New Chair of UBC’s First Nations Studies Talks Native Politics and Indigenous Fantasy Novels

Dr. Daniel Heath Justice, Chair of the First Nations Studies Program

Author and educator Daniel Heath Justice has joined UBC as both the new chair of its First Nations Studies Program, and as an associate professor in the Department of English.

Justice joined UBC from the University of Toronto, where he specialized in Aboriginal Studies and Indigenous Native North American literatures, as well as cultural studies, literary history and speculative fiction.

ArtsWIRE spoke with Justice about his new role, his goals for the First Nations Studies Program, and about his success as a fantasy author.

Q: Congratulations on your new role as Chair of the First Nations Studies Program. You moved to Vancouver from Toronto to take on the position. What was it about UBC’s First Nations Studies Program that appealed to you?

Justice: There were a lot of things. The staff and faculty here are stellar. FNSP has a small faculty, but they are all doing internationally recognized work. They are energetic, and they are challenging Indigenous Studies in really important ways.

The program itself is also doing some really interesting things, especially the emphasis on the undergraduate research practicum. So I was really excited to see how my skillset would be useful to the program, and also be expanded as a result of working with everybody here.

Q: When it comes to studying indigenous cultures in Canada, is there a geographic advantage with being in British Columbia?

Justice: Oh, absolutely. Throughout Canada, every region is different in the ways Indigenous peoples are represented and in the ways Indigenous peoples actually have participation in particular conversations.

But here in BC, First Nations and other Aboriginal peoples have a particular visibility and strength. That doesn’t mean that there aren’t any challenging issues going on, but I think the kinds of conversations you would have here are very different to the kinds of conversations you would have elsewhere. Many communities here have maintained their presence on the land in the way other peoples have been displaced. The presence, just the physical presence of Indigenous peoples here in BC is very strong. All of those things greatly appealed to me.

I grew up in Colorado, and my family is Oklahoma Cherokee. So I have connections with eastern woodlands folk. And when I moved to Ontario I learned a lot from the Haudenosaunee and Anishinaabe people, the communities that called that region home. I was excited to learn more about my neighbours and hosts. There’s a steep learning curve out here because there are a lot of communities and cultural groups in BC. But I was excited to learn what I could, and I’ve been particularly pleased to visit with a lot of folks from Musqueam. I’m eager to continue and expand the good work that’s already put in place with Musqueam, in whatever way we can, as well as with other First Nations communities in the region and the broader Aboriginal community.

Q: Do you have any specific goals for the First Nations Studies Program during your term as Chair?

Justice: One of our top ambitions is to really bring attention to the quality of work that’s being done here, in both First Nations Studies itself, but also at UBC. Part of my goal is to help to bring more international visibility to the work in Indigenous Studies taking place at UBC, whether it’s in FNSP or as an ally and supporter of the First Nations Language Program, the First Nations House of Learning, Indigenous Education, the sciences, law—it’s a remarkable place with many remarkable people doing transformative work.

Most of the folks who are in these areas are humble and modest people who are committed to the work and not the recognition. So if I can help bring more attention to this important work, we can help grow the program with even more great faculty and even more great students, while expanding the range of possibilities all across UBC.

Q: Who or what was it that first inspired you to want to study Indigenous cultures?

Justice: That’s a complicated question. When I was growing up, I didn’t want to be Native. I grew up in my mom’s hometown in Colorado, away from Oklahoma, where my dad’s family was from. We were one of the only Native families in the area. I lived in a poor mining community, and I was one of the few geeky, bookish students in school, so I really stood out. It was a challenging place to keep your dreams intact. If not for my parents and their support, I would have been really isolated.

I saw culture as something that happened “over there” in Europe. I wanted to go to England and wear tweed and smoke a pipe and sit in oak-paneled rooms and talk about big ideas. Because that’s where it happened – in my mind at the time – it didn’t happen at the kitchen table, or when you were out hunting. I believed a lot of stereotypes about Indigenous peoples: that we didn’t have any kind of intellectual life, that we didn’t have anything to contribute, that we were… vanished. And it wasn’t until I went to university that that started to shift, with the help of a lot of great mentors, and with the longsuffering patience of my parents, who were always there to support me and encourage my dreams, and who were very pleased when I started looking homeward again.

And it took going to university to come back home, for me. And so early writers who influenced me would have been people like Thomas King, and other Indigenous writers such as Marilou Awiakta, Leslie Marmon Silko, N. Scott Momaday, Geary Hobson. Folks like that really moved me. It was the first time that I realized that I could go into Native literature and even Cherokee literature and reconnect my family with our history and where we come from, and it was a really powerful intervention.

University was a place of cultural recovery for me, and I know it is for a lot of students. So how do we make sure that it is a place that is open to students reconnecting with their homes and their culture and their family, or one that affirms the relationships already in place? University doesn’t just have to be a place that takes you away from your family; it can be a place that brings you back or, if you’re already well connected to home, strengthens those bonds and gives you important skills and resources to contribute back to where you came from, and I think that’s something important that our program offers to Indigenous students.

Q: You are also an established fantasy author, having written a three-book series entitled The way of Thorn and Thunder. When did you first start writing fantasy?

Justice: From as early as I could write. I always imagined other worlds and part of it was wanting to escape my world. I had a very good family life, but it was a very economically depressed area. I grew up in a place that destroyed a lot of people’s dreams. So you had a lot of people walking around who had given up on imagining other lives for themselves. And I was very fortunate that my parents encouraged me to always dream big, to dream as big as I could.

So it never made sense to me to not write fantasy novels. What I was running away from – none of it was about them — it was just growing up a very bookish kid with ambiguous gender traits. I didn’t have an entirely happy time in school. So fantasy became my escape because fantasy is a place where geeky people can rule the world. Harry Potter is a total geek, and he ends up a hero. I was really attracted to this idea.

But as I grew older, I saw less and less of myself in the books I was reading. I didn’t see Indigenous people unless they were being slaughtered by proto-Aryan supermen. I certainly didn’t see any queer folks. And I was looking for something different, but I kept finding the same worldviews, the same biases, the same exclusions. And I realized if I wanted to read these kinds of stories, that I would have to write them.

I’ve done this, but I’ve since found amazing speculative fiction by other Indigenous writers, queer folks, feminists, and other writers of colour who were also committed to social justice and decolonization, such as Octavia Butler, Ursula K. LeGuin, Larissa Lai, and others.

So my fiction is all Indigenous-themed fantasy that takes up those issues. And I’m writing for all those geeky little Native kids who were picked on, or for the people whose bodies don’t look like the Conans and Barbie dolls on the front covers of other novels.

Q: As a Colorado-born Canadian citizen, do you see a fundamental difference between the way Indigenous studies are taught in Canada and the U.S.?

Justice: There’s a huge difference, and it’s mostly in visibility. Aboriginal people here in Canada are a presence, whereas in the States, American Indians are seen as vanished. The only time you’ll generally hear about American Indian issues is in reference to casinos and so-called “special rights.” But here in Canada, it’s generally though not always a different situation.

It doesn’t mean visibility is always benign. Sometimes that visibility brings up a certain kind of nastiness and ugly stereotyping. But at least Indigenous people are part of the conversation, in ways that we’re just not in the States. We’re generally seen as “past-tense people” in the States. The goal over there is to remind people that Indigenous peoples are still around.

In Canada, for example, Aboriginal peoples are explicitly recognized in the Canadian Constitution. This isn’t an entirely unproblematic issue, but such recognition certainly allows us to have a different kind of conversation.

Q: We’re in the midst of an American election, and neither of the candidates have much talked about native issues. If they did, what would you want to hear from them?

Justice: Well, Obama has had high-profile meetings with American Indian leaders. It’s in a recent issue of Indian Country Today. Obama has generally been a pretty stalwart supporter of American Indian people. Romney… it’s hard to tell what his position is on anything, but he’s very states-rights focused, and states-rights people tend to be very anti-Indigenous rights.

What I would like to hear from them is their commitment to continue recognizing American Indian nations as nations. Their commitment to the nation-to-nation relationship, their commitment to recognizing indigenous sovereignty and self-determination. Their recognition that American Indian issues are human rights issues as well as beyond human rights, and that they extend beyond the borders of the nation state. And that they understand that their actions, both positive and negative, have a really profound impact on the spiritual, economic, social and environmental well-being of Indigenous people well beyond North America.

And maybe, some recognition that some of the so-called “tribal peoples” that they’re bombing in many places around the world are Indigenous peoples and not just “savages” to be exterminated for the benefit of commercial or geopolitical interests. There’s still a lot of savagist rhetoric in politics. And maybe the recognition that America’s constant subversion of Indigenous self-determination is not a past-tense issue, but one that’s still going on.

Q: Are there any literary projects you’re working on that you could share with us?

Justice: A colleague of mine, James Cox at the University of Texas in Austin, and I are co-editing the Oxford Handbook of Indigenous American Literature. We’re submitting that in December and it should be out next year. I’m also working on a short volume entitled, Why Indigenous Literature Matters. It’s a small handbook on why people should be paying attention to our literature.

And then my next fantasy series is a bit of a mash-up between True Grit, The Island of Doctor Moreau and Wind in the Willows. It’s very wacky, but fun—and very dark. The first volume of the series I’ll be buckling down with in January.

And I have a (book on the) cultural history of badgers I’m finishing up now. That should be out next year.

Q: Where do you find the time?

Justice: I haven’t yet!

Q: As someone who’s recently moved to Vancouver, what have been some of your favourite things about this city thus far?

Justice: How friendly people are! Folks have been so welcoming, and that has been really exciting. My partner and I just went back to Ontario this past week, and within an hour of driving in downtown Toronto, we were honked at, flipped off, screamed at, and someone spat at our car.

We thought, “Welcome to Toronto! Now let’s go back to Vancouver!”

For the winter session of 2012/13, Justice will be instructing FNSP 100 at the UBC Point Grey campus.

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