Hope thrives during Native American Heritage Month

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Keynote speaker Joshua Whitehead for the Native American Heritage Month, hosted by NACP. Photo courtesy of Sarah Goodman.

To kick off Native American Heritage Month, the University of Connecticut welcomed author Joshua Whitehead to give a virtual keynote speech commemorating the rising of Indigenous voices.  

Native American Heritage Month celebrates the contributions, culture, and history of Indigenous people within the United States. The month traces its history back to efforts by Dr. Arthur C. Parker from the Seneca tribe and Red Fox James from the Blackfoot tribe to have a day of recognition for Indigenous peoples. It wasn’t until 1990 that Native American Heritage Month was proclaimed by the federal government, but has been honored as such ever since.  

Joshua Whitehead, an Oji-nêhiyaw member of the Peguis First Nation in Canada, designates the intersection of Indigenous and queer identities as its own separate identity: “Indigiqueer.” He touched upon the emergence of renown for Indigiqueer or Two-Spirit artists such as Billy-Ray Belcourt and Ariel Twist and renown for Indigenous women artists such as Tanya Tagaq as particularly important.  

In the age of the COVID-19 pandemic, Whitehead noted the “historical triggers” of the pandemic make Indigenous art crucial.  

“We are called upon and awoken in this time of pain and mourning but also this time of accomplishment and revelatory politics,” Whitehead said. “These, I believe, go hand-in-hand: destruction and the throng of collective singing. Thus, hopeful utopias emerge … So we have to build and build now in order for us to find some type of sanctuary in which we and all others can live — indigenous, BIPOC … This is the time that we must collectively build.”  

“‘My people will sleep for one hundred years, but when they awake, it will be the artists who give them their spirit back.’”  

Quoting historical Métis leader Louis Riel on the impact of art on the Indigenous identity and vice versa, Whitehead recited, “‘My people will sleep for one hundred years, but when they awake, it will be the artists who give them their spirit back.’”  

Additionally, Whitehead detailed his writer’s craft utilized in his novels “Jonny Appleseed” and “Full-Metal Indigi-queer”, which address topics such as sex, queerness and trauma. His work is not only informed by his identity, but also by his traumatic grief for his deceased grandmother. Whitehead has grappled with the pressure to commodify his struggles for the efficacy of his art. 

“[A] lesson not taught in creative writing classes is that economics of trading in one’s mental health for a slice of readership is damning,” he stated. “I am teaching myself to be a person first and a writer second.”  

Whitehead used the term “literary voyeurism” to describe the exploitation of personal traumas for literature in relation to the consumption of BIPOC works by non-BIPOC readers, arguing that writing is naturally voyeuristic in part due to White colonialist, capitalist institutions that process them for entertainment.  

“It immediately becomes … a constraint, and a type of literary colonialism, because they’re not fully produced on the same par, say, [as publishing] with an Indigenous press, that had Indigenous funding, that wasn’t actively engaged in pipelines and divestments, and was Indigenous edited — that’s the utopic dream for me,” Whitehead said about being a non-White artist in the current environment. “That’s the type of future I would like to see.”  

The main takeaway from Whitehead’s speech is that there will always be hope in the tumultuous times we are contemporary to. Using his knowledge of the Cree language, Whitehead compares the Cree word for “hope,” “pakoseyimowin,” to the Cree word for “rising to the top,” which is “pekopewin.” As a result, the acts of hoping and rising are irrevocably intertwined, in a sort of linguistic symbolism that is meaningful for all this Native American Heritage Month. 

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