“Language, Family, Community, Ceremony”: Decolonizing the Literary Anthology

Cas Taken from Castellano. “Ethics of Aboriginal Research” See below for a full size pdf.

Compared to the Social Sciences, which contends more directly with human subjects, the humanities do not have a deep relationship with research ethics–as they are developed institutionally. However, in the case of anthology compiling, a practice that has been historically connected to nation-building and citizenship, the ethics of the humanities becomes a much thornier issue, necessitating a more rigorous ethical code than current literature provides. In this blog post I would like to make explicit the connections between the 2012 Tri-Council Policy Statement (TCPS 2) and the Aboriginal Ethics Initiative (AREI) looking specifically at Marlene Brant Castellano’s contribution to Aboriginal research ethics. Using Castellano’s conception of the medicine wheel, I argue that there is an ethical framework based in Indigenous knowledges that can be used for compiling an anthology, which “places the discussion of research ethics in the context of world view and the struggle for self-determination as peoples and nations” (98) and decolonizes a very Westernized system of writing and compilation.

In 2010, Aboriginal research ethics became a formal part of the policy behind Canada’s tri-council granting agencies (CIHR, NSERC and SSHRC) with the publication of TCPS 2. Chapter nine of TCPS 2 was guided by discussions and recommendations received through the Panel’s Aboriginal Research Ethics Initiative (AREI), which Castellano chaired. Following the recommendations made by AREI, the council’s strategic grants program made a fundamental change in the policy informing Aboriginal research ethics, shifting from research “on and about Aboriginal People” to research “with and by Aboriginal people” (Castellano 5).

Many of the recommendations put forth by AREI for TCPS 2, which are summarized in “Policy Writing as Dialogue: Drafting an Aboriginal Chapter for Canada’s Tri-Council Policy Statement: Ethical Conduct for Research Involving Humans,” were drawn from Castellano’s essay, “Ethics of Aboriginal Research,” published in the inaugural issue of the Journal of Aboriginal Health. In this 2004 essay, Castellano established a context for Aboriginal ethics and outlined how Aboriginal World Views are transmitted. In order to establish an indigenous context for her system, Castellano uses the figure of the tree (see the picture above or the handout link at the bottom of this post).

The trunk, branches and leaves of the tree represent the beliefs, relationships, customs and values that constitute a culture’s representative identity. However, the identity that we see, the one that is “above ground” is supported by a deeper root system (land and World View). Thus, while ethics are represented in the upper branches of the tree, the deeper ethical principles that Castellano is appealing to are those represented in the (unseen) root system. To quote Castellano, “The whole of the tree is rooted in the earth which supports us” (100). Indeed, part of what makes her work so important is how she shifts emphasis from the representative order of ethics to the land and world view that support them, which, as the tree-metaphor helps to illustrate, often goes unseen or unrecognized in colonial frameworks.

After mapping out the context for Aboriginal Ethics, Castellano shift her attention away from the representative level of ethics to further develop the internal logic of the root system that she identifies as its support, focusing specifically on worldview. Using the medicine wheel process of the northern plains, the Mohawk scholar breaks down Aboriginal worldview into four key ideas: Language, Family, Community, Ceremony:

Language, which carries the code for interpreting reality, is learned within the family and reinforced by the practices and values endorsed by the community. Public ceremonies and private rituals give shared expression to teachings. In turn, these become incorporated in the language of family and community relations. (101)

These four categories represent for Castellano the discreet ways in which Aboriginal worldview is disseminated and revitalized within a community. As the logic of the circle dictates, the four categories are not mutually exclusive, but complimentary, with no strict beginning or ending point. Together they represent the system of exchanges that constitute a foundational cultural perspective.

“The Ethics of Aboriginal Research” asks us to see its two central images (the tree and the medicine wheel) together, with the medicine wheel as an elaboration on the Indigenous worldview that supports a healthy ethical system.  According to Castellano,

when learning, healing or rehabilitation is aligned with traditional ethics and values, it takes on astounding energy. The leaves of a tree, connected to their vital source, display health and vigour. (112)

In other words, a healthy, ethical community must be built on a robust and distinctive Aboriginal worldview in which each of the four elements are taken into account. It is this particular notion of Aboriginal worldview that TCPS 2 and AREI are built out of, providing the epistemological structure for research to be conducted towards self-determination.

While the connection between TCPS 2 and the production of literature is hazy (as non-human research, anthology editors are not required to follow AREI protocol), Castellano’s work is particularly salient when considered in relation to the production of literary anthologies. I say this because anthologies themselves play a foundational roles in the development of the nation-state via what Joe Lockard and Jillian Sandell they term as “citizenship-by-anthology” (246):

Early literature anthologies in both the U.S. and Canada were compiled as a means generate an “imagined community”. They provided the core ideals and morals (European and Christian) upon which their editors (white, European males) assumed their country should be built. As pedagogical tools, these anthologies found their best homes in schoolhouses, where they could best “promote moral growth and excellence of mind in habits.” In the U.S. William Holmes McGuffey’s series of readers (which he began publishing in 1836) shaped the minds of thousands (if not millions) of young students, while in Canada George T. Denison’s collection of songs and poems, Raise the Flag, played a prominent role in “imagining” confederation in Canada’s early years as a country.

Of course, part of imaging the colonial nation via the anthology also meant imagining the “Indian” to contained roles that fit neatly within nation state narrative. As Michael Elliott argues, national anthologies had two primary goals in their representations of Indigenous peoples: “[1] to celebrate the victory of white “civilization” over so-called primitive inhabitants of North America and [2] to articulate a nagging, guilty ambivalence about the territorial dispossession of Native peoples” (726).

Editors of Indigenous literature anthologies thus need to be aware of how anthologies have traditionally worked as the root system for colonial systems while considering how the form can be utilized to support Aboriginal worldview and thus Aboriginal communities. My suggestion is that Castellano provides the opportunity to decolonize the anthology via the medicine whee and the four categories she fits into it. Thus, in the final portion of this blog post I would like to examine the ways in which some of the issues and problems implicit to the anthology can be thought out in the terms of Castellano’s medicine wheel and the categories of language, family, community and ceremony. Clearly, as the logic of the medicine wheel dictates, these are not mutually exclusive categories: they blend into and inform one another, but I have attempted to organize the corresponding anthology issues in relation to the most pertinent category. I do not pretend to offer answers to the problems and questions I raise here, but rather to offer a productive, Indigenous context in which to think through the issues implicit the the anthology and its production.


I begin with Castellano’s notion of language, which she identifies as “the code for interpreting reality.” The use of Indigenous languages in short stories is an important part of how those texts function as cultural and aesthetic artifacts. As Marie Battiste (Mi’kmaw) argues, language is an essential tool in the transmission of knowledge. It is “by recovering [indigenous] languages, recovering our teachings with Elders, recovering the kinds of knowledges that come from within a culture” (148) that restorative and regenerative processes can begin. Of course, there is no set code for how an Indigenous author incorporates their language into a text. Many authors include in-text glosses, or end-of-text glossaries. Some authors leave words or passages unattended by the apparatus of translation, relying on the reader’s knowledge. Others write approximations of words that have never been formally captured in written discourse. All of these approaches compel the reader (Indigenous or non-Indigenous) to read text in different ways towards different ends, which the editor must take into consideration when transplanting the text.

Indeed, one of the difficulties of compiling an anthology is negotiating the original contexts in which an author evokes language. As Elliott argues, the “literary encounter” of the anthology “lift[s] the tale from the tribal context in which it takes its living shape” (Elliott 724). Linguistic contexts, inasmuch as they are not always inscribed within the story itself—but rather in extra-textual apparatuses, such as glossaries, appendices, etc.—can be amongst the first elements to be lost. Further, placed amongst other texts that utilize different languages and different codes for interpretation, the anthology generates a space in which new codes for interpreting language inevitably occur. One of the issues that the anthology editor must keep in mind, then, is how to work with Indigenous languages, allowing them the space to grow and adapt without severing the fundamental connection between language, place and community. Considerable consideration must be put into the use of glosses (in-text, end-of-text, extra-textual) and the ways in which individual authors mobilize language in their work.


Just as editors must consider the ways in which an anthology can promote (and possibly impair) the transmission of language, so must we consider the ways in which it generates family. One of the functions of the anthology is to group texts and together draw connections through systems of inclusion and exclusion. “Family” and “community” groupings are perhaps the most important function of the editor, who organizes the groupings formally via the anthology’s primary apparatus: the preface, headings and the table of contents. While many national anthologies organize chronologically, “multicultural” anthologies group their texts in accordance to geography or “race”. Editors must bear in mind that while family groupings generate strength of representation, even the most well-meaning anthology also risks perpetuating what Minoo Moallem and Ian Boal call “’multicultural nationalism”, which “homogenizes differences, refuses specificity, dismisses hybridity, commodifies alterity, and ignores power relations between and among groups of people with different geographical histories, all of which restates a universalist nationalism” (248). Bearing the importance of family in mind, anthology editors must seriously consider how are the texts going to be grouped, and how a preface and/or headings can account for difference while working within a form that generates at least some level of homogeneity.


Closely aligned with Castellano’s notion of family is the idea of community. Whereas family represents the inner sphere of a society in which language and culture are taught, community represents the outer sphere, the public realm in which family values are coalesced and reinforced. In an anthology these two categories can be thought of as the difference between the individual sections or groupings in the text and the text itself as a whole. An editor must account for the specific needs of the “family,” while speaking to issues that apply to the larger Aboriginal community. Castellano herself is acutely aware of this tension, and errs on the side of finding ways to locate and build community. According to her,

The relatively small size of the Aboriginal population, located within a larger society and interacting with it on my fronts, dictates a continuing need for intercultural knowledge exchanges. It is essential that the criteria for ethical intercultural research be developed and distributed. (Castellano 107)

Anthologies have the potential to be provocative, dynamic and stimulating spaces for intercultural knowledge exchanges insofar as they generate community where none existed before. With the guidance of an adept editor, conversations can be started across and between texts. Parallels can be drawn, differences can be noted and analyzed, and connections can be drawn across time and space within a contained world.

Of course, while all of this is very exciting, editors must also bear in mind—in such a way that it is also evident to the reader—that anthologies, like communities, are based on systems of exclusion. While an anthology may represent a space for knowledge exchanges, the selections always are, to some degree, contingent and provisional. Similarly, editors must be cautious about over-stating boundaries of inclusion. Anthologies should facilitate interaction without dictating the terms on which it happens (which can occur in pedantic headers and poorly conceptualized tables of contents).

Here the editor might follow what Castellano calls “the ethic of non-interference” (Castellano 100), which she borrows from Indigenous research paradigms in Ontario and Quebec. In this system, an overly pedantic researcher is perceived as ‘an interferer.’ “His attempt to show that he knows more about a particular subject than the advisee [is] seen as an attempt to establish dominance, however, trivial, and [as a result] he is be fastidiously avoided in the future” (535). In order to facilitate open communication, researchers need to embrace non-intrusive methods that do not attempt “to shape the behavior of the learner” (100). Working from Indigenous knowledges, the non-interfering editor uses minimal or no headers to introduce texts; she/he is conscious of the ways in which anthology apparatus shapes and instructs reading and provides the space for readers to make their own connections between texts and families to form their own communities.


Finally, ceremony is the category that speaks most to the text’s life post-production, in its use in the classroom. According to Castellano, “[p]ublic ceremonies and private rituals give shared expression to teachings” (Castellano). The most concrete way in which an anthology becomes ceremony is in its teaching, so it is necessary for editors think about how ceremony can be facilitated in the production stage. One option is to include a teaching guide, perhaps giving instructors lessons in indigenous pedagogy or suggestions for outside resources, such as language dictionaries and online databases. A teacher may also consider bringing an Elder into the classroom or asking Indigenous authors to read from their work and speak with the class. Students might also be asked to engage with Indigenous communities (if the engagement is properly vetted and agreed to by the community), visiting Friendship Centres or interviewing Indigenous community members. Many contemporary anthologies engage with ceremony via the internet and new medias. Interviews with authors, readings, history and other supplemental material can be posted to a website, which students access via password. Interactive and visual material can bring the text to life and add new layers to its meanings.

Ceremony also encourages what Castellano calls an “ethic of reciprocity.” According to her,

when you seek knowledge from an Elder, you offer tobacco or other appropriate gifts to symbolize that you are accepting the ethical obligations that go with the received knowledge. In each case, the exchange confirms a relationship that continues beyond the time and place of the exchange. Knowledge is not a commodity that can be purchased and exploited at will. (Castellano 104)

Teaching a text and asking students to engage with it via close reading and other methods, encourages a reciprocity between text and reader. In particular, encouraging students to read not only the stories, but the anthology’s apparatus critically can help to destabilize the perceived authority of the text an reinforce the idea that Indigenous knowledges are not something that can be captured and reified and that the anthology itself is a “whole” or “complete” object. Further, beginning to teach a text by explaining the ethic of reciprocity: asking students to think, as they move through the text, about what they can give back to Indigenous communities and Indigenous knowledges can encourage a relationship with those knowledges that exists beyond the time and place of the anthology/classroom.


Indigenous anthologies have the potential not only challenge the exclusionary rhetoric of national anthologies, but they strengthen the core of Indigenous worldviews, providing a ground for healthy, strong indigenous communities. As dictated by TCPS 2 and the AREI, researchers working in Canada need to be aware of the ethical implications of their work and be willing to work with Indigenous communities/knowledges rather than just publishing on them. This foundational logic, while conceived in relation to research on human beings, also applies to the humanities and, more specifically, the production of anthologies. Anthology editors such as ourselves need to be aware of the ways in which we can include Aboriginal knowledges not just in the texts themselves, but in the production of text. Part of my point today is that we do not have that far to look. Brant and the AREI have set a strong Indigenous foundation in TCPS 2. Brant’s use of the Medicine Wheel, for instance provides a philosophically robust space in which to begin thinking through the construction of an Indigenous anthology. Appealing to it will not only strengthen the ethical core of our work, but it will also add to the relevance of Chapter 9 of TCPS 2, thus contributing to the power and relevance of Aboriginal knowledges and AREI in the construction of Canada’s academic protocols.

Castellano_Handout 1            







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