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Writing from the Inside Out – Seeking Ways to make Writing about Self and Community more Rewarding and (hopefully) less Agonizing

From left, Vancouver artist, Susan McCallum, Charlotte, Charlotte’s niece Jenoah, and Cynthia del Rosario, UW Director of Graduate Recruitment and Retention.

May 31, 2011

by Charlotte Coté, American Indian Studies

For Native scholars in Canada and the United States, writing is both an act of resistance and an act of re-empowerment. However, many challenges arise when we write about ourselves and our respective communities. I used this presentation to discuss the challenges I faced when writing my recent book, “Spirits of Our Whaling Ancestors. Revitalizing Makah and Nuu-chah-nulth Traditions”. I discussed the process of writing about my experiences growing up in a First Nations community in Canada and some of the issues this raised about sharing cultural and community knowledge. I faced two main questions: How do I write about something that is so personal? How do I write myself into the history I am analyzing?

I discussed how difficult it was to decide what family, community, and cultural knowledge I would share in my book and talked about how I decided what I would share. As Native scholars, we are challenged to present a study that is comprehensive and academically rigorous while at the same time is sensitive to our communities and respectful of our people. I discussed how I attempted to balance the utilization of written and archival material with my community’s oral stories, my family history, and my own personal reflections. I ended my presentation by sharing with the other panelists and audience that, while this process was deeply challenging, and at times, very stressful, I also found it to be very rewarding. I was able to write our history using the words of my ancestors, my relatives, and my community members, utilizing stories that informed my day-to-day life. This was truly rewarding.

Charlotte Coté presented her paper, “Writing from the Inside Out,” at the Native American/Indigenous Studies Association conference held May 19-21 in Sacramento, California. Travel was supported, in part, by funding from a Canadian Studies Center Program Enhancement Grant, Foreign Affairs and International Trade Canada, Government of Canada.