Alison Griffiths’ lecture (and a lesson for the Argosy about how to be better journalists)

Alison Griffiths is an award-winning author and journalist. She has written 10 nonfiction books and a novel and has produced a screenplay and a number of documentaries. Griffiths has also written for the Halifax Chronicle Herald, the Toronto Star, MSN, Metro Newspapers and the Vancouver Sun. On Jan. 17, Griffiths spoke at Mount Allison about her upcoming book, Sitting Bull’s Last Stand: How America’s Most Wanted Man Changed Canada, which she co-authored with David Cruise.

Sitting Bull was a Hunkpapa Lakota Sioux chief who led the resistance against United States policies in the 1860s and 70s. After unsuccessful negotiations for peace with the American military, Sitting Bull and the Sioux went to Wood Mountain, SK. The Canadian government refused to grant the request for a reserve for the Sioux. Eventually, they returned to the U.S. and were settled at Standing Rock Reserve in North Dakota.

In addition to introducing her new book, Griffiths spoke about Indigenous history and the conflicts that arise from telling stories from a culture that is not one’s own. The Argosy took this opportunity to interview Griffiths about ways to improve our own storytelling, specifically about Indigenous issues.

Nadiya Safonova: Do you have any suggestions or advice for the Argosy about how to cover Indigenous stories?

Alison Griffiths: I would quote a Mohawk friend who says you just say, “to hell with it,” and go ahead. Sometimes you get stopped in your tracks, sometimes you will be accused of all kinds of things, but you go ahead and do it anyway. If there’s a story to tell, tell the story. But go back to the fearless sensitivity; be sensitive about what you are researching and writing – and by sensitive I don’t mean politically correct, I mean sensitive to nuances that we might not understand. There is tons that I write about where I spend more time trying to understand the nuances than the facts. In this case, that’s how you tell those stories.

NS: How do you go about understanding the nuances of these stories?

AG: I think my daughter, being a member of the deaf culture, has said, “be careful of your assumptions.” Assumptions don’t travel well from culture to culture. She’s absolutely right. The assumptions that white people have had, from time immemorial, about Indigenous people is that they’re basically homogenous, they think with some kind of big central brain, they all feel the same. Nothing could be further from the truth. There are social structures and hierarchies and, like within our own, cultures within cultures. The biggest tool in a writer’s tool kit to understand those nuances is to keep asking questions. The more you ask, the more you learn and don’t ever assume you know.

NS: And that’s how we develop sensitivity, by asking more? So we don’t end up “barging in” to cultures?

AG: Well, barging in is sometimes good, as long as you barge in with the attitude to learn and find out. Just keep asking questions – and another thing I would say is be eternally sceptical. I’ve been and am a journalist, I’ve been a screenwriter, a documentary producer, an author, a teacher, – all of those things – but the thing that served me best of all is that healthy dose of scepticism. Assumptions don’t travel well from culture to culture, but if one assumption does, it is the assumption that pretty much everybody has their own point of view, whether it’s their own story or their own point of view and reason for telling it. So go into every story with scepticism and a kind of emptiness in your mind, which flies in the face of journalism. Go in empty, let the information fill up your tank, then create your story out of that.

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