Off the Page is a regular interview series featuring National Magazine Award winners and finalists. We recently spoke with writer Julian Brave NoiseCat, finalist for the NMA 2018 Best New Magazine Writer for his feature “The Tribal Canoe Journey.”
A recipient of the 2017 CJF-CBC Indigenous Journalism Fellowship, Julian is a correspondent at Real America with Jorge Ramos, contributing editor for Canadian Geographic and a freelance writer. His work has appeared in The Guardian, The Nation, The Paris Review and many other publications. He is a proud member of the Canim Lake Band Tsq’escen and a descendant of the Lil’Wat Nation of Mount Currie.
Your article on the Tribal Canoe Journey mentions traditional oral histories. You make an interesting comment of how calling these stories legends or fables “infantilizes” them. Do you think this undermines the culture?
The direct answer is I think that it can. Words matter, and the language we use to describe them affects the way we think about them. I’d like to view all sorts of stories, whether they be more traditional origin stories or masterful multi-volume novels, as all part of an interrelated practice of storytelling.
How important do you consider these traditional stories to Indigenous culture, in terms of understanding the culture and continuing it?
I think they’re obviously important, but so are new writers and novels. For example, Tommy Orange’s book There There. They’re all very important.
The story of the first symbolic canoe expo, coming out of a centennial celebration, and your description of it as “Thanksgiving in reverse” was also interesting. Canada recently celebrated its 150th anniversary, and there was much discussion in the Indigenous community about what that meant in their history. Do you think these moments in time, where there is a heightened lens on Indigenous issues, could be turned around to an advantage, like the examples in your article?
Yes. I think there’s a way of seeing these events as somewhat one-sided, but I think it’s often more complicated than that. If we look back at Canada 150, Canada’s celebration of its 150 years was, in comparison to other centennial celebrations in Canada, quite cautious and tepid. At the same time, Indigenous protests of and counter-narrative to Canada 150 was really powerful.
I do think that is ultimately what can happen, especially when we have such a strong Indigenous movement like we do today.
Your article “The Rhodes scholarship wasn’t designed for my people — that’s why I had to win,” really captured the kind of conversations Indigenous men and women experience all the time. Questions about taxes, land-ownership, and typical family structures tend to take focus when someone finds out you’re Native.
How have you learned to respond to? Your article features some inner monologue about how you would have liked to respond, but didn’t. Have these gotten any closer with experience?
I would say that it’s always sort of a process, knowing that is the climate and structure we are up against, but also becoming increasingly confident and comfortable in our own skin. And believing that despite forces aligned against us, we can come into these spaces and succeed. In the world of journalism, we can show up at newspapers and magazines, and write stuff just as good or maybe even better than our peers. We can go into the halls of power and political situations, into jobs and corporations, and do a kick ass job.
In that one instance, it was quite a challenging experience for me, even when I reflect back on it. But ultimately it also did prepare me for the next interview where that happens, the next situation where my race leads people to challenge me, question me, or undermine me in particular ways.
What was it like interviewing Connie Walker, who’s such a prominent Indigenous journalist, as a young Indigenous journalist yourself?
I think what’s really cool about journalism is that you get to talk to all these awesome people. Connie Walker was an awesome person to talk to, but there’s also been many other cool Native and non-Native people I’ve had the opportunity to talk to. That’s what I find really cool about journalism. That opportunity not only just to write the story, but to talk to people who are experts, who have lived the experience you are trying to relate to your readers.
In your interview, she mentions how she is almost now exclusively reporting on Indigenous issues, where ten years ago there was little to no interest. Do you agree it’s an opportune time for young Indigenous writers to have their voices heard?
Absolutely. [In that interview] we talked a lot about digital technology. There’s a lot more opportunity for entry. There’s more blogs, there’s new publications starting up all the time. There’s a lot of writers who get their start on Facebook and Twitter. For Indigenous writers, a community who has something to say and add to the conversation, that technology shift is a big opportunity to us.
On the flip side though, I worry sometimes that there is going to be, as Harold Cardinal [Cree writer and political leader] wrote about in the 60s and 70s, a “buckskin curtain”. That we will be confined to reservations of not just literal geography, but also of political discourse, of journalism, of career opportunities. That we will be constantly cast as Indigenous people who only talk about Indigenous issues.
And to me, on a continent that has taken so much from First Nations, everything is in some way an Indigenous issue. And Indigenous people should have a say on all of the issues of the day, whether that be the rights of our community, or questions of economic equality, justice or immigration. We clearly have something to say about all of these things.
Do you think Indigenous people have a certain responsibility to their culture? To learn it, and continue it. In a way that other cultures may not with the same urgency? And how would you suggest going about this? You’re an accomplished writer and activist, but how can anyone become involved?
I think all cultures have a lot to offer. I think culture is just fundamentally cool, and I don’t think that it is exclusively an Indigenous thing. Obviously, we have a particular history of our culture being under attack. So I think that creates a certain imperative to maintain, strengthen and carry forward our culture, but I think those cultures are constantly changing.
Our culture is not exclusively the traditions of our grandparents, or the generations before them. They’re also the things that Native youth are today with in Winnipeg with hip-hop, Native actors and directors are doing today in Vancouver, or any of the things our fantastic writers are doing with the written word. I think that it’s all of those things.
What are some of your next projects, or goals for the near future?
I have conversations constantly with different publications about articles that I’m writing. I recently got back from Paris where I spoke at the Festival America, which is a North American-focused literature festival. I’m writing a couple of pieces about that, about the history of Indigenous travellers in Paris, and Indigenous artists and writers passing through there today. Playing with the question of “What is Indigenous Paris”? And in the longer term, I’d love to write a book. I’ve been getting queries from publishers and agents, and I’m in the early stages of figuring out what that book would be about.
Julian Brave NoiseCat is a correspondent at Real America with Jorge Ramos, contributing editor for Canadian Geographic, and freelance writer whose work has appeared in The Guardian, The Nation, The Paris Review, and many other publications. He was a finalist for a National Magazine Award, Best New Magazine Writer in 2018. A proud member of the Canim Lake Band Tsq’escen and descendant of the Lil’Wat Nation of Mount Currie, he resides in Washington, D.C.
Interview conducted by Tobey VanWeston.
Submissions for the 42nd National Magazine Awards are now being accepted! Magazines and creators are invited to submit their best work of 2018 in 29 categories, including the prestigious Best New Magazine Writer category. The final submissions deadline is January 18, 2019. Click here to begin the submissions process.