Gregory Younging, where have you been all my life?
Younging is the author of Elements of Indigenous Style: A Guide for Writing by and About Indigenous Peoples, published earlier this year. It’s ostensibly the “first published guide to common issues of style and process” for anyone writing and creating on Indigenous topics – and it’s been needed for a long time.
There’s a real thirst among professional communicators for knowledge in this area. As I’ve written on the topic before, it can be an uncomfortable space for a non-Indigenous writer. How do I engage effectively and respectfully, without alienating the audiences I’m trying to reach?
I’ve got a distinct advantage here at Creative Fire, with several colleagues that are both Indigenous and experienced communications professionals. I feel a lot more comfortable venturing into Indigenous topic areas. They’ll warn me that my foot is fast approaching my mouth and I should really reconsider a given piece of phrasing. But not everyone is as lucky as me.
When I was a volunteer with professional communicators’ organizations, we found that if you want to fill a room it’s hard to go wrong with a topic like, “How to Communicate with Indigenous Audiences.”
Writers and other creatives are clamouring for help, particularly as Indigenous issues such as reconciliation, inherent rights and Indigenous economic development become more prominent and gain momentum. Younging’s Elements of Indigenous Style strives to meet that need.
The title is an obvious nod to Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style, a classic and trusted reference on the desks of aspiring and established writers around the world, kept close at hand along with the Canadian Press Stylebook and Caps and Spelling. With Elements of Indigenous Style, Younging has added a new, essential element to this standard writers’ toolkit.
Originally from Opaskwayak Cree Nation in Manitoba, Younging was managing editor of Theytus books, a First Nations-owned and -operated publisher based in Penticton, British Columbia. He noticed the same mistakes and issues cropping up again and again. At first, he was skeptical that non-Indigenous writers could effectively work in the space without the lived experience and perspective of being Indigenous.
“In the 1990s, during intense discourses on cultural appropriation, I used to say that non-Indigenous people should just stop writing about Indigenous peoples,” he writes in his introduction to Elements of Indigenous Style. “Now that I’ve seen good collaborations and respectful work, I don’t say that anymore.”
If there is a central theme to the book, this is it. Writing in Indigenous space is about relationships and respect, and much of the book is devoted to explanations and examples of how to build successful collaborations. Its 22 principles succinctly lay out common pitfalls and how to avoid them, for example, how and when to interact with Elders and how to handle Indigenous knowledge and cultural property. It also includes a glossary of terminology, for example to help writers sort out usage of words such as “Indigenous,” “Aboriginal,” and “Indian.”
Elements of Indigenous Style is written for everyone – including Indigenous writers. As Younging writes, “Indigenous” is a blanket term, and there are many peoples under its umbrella. For example, a Nehiyaw writer would still have to proceed with care and seek collaboration when writing about Sto:lo people.
I’ve added Elements of Indigenous Style to the standard references on my desk. You should too.