Comparative Indigenous Literature

Bridging the gap between Francophone and Anglophone Indigenous literatures

Despite their numerous shared characteristics, Francophone and Anglophone Indigenous literatures in Canada remain separated by linguistic barriers1. These determine their relations to other literary productions, and to Anglophone and Francophone literary traditions and linguistic spaces in the world. Moreover, on an academic level, we find a traditional separation of two research contexts and their political agendas, maintained – again – by a linguistic barrier, as well as by an institutional divide.

Comparative literature programs, departments, and studies provide the means to transcend these separations by fostering research that compares multiple works of literature across various languages. By paying attention to linguistic specificity, alternative theoretical and discursive approaches, as well as to contextual understanding, comparative literature seems to be the lieu par excellence to bridge the gap between Indigenous literatures written in English and Indigenous literatures written in French. However, historically speaking, comparative literature implied the study of a few languages and literatures, mostly West-European, and was often deployed to value one literature over the other or used as a nationalist tool (see Damrosch and Spivak, 2011; Basnett, 1993). Such an approach would have damaging effects for the study of Francophone and Anglophone Indigenous literatures and would only perpetuate the colonial view that divided these two literatures to begin with. How, then, could comparative literature be a productive site of study for Indigenous literatures? To what extent can it bear the different positions of French-language and English-language Indigenous literatures? In other words, what would Indigenous comparative literature look like?

In this article, I aim to show not only how Indigenous comparative literature can deal with the unequal positions of Francophone Indigenous literatures and Anglophone Indigenous literatures (due to a double colonization) but also how it would benefit from the relations that arise from placing these literatures closer together. Instead of thinking in terms of comparisons and sameness, as comparative literature traditionally has done, Indigenous comparative literature invites us to think in terms of relations. This article explores how such relations between Francophone and Anglophone Indigenous literatures can be built and how they can be productive. To do so, I will examine the implications and potential of comparative literature and draw on the concepts of trans-Indigenous (Allen, 2012) and kinship (Justice, 2008). I do not aim to identify a specific fixed set of rules, because literature, kinship relations, and the trans-Indigenous are continually evolving. Rather, examining Lee Maracle’s Talking to the Diaspora and Natasha Kanapé Fontaine’s Manifeste Assi and Bleuets et abricots, using kinship as a critical lens of analysis, I offer an example of what comparative Indigenous literature of Francophone and Anglophone Indigenous literatures could look like.

Francophone and Anglophone Indigenous literatures

Whereas Indigenous literatures written in English are widely read and acknowledged, Francophone Indigenous literatures, although rapidly growing and enriching itself, remain understudied in Anglophone academic sphere. A Francophone Indigenous literary corpus emerged in the 1970s with Indigenous authors publishing mostly life accounts, such as Antane-Kapesh’s Eukuan nin matshimanitu Innu-iskueu/Je suis une maudite sauvagesse (1976), and historical essays. These works were often concerned with, on the one hand, preserving and sharing their culture, their experience, and their knowledge, and, on the other hand, denouncing the conditions in which Indigenous peoples were living as a result from colonialism. In the 1980s and 1990s First Nations literatures written in French expanded significantly by exploring genres, with many authors turning to the novel, poetry, and theatre. These works did not just focus on raising awareness among non-Indigenous people, they also conveyed a sense of creativity. Moreover, while the past may seem to dominate thematically, contemporary Indigenous authors are looking toward the future, exploring and employing different media, “thus emphasizing more the aesthetic rather than the sociopolitical” (Henzi, 2014: 657).

Indigenous literatures written in French and English in Canada testify to the particular cultural and political situation of a country characterized by a double colonization. Even though Indigenous writers working in French share cultural, political, and historical conditions with their Anglophone counterparts, these writers are situated in the cultural and political context of Quebec, that is marked by its minority status in Canada. In this regard, Isabelle St-Amand states:

[Indigenous authors writing in French] must deal with a double exiguity: on the one hand, the language barriers resulting from colonization complicate exchanges with the English-speaking Aboriginal literary community in North America; on the other hand, the constriction of the Francophone market reduces production and distribution opportunities, as well as the potential mass of critical discourse (St-Amand, 2010: 31, translated in: Henzi, 2014: 658).2

This double exiguity continues to influence Indigenous authors writing in French. As Lacombe, MacFarlane, and Andrews point out:

In a context in which English represents the dominant discourse and French is simultaneously celebrated by some and resented by others, Indigenous writers who use French rather than English find themselves in an especially complex situation, experiencing double marginalization (Lacombe, MacFarlane and Andrews, 2010: 6).

Because of this double marginalization and the language barriers, the emergence and establishment of Francophone Indigenous literatures was delayed compared to Anglophone Indigenous literature. However, things are rapidly changing as there is an important output of creative works by Indigenous artists in Quebec. Authors like Virginia Pésémapéo Bordeleau, Joséphine Bacon, Natasha Kanapé Fontaine, Louis-Karl Picard-Sioui and many others publish regularly. Moreover, their works are increasingly being translated into English, becoming more widely available and reaching a wider audience. In this way, Francophone Indigenous literatures are stepping out of the margins.

Compared to the critical discourse around Indigenous literatures in English, the scholarly attention given to Francophone Indigenous literatures was delayed. In 1993, Diane Boudreau, in Histoire de la littérature amérindienne au Québec, was among the first to identify and acknowledge a corpus of Indigenous literatures in Quebec. Since then, various scholars have put in tremendous effort to put Indigenous literatures written in French on the map: from Maurizio Gatti publishing an extensive anthology of Indigenous literatures from Quebec (Littérature amérindienne du Québec, 2004) to Sarah Henzi and Isabelle St-Amand organizing a (bilingual) summer school on Indigenous literatures and film at the Université de Montréal for several years. These efforts testify to the desire and need to open up the field of Indigenous studies by welcoming the study of French-language Indigenous literatures into it and by fostering fruitful conversations between Anglophone and Francophone literatures, scholars, and theories.

Whereas Indigenous studies are widely recognized across Anglo-Canada, the study of Francophone Indigenous literatures “remains at the margins – or just out of reach of this field of inquiry” (Henzi, 2014: 655). Scholars in Indigenous studies in Quebec often turn to Anglophone sources for interpretation and theory. As St-Amand argues, we do well to recognize “the potential and relevance of research realized in the domain of Indigenous studies in Anglophone North America” (St-Amand, 2010: 47). Whereas Francophone Indigenous studies benefit from research conducted in the Anglophone space of Indigenous studies, scholars from Anglo-Canada rarely turn to Francophone Indigenous studies to enrich their research. Admittedly, not all scholars are sufficiently equipped to tackle French sources. However, despite the efforts by scholars like Henzi and St-Amand to open up the field of Indigenous studies by publishing regularly in English about Francophone Indigenous literatures and theory, and providing bilingual platforms such as the above-mentioned summer schools, the attention given to Indigenous literatures written in French and its study by Anglophone scholars remains lacking.

Moreover, as Allen notes, “relatively little attention has been devoted to methodologies that emphasize the comparison of specific texts across contemporary indigenous literary traditions, especially across what have become standard indigenous groupings” (2007: 2-3). Allen specifically points to groupings within the Anglophone world, e.g. New Zealand Maori, North American Indians, or Indigenous Australians. However, this is perhaps even truer of comparisons between groupings that are not based on ‘nation’ but rather on ‘language’ as is the case for Francophone Indigenous peoples in Canada.

Moving towards comparative literature centering Indigenous knowledge

Comparative literature seems to perfectly accommodate the study of Anglophone and Francophone Indigenous literatures. In the broadest and most basic sense of the term, it “involves the study of texts across cultures, it is interdisciplinary, it is concerned with patterns of connection in literatures across both time and space” (Bassnett, 1993: 1). This discipline is characterized by cultural and linguistic specificity, and a willingness to engage alternative theoretical and discursive approaches. In this way, comparative literature enables to highlight connections between Indigenous literatures across Canada, across Turtle Island, or even across the world.

However, if one considers comparative literature’s history, it has long been concerned with sameness and hierarchy. As Damrosch, among others, highlights, comparative literature “really meant the study of a very few, mostly Western-European major literatures” (Damrosch and Spivak, 2011: 455). It was centered on influence and was often focused on questions of nationality and identity. In the late 18th and early 19th centuries, European countries were struggling for independence. Comparative literature then served to foster the search for cultural roots by establishing a canon and evaluating one literature over the other. In this way, comparative literature helped affirm one literature, thus decentralizing the other.

If comparative literature has long been concerned with questions of nationalism and of hierarchy between literatures, how can it be productive in studying Indigenous literatures where the ‘nation’ is problematic, and where colonialism has led to a situation where one literature exists in the margins of another? First, it is essential to highlight the existing relations between Francophone and Anglophone Indigenous literatures, considering their common grounds as well as acknowledging and accommodating their differences. Given the importance of kinship relations in Indigenous world views and literatures, keeping these literatures separated from one another undermines the relations and responsibilities between them. In this respect, the act of joining Francophone and Anglophone Indigenous poetic texts into a conversation in this article could in itself be considered as an act of kinship.

Second, it is a mistake to assume that “a fair comparison needs to focus on the objects of comparison in exactly the same ways or to the same degree” (Te Punga Somerville, 2007: 25). The studied texts, themes and/or elements as well as the subject position from the researcher all underpin a comparison. Therefore, in comparing Indigenous literatures written in French and English, we do not need to study the exact same number of poems or words from both bodies of work, nor do we need to address them in the same ways. As for this article, a slightly increased focus on Francophone Indigenous poetry stems both from my position as a non-Indigenous scholar with a background in Francophone literatures and from the purpose of this article. It aims to show how attention given to Francophone Indigenous literatures, especially when put in relation and conversation with Anglophone Indigenous literature, both opens up the field of Indigenous studies and contributes to theories and knowledge that have mostly been developed in the Anglophone space. Francophone Indigenous literatures having a position at the margins of the field due to the double colonization of Canada has resulted in a need to implicate Indigenous literatures and scholarship in French into the Anglo-Canadian field, and, to an even larger scale, into the global field of Indigenous studies.

Third, comparative literature scholars should study texts and literatures in their own right, “not as a construct molded to suit the corporate university, large publishing conglomerates, and a consumer-savvy professoriate” (Figueira, 2012: 15). If comparative literature is dead (Spivak, 2003) in one sense, the activity of comparison is being revitalized and continually developed. The pluralism of comparative literature offers “an infinite wealth of altered perceptions and innovative connections” (Basnett, 1993: 86) that can contribute to productive comparative study of Indigenous literatures. As many have argued (Figueira, 2015; Bassnett, 1993), comparative literature is indeed receptive to approaches from various disciplines. Instead of focusing on the established models of comparative literature on which the nationalistic trend in comparative literature was based, Indigenous comparative literature would center Indigenous knowledge to create a theoretical and practical approach that is “liberating and transformational” (Fox, 2012: 426). Indeed, in a context of continuous oppression and delegitimization of Indigenous voice by Western societies and institutions, a focus on theoretical and discursive approaches developed in/from Indigenous communities and knowledge is key to productive Indigenous comparative literature. Rather than placing Indigenous texts in the context of the critical tools borrowed from the West – thereby perpetuating colonialism by oppressing Indigenous knowledge and refusing its existence – Indigenous comparative literature is about Indigenous-to-Indigenous responses and juxtapositions. As a non-Indigenous scholar, I emphasize and critically engage with the work of Native scholars and writers to lift up these Indigenous-to-Indigenous responses.

This is why a productive Indigenous comparative literature must center on Indigenous knowledges and the relationships between the works at study. Combining Francophone and Anglophone Indigenous literatures, this article can in itself be considered an act of kinship, as mentioned above. Furthermore, it will also use kinship as a “critical lens through which to regard recent controversies in Native literary criticism” (Justice, 2008: 148). In “Go Away Water”, Daniel Heath Justice, indeed, poses kinship as an interpretive key for literary analysis. Kinship is central to Indigenous literatures, world views, and knowledge as the famous words “All my relations” by Thomas King convey:

“All my relations” is at first a reminder of who we are and of our relationship with both our family and our relatives. It also reminds us of the extended relationship we share with all human beings. But the relationships that Native people see go further, the web of kinship extending to animals, to the birds, to the fish, to the plants, to all the animate and inanimate forms that can be seen or imagined. More than that, “all my relations” is an encouragement for us to accept the responsibilities we have within the universal family by living our lives in a harmonious and moral manner (a common admonishment is to say of someone that they act as if they had no relations) (King, 1990: ix).

Kinship is about more than blood lines, it is a “web of rights and responsibilities” (Justice, 2008: 154) that extends also into Indigenous literatures and Indigenous studies.

Placing texts close together: trans-Indigenous methodologies and kinship relation

Indigenous comparative literature could benefit from what Allen calls trans-Indigenous methodologies, “a broad set of emerging practices designed explicitly to privilege reading across, through, and beyond tribally and nationally specific Indigenous texts and contexts” (Allen, 2014; 378. Italics in original). He argues that a comparative approach in Indigenous literatures is problematic because it is often based on sameness and equality, while literatures and texts are rarely equal. Looking closely at the etymological origins of the terms “comparing” and “juxtaposing”, Allen states further that juxtaposition is the preferred methodology. He explains, “[w]here compare unites “together” (com-) with “equal” (par), juxtapose unites “close together” (Lat. juxta-) with “to place” (Fr. poser)” (Ibid.: xvii-xviii). The concept of together equal often “culminates in a statement of similarities and differences, a balanced list of same and its mirrored other, not same” (Ibid.: xiii) and a reading based on equality and sameness. Allen points out that “the abstract concept of together equal is easily turned against the political interests of specific individuals, communities, and nations” (Ibid.: xiii); it only recenters and serves the dominant culture. He proposes to move towards critical trans-Indigenous methodologies and practices based on the idea of “together (yet) distinct” and facilitated by the practice of placing texts close together, juxtaposing them. These methodologies are geared towards meaningful conversation and lifting up kinship relationships between various artistic outings.

The concept of trans-Indigenous inherently poses the question of the relation between the local and the global in Indigenous literary studies. Fox, in addressing the turn from examining Indigenous histories within the framework of national boundaries to adopting transnational approaches and methods in writing Indigenous histories, argues that transnationalism is problematic because “the nation itself is a problematic construct” (2012: 425). Indeed, the national borders of Canada and the United States – as well as the provincial borders of Quebec within the nation-state of Canada – have been installed and perpetuated by the colonizers and have placed a frontier right through the middle of Native lands and peoples. Many Indigenous peoples, therefore, do not recognize the national borders and nation state. Fox argues that the local, national, and transnational are deeply intertwined since “ideas and movements of resistance and self-determination are local, national and transnational” (Ibid.: 431). She concludes that “putting Indigenous cultural knowledge at the center of historical scholarship need not mean only researching and writing in local frameworks, but rather looking at the national and the transnational from a position grounded in the local” (Ibid.: 431-432).

In a similar vein, Bauerkemper points to the emergent use of transnational frameworks by Indigenous literature scholars. What characterizes their research is “an insightful and inventive shift toward a complementary, rather than oppositional, configuration of nationalism and transnationalism” (Bauerkemper, 2014: 396). In this way, they enhance Indigenous trans/nationalism as a productive theoretical construct: “as the punctuational inclusion of the slash suggests, Indigenous trans/nationalism signals both the sovereign integrity of Indigenous nations and the relations that move between and across them” (Ibid.: 396). Whereas Fox and Bauerkemper continue to use the concepts of nation and transnationalism, Allen moves away from such notions that risk perpetuating its practices. Allen’s trans-Indigenous methodologies are aimed at developing “a version of Indigenous literary studies that locates itself firmly in the specificity of the Indigenous local while remaining always cognizant of the complexity of the relevant Indigenous global” (Allen, 2012: xix). The central question throughout his work is “what can we see or understand differently by juxtaposing distinct and diverse Indigenous texts, contexts, and traditions?”. I will use kinship as a critical framework to analyze Fontaine’s and Maracle’s poetry to show what we can see or understand differently by enabling a dialogue between Francophone and Anglophone Indigenous texts.

“Word flowers” creating lines of solidarity

In Maracle’s and Fontaine’s poetry, kinship relations manifest themselves in various ways. In some instances, the poems and the relations conveyed echo closely between the authors’ works, whereas, at other times, the resonances between the texts reveal themselves on a more general, thematic level: that of kinship and relations to other (Indigenous) peoples in the world.

Natasha Kanapé Fontaine is an Innu poet, activist, spoken word performer, and artist from Pessamit currently living in Montreal. She publishes her poetry in French and most of her collections of poetry have been translated into English3. In her poem “Amalgame de terre noire ma terre assi”, Fontaine writes: “J’ai noir éclaté dans l’herbe / l’herbe des chants anciens en tonne sur les blés / les prés / Wounded Knee mon coeur Athapaskan / mon âme Romaine / Oka // Nitassinan”4 (MA: 80)5. In this poem, Fontaine talks about various First Nations: Wounded Knee refers to the massacre of Wounded Knee that took place December 29th, 1890 in South Dakota in the United States during which about 300 Lakota Miniconjou were killed by the American army; “Athapaskan” describing a linguistic group refers to multiple Indigenous peoples like the Navajos, the Apaches and many others; “Oka” describes the Oka crisis, a political event where the Mohawks found themselves opposed to the Quebecois and Canadian governments during the summer of 1990. On the one hand, the absence of conjunctions indicates there is no hierarchy between the tribes, they are all equal. On the other hand, the absence of conjunctions as well as the fact that these First Nations are mentioned in one single stanza suggests the nations are interrelated, pointing to their kinship ties.

This interrelatedness between First Nations becomes even clearer throughout the whole collection of poetry, and in her complete oeuvre. In Manifeste Assi, Fontaine also includes the “Crees from the West / or the six nations”6 (MA: 34, translated in: Fontaine, translated by Scott, 2016: 26). In her later works, especially in Bleuets et abricots, she extends the network of relations to other places in Turtle Island:

Je me nommerai Mississippi
j’aurai un nom de reine
ma fleur d’origine

Je suis
je suis venue apporter la lumière aux nations
je suis venue avec la lumière

Je suis revenue pour rester
je suis revenue pour prendre pays
lui donner son nom de terre (BA: 72)7.

The affirmations in “Je suis / j’existe” ground the poem in the present, while the last two verses “je suis revenue pour prendre pays / lui donner son nom de terre” ground the poem in the local. The main character, always present in the first person singular, affirms herself as a person and as a woman, in the present and in the local. Moreover, the verse “je suis venue apporter la lumière aux nations” links the singular individual (“je”) to the many nations. In this way, the various nations are also grounded in the present-local. The use of the future tense in the first six verses is even more striking when considering this firm basis in the present local. It is through this groundedness that the main character can imagine the future, a future that is full of relationships with other nations. She “will name [herself] Mississippi / Assiniboine / Azueï / Oaxaca”, thereby identifying herself with the Indigenous peoples in Turtle Island she is referring to. We notice once again the absence of conjunctions, thus placing all Indigenous peoples close together.

Fontaine employs a similar method in the following poem in which the main character weeps for both grand Indigenous leaders and occupied regions and cities:

Mon nom mon visage
pleurer les chevauchées
Sitting Bull, Tecumseh, Pontiac
sangloter Wounded Knee
Alcatraz, Yucatan, Oka / Elsipuktuk
Je suis revenue avec la lumière (…)

Je sais dire je suis
Je sais dire le mot terre
Je sais dire le mot peuple
Je jure sur la langue de l’Afrique, ma mère
Je jure sur le bras de l’Asie, ma sœur
Je jure sur la jambe de la Sibérie, ma sœur
Je jure sur le pied de l’Océanie, ma sœur
Je jure sur le corps aquatique de l’Amérique
Je reprendrai ma dignité” (BA: 73-74)8.

What is even more striking in this poem is how Fontaine extends the lines of solidarity beyond Indigenous peoples in Turtle Island, including Africa, Asia, Siberia, and Oceania. Identifying the continents and regions as mother and sisters, Fontaine seems to create familial ties between the main character and the regions. In this way, these geographical locations and their peoples become related by blood lines. Moreover, the lexical field of body (“langue”, “bras”, “jambe”, “pied”) suggests all mentioned continents and regions are part of one larger body. Whereas a body can survive if some body parts are missing, the body can only reach its full potential when intact. In linking the continents and its peoples to (body) parts of a bigger whole, Fontaine seems to suggest that, although various Indigenous peoples might all very well survive on their own, their full potential can only be reached when working together. This does not mean all working in the same ways, but every limb, every person, and every people has a specific part to play in the larger whole. This exemplifies Vizenor’s move from survival to survivance. Indigenous peoples not only survived colonialism, they also create survivance, “an active sense of presence, the continuance of Native stories” (Vizenor, 1999: vii), the continuance of community and culture. Part of this survivance is reclaiming one’s dignity. In this respect, the last verse suggests it is through these lines of solidarity between the continents and various Indigenous peoples, also symbolized by blood lines as mentioned above, that one can reclaim one’s dignity. Or, as Justice argues, “participating in these acts of kinship, we keep the community and history alive” (Justice, 2008: 160).

If Fontaine’s poetry is full of references to numerous (Indigenous) peoples, so is Lee Maracle’s work characterized by allusions to Indigenous peoples from all over the world. Member of the Sto:Loh nation, Lee Maracle is a writer, scholar, and keeper/mythmaker. She writes in English and her books have been translated in various languages among which French9. Lee Maracle’s Talking to the Diaspora refers to many Indigenous peoples from “Machu Picchu to Iqaluit” (TD: “Talking to the Diaspora”), and to oppressed peoples from “the grey smoke-filled Palestinian landscape” (Ibid.) to “just off shore from this city, the Komagatu Maru” (TD: “Gassy Jack’s clock”). Maracle’s poetry is interwoven with references to massacres like Wounded Knee and Oka, as we have seen above for Fontaine’s poetry, and to exclusion politics like apartheid and immigration policies. In the poem “Remembering Mahmoud 1976”, for example, Maracle links Wounded Knee to Palestine. The main character is looking at a picture of a boy cradling a pair of stones:

This light shines back at me from his eyes
The light illuminates his stones
Bound as these stones are to his resolve
To traverse across the abyss
Between his refuge and the tanks
My commitment to Palestine floats
The light emanating from his eyes captures my heart
I whisper Palestine, Palestine – Free Palestine
Wounded Knee, no more Wounded Knees
I imagine him listening, hearing me
Nearly smiling
Just before he throws his stones” (TD: “Remembering Mahmoud 1976”).

In seeing this Palestinian boy amidst the rubble of landscape destroyed by Israeli bombs, the main character sees the light in his eyes, capturing her and leading her to “whisper Palestine, Palestine – Free Palestine / Wounded Knee, no more Wounded Knees”. The repetition of “Palestine” reinforces her speaking. Moreover, the call to action underscored by the imperative (“Free Palestine”) highlights the continuing violence the Palestinians face. The enjambment in these verses underlines the connection between Palestine and Wounded Knee. Moreover, the plural in “Wounded Knees” extends the massacre of Wounded Knee to Palestine; rendering the massacre multiple, Maracle connects these events and presents kinship relations between Indigenous peoples and Palestinians, as she does throughout the collection of poetry, as we will we see below.

In the same poem, we find perhaps the most inventive manifestation of the solidarity between Palestinians and Indigenous peoples from Turtle Island:

-40 in Winnipeg
Palestinians and Indigenous children wave placards
Stop killing children in Palestine
Free Gaza
My tears freeze on my face
My daughter is there
just as she was 35 years ago
chanting Free Palestindians
My frozen tears cut pain lines on my face” (TD, “Rembering Mahmoud 1976”, italics in original).

A contraction of “Palestinians” and “Indians”, the neologism “Palestindians” highlights the solidarity between the peoples and underscores kinship responsibilities. Indeed, this neologism poses “indigeneity as a site of solidarity, commonality, and shared struggle” (Krebs and Olwan, 2012). In ‘On the AFN visit to Palestine”, Maracle critiques the visit of the AFN to Palestine from an Indigenous perspective, ending her letter, however, with the following: “The traditional values we hold dear are freedom, the end of oppression and justice for all…We want to assure the ‘Indians of the middle east’ that we will continue this support despite the bizarre behaviour of the AFN puppets” (Maracle, 2006). She advocates solidarity between Palestinians, the Indians of the Middle East, and Indigenous peoples. This web of relations not only comes to the fore on a thematic level and textual level as we have seen so far. The responsibility is also honored by its embodiment in poetry, especially when the reader is sought out to engage with.

All the while recognizing the differences between the massacres, Maracle draws another parallel between Palestine and Wounded Knee:

It’s December
Gaza is on fire
another Wounded Knee
another massacre
no muskets this time
tanks, monster machines
bombs and missiles pummel the children
How brave is that?” (TD: “Remembering Mahmoud 1976”).

Maracle points out that even though both events are located in different place and time, there is a connection that cannot be denied. Even more so, Maracle not only compares Gaza to Wounded Knee by employing the adjective “another,” the same adjective is also repeated in the next verse to move from a specific-to-specific comparison to a specific-to-general comparison. In this way, she opens up the comparison allowing the reader to think of “another massacre” that is or can be related to Gaza and Wounded Knee. Thus, the reader is invited to think of other relations. In this way, not only does Maracle’s poetry present kinship relations as a theme, it also aims to incite kinship relations with the reader by inviting the reader to actively engage with the poetry. The reader is invited to contribute one’s experience to the text and the reading experience. Moreover, the reader, Indigenous or non-Indigenous, is sought out to actively imagine relationships between Indigenous peoples, Palestinians, and other peoples. In this way, Maracle’s poetry exemplifies Justice’s assertion that imaginative capacity strengthens connections: by thinking of other similar massacres, by engaging with the poetry, the reader imagines relations with other peoples.

So far this article has analyzed Fontaine’s poetry and Maracle’s poetry in their own respect, emphasizing how both authors put forward kinship relations in their work. Even though both authors allude to various Indigenous peoples and highlight kinship relations, they both do so in different ways. Making her main character relate herself to many Indigenous peoples and peoples from Asia, Siberia, Oceania, and Africa, Fontaine shows the many kinship relations that exist between Indigenous peoples from all over the world. In doing so, she highlights how these kinship ties contribute to keeping the communities alive. Maracle underscores the strong relation between Indigenous peoples from Turtle Island and from Palestine. Furthermore, she includes the reader as part of all these relations and she invites the reader to participate in creating relations. Even though the poems are very different from one another and deal with kinship in various ways, they provide space for conversation about kinship and Indigenous poetry.

To give another example of what Indigenous comparative literature might look like, I will juxtapose Maracle’s “Remembering Mahmoud 1976” and Fontaine’s titleless poem beginning with “Je me nommerai Mississippi” (cited above) in more detail, thereby identifying further resonances between Maracle’s and Fontaine’s work. Juxtaposing these poems, we notice the image of light in both of them. In Maracle’s poem, the main character is touched and inspired by the light in the Palestinian boy’s eyes. This light emanates to his stones picked up from the rubble that are destined “to the restoration of his homeland” (TD, “Remembering Mahmoud 1976”). These stones, these “last bits of a place called home”, “are his beginning (…) they become stones of conscience / they are his stones of pride / they will become his stones of belonging / they are the rocks of justice for all of us” (Ibid.). The ascending progression in these last verses point to the possible progress. At first, the boy’s light gives individual meaning to the stones, they represent his possibilities. But then, this light emanates the stone with value for humanity, “they are the rocks of justice for all of us”. In this respect, it is even more striking that the light in the boy’s eyes with all its emanating power at the same time represents “Indigenous global tenacity” (Ibid.). In this way, Maracle, once again, links Palestinian future to the future of Indigenous peoples from Turtle Island. Moreover, the use of ‘global’ extends the power of his light to all Indigenous peoples across the earth.

Whereas in Maracle’s poem, the light emanating from the Palestinian boy’s eyes represents a future for all Indigenous peoples in the world and is perceived by the poem’s main character, in Fontaine’s poem, it is the carrier of the light who perceives its power: “Je suis / j’existe / je suis venue apporter la lumière aux nations / je suis venue avec la lumière // Je suis revenue pour rester / je suis revenue pour prendre pays / lui donner son nom de terre” (BA: 72). Grounded in her existence, in her being, the main character carries the light to the nations. This light emanates from the character’s position in the land (“pays”, “terre”). Fontaine’s poem gives no indication of who might receive the light brought by the main character. However, by placing these texts close together, we can infer that this light is directed towards all “nations” (Ibid.), toward “all of us” who are receptive of and who carry “Indigenous global tenacity” (TD: “Remembering Mahmoud 1976). In this way, juxtaposing the poems, various registers of meaning are brought together, thereby articulating community through invocations of connections. Here, poetry offers a way of reading across, through and beyond a text. Even though every single text is unique, a juxtaposition of poems invites the reader to see and read an intricate network of connections, as we will also see in the next example.

The imagery invoked in the following verses is telling of the power of poetry:

Mahmoud’s poems are beads of sweat
dripping from stressed and weathered foreheads
to fall near silent amid incessant Israeli bombs
to rise – blood – from between the bits of rubble
clutched by Palestinians chasing a livelihood
from a shrinking land base
they become desperate word flowers
blooming nonetheless from a land
occupied by settlers
chronically stealing the lives of children” (TD, “Remembering Mahmoud 1976”).

The first verses seem to suggest poems get erased when overwhelmed by war. However, the use of the adverb “near” and the opposition between “to fall” and “to rise” nuance this initial image. Indeed, the succession of the verses “to fall near silent amid incessant Israeli bombs” and “to rise – blood – from between the bits of rubble” is a rapid turning point in this poem. The following verses in the first stanza only underscore the power of Mahmoud’s poems and of poetry more generally. Poetry appears as a means to hold on to, “clutched by Palestinians chasing a livelihood / from a shrinking land base”. Words help (re)build a life, a home.

Now, this particular verse echoes Fontaine’s following fragment: “Elles disposent de leur vigueur d’antan / les arbres refleuriront / semblables à la Syrie ancienne / Je reconnaîtrai les oliviers / la vivacité de la Palestine / ses lèvres pulpeuses” (BA: 65-66)10. While Maracle refers to livelihood and Fontaine to the liveliness of Palestine, these poems resonate strongly with each other. It might be that Fontaine was inspired by Maracle’s address of Palestine, perhaps it is a coincidental resemblance. Either way, this resonance between the two poems indicates that a difference of language does not prevent lines of solidarity from being created. Moreover, these poems can be read and their juxtaposition can be understood as a shared collective resistance to settler colonialism. The following lines of Maracle’s poem “They become desperate word flowers / blooming nonetheless from a land occupied by settlers / chronically stealing lives of children” highlight the creative force of poetry. Even though Palestine and Turtle Island are both occupied by settlers, “word flowers” will continue to grow and bloom, not merely surviving occupation and building livelihood but also giving the land its liveliness. Indigenous poetry, to borrow Audre Lorde’s words, is not a luxury: “It is a vital necessity of our existence. It forms the quality of light within which we predicate our hopes and dreams towards survival and change, first made into language, then into idea, then into more tangible action” (2017: 2). Fontaine’s and Maracle’s poetry shows that solidarity is not a luxury either: thematically, kinship relations are presented by these authors as responsible actions towards one another; on a formal level, the poets invite the reader to participate in creating lines of solidarity thus extending the “delicate web of rights and responsibilities” (Justice, 2008: 154).


This series of juxtapositions among texts from Fontaine and Maracle highlights the ability of French-language and English-language Indigenous poems to resonate with meaning and aesthetic excellence. Despite the numerous inherent differences between them, these poems offer mutually recognizable symbols of Indigenous kinship relations, and of global struggles for resistance against settler colonialism. Moreover, juxtaposing poems invites the reader to see and read an intricate network of connections. In this way, reading across texts is in itself an act of kinship. Furthermore, these juxtapositions propose a wide range of interpretative possibilities that foster meaningful conversation about relations, poetry, and Indigenous literatures across languages.

Just as Indigenous literatures are about relations, so too is Indigenous comparative literature. As Indigenous literary studies scholars, we relate one text to another, we place literatures close together, we invite them to enter a dialogue. The resulting conversations often show some similarities – for example, Maracle and Fontaine both relating Indigenous struggles to Palestinian struggles – but even more differences – for example, Maracle pointing to Palestinian livelihood and Fontaine to Palestinian liveliness. Indigenous comparative literature constitutes a site where relations can exist and be created. Francophone Indigenous literature’s existence in the margins of Anglophone Indigenous literatures is one thing, not bringing these literatures together is something else entirely. Treating them as totally separate literatures not only perpetuates a colonial view, it also hurts the relations among these literatures, their writers, their readers, and the peoples. Placing these powerful literatures firmly within a conversation about the relationship of Indigenous peoples to other Indigenous peoples and allies, allows us to see beyond linguistic barriers and stimulates us to continue writing and offering such Indigenous-to-Indigenous conversations across languages and literatures. If “these literary works offer us insight and sometimes helpful pathways for maintaining, rebuilding, or even simply establishing these meaningful connections”, as Justice eloquently states (2018: xix), so does Indigenous comparative literature by accommodating difference across languages.

  1. 1Indigenous peoples include First Nations, Inuit and Metis peoples. The terms “Indigenous literature” and “First Nations literature” are more commonly used in a Canadian context than “Amerindian literature” and “Native American literature” which are employed more widely in the United States. Following the terminology used by the authors at study, I will mostly employ the general “Indigenous literature” and the more specific “First Nations literature”.

    I am aware that employing the terms “Canada” and “United States” can be problematic. Many Indigenous people do not recognize the border between these two nations forced upon Indigenous territory during colonialism. Despite the problematic position of “Canada” as a geographical and geopolitical nominator, in this article I will use both “Canada” and “Turtle Island,” a name for North America used by many Native American and First Nations peoples, to refer to geographical locations where necessary. Although I will mostly refer to North America as “Turtle Island,” some parts of my article demand that I use “Canada” specifically, because of the specific situation caused by double colonization that took place in what is now known as Canada. This double colonization has severely impacted the development of Indigenous literatures written in French, as we will see in the article.

  2. 2“[Les auteurs autochtones écrivant en français] doivent composer avec une double exiguïté : d’une part, les barrières linguistiques issues de la colonisation compliquent les échanges avec le milieu littéraire autochtone d’expression anglaise en Amérique du Nord; d’autre part, l’exiguïté du marché francophone diminue les possibilités de production et de diffusion, ainsi que la masse possible de discours critiques” (St-Amand, 2010: 31).
  3. 3Translated by Howard Scott, Fontaine’s work has been published in English by Mawenzi House.
  4. 4“I black burst in the grass / the grass of ancient songs in tons on the wheat / the fields / Wounded Knee my heart Athapaskan / my Romaine soul / Oka” (Fontaine, translated by Scott, 2016: 70).
  5. 5For quotations from the collections of poetry, I will refer to Fontaine’s Manifeste Assi as MA, to Fontaine’s Bleuets et abricots as BA, and to Maracle Talking to the Diaspora as TD. As Talking to the Diaspora does not contain page numbers, I’ll refer to the poem titles.
  6. 6“Des Cris de l’Ouest / ou des six nations” (MA: 34).
  7. 7“I will name my self Mississippi / Assiniboine / Azueï / Oaxaca / I will have a queen’s name / my original flower // I am / I exist / I came bearing the light to the nations / I came with the light // I came back to stay / I came back to take land / to give it his name of earth” (my translation).
  8. 8“My name my face / cry the chevauchées / Sitting Bull, Tecumseh, Pontiac / weep Wounded Knee / Alcatraz, Yucatan, Oka / Elsipuktuk / I came back with the light (…) // I know saying I am / I know saying the word earth / I know saying the word people / I swear on the tongue of Africa, my mother / I swear on the arm of Asia, my sister / I swear on the leg of Siberia, my sister / I swear on the foot of Oceania, my sister / I swear on the aquatic body of America / I will take back my dignity” (my translation).
  9. 9Maracle’s Ravensong, translated by Joanie Demers, has been published in French by Mémoire d’encrier.
  10. 10“They have their former vigour / the trees will bloom again / similar to ancient Syria / I will recognize the olive trees / the vivacity of Palestine / its pulpy lips” (my translation).