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Kateri Akiwenzie-Damm: Our voices are marginalized

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By Mark Anthony Rolo - Photo by Sofia Damm
Special to News From Indian Country 4-09

 Kateri Akiwenzi-Damm

For nearly a decade Kateri Akiwenzie-Damm has remained fiercely committed to publishing the works of Indigenous poets and fiction writers.

As the founder and managing editor of Kegedonce Press, Kateri has to be an aggressive advocate for broadening the literary landscape in order to promote the work of her writers.

That is the way Kegedonce has had to do business from day one. Publishing has been a financial and cultural struggle for Kateri’s company to earn a decent share of the market because she believes the mainstream publishing industry continues to marginalize the voices of Indigenous writers as “fringe” or “niche.”

“I am very aware that mainstream publishers are not willing to take on what they consider ‘risks,’” Kateri says. “They have a very narrow area of interest in what they seek in manuscripts. They don’t understand First Nations people or culture, aesthetics, or artistic traditions. They wouldn’t appreciate the work, or bother trying.”

In many ways the decision to create a small press that would be exclusively devoted to publishing Native writers of North America was based on the dismissive perceptions and practices by the industry. In 1993 Kateri, who is a mixed blood Anishnaabe, was inspired to invest in a publishing venture while attending an Indigenous arts conference in Ottawa, Canada.

As a poet and activist for Indigenous rights, Kateri found a diverse group of Native writers who were eager to tell their own stories, but feared rejection from mainstream publishers they believed would not understand or “get” their interior worlds. She also found many talented writers who gave up on submitting their work to mainstream publishers because they did not feel non-Native editors believed they could make a decent profit selling their work.

With a few thousand dollars in the bank, Kateri wanted to do more than publish books that would sit on shelves or coffee tables. Her decision to create Kegedonce was intensely fueled by the desire to support and build Indigenous communities by giving voice to an oppressed population.

“To be silenced is to be dehumanized. No other being can tell their stories in the way humans can. When we are not able to do so, it cuts to the core of our humanity,” she says. “In my opinion, we can't survive and thrive as individuals or societies if we are prevented or unable to tell our own stories.”

But regardless of how high the calling of community work might be, the down to earth realities of editing, publishing and promoting a book knows no cultural or color barrier. Because Kateri had a background as a communication’s consultant she knew enough about the business of production. And she had the needed respect of the art and craft of writing to discern the difference between writers with great potential and those who merely liked to dabble in writing.

Kateri says novice Indigenous writers are just as human as other beginning writers. They make the same mistakes – submitting manuscripts that lack basic spelling and grammar checks, submitting to other publishers at the same time, having unrealistic perceptions that their poetry book will bring them riches. But committing time and resources to nurture and develop writers is still something she believes is necessary with new writers.

Many of Kegedonce’s first time authors did not simply show up with well-polished manuscripts. Their road to getting published began with a long, close relationship with Kateri and Kegedonce.

“You name a way of developing literary talent and I’ve probably done it,” Kateri says. “I'm extremely interested in developing Indigenous writing talent and I have done so in many ways for most of my writing career. I've encouraged those writers, mentored them, edited them, written support letters, recommended them for grants. Part of it is also suggesting they work on their craft, publish in journals and anthologies, do readings and develop that ability, and get experience promoting their own work. That’s all part of being a career writer.”

Keeping the lights on at Kegedonce can sometimes require more than a commitment to the long range business plan. Kateri believes it demands passion to publish just a couple of titles each year. Even in its dream stage Kateri knew that books based on community cultures outside of the mainstream would, in many ways, be a hard sell. Success would have to be defined as making enough profit to cover the expenses of a next book. Knowing that it would take years to cultivate any kind of market within mostly poor Indigenous communities would be, and still is, an uphill climb.

Besides an obvious education gap (most tribal communities have significant basic literacy issues) and the lack of authentically-based books about Native communities, the idea of “telling your own stories” is foreign. Or, when it comes to simply surviving, books can be perceived as a privilege, something only to be valued by the privileged.

“Other times, it’s a history that has taught some of us that it’s not safe to tell our stories because it’s not safe for us to be who we are because of our race or culture,” Kateri says. “Sadly, the ability to tell our stories is still threatened in so many ways in our communities.”

 

And yet in spite of the challenges within and outside of these Indigenous communities, Kegedonce has made some bold publishing decisions to embrace some of the most hidden, peripheral stories about modern Native living, values and worldviews. Without Reservation: Indigenous Exotica is an anthology of sexual and sensual poems and short stories. This collection, edited by Kateri, is one of Kegedonce’ most visible books. The raw and the racy seem to attract the editors at Kegedonce.

A strong sense of one’s cultural understanding that is either traditional, modern, urban or rural is the start of literary appeal for Kateri. “I’m also drawn to innovative works that kick at the boundaries of what Aboriginal or Indigenous literature and publishing are expected to be – that’s why we’ve published a number of firsts, such as the first Aboriginal fantasy trilogy and the Indigenous erotica anthology.”

One of only three publishers of Indigenous writing in North America, Kegedonce is the only publisher that makes poetry a high priority. Besides being a poet, Kateri believes that many young Native writers get into writing through poetry. Publishing can be considered daring given the number of mainstream publishers that have stopped printing the literary form.

The decision to publish work considered to be offbeat, surreal and loaded with plays of tribal mythology might be seem like a reason why it is very difficult to get support from potential funders. But Kateri believes no matter what Kegedonce puts out they will always have to prove they are a credible and viable publishing house. And, as hard times hit publishers everywhere, the need for funding support is becoming critical.

“Unfortunately, we probably are not going to be able to continue publishing first books by emerging writers except occasionally in special circumstances. It’s a dilemma because need to nurture that talent so that a group of fresh new Aboriginal writers is always upcoming,” she says. “We’ve tried to do that but we are feeling tremendous pressure not to from funders. We have to constantly educate the people around us (distributors and stores) – especially funders who still don’t seem to understand the unique challenges we face. They don’t quite seem to know what to do with us so I believe we are often neglected. They get frustrated because we won’t fit into their boxes – but that’s the point, isn’t it?”

Understanding the challenges and exploiting the limited opportunities to make a dent in traditional markets will remain a big part of Kegedonce’ mission. But building new audiences outside of this continent might prove to be a lucrative strategy to keep Kegedonce on the map. Since its inception, Kegedonce, which operates from the Chippewas of Nawash Reserve in Ontario, Canada, has built relationships with international publishers and distributors hoping to co-publish titles, to reach broader audiences.        Without Reservation, the anthology of Indigenous exotica, was co-published with Huja Publishers of New Zealand.                     “We take Aboriginal writing to an international stage where it belongs through co-publishing anthologies, special events, networking and using our international contacts to promote our books.”

Even though Kateri is well aware that the habits and interests of readers are rapidly changing, due in large part of emerging technologies, she remains committed to telling Indigenous stories with paper, black ink and binding glue. She finds On-Demand Publishing and other online resources curious, and perhaps one day Kegedonce will explore more of what the internet could do for sales and outreach, but for now Kateri has no intention to leave the old school.

“Nothing will ever replace the tactile experience of reading a beautifully designed book wherever one happens to be at the moment – the beach, a plane, outside, inside, on a train,” she says. “There”s nothing to plug in, nothing to break down, they last a long time, they can be easily shared. The technology isn’t going to change and require you to update the format.”

For more information about Kateri Akiwenzie-Damm and Kegedonce Press visit their website,

On The Net: www.kegedonce.com


Kateri Akiwenzie-Damm is an Anishinaabe writer of mixed blood from the Chippewas of Nawash First Nation. She has lived and worked at Neyaashiinigmiing, Cape Croker Reserve on the Saugeen Peninsula in southwestern Ontario since 1994.

Mark Anthony Rolo is a member of the Bad River Band of Ojibwe. He is pursuing an MFA in Creative Writing at Chatham University.
 
 

 

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