Greg Younging—Elements of Indigenous Style

Gregory Younging is a member of Opaskwayak Cree Nation in Northern Manitoba and is a faculty member at the University of British Columbia Okanagan in the Indigenous Studies Program. He has an MA from Carlton University, an MPub from Simon Fraser University, and a PhD from the University of British Columbia. He was the managing editor of Theytus Books between 1990 and 2004 and served as assistant director of research for the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada.

Younging held a workshop on Indigenous editorial issues last fall for the Association of Book Publishers of BC (ABPBC), and it was one of the most edifying professional development events I’ve ever attended. I learned then that he intended to publish the Indigenous style guide he’s been organically compiling for the past couple of decades. Now that book is available for pre-order.

Elements of Indigenous Style: A Guide for Writing By and About Indigenous Peoples will be published by Brush Education in February 2018. In the book, Younging lays out 21 principles (he said it may be 22 by the time of publication) to consider when working with Indigenous writers or on publications with Indigenous content. “The Chicago Manual of Style is in its 17th edition now,” said Younging, and he hopes that this edition of his style guide will be the first of many. Some of the principles may be controversial, and as people discuss them, Younging expects his own thinking to evolve.

Younging partnered with the ABPBC and Editors BC to offer a preview of his book in a half-day workshop. I got his permission to recap it here.

Historical context and why this guide is needed

For four centuries, non-Indigenous people wrote about Indigenous people in English. For the most part, Indigenous people were not writing about themselves (George Copway and E. Pauline Johnson were notable exceptions), for a variety of reasons. Many Indigenous people didn’t speak English at home, and residential schools often failed to provide Indigenous children with adequate education in English and writing skills. From 1880 to 1948, Indigenous culture was banned: items like masks, regalia, and blankets were confiscated, and anyone caught participating in traditional ceremonies and dances faced jail time.

Writers like Edward Ahenakew, Mike Mountain Horse, and Joseph Dion tried to publish books about their people in the first half of the 1900s, and all three explicitly said they wrote their manuscripts because non-Indigenous writers had done such a poor job representing them. But because of the culture ban, publishers were reluctant to publish these books, and they didn’t get their due until the 1970s.

That decade saw a wave of books by Indigenous writers after what some have called “an era of Indigenous voicelessness.” Authors like Maria Campbell, Lee Maracle, Howard Adams, and Harold Cardinal represented the first generation of Indigenous people who didn’t go to residential school. In 1980, Theytus Books became the first Indigenous publisher in the world.

Awareness of the problem of cultural appropriation grew in the 1980s and ’90s. Indigenous people argued at that non-Indigenous writers had represented them so poorly that all writing about Indigenous culture should be left to Indigenous people. Landmarks in the movement included the “Telling Our Own Story” conference organized by Margo Kane in 1989 and Indigenous writers speaking out about the issue at the Writers’ Union of Canada in 1993. “By the mid 1990s,” said Younging. “we thought we had gotten through to people. There was public awareness about it.” But the issue re-emerged just this year in June, with the “Cultural Appropriation Prize” controversy in Write magazine.

The attitude within the Indigenous publishing community has shifted since the 1990s: many now recognize that collaborations with non-Indigenous writers, editors, and publishers can be productive, as long as they are approached with care and sensitivity.

Whereas some Indigenous publishers have been understandably reluctant to engage with the mainstream publishing community, Theytus Books decided in 1993 to join the ABPBC and the Association of Canadian Publishers to ensure there was an Indigenous voice in Canadian publishing. Younging has found the ACP receptive to reconciliation, most recently formally endorsing the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s Calls to Action.

Indigenous narratives

Younging distinguishes between Traditional Stories and contemporary Indigenous narratives. He divides Traditional Stories into five categories:

  • Animal Time narratives, about a time before humans,
  • Creation stories, about the origin of people,
  • Animal and people stories,
  • Ancient people narratives, and
  • Prophecy narratives.

Traditional Stories hold the history of the people and the land. They give Indigenous people their laws and their lessons.

How Traditional Stories are told is governed by protocols. Some are considered sacred, and can only be told in certain seasons, during certain ceremonies or by certain people. Some stories are owned by specific clans or families.

Because of the laws and protocols surrounding Traditional Stories, publishing them requires a lot of sensitivity and consultation. Historically, Indigenous Traditional Stories have been appropriated and published by anthropologists, and there are many examples of a non-Indigenous person somehow gaining access to a Traditional Story, adding illustrations, and publishing it as a children’s book that ends up being quite successful. That non-Indigenous “author” will then get copyright and royalties, and nothing will go back to the Indigenous community from which the story had been taken.

Contemporary Indigenous narratives include

  • colonization narratives,
  • decolonization narratives, and
  • Indigenization narratives.

Indigenization narratives aren’t that common yet—most writers are still focusing on documenting the trauma of colonization and the steps they are taking to decolonize.

Indigenizing the publishing industry

Younging advocates for Indigenizing the publishing industry in parallel with the ongoing effort to Indigenize the academy. He says publishers can start by acknowledging the territory they’re on—in their catalogue and on their website.

Publishers should also see themselves as having the responsibility to continue the storytelling traditions of the groups on whose land they work and live. They should also forge contacts with every nation in that territory and with nations whose Traditional Stories they hope to publish so that they can get the proper consent. Building those relationships and adopting consultation practices takes humility, patience, and time. Reconciliation, said Younging, is a Canadian responsibility—not an Indigenous responsibility.

Elements of Indigenous Style

Younging gave us a taste of some of the principles from his book. The point of these guidelines is not to scare non-Indigenous publishers away from publishing Indigenous content. They’re meant to help publishers understand how to approach these relationships with the appropriate sensitivity.

Principle 1: The purpose of Indigenous style

Following Indigenous style will help authors and publishers produce works that reflect Indigenous Peoples’ realities as they perceive them and that respect their cultural integrity.

Principle 2: When Indigenous style and conventional styles conflict

In works by Indigenous authors or with Indigenous content, Indigenous style overrules other styles if they disagree.

Principle 3: Indigenous Literatures and CanLit

Indigenous Literatures are not a subset of CanLit. They are their own canon.

Principle 6: Collaboration

In any works with Indigenous content, collaborate with the appropriate Indigenous group to ensure that the material is culturally authentic and follows traditional protocols.

This collaboration may involve consultation with many different people and takes time. Acknowledging the source of the information—the person and the community—is, said Younging, “an important aspect of Indigenous cultural continuity.”

Principle 7: Elders

Elders play a key role in the cultural integrity of Indigenous information. Consult with them if possible, bearing in mind that they have many demands on their time.

Principle 8: Working with Traditional Knowledge and Oral Traditions

Traditional Knowledge and Oral Traditions are Indigenous cultural property. Even though non-Indigenous laws consider many of these stories as part of the public domain, Indigenous knowledge keepers do not see it that way.

Make connections with the community and seek consent before publishing any Traditional Knowledge. Never assume it’s in the public domain, and don’t publish in breach of protocols.

Principle 9: Role of relationship and trust

Forging relationships may involve multiple visits with multiple people. Building trust requires honesty and mindfulness about how your presence and actions, including publication, will affect the community.

Principle 10: Compensation

Access and benefit sharing is a crucial consideration. If the publication will lead to profit, how will royalties benefit the authors and the community?

Principle 11: Inappropriate terminology

Avoid inappropriate terminology when referring to Indigenous people (for example, savage, primitive, or Indian) unless you’re specifically discussing the terminology itself or referring to an institution or document that uses it (like the Indian Act). If you are quoting from a historical source that uses this terminology, bring attention to the problematic language in a note or in the running text.

Principle 12: Names of Indigenous people

Use the names for Indigenous people that they use for themselves.

Of all Indigenous groups in Canada, said Younging, only the Haida and Dene have authentic names. The rest are phony, having been assigned based on

  • the earliest European explorers or missionaries that came into contact with them (like the Mackenzie Eskimos and Thompson Indians),
  • English descriptions (like Blackfoot or Flathead),
  • mishearings that were Anglicized (Okanagan from Suknaqinx),
  • names that Indigenous groups used for other Indigenous groups (Ojibwe is a not altogether complimentary term the Cree used for the Anishnaabe), and
  • French descriptions (Iroquois—meaning “killer people”—for the Haudonosaunee).

The X̱wi7x̱wa Library at the University of British Columbia has a list of traditional names and preferred spellings for Indigenous groups in Canada. The Smithsonian Institute has a list for all Indigenous groups in North America, including Canada. You can also consult the website of the Indigenous nation to see how they prefer their name to be spelled.

English spellings of Indigenous people’s names are still evolving, so if there are inconsistencies, include a note in the book discussing to explain your choices.

Historical uses of inappropriate names or quotes from published material should be left as is, but an explanatory note should be added.

Principle 13: Capitalization

  • Indigenous identities;
  • Indigenous government, social, spiritual, and religious institutions; and
  • Indigenous collective rights

should be capitalized.

For example, the Longhouse is the Haudenosaunee system of government. Capitalizing House of Commons but not Longhouse implies that Indigenous institutions are not legitimate.

Younging argues that even “Aboriginal Rights” and “Aboriginal Title” should be capitalized, although he knows others will disagree. Some people believe that the land is so central to the Indigenous worldview that “Lands” and “Indigenous Lands” should be capitalized. This point will likely be controversial.

Principle 14: Indigenous colloquial English

Indigenous colloquial English, sometimes called Rez Speak or Rez Talk, is a legitimate literary device and should not be edited to standard English. It is part of contemporary Indigenous culture.

Take extreme care if Indigenous colloquial English is being used by a non-Indigenous author. W.P. Kinsella’s imitations, for example, were insulting rather than representative.

Principle 15: English words of Indigenous origin

Indigenous languages have enriched English with words like canoe, hammock, moose, pemmican, potato, and others. Consider adding an etymological glossary listing words in the work of Indigenous origin, including place names, to acknowledge contributions of Indigenous words to English.

Younging once believed that these words should be italicized to bring attention to their Indigenous origins, but he has changed his mind, after others raised the concern that italicizing would be othering those words and the culture from which they came.

Principle 16: The Métis Resistances

Never refer to Métis Resistances as “Rebellions.” They are the Red River Resistance (1869–70) and the Riel Resistance (1885). These events were about a people fighting for survival, not uppity rebels causing trouble.

Principle 17: Inappropriate possessives

Avoid implying that Indigenous Peoples belong to Canada. Many Indigenous people don’t consider themselves Canadian. “Canada’s Indigenous Peoples” or “the Indigenous Peoples of Canada” imply an ownership that Indigenous people do not recognize.

Principle 18: Reusing already archived or published material

Some previously archived or published materials about Indigenous Peoples may have violated cultural protocols. Publishers should consult with the appropriate Indigenous community before using them in new works.

Principle 19: Historical translations

Historical translations from Indigenous languages should be updated, said Younging, “to avoid literal renditions of terms.”

Principle 20: Indigenous language translation

Indigenous language reclamation is an important part of Indigenous cultural resurgence. Canada Council now offers funding for translations.

Indigenous languages encode complex concepts that are not easily translated to English or French. To accommodate these complexities, translation fees for Indigenous translations should be higher than those for translations between European languages.

If a book by an Indigenous author is to be translated to an Indigenous language, the most appropriate language to choose is the language of the author’s community of origin.

Backtranslations of Traditional Stories must be to the language of the stories’ source community.

Principle 21: Publishing Indigenous trauma

Take extreme care when publishing stories of Indigenous trauma and, if appropriate, involve the author’s family, community, and the community’s Elders. Understand the author’s motivations for writing about trauma. Most importantly, do no more harm.


Younging’s book is poised to become one of the most important resources for editors and publishers in Canada (and beyond) who want to put reconciliation into practice. I can’t wait to read it.

2 thoughts on “Greg Younging—Elements of Indigenous Style”

  1. Thank you for this wonderful summary! Very useful. Gregory’s seminar was one of the most useful presentations I have attended to in the context of my profession. I’m very grateful for it.

  2. It was great to come across this book and I am going to read it either by purchasing the book or see if our local library has a copy. The summary here excellently gives a glimpse of what to expect in each chapter. I am hoping though that what the book is suggesting is a complete indigenous perspective and style of writing.

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