This lesson plan is intended as an educational resource to introduce secondary and post-secondary students to the Next Wave Indigenous artist Joshua Whitehead, an Oji-Cree, Two-Spirit/Indigiqueer storyteller.
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1. LESSON PLAN: JOSHUA WHITEHEAD
Joshua Whitehead is an Oji-Cree, Two-Spirit/Indigiqueer storyteller from Peguis First Nation (Treaty 1). He is currently working at the University of Calgary (Treaty 7) towards a PhD in Indigenous Literatures and Cultures. He is the author of full-metal indigiqueer (Talonbooks) and the forthcoming novel Jonny Appleseed (Arsenal Pulp Press).
Joshua joined the New Constellations tour in Calgary, dazzling the audience with a long incantatory performance poem called “(wo)manitowapow”.
2. ARTIST INTERVIEW
Your performance on the tour was electrifying. Did you write the poem you read with a sense of how it would sound out loud?
Ay hay, thank you. Our Calgary performance was a highlight for me in 2017. I was fangirling over everyone the entire evening. I’ve been thinking about my writing process a lot lately because this is a question that is asked of me a lot. I’m not sure how I write — I wish I had an easy answer. Folks ask me if I’m a novelist, a poet, a critic, an essayist, a journalist, or a performance poet and I have to say yes to all of the above and at the same time no. I write like my mind thinks and how my spirits speak: I call myself an otâcimow, a storyteller, because that’s what I do, I blend mediums, stitch stories. As Thomas King once said, “Everything is story” and I take that to heart when I write. I think, for me, the performance is always embedded, the rhythms of my voice, that old body ballet, become a structure to how I write. And when I write I think of orality, I think of how story used to exist. So when I write, I think of nôhkum and my aunties, those bingo hall bellowers. I hold the performance near and dear because that is what animates story, the page is beautiful but the voice? It drums. Orality comes naturally to how I write because I write how I speak and I speak how I live.
How did you first come to poetry?
I first came to poetry in high school. Sometimes I ask myself: what does poetry mean? What is poetry? To me, poetry is simply story and the point of story is to move — to move the body, move the mind, move the peoplehoods into new livelihoods. I try to divorce myself from thinking that poetry is simply art for art’s sake, or that it’s an aesthetic, or that it belongs to the capital “L” of literature, all elite and white. Poetry is political, its radical, its language weaponized when put into the right hands — I think it has the simultaneous ability to world-destroy and then to world-build. I came to poetry as a teenager, not knowing all of this, but, on some level knowing the preliminaries to these thoughts I hold now. I came to it out of necessity because poetry allowed me to write my body, spirits, and my selves into existence.
Do you enjoy performing your poems?
I absolutely love performing my poetry. There’s something so profoundly different between reading a poem and hearing it aloud. Stories are meant to be oral and when you can swallow story, lace it with nehiyawewin on the tongue, and howl it in a room —you move people. I sometimes think of poems like incantations, that each one is different and when you allow your tongue to become a quill, you summon yourself home. That’s how I feel when I’m performing poetry, I feel home. And when you allow yourself to speak your truths unabashedly, you allow others to do the same; when you can stand up in front of a crowd of people and let story become a mirror, you allow others to see themselves in your words.
Do you have any advice for young writers?
Yes, look into the world, see what is missing, fill that gap with your body. This nation is built on literary land claims, Canada is a machination of stories — and one that can be altered, re-augmented, reclaimed.
What do you hope readers will take away from your work?
My hope is that they will see themselves in my work, I think of stories as medicine — hopefully a poem or a passage will heal in some sense. And I hope that seeing themselves in healthy, respectful, lovely ways will encourage them to craft mirrors for those younger generations to come.
What does resurgence mean to you?
When I think of resurgence I think of Leanne Betasamosake Simpson who storytells that it is something that is individual, embodied, something that lives in the body (and the body is always a tome of stories, annit?). To me, it means that I have an accountability and a responsibility to myself, to decolonize my mind, to re-member my peoplehoods, and to re-beautify the literary landscape through the gift kise-manito has gifted me, through storytelling. A lot of folks, Indigenous and not, like to make Two-Spirit/Indigiqueers peripheral, to ghost us into the past with claims like, “Two-Spirit people were revered shamans, oracles, medicine people.” To resurge myself I think of it as my responsibility to re-story those narratives, to say we are not a was we are an is; to remove us from that exoticism of anthropology and to place us into the now.
From here on out, I write to project us into futurisms that make space for 2S/Indigiqueer folx, one that honours us for how we survived and now how we thrive. If literature is another word for accountability, I owe that all back to my communities. Resurgence is a resurrection song, a renewing medicine, a reawakening of ourselves from those cryochambers settler colonialism places us in and a regeneration into a body that emerges from the lakes of Sky Woman’s tears. And ain’t that just another story?
4. WRITING EXERCISES
Joshua suggests that young writers look at the world and see what is missing. What do you feel is missing from the world? And what would it mean to fill that space with your body? Spend some time writing down what you don’t see represented around you. Do you feel like you see yourself in the world? What would it mean to turn a piece of paper into a mirror, as Joshua describes? Write a self-portrait — either as a poem, an essay, or a story — that focuses on the aspects of your life and experience that is so particular to you that you’ve never seen it portrayed anywhere else before. Include as many sensory details of that experience — smells, colours, textures, tastes, sounds — as you can.
5. NCTR'S IMAGINE A CANADA: AN INVITATION TO SHARE YOUR VISION FOR THE FUTURE
The National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation (NCTR) is calling on all young people to Imagine a Canada through the lens of Reconciliation! What is your vision of Reconciliation? What does it look like?
Imagine a Canada is an invitation for all young people, from across the country to share their own vision of what Reconciliation can be. It can be a poem, a song, a painting, a sculpture, a rap, a drawing, an essay, anything! This invitation is extended every year to ensure that young people remain a part of visioning Reconciliation in Canada. Imagine a Canada is perfect for students, from kindergarten to post-secondary, to explore both the past and our shared journey into the future. Collectively, we want to be looking into the future of Reconciliation and youth deserve to be a part of this visionary exercise. Imagine a Canada is a great way for young people to see themselves not just as concerned citizens, but as transformative citizens; to empower them to be the change they want to see in the world.
When studying work by contemporary Indigenous artists, it's important to consider Canada’s troubled relationship with First Nations and the truths about Residential School history, a context that the NCTR is dedicated to supporting in the classroom. As students learn more about this history, it is important to provide them with opportunities to contribute to change. Of course, learning truths about Residential School history can be very upsetting, and we want to continue that learning with opportunities to work towards a better future. Imagine a Canada is one such opportunity.
Friends and partners of the NCTR from across the country will help recognize and honour submissions in each region of the country and one entry from each province and territory will be selected each year to attend a national celebration of Imagine a Canada!