University of Saskatchewan Pilots First Indigenous Storyteller-in-Residence

The University of Saskatchewan Library (USask), Saskatoon, recently wrapped up its inaugural Indigenous Storyteller-in-Residence program. The pilot project appointed Lindsay “Eekwol” Knight, an award-winning hip-hop artist and PhD student at the USask Department of Indigenous Studies, to a six-week library residency; Knight presented and talked about her work, held virtual “coffee shops” where campus and community residents shared their stories, and incorporated elements of those conversations into a final project, still in progress. 

Lindsay Knight head shot, woman with black hair and red lipstick in colorful embroidered shawl, standing against horizonThe University of Saskatchewan Library (USask), Saskatoon, recently wrapped up its inaugural Indigenous Storyteller-in-Residence program. The pilot project appointed Lindsay “Eekwol” Knight, an award-winning hip-hop artist and PhD student at the USask Department of Indigenous Studies, to a six-week library residency; Knight presented and talked about her work, held virtual “coffee shops” where campus and community residents shared their stories, and incorporated parts of those conversations into a final project, still in progress. The pilot program is funded through donations to the university library.

Knight, who is a member of the Muskoday First Nation in Saskatchewan, has released nine albums and recently completed a project through a Canada Council for the Arts grant titled “For Women by Women,” which looks at Indigenous women in hip-hop. LJ caught up with her as she finished her residency to hear about the experience.

LJ : How were you chosen for the residency, and what was proposed for the role?

Lindsay “Eekwol” Knight: They approached me, I think it was early November [2020], and asked if I’d be interested—that I’d be a good fit for this pilot program that they wanted to embark on in January. As a storyteller, you’re expected to engage with the community, and then come up with some sort of a project completed by the end of those six weeks. So it was pretty wide open to anything. And the coolest part of it was, I’m a hip-hop artist—I write rap, I write lyrics—so for me to be a choice for them was really cool, because it’s not something that’s the usual stereotypical Indigenous storyteller piece, it’s a modern take on how Indigenous people are telling stories today. There’s a lot of contemporary ways and mediums as a way of keeping up the storytelling tradition. So I thought that it was really cool that they asked me.

What was your work like, and what was different about doing a virtual residency during COVID?

As we all know, it’s a different world, and being in a “residency”—and I say that in quotations because I was actually in my own home the whole time—was challenging in some ways, but also helpful in others, because you can engage with people at any given moment. But not having that space to work on creative work and the engagement stuff, not having an office the way residencies would usually go, was a little bit challenging too. So there was give and take.

What I did was these virtual coffee talks. It was open to everyone, and it was promoted through the university and the Saskatoon community. I got people coming from Ontario, and some people from the United States, so it was this wide range of people that I may not have gotten to engage with otherwise, if it wasn’t virtual. That was kind of cool.

I used a lot of stories, and the theme of cultural identity—looking at how we build relationships with the knowledge of our heritage and our history and our cultural identity, and what that looks like. Then I’d throw the question out to participants and whoever I was engaging with, what they consider identity to be and how that fits with their worldview. I just got so much—I had so much to work with. I used that to create a project, which is a lyrical poetry piece I’m still editing right now, trying to get that done. So that’s what evolved out of it, this identify piece based on a lot of the engagement that I got virtually.

Did any particular stories from the folks you engaged with feed your work?

Being Indigenous, you’re going to attract those that are interested in the idea of Indigenous storytelling, and Indigeneity as an identity. I had somebody in one of my coffee talks—they were in their 50s and had just discovered they had been adopted, and they had just discovered that they were in the Sixties Scoop. in the ‘60s—and ‘70s, ‘80s, and ‘90s—a lot of Indigenous children were taken from hospitals and just given up for adoption without any records of their family. It was kind of like the residential schools, but more individual, case by case. You have this whole population of Indigenous people who know nothing about who they are. This woman had just found out that she was from this community not far from where I live, and she was overwhelmed with the desire to meet her family. Her identity had shifted from having a very Canadian worldview to wanting to know her Indigenous side and her bloodline. It was really cool to hear her story, and how her identity story completely shifted overnight, just now learning about her family—that’s how long it took for her to be able to get this information from the government.

It really affected me, because I’m so privileged in the fact that I grew up in my Indigenous community and have access to everything—language, ceremonies. I can’t imagine what that would feel like to know that you’re Indigenous and not have that kind of access, or have it so much later in life. It just got me thinking about all of that, so I included it in some of the project that I’m completing right now. Being a storyteller, you’re automatically open to those who want to tell their stories, especially when you have a topic like identity. There’s not a human being alive that doesn’t have identity stories.

Did your idea of the work you wanted to do change as the residency progressed?

I went into the role not really knowing, it was so wide open. What I thought was that I would have a piece focused on, maybe university life, and the library and students. But by the end it had completely shifted into an all-around community piece. It’s about building relationships through identity and engaging institutionally, but also on a day-to-day level in society—in the grocery store, at the gas station, that kind of thing. It went from being very institutional to very much anything goes. It just expanded.

Last week I had a virtual presentation, talking a bit about the experience. I’d also written some stories based on my songs. I’ve always wanted to do this—I’ve had so many requests to have my songs explained, and I’ve always wanted to write something so that I don’t have to keep re-explaining, but I could never get to that. So this gave me an opportunity. Part of the presentation was talking about three of those songs—I was able to write the story behind the story, and then this poem that I’m working on.

How is your work outside the residency going?

I’ve been doing music for quite a while and I’ve been getting a lot of virtual gigs, sitting on panels, livestream performances for festivals, that type of thing. So I’ve been keeping busy. I’m doing a lot of virtual talks with universities and also elementary schools, engaging with lyric writing and my personal journey. I’m writing music but I haven’t really recorded anything in a few months, because the studio I usually record at is not open. I’m a mom, I have two young ones here, so they keep me very busy. and I’m reading for my [PhD] comps right now, so that’s what I really, really should be focusing on.

Is there anything you wanted to do during the residency that you didn’t get to?

The biggest one, of course, is being able to be in residency physically, and be able to engage in that way. We’re all working with what we have right now, but I’m hoping if they continue on with this that next year they’ll be able to have somebody in house and able to do it that way. That was the one challenge, that I wish I would have been able to be there in person.

Will the USask library continue the program? Are other schools doing anything similar?

It sounds like [the USask program will happen on] a yearly basis. And they might extend it. We had a meeting discussing the pros and cons and how it worked out—more time is always useful, and the actual physical presence is useful.

A cool thing, too, is that a couple more have popped up around Canada. Because of this one, people are starting to try it out and do some more of these Indigenous storyteller-in-residence positions. It got a lot of attention, that’s the one thing that I did not expect—nobody expected. It got so much attention, there was so much of a media response, I think because people want to see something other than COVID, something positive that’s happening. I think the University of British Columbia just started one. [The Vancouver Public Library has had an Indigenous Storyteller-in-Residence program since 2008.]

I’m really appreciative of the opportunity, and to be asked to do something so new and so experimental for the institution. I just think it’s such a good thing. I’ll be keeping in touch with the library, seeing where it goes.

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Lisa Peet

Lisa Peet is Senior News Editor for Library Journal.

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