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‘No Such Thing as an Indian Writer’

Because I am Indigenous, I was told I’d never make it. But I’m still here.

Joseph Kakwinokanasum 1 Jul

Joseph Kakwinokanasum is a member of the James Smith Cree Nation. He is a graduate of the Writer’s Studio and the Writer’s Studio graduate workshop at Simon Fraser University.

[Editor’s note: ‘Resonance: Essays on the Craft and Life of Writing’ is a 2022 essay collection edited by Andrew Chesham and Laura Farina, published by Anvil Press Publishers in Vancouver. The volume features the work of local writers reflecting on their craft. The collection is a big-hearted reflection on wading through the muck of life itself. The volume features an essay by Joseph Kakwinokanasum, featured here. In it, he reflects on how his experiences as an Indigenous man have shaped his life and work. Content note: This story contains information related to the residential school system and intergenerational trauma. It may be triggering to some readers.]

It was the summer of ‘78 when I knew someday, I’d be a writer. I was nine years old, and my sister gave me a paperback of short stories called Night Shift by Stephen King. I was inspired, and when I told my mother I wanted to be a writer, she said, “No such thing as an Indian writer.”

I look more white than Native, but I am a card-holding member of the James Smith Cree Nation; I’ve always self-identified, but it rarely helped me in the small northern village where I grew up. Besides, having six siblings, five of them preceding me in school, made “passing” as white impossible. On the first day of class, some teacher would always ask, “How many more in your family are there?” After the class stopped laughing, I would answer, “Just one more.” In grade school, I was transferred — along with the rest of the Native children — to the special needs group. I think it was the general assumption that Indians couldn’t read, write or count.

The establishment wasn’t the only barrier I faced as an Indigenous writer. If you’ve had a childhood like mine, I’m truly sorry. If you’re being subjected to abuse, extricate yourself from the scene. Get out. What writing has taught me is there are some stories that are worth seeking closure on; sure, I wouldn’t change a thing about what I lived through, but do I want to live it over? Nope. I wound up having a nervous breakdown and found myself at St. Paul’s Hospital in the psych ward. It’s how I met my therapist.

Therapy helped me work through my anxiety, fears and trauma and put me on a more self-aware path. It was my therapist who suggested journaling as a catharsis, and 20 years of that led me to reconcile with my past and prepare me for the future. I still have bad days, but I have a protocol for such events that makes dealing with my depression, chronic pain and concussion syndrome easier.

I continue to work with my therapists. That’s right, therapists, plural. I have a backup just in case. I even have an amazing family physician who is Native, and all my doctors know my story. At first therapy was difficult because I struggled with my past, but now I have healthier habits than I did when I was an addict. That’s right! Not ashamed. I’m lucky I lived through the experience. Through therapy, I’ve come to an understanding of my relationship with addiction, developed a personal relationship with my triggers, and learned how to deal with them safely.

There is a lot to say about lived experience, and Natives are acutely aware of social obstacles like poverty, abuse addiction and a society that is just now learning about institutionalised racism and its own privilege. Of all the challenges I faced as an Indigenous person, the hardest has been reprograming the hardwired lessons beat into me as a child. “You stupid fucking Indian” was the most repeated message I recall growing up. I spent years looking back, wondering why, questioning, always doubting myself. I had no self-confidence.

A difficult childhood and growing up dirt poor may sound like a bad start to a writing career, but it can also be dangerous, especially if you are Native; and if I wanted to be a writer, I needed help.

Therapy and journaling were my first steps to healing, even if I didn’t know it at the time. I stumbled constantly along a path toward inner peace, where I eventually discovered the validation to unpack my ambitions of being a writer. While in therapy, I took writing courses; I read Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones: Freeing the Writer Within and Stephen King’s On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft. I wrote daily, built a box for my writing tools, spent all my spare money on postage, stationery and the like.

As bad as the writing was, I submitted it anyway. Then one summer day in 2014, I got an email that reminded me of a longshot application I had submitted with the help of a good friend. I read the message: “Congratulations Joseph!” I had won the Canada Council for the Arts creation grant for Aboriginal peoples, writers and storytellers.

In 2015 I read the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada’s findings and learned why growing up in my family was so difficult. The TRC gave exigence to Indigenous stories. It’s no secret to us Native people that the unpleasant experience of childhood is mostly mutual and eerily similar.

There were times I was so enveloped by the TRC I became seriously depressed. To this day a critic sits on my shoulder gorging on my self-esteem, washing it down with my spirit. As an Indigenous writer, I have learned to work away from that voice until I can’t hear it.

I have given a lot of time and effort to create a safe space and support system to be a writer, and knowing when to pull away from the writing is as important a tool as knowing when to get back to it. It’s hard to put it into just a few words, especially when you are in the throes of it and up to your neck in your manuscript, so it is important to write from a safe place, and to rest from the difficult work that is memoir writing.

When I write memoir, I know that there are inherent risks to the practice. I know that I need to take it slowly. I write for 10 or 15 minutes, stop, then I get up from my desk and go for a walk, or I do house chores, or play with my cats. This is more a grounding exercise than anything; I have to physically remind myself to remain grounded and in the present moment, or I risk being pulled down by the gravity of my trauma.

That said, I’ve learned that bad days are a part of my creative process, and if I find myself spiralling into a darkness, I call my therapist, talk to my closest friends and meditate. If I am still struggling, I go to bed. Seriously, I sleep. If it’s good enough for the Dalai Lama, it’s good enough for me. Rest is the best, and it’s important to remember that life is a practice and not a perfect.

Writing takes a lot of work, so I encourage all new writers to get involved in a writer’s group and even create your own group of readers who are willing to review your writing. I attended the Writer’s Studio offered through Simon Fraser University, where I made some good writer friends who continue to inspire and support me daily.

A good friend from the program once said to me, “Joseph, you are not your writing.” And he was right. This statement is a reminder of where I started and that my past has less impact on my process. This is why I don’t throw away my journals, because if I want to, I can grab any one of them, and see how I have evolved as a writer and as a human being.

The writing experience has allowed me to refine and sharpen my writing tools. Over the years, I have collected a shed full of tools that I use to tend the enormous manure heap that was my childhood. I’ve broken that ground with blood, sweat and tears, tilled it into a rich garden until my hands bled. I tend my garden almost daily, and sometimes I have to mend it.

From that garden, I’ve learned, through trial and error, what is good for me and what makes me sick with anxiety, fear and bitter sadness; and although my mother’s voice continues to resonate, she is not saying, “No such thing as an Indian writer.”

Excerpted from ‘Resonance: Essays on the Craft and Life of Writing,’ edited by Andrew Chesham and Laura Farina. Copyright © 2022 the authors. Published by Anvil Press Publishers Inc. Reproduced by arrangement with the publisher. All rights reserved.  [Tyee]

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