Martha Cook Piper Research Prize: Rethinking Canadian narratives through indigenous arts
When she was an undergrad attending Queen’s University in Kingston, it dawned upon Keavy Martin that she knew more about the literary history of the United Kingdom than about the land she called home.
“When I began reading indigenous literature and began taking native studies in university, I became aware that my own education had been very lopsided,” she said. “Indigenous literatures and knowledge are so relevant to everybody who is living here on this land.
“By virtue of living in this place, all of us—no matter what our heritage is—have a connection to indigenous history that, while often brutal, very much persists today.”
She had another revelation after arriving at the University of Alberta in 2009 at the tender age of 26, enlisted by the Department of English and Film Studies to address the need for scholarship in the area of indigenous literatures.
Martin, a non-indigenous person whose initial experience with indigenous culture came largely while being embedded in the intellectual world of academia, says it was only after she began interacting with her students and local indigenous communities, and began teaching at the Pangnirtung Summer School in Nunavut, that she came to understand the shortcomings of an education system in which intellect is given priority.
“We don’t have the other tools to think about other aspects of education,” said Martin. “In some indigenous circles they might refer to spiritual, emotional and physical aspects along with the intellectual, and try to think holistically about teaching and research.”
That journey culminated in a book Martin published last fall called Stories in a New Skin: Approaches to Inuit Literature, which analyzes Inuit writings from a range of genres and historical periods, exploring many of the challenges faced by teachers and scholars who are interested in indigenous tradition. It also led to her receiving the 2013 Martha Cook Piper Research Prize, given annually to two faculty members who are at the early stage of their careers, enjoy a reputation for original research and show outstanding promise as researchers.
“Keavy has a remarkable ability to deeply engage with the complex oral traditions of the Inuit people that she has worked closely with through the course of her research, while asking critical questions that expand the possible conversations that the stories create,” wrote former U of A law professor and Aboriginal rights activist Val Napoleon in support of Martin’s nomination for the prize.
The book has led to a five-year, $500,000 research project funded by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council entitled “Beyond Reconciliation: Indigenous Arts and Public Engagement after the TRC.” The project’s aim is to bring together scholars, curators and artists to creatively reinvent the conversation about Aboriginal/non-Aboriginal relationships, healing and the colonial legacy in Canada.
“What we’re trying to do is think about ways that indigenous arts and also creative arts-based research can help to transform the conversation that we’re having nationally about reconciliation, and about the relationship between indigenous people and the rest of Canada,” said Martin.
She adds she is hopeful that the resulting conversation can go beyond reconciliation to provide lessons she thinks Canadian society needs to learn.
“I think there are a lot of indicators in the province that we are out of balance,” she said, pointing to the rash of disconcerting headlines that lead stories that range from the impacts of our resource industries on northern communities to the province’s financial woes. “That is a system that is out of balance; I think that indigenous principles can really help us to begin to transform this society—that’s why I find indigenous arts and scholarship so inspiring.”