A rare literary festival focused solely on Haudenosaunee storytelling will be held in coming days.
The Ogwehoweh Storytelling Festival runs Aug. 25 to 26 at the Six Nations Polytechnic campus at Six Nations of the Grand River, about 30 km southwest of Hamilton. It will also be streamed online for anyone to view.
Janet Rogers, who is co-producing the festival, says it’s the first festival in Canada to focus on Haudenosaunee storytelling.
Rogers had been writing and travelling across the country, including in B.C. and Alberta, before moving to her home territory of Six Nations two years ago. “This is certainly the first that has a large majority of the presenters and authors who are Haudenosaunee,” she said.
The festival includes spoken word poetry and music, along with panels for children’s authors, memoir writers and filmmakers.
Its name is inspired by the word Ogwehoweh, which means “the original people,” Rogers said. Haudenosaunee refers to the “people of the longhouse,” or the members of the Six Nations that make up the Haudenosaunee confederacy: the Seneca, Cayuga, Oneida, Onondaga, Mohawk and Tuscarora Nations.
Artists can speak to peers, share their work and lessons
Kristi White, a children’s author from the Oneida Nation of the Thames in southwestern Ontario, will be a panelist during the event. She’s one of the authors of the The Adventures of Jay and Gizmo series about an Indigenous boy, Jay, and his friend Gizmo the cat.
“In my books, everything in there speaks Indigenous. Even when you see adults’ feet or children’s feet, there are moccasins,” she said.
In the first book of the series, Jay and Gizmo become best friends. In the later books, they meet an Indigenous hoop dancer and learn about boys and braids and pow wows.
She has self-published four books so far on her own, which has meant that she has had to do her own promotion and marketing. She’s currently working on translating the books into the Ojibway and Oneida languages.
The festival will be a chance for authors like herself to share knowledge and learn more about the publishing industry, she says. It’s important to her that children’s literature includes Indigenous culture and context so children can recognize themselves and their worlds in the books they read — and imagine themselves as writers as well.
“All of these things are not things that children are exposed to regularly,” she said. “For little Indigenous girls, I’m an Indigenous woman who grew up on a reserve and is doing this.”
For spoken word poet, ‘art is medicine’
Spoken word poet Kahsenniyo from Six Nations of the Grand River is both performing at the festival and sitting on a panel on poets and the spoken word.
“It is an extension of the tradition of oral storytelling,” she said. “It’s how we share knowledge, it’s how we share lessons, it’s how you laugh together.”
She began writing poetry at 18 as part of her activism. As time went on, she became more attracted to spoken word poetry and the emotional connections she could build with audiences. Her work focuses on decolonization and working through intergenerational trauma.
“For me, art is medicine. And I use my art to process things that I’m going through. And what I’ve kind of found over the years is that a lot of Indigenous folk are going through the same thing,” she said. “It can be really empowering to hear other people saying what you think and what you feel. And so being able to share that medicine with audiences is also a part of my own healing.”
She said the festival will be an opportunity to share the brilliance of Haudenosaunee storytelling, who are a distinct people with unique voices and experiences.
“Colonization and assimilation has impacted all of us very differently. And there’s this idea that there’s the Indigenous experience, but in actuality, like, there’s so many different experiences, so many different ways that we’ve been impacted. And so there’s so many different types of stories to tell.”
New avenues appearing for Indigenous writers
Previously, there were few avenues to access Indigenous writers outside of the mainstream Canadian literature festivals and publishing outlets, Rogers said. It could be a challenge for those writers to reach a broad audience while not changing their unique voices and styles, she added.
“Native writers need to write in the way that they need to write,” she said. “[That includes] language that maybe is not accessible to non-native readers, but acceptable and familiar with native readers, and we need to do that, unapologetically.”
Rogers has also launched her own publishing house, Ojistoh Publishing. Dawn Cheryl Hill’s short story collection Memory Keeper, which comes out this fall, making Hill the first author published through the publishing house other than Rogers.
She hopes the festival will become an annual event that features Haudenosaunee writers and help members of that literary community support one another. Next time, she hopes to include a youth panel.
“The interest in and the popularity of Indigenous stories is at a peak right now,” she said. “Since we have the ear of new readers and new viewers to our stories, this helps the new Indigenous writer to feel confident in producing their own stories, and maybe publishing them into books.”