By Amy Badry
The idea for the Aboriginal Writers’ Circle came to Sarah Scout when she was working at McNally Robinson Booksellers.
“I came across a quotation by L.L Langness and Gelya Frank,” said Scout.
“To fail to understand another person’s life story is in general to reject one’s own humanity. For those who are bearers of a tradition the opportunity to tell their story can be a gift. Reassurance if they are still indeed still alive that their voices will be heard and their cultures can survive. It is a gift of equal importance for those generations to come who will take up that tradition and shape it to their own needs as the future unfolds,” it read.
The first AWC meeting took place in the basement of the Calgary bookstore.
“I think it’s cool how one thought a long time ago can become and remain a reality,” said Scout. “The AWC has been my offering, something that has taken and continues to take hard work, patience, time and dedication. This group is for Aboriginal writers to come together in celebration and exploration of the written word and oral storytelling tradition.”
Four years later, the writers’ circle continues to expand and is now holding monthly meetings at the Central Calgary Library.
“It is not enough just to sit back and saturate in the pain, and be the brunt of the negative experience. I felt more empowered through writing and becoming aware of who I was,” said Scout. “Seeing myself and my life not just as a writer, but as a citizen of this country. [The AWC] is what I am doing to change my world, and to change the society.”
Monthly meetings often focus on an issue such as the importance of language, culture, identity or history. Other themes during circles include horror writing, poetry, playwriting, and academic writing. The AWC also hosts an annual tribute to residential school survivors.
Local and nationally published authors and storytellers are invited to host presentations.
“Our accomplishment has been and will continue to be our contribution to the Calgary community by gathering local Aboriginal writers, authors and storytellers in a circle where their voices and stories are exercised, valued, encouraged and appreciated,” said Scout.
Scout, a third-year English student at the U of C, as well as a print journalism graduate from Lethbridge College, has been interested in writing from a young age. One of her first explorations into the written world was through her self-published zines.
“Zines were introduced to me through a friend in high school,” said Scout. “Zines are really your own artistic creation. Anything you want to make your zine about it can be about. There are no limitations. My zines are about growing up in Lethbridge and later moving to Calgary. My strife and struggle, my loss and gain. How I see my family, my people, and the worlds I live in. The world in my head and the world my body was born into.”
Scouts zines are about her experiences and a reflection of who she is.
“It made me look at myself in a way, what was I doing growing up here in Lethbridge, what was it like to be an urban Aboriginal but also an educated Aboriginal woman, my challenges and what I see in my day to day.”
Before Scout founded the AWC her writing was published in The Endeavour, The Lethbridge Herald and Beatroute Magazine. In 2006, she started working as the managing editor of New Tribe Magazine- Calgary’s urban Aboriginal youth magazine- and continued with them for two and a half years.
“That was one of the hardest jobs I have had to do as a writer, but one of the most fulfilling jobs as well. You realize why the voices of these people need to be heard: they are offering knowledge and experience that is so unique that you are not going to find anywhere else,” said Scout about the Aboriginal community members she met during her time at New Tribe.
The magazine focuses on positive stories of the Aboriginal Calgary community. “Often the negative things about natives in this country get overblown, out of proportion.”
The AWC continues to provide a space to celebrate the Aboriginal voice and written word.
“We have done this and will continue to do this in the spirit of the written word and oral storytelling tradition because, as a people, we have something wonderful to offer the writing world,” said Scout.
This year the AWC will be celebrating their three-year partnership with the Calgary Central Library and four years as a group.
“The most support we have gotten out of the Calgary community is through the Calgary Central Library. If it weren’t for them I would be operating the AWC out of my house, or out of a coffee shop or something. We would be a lot smaller,” said Scout.
Scout describes the group as a place to celebrate Aboriginal writers and the Aboriginal voice, “but also those interested in writing, those interested in the culture, and those interested in just the group itself.”
The writing circle is multifaceted as it is a place for writers to come to have work critiqued and network with other writers in Calgary, but also a place for non-Aboriginals to come to learn more about Aboriginal identity and heritage, and build relationships and understanding.
“At every circle we read brief passages, quotations and excerpts of literatures of all genres published and written by Indigenous authors and sometimes non-Indigenous literatures that portray their story on Indigenous characters and related themes,” said Scout.
She said Aboriginal history and issues is Canadian history and often it is a Candian history that has been denied to Canadian citizens. “This has resulted in confusion, misunderstanding and culture clash.”
Part of Scout’s role at the Aboriginal Writers’ Circle is to seek out Aboriginal individuals in the community who are engaging in writing activities and creative projects where writing plays a part and inviting them to the circle.
“It is an interesting, small group - it is open to everybody so you never know who is going to show up. I have had people who have already written books, national bestsellers, and others who have never written before,” she said.
George Barnes, a regular attendee of the AWC, said it is great being involved in a group with similar interests.
“Although we are there for the same reason we still have different backgrounds and interests outside of the AWC,” said Barnes. “There always seems to be one or two new people at the meetings which always changes the dynamic.”
Barnes enjoys the writing exercises each meeting. He said it is often difficult to be given a subject and then just to start writing.
“I consider myself to have at least average verbal and language skills but still have trouble writing the stories. I assumed I had a strong grasp of standard grammar but writing for the first time tests those skills for sure,” he said. “I hope I learn to spot writing styles, good syntax, and a bit more polished grammar skills.”
Barnes had not written much before joining the AWC and has finished one short story and is working on another.
Scout hopes to see more recognition and support for Aboriginal authors, writers and storytellers.
“That voice has always been there but has not always been listened to or respectfully heard,” she said.
She is currently working to make the AWC sustainable.
“It would be nice to see the AWC continue without me, in the sense that I can take a break or vacation and the circle will keep its operation and progress forward. I would like sponsorship and donation for stable marketing needs and the ability to book more authors and reach more people online, in the city and across the country,” she said.
In the beginning, the number of AWC members was small but Scout continued to push herself and the group to remain active in spite of discouraging remarks and times of doubt.
“People ask what the AWC is about and why are we doing this,” said Scout. “The AWC has always given me something I can believe in. It is a part of me, but also Aboriginal people have always been here, and everything we are, is part of this community as well. It is really up to others if they want to accept that and engage in it.”