Greg Younging—Indigenous editorial issues

Greg Younging, member of Opaskwayak Cree Nation in Northern Manitoba and publisher of Theytus Books, led an engaging, eye-opening seminar on Indigenous editorial issues for members of the Association of Book Publishers of BC (ABPBC), which invited Editors BC to join in. Younging was Assistant Director of Research for the federal government’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) and is chair of the Indigenous Peoples’ Caucus of the Creator’s Rights Alliance. His seminar was a perfect balance of important historical context and practical suggestions. I’ll do my best to recap the highlights, but if you ever get the opportunity to attend this seminar or more in-depth training through the Indigenous Editors Circle (formerly Aboriginal Editors Circle), I’d highly recommend taking it.


“What is the essence of what it means to be an Indigenous person?” Younging began. It’s a concept fully understood only by Indigenous people and allies who work closely with them over long periods. “There is something called the Indigenous voice, which needs to be authenticated in the publishing process,” said Younging.

For too long Indigenous people have been misrepresented in books, artwork, and other media, portrayed from an outsider’s perspective. “Authors and anthropologists have not tried to view Indigenous peoples through an Indigenous lens; they’ve interpreted them through a Western lens.” In the 1990s there was a movement to raise awareness of—and stop—cultural appropriation. Among Indigenous people, the attitude in that era was, “Stop writing about us. Let us write about us.”

“The discourse has evolved,” said Younging, with the recognition that non-Indigenous people can be powerful allies in storytelling. Outsiders are being invited to write and publish Indigenous stories but are also asked to consult with the community, use an Indigenous editor if possible, and approach the task with sensitivity. Reconciliation, said Younging, will help more and more allies become involved.

Indigenous people go through a personal journey, said Younging. There is a moment when “you realize that you’re growing up in a colonized world. You have to decolonize yourself, then Indigenize yourself—those are two different things. At some point you reach an understanding of who Indigenous people are.”

Indigenous people, up to about three hundred years ago, had governed themselves. They have their own institutions and trace their roots back to creation stories. Although these stories differ widely, most of them describe a supernatural act by a creator, who placed the people on their territories and gave them responsibility to care for those territories and ecosystems. Indigenous people understand that the land provides for them, and they are humbled by it and hold ceremonies to give back to it.

Indigenous people have a strong connection to their ancestors, going back millennia. “We know our ancestors are watching us. We know what their worldview was, and we strive to have those views ourselves while we’re decolonizing.” Younging said that the most important part of Indigeneity, however, is not that Indigenous people are the descendants of ancestors who lived in this place but the connection to the land and the responsibility to the ecosystem and to the ancestors.

Traditional knowledge

Not all traditional knowledge is Indigenous, but the vast majority of it is. Traditional knowledge can be at odds with Western ideas of intellectual property rights. Indigenous laws and protocols regulate traditional knowledge: some stories can only be told by certain clans or genders or by people who have apprenticed under a master of a particular area of knowledge. Some stories were never meant for a wider audience and should never enter the public domain.

Whereas intellectual is invented or created, traditional knowledge is considered to be pre-existing. It is often so old that it cannot be attributed to a specific ancestor.

Traditional knowledge comes from

  • observations of cyclical patterns in ecosystems
  • observations of animals
  • spiritual knowledge
  • teachings in creation stories, prophecies, and ceremonies
  • elders’ perspectives and interpretations
  • trial and error and experience
  • other Indigenous nations’ traditional knowledge, and
  • a combination of traditional, Western, and other knowledge systems,

among other sources.

Some Indigenous feel that the term “traditional knowledge” doesn’t capture contemporary Indigenous knowledge, which is also an important part of Indigeneity.

Traditional knowledge and Western conceptions of intellectual property often conflict:

  • Under Western intellectual property rules, a lot of traditional knowledge is too old to qualify for copyright protection and is supposedly in the public domain.
  • The “author” of the material can’t be identified, so there’s no “rights holder” in the usual sense of the term.
  • Traditional knowledge is collectively culturally owned by Indigenous groups and not by individuals or corporations.

If you want publish Indigenous traditional knowledge, you need

  • permission and prior, informed consent from the Indigenous group, and
  • mutually agreed terms of usage, with a plan to share any benefits and profits with the Indigenous group.

The laws governing how traditional knowledge is used and disseminated are sui generis—they are unique to the knowledge and the circumstance of its use—and may incorporate Indigenous laws. Indigenous laws have developed in concert with traditional knowledge over millennia and are inseparable from traditional knowledge in Indigenous cultural contexts, but they are not frozen in time and are always evolving. There is no one-size-fits-all intellectual properly law that applies to traditional knowledge. Younging said that expecting all knowledge to fit into Western paradigms and legal regimes “is a form of colonization.”

Just as colonial powers saw Indigenous territorials as terra nullius—“nobody’s land” that could therefore be taken—Younging argued that traditional knowledge had been treated as gnaritas nullius (“nobody’s knowledge”) under the intellectual property rights system and was automatically in the public domain.

Several international organizations have weighed in on the issue of traditional knowledge, including UNESCO, whose conventions protecting cultural and natural heritage, as well as diversity of cultural expressions, formally recognize the importance of traditional knowledge.

Most notably, the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) launched a fact-finding mission in the late 1990s to consult with Indigenous groups around the world about how their traditional knowledge had been appropriated by intellectual property infrastructure.

WIPO developed a standard definition of traditional knowledge and offered guidelines for protecting traditional cultural expressions, along with instruments that Indigenous groups could use to challenge misuse of their traditional knowledge. Before these instruments existed, Indigenous groups were expected to appeal to their nation states—essentially their colonizers.

Younging pointed to Australia as a leader on issues of intellectual property rights for traditional knowledge and traditional cultural expressions. In what became known as the Carpets Case, the National Indigenous Arts Advocacy Association discovered that designs by several Indigenous artists, some depicting creation stories, had been stolen to create carpets. The judge determined that the clan had communal ownership of the images and that the appropriation for commercial use had caused cultural harm. Since that case, the Australian Council for the Arts has issued a series of protocol booklets on using traditional knowledge, including one on writing.

Canada hasn’t acted in a coherent way on similar cases of appropriation here, leaving individual groups to challenge offenders themselves, but there has at least been an acknowledgement of the problem, such as in Tonina Simeone’s 2004’s report for the Library of Parliament, Indigenous Traditional Knowledge and Intellectual Property Rights.

“One of the reasons Indigenous peoples are so sensitive and defensive about these issues,” said Younging, “is that Indigenous culture was actually illegal in Canada.” Between 1884 and 1948, the Indian Act outlawed several elements of Indigenous culture, beginning with the Potlatch. Artifacts and regalia could be confiscated, and “every time they found out about a new ceremony, they’d add it to the culture ban.” Practising Indigenous culture could lead to fines or even imprisonment.

During this period, many manuscripts by Indigenous authors didn’t get published, including those by George Copway, Edward Ahenakew, Joseph Dion, and Mike Mountain Horse. These early Indigenous authors wrote about their people, and some wrote about misrepresentations of them. Only in the 1970s did some of these manuscripts begin to be published.

Publishing Indigenous stories

Younging said that Indigenous artists have Indigenous national licence to innovate while incorporating Indigenous knowledge. They realize that there would be community repercussions if they did something inappropriate. Very few Indigenous writers and artists breach those protocols.

Non-Indigenous people, in contrast, don’t have that same licence to use traditional stories. They must consult with Indigenous groups first. Consultation can take many forms and doesn’t necessarily involve getting written permission.

Some seminar participants who had Indigenous heritage but felt disconnected from their ancestry wondered about the propriety of innovating without direct consultation. Younging said that having Indigenous heritage does give them Indigenous national licence but that if they still feel uncomfortable, he hopes they would feel a duty to consult, adding that their concerns over bloodlines and Status vs. Non-status, etc. reflect colonial concepts. “Most Indigenous people go through a process of reconnecting. That doesn’t give them any less right to claim Indigeneity.”

Younging encourages publishers and editors to understand why authors are choosing to write what they write. Are they trying to promote healing? To expose injustice? For redemption? To contribute to the reconciliation narrative? There is a trend of writing about trauma—an area with sensitive issues that should trigger a duty to consult.

Publishers must take special care when publishing traditional stories, which are ancient stories that Indigenous people have been telling for generations. They are not static, however: because they were traditionally transmitted orally, they can change every time they are told. Some stories are sacred, and many are long and complex, not fitting in to Western ideals of plot or narrative. Many stories are collectively owned. Theytus has published “authorless books” that are copyrighted to the entire nation. Contrast this approach with writers like Anne Cameron, who collected royalties for retelling traditional stories. “I’m not saying don’t publish them,” said Younging, “but there’s a higher duty to consult.”

A consultation point for Canadian publishers will be the Indigenous Editors Circle. In 2014, the Saskatchewan Arts Board and the Canada Council for the Arts provided two years’ funding for a week-long Indigenous editors’ school, the Aboriginal Editors Circle. In the second year non-Indigenous editors were invited to join for the last two days. The Canada Council has now committed to continue funding it, and Humber College has agreed to host the permanent program beginning in 2017. Not only will non-Indigenous editors be able to take workshops on Indigenous editorial issues, but the program will also host a directory of Indigenous editors who can work on projects or consult on them.

Younging said, “We don’t want to stop people from writing about us; we want them to work with us to make the best book possible,” and he recognizes that there are excellent non-Indigenous editors and publishers who can help bring these books to fruition.

Indigenous style guide

Theytus Books made a commitment in the 1990s to publish only Indigenous authors. Younging has developed a style guide for Theytus he hopes to expand into a more comprehensive reference for all publishers and editors. Some key points from the guide:

  • Don’t assume that the name of the group is the same as the name of their language. For example, the Kwakiutl First Nation speaks Kwak’wala, not “Kwakiutl” or “the Kwakiutl language.”
  • Watch for inappropriate use of the past tense—“sang songs,” “held ceremonies,” etc. “Indigenous people still do these things,” said Younging. The past tense implies that Indigenous people no longer exist.
  • Use the name that the Indigenous group prefers. Many groups were given phony names by the missionaries or anthropologists who encountered them (Thompson Indians, Mackenzie Eskimos, etc.), arbitrary English names (Blackfoot, Blood, etc.), or anglicized names (like Micmac for Mi’kmaq). There’s a movement for Indigenous people to take back the names their ancestors called themselves, and many groups have websites that use the spelling they prefer.
  • Avoid outdated terms—like savage, Redman, Indian, Eskimo, Native, self-government—in favour of terminology that Indigenous groups accept today, like First Nation, Indigenous, nation, and sovereignty. Until recently, Aboriginal had been used to describe First Nations, Métis, and Inuit, but Indigenous is the preferred term.
  • Capitalize names of Indigenous institutions, like Potlatch, Sacred Pipe, Longhouse, etc. The Longhouse is a parallel institution to Parliament or the House of Commons and should be given the same treatment. Indigenous people have national aspirations. Indigenous authors sometimes disagree on whether Indigenous icons should be capitalized; that is something to negotiate with the author and Indigenous group.
  • Do not assume that Indigenous peoples are monolithic: there is more cultural diversity among Canadian Indigenous groups than there is among European nations.


Indigenous communities are not alone in being colonized, explained Younging. If you buy into colonial ideas, you have also been colonized. What Younging, encouragingly, sees is that Canadian publishers are slowly decolonizing. In June 2016 the Association of Canadian Publishers (ACP)

voted unanimously to endorse initiatives announced recently by the Canada Council for the Arts and Department of Canadian Heritage, which make support for Indigenous arts and Indigenous peoples a funding priority. ACP believes that these initiatives should support Indigenous authors and publishers, enhance Indigenous editorial agency, and continue to aid in the publication and promotion of books that contribute to the understanding of Indigenous perspectives and to the spirit and process of reconciliation.

3 thoughts on “Greg Younging—Indigenous editorial issues”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *