Elements of Indigenous Style: A guide for writing by and about Indigenous Peoples

Gregory Younging (Brush Education Inc., 2018), 168pp, £16.99
ISBN 978 1550 597 16 5

Reviewed by Andrew Hodges

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This book is a refreshing approach to editorial style! It questions several frameworks common in Anglo-American and European publishing frameworks, and it emphasises listening to and collaborating with Indigenous groups when possible.

Gregory Younging of the Opaskwayak Cree Nation put the guide together, and it is essential reading for any editors who work with texts that deal with any accounts or representations of Indigenous groups. Younging lives in what is now Canada, and the book draws frequently on the experiences of groups in this part of North America.

The book has several core messages and a larger selection of 22 editorial principles that apply. One important insight is that the purpose of Indigenous style is to produce works that ‘reflect Indigenous realities as they are perceived by Indigenous Peoples’, which is part of Principle 1. This is important as texts written about Indigenous themes have often not done this. The focus on points of view invites the reader to examine and think about Indigenous experience and their relation to it. It also highlights the potential damage that Western academic viewpoints that don’t include and incorporate Indigenous experience can do, while also emphasising the diversity of that experience (there is no single, unified point of view).

An important practical insight for editors is that Indigenous style is overlaid on other styles. For example, you may follow the Chicago Manual of Style and then make Indigenous style decisions (eg capitalising terms like Oral Tradition or Protocol). The metaphor here is PerfectIt’s root style (the foundation) vs a house style.

The 22 principles are scattered across the six chapters and then summarised in an appendix at the end. Chapter one explains the need for Indigenous style guide. It emphasises how style is caught up in political choices. Chapter two examines the damaging ways in which Indigenous Peoples have been portrayed in literature, especially in academic literature. This includes their portrayal as an inferior, vanishing race. Salvage anthropology would be one example of this, while concepts of ‘races’ and ‘peoples’ come from a European political imaginary. Chapters three and four examine contemporary Indigenous cultural realities and the cultural rights of Indigenous Peoples, respectively. These chapters look at issues related to diversity and distinctness, and cultural property. I like that case studies are used to give examples of what happens on the ground in publishing. Chapter five is an important one – it covers culturally appropriate publishing practices for Indigenous authors and content. Chapter six discusses terminology, and the book ends with a series of appendices of principles, names of Indigenous Peoples and an academic article on Traditional Knowledge and its Colonisation.

This book has value not only for those working within or alongside Indigenous communities in Anglo-American publishing, but also for anyone who wants to consider how the industry could change. How could publishing be done differently? What dialogues can emerge between different publishing traditions? The answers Younging offers take the reader beyond the level of representation and look at the political and economic aspects: authors are often individualised within a legal framework of copyright, permissions, etc., too. The Anglo-American publishing system is profit-seeking and outcomes have not been just for all concerned. On the one hand, members of Indigenous communities have not always been fairly recompensated for the use of materials or texts they have provided within that system. On the other hand, the whole system of copyright can be critiqued as serving Western capitalism and settler interests. Younging affirms that just because a text has been published under copyright, you should not assume that this means it is okay to reproduce Indigenous content in it. As a general principle, you should seek guidance from the community members themselves. Beyond asking for guidance, the best work will emerge from a balanced, respectful collaboration – and to achieve that, a significant amount of legwork needs to be done by those who have done damage in the past.

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