every single day.

One of the practices we are trying to do, at work and in class, beyond authentic conversations about land and territory and history, is trying to understand the importance of voice. Whose voices are included when decisions are made? Whose voices are listened to when we think about how to serve the people around us, the world around us?

Tommy Orange’s There There brought that importance of voice into a tangible reality. The novel is told through many stories, each in many voices. It switches from first person to second to third and back again, across levels of formality and familiarity. Every personal narrative is told with a different voice, and each voice is the one that is just right for that story. The story is compelling and heartbreaking, but it is this interplay of voice that is most striking about Tommy Orange’s novel; I left it feeling as though I had heard the same shared history from a multitude of people who were a part of that history.

The voices of the novel are resonant: they sing and echo much after you have put the book down.

And so, this week, I will start our class with a conversation about voice, and about how we can honestly, authentically, and justly honor the voices of those who were here before, those who are still here. I won’t have any answers, but we will start here, and allow the voices of those we need to hear guide us along the way.

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