Helping build Indigenous literature one book at a time with Kateri Akiwenzie-Damm

Kateri Akiwenzie-Damm's graphic novel Mimkii appears in this collection

Writing matters in Kateri Akiwenzie-Damm‘s life.

She is a poet, spoken word artist, novelist and the founder and managing director of the Kegedonce Press.

She has seen the evolution of Indigenous literature over the past three decades from its stirrings in the 1980s to the burgeoning bibliography of today.

But for her, writing began in the home of her maternal grandparents on Georgian Bay.

Kateri Akiwenzie-Damm

These days she is living part-time in the Ottawa area while her two children attend school and enjoy the amenities of the capital. Home base, though, is Neyaashiinigmiing, Cape Croker Reserve on the Saugeen Peninsula in southwestern Ontario.

“It starts with my maternal grandmother Irene Akiwenzie. She was a writer. We lived in Toronto and spent summers there.

“Every Monday at 11 a.m., she would sit down at her desk in front of the bay window that looked out at the community and write her column. It would appear in the local newspaper.

“My grandparents owned a general store so there was a lot of activity around house and we were always helping out. But we were expected to be quiet or go outside when she was writing.”

Writing was respected, Kateri said. Her grandmother was given time and space to do her writing. Irene also wrote a bit of poetry and she was a voracious reader.

“There were books everywhere in the house. She would lend books out to people staying in the community campground.”

It was a great environment for a girl who learned to love reading.

“In between serving people in the store, I’d have a book. I can remember being 12 years old and reading Roots.”

The connection between reading and storytelling and family is acknowledged in the name of her press. Her maternal great grandfather and great great grandfather both had the name Kegedonce which means orator in Anishinaabemowin.

Kateri started writing as a young person. It was fun.

“I would sit down and write and draw. When I got to (York) university I started in history but switched to English and started taking creative writing classes.” She felt at home.

Her grandparents home was “standard Rez issue. It was noisy.”

That prepared her to write everywhere.

“I have travelled quite a bit. I’ve written poems on the back of receipts. I have written on airplanes and trains, everywhere.”

At York she worked with the poet Frank Davey. After graduation she worked for a few years and then went back to school to get a Masters at uOttawa.

In her own evolution as a writer she had investigated Indigenous literature, but when she went to university there was not much being taught about it.

“When I did my Masters, I had to seek out courses that taught anything at all. Sometimes I had to get special permission to do projects on books I wanted to study.

“I was always doing extra work. It was very challenging. There were no Indigenous professors. At a certain point, I felt I was teaching myself.”

She read and explored the work of writers such as Richard Wagamese, Maria CampbellJeanette Armstrong, Beatrice Culleton (Moisoner), Marilyn Dumont, Joanne Arnott and Drew Hayden Taylor.

She also started to explore Indigenous writing in Australia and New Zealand. She travelled there and met and remains friends with the Maori writer Patricia Grace.

As for Kegedonce press: “I got into it in an almost unintentional way. I was organizing a big Indigenous arts conference at the then Museum of Civilization. All these people were coming from around world and I thought I would like to have some of my poetry available.”

She got a small grant from the city of Ottawa and published her book.

“I started Kegedonce Press thinking I’d sell copies of my book and then I’d be able to publish somebody else in my group.” That group was called WINO (Writers Independent Native Organization and it included the writers Joseph Dandurand, Greg Younging, Anne Acco, and Allen DeLeary).

It took awhile but eventually she did publish a second book, looking into the eyes of my forgotten dreams by Dandurand. Her friend Renee Abram joined the project and the press got going in earnest.

“It has been some 26 years now,” Kateri said.

Kegedonce Press usually releases about four books a year over the years it has worked with about 70 different writers.

“It has offered a place for Indigenous stories to come out when people really didn’t want to hear what we had to say.”

For many years, the press survived Canada Council project grant to Canada Council project grant. Lately funding has stabilized.

One of the issues Kegedonce has faced in the past, she said, is the jury review that project grants require.

“Juries can be tough because they don’t always understand the aesthetic or the circumstances the press is operating under.

“Sometimes we would be penalized by juries because they didn’t understand the work nor did they have enough knowledge about Indigenous literature and publishing.”

They are less dependent on juries today. As well there is more understanding about Indigenous literature.

That’s due to the work of people such as Greg Younging who wrote a book called Elements of Indigenous Style. He was the managing editor at Theytus Books, another Indigenous press. Younging passed away in May.

Today Indigenous publishing and literature is being recognized nationally and internationally.

Writers such as Lee Maracle, Eden Robinson, Thomas King, Cherie Dimaline and Waubgeshig Rice, to name just a few, are prominent literary figures.

Kateri says Indigenous literature is not — and never was — a sub-set of CanLit.

“We are our own literature.” You could even say, she added, that what makes Can Lit distinct is Indigenous literature and culture.

Its unique quality, Kateri says, makes Indigenous literature very attractive right now. Success is breeding a different kind of concern, however.

“I think there are publishers out there who are just looking for that bestseller. There is still a real lack of understanding about Indigenous literature and working with Indigenous writers.

“We need people who understand the literature and want to work with the writer.”

She fears the interest shown by publishers might be more about book sales and less about advancing the literature.

“My concern is that some publishers will take Indigenous authors and not nurture them and then dump them.”

This rush on Indigenous lit also poses a problem for Kegedonce Press. It is now  competing with a lot of other publishers.

She worries writers’ careers can be affected as can Indigenous publishing.

“Ten years from now I hope that Indigenous publishing can survive this evolution.”

Kateri continues to write. One of her latest is her first foray into the graphic novel. At an Ottawa International Writers Festival event on June 12, she’ll be on a panel with Colleen Cardinal and Suzanne Methot.

Her novel is included in an anthology called This Place: 150 Years Retold published by HighWater an imprint of Portage and Main out of Winnipeg.

Her novel is called Nimkii and it is about two children taken from their birth parents and raised in the white community.

The story has one of the children telling her own child about being taken from her family by white society in the 1950s, before the so-called Sixties Scoop.

She says she learned how to do a graphic novel comparing it to a theatre or film script.

That’s Kateri — always learning.

Ottawa Writers Festival presents an Indigenous Writers’ Gathering
With Colleen Cardinal, Suzanne Methot and Kateri Akiwenzie-Damm
Where: Library and Archives, 395 Wellington St.
When: June 12 at 7 p.m.
Tickets and information:

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Peter Robb began his connection with the arts community in Ottawa in the mid-1980s when he was the administrator and public relations director of the Great Canadian Theatre Company. After a long career in journalism with the Ottawa Citizen where he served in a number of different posts he returned to the arts when he became the Citizen's arts editor.