Book Review: Elements of Indigenous Style: A Guide for Writing By and About Indigenous Peoples

by Jonathan Adjemian

Published at 2018-04-11




It feels appropriate that my first post for the TEC blog is a review of a style guide. In the two months since I've started working at TEC I've spent plenty of time looking through guides like the APA Publication Manual and the massive Chicago Manual of Style. The best style guides are more than a source of rules and answers for specific questions about formatting and referencing: they present of a way of thinking about writing and publishing.


Elements of Indigenous Style


By this criteria, Gregory Younging's Elements of Indigenous Style (Brush, 2018) is an excellent guide. The slim volume (150 pages) was written to provide guidelines for producing truthful, insightful, and respectful works that “reflect Indigenous realities as they are perceived by Indigenous Peoples” (p. 99). The guide offers twenty-two principles that are explained over the course of the book and then collected in an appendix.


It provides answers to specific editing issues—for example, the correct names to use when referring to different Indigenous Peoples (principle twelve), or rules for capitalizing words referring to Indigenous identities, institutions, and rights (principle thirteen). But just as importantly, it outlines a way of working, one based on building relationship and trust, consultation and respect.


A Needed Guide


Elements of Indigenous Style, written specifically for a Canadian context, responds to a clear demand. A recent TEC project—copy-editing an international anthology on education in Indigenous contexts that used a variety of conventionswas a good reminder that there’s a need for resources that discuss and standardize writing by and about Indigenous Peoples. Elements of Indigenous Style steps into that gap, while acknowledging that its work in ongoing and changing; “Indigenous style,” Younging writes, “is part of a conversation that aims to build a new relationship between Indigenous people and settler society” (p. 6).


The need for guidelines in writings about Indigenous Peoples can be linked to recent major events like the Idle No More movement and the publication of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s reports and findings in 2015. But it also results from a long and steady process of work by Indigenous writers, editors, and publishers working—after the Residential School system, a systematic attempt to eliminate the very idea of a distinct “Indigenous style”—at “developing and defining emerging contemporary Indigenous Literatures, and ... establishing culturally based Indigenous methodologies within the editing and publishing process” (p. 3).


The Author: Gregory Younging


Younging, a member of the Opaskwayak Cree Nation in northern Manitoba, has played an important role in this work. He is currently publisher of Theytus Books, the first Indigenous-owned pushing house in Canada, where he has worked since 1991. Elements of Indigenous Style developed from his work defining a house style at Theytus. Younging teaches in the Indigenous Studies Program of the University of British Columbia, Okanagan, and until 2017 was part of the faculty of the Indigenous Editors’ Circle (IEC) at Humber College in Toronto (the principles developed by the IEC are included in an appendix to the book). Elements of Indigenous Style is filled with examples and stories from Younging’s experience at Theytus and from other publication projects involving Indigenous writers in what is now called Canada.


The Book


 As befits a style guide, the book is written in clear and concise prose. The guide emphasizes foregrounding Indigenous voices both in the advice it gives and in its own practice of including commentaries from writers and editors. Examples are chosen to illustrate specific points but also to develop familiarity with the style; for instance, on page 66 we are told that “Inuit is also a collective noun. It means the people, so it does not take an article or the qualifier people,” but proper examples of this use can be found throughout the book.


The first chapters provide a succinct history of writing on Indigenous Peoples, an overview of the contemporary realities of Indigenous cultures, and discussion of Indigenous cultural rights, which will be useful reading for anyone confused by or curious about the evolution of ways of writing about Indigenous Peoples and the rationales for changes in terminology and approach. The later chapters turn to specific issues of culturally appropriate publishing practices, acceptable and unacceptable terminology, and specific and recurring editorial issues.


Style and Consequence


Although the principles are presented clearly, some have far-reaching consequences. The guide is meant to supplement, not replace, existing style guides and house styles, but for work by Indigenous authors or with Indigenous content, “Indigenous style overrules the other styles in case of disagreement” (principle two). A major issue is the treatment of Traditional Knowledge, which is the cultural property of a People and therefore does not fit well into dominant understandings of copyright (an issue explored at length in an academic paper by Younging, “Gnaritas Nullius: No One’s Knowledge,” included as an appendix).


Respectful treatment of Traditional Knowledge may involve developing new ways of crediting contributors, and long and multiple processes of consultation. Where Traditional Knowledge has been previously published in inappropriate ways—through poor translation, disregard for Protocols that dictate who should have access to particular knowledge, and in what places or times of year, or the publication of material without consent or consultation—these sources may need editing or contextualization, or may need to be omitted (principle nineteen).


“Knowing where information comes from—the source community, the source individualis an important aspect of Indigenous cultural continuity,” Younging writes, before saying bluntly: “That takes time. Do your best to take the time” (p. 31). The book contains advice for how to go about consultation; for instance, if unsure, faced with the diversity of Indigenous Peoples, what to offer an Elder as a gift, Younging suggests that “you can ask the Elder herself or himself” (p. 36).


A New Standard Reference


As a good style guide should, Elements of Indigenous Style provides answers for common and uncommon questions editors, publishers, and writer might have, although these answers may entail time and work, and the involvement of Indigenous people and editors. One of the functions of a style guide is to chart changes in use over time; it can be hoped that subsequent editions will be able to track the development of a growing field of respectful, accurate writing by and about Indigenous Peoples within the borders of Canada and beyond.