The narrative sovereignty of storytelling
- Hannah Scott | January 31, 2023
For acclaimed author and journalist Jesse Wente, sharing stories is a universal human impulse.
“I try to tell stories all the time. I think the way humans communicate is through story,” says Wente, a Toronto-born Ojibwe member of Serpent River First Nation. “It’s the most distinct thing about us from any other animals.”
But don’t call him an Indigenous storyteller -- Wente prefers to say “narrative sovereignty” to describe his life’s work, which includes 25 years as a CBC radio host and culture critic, along with numerous leadership positions in the arts and film communities.
In any case, Wente says he focuses his work less on the labels for it, and more on creating spaces for marginalized people to share their own stories freely and how they see fit for themselves. Wente currently serves as chair of the Canada Council for the Arts, a national organization that supports Canadian artists.
When asked whether he fulfills the role as a storyteller for his family by his own standards, Wente hesitates. He says he doesn’t see himself as fulfilling a set role, either for his family or for ceremonial purposes. Instead, it’s just a way of being.
“I think that’s literally what is central to the whole human experience, is storytelling. The other animals don’t really make art, right? They don’t paint. They don’t tell these stories on the walls. We do,” he says with passion.
In 2022, Wente published the national bestseller Unreconciled: Family, Truth and Indigenous Resistance, which made the Globe and Mail’s annual Best Books list and won the 2022 Rakuten Kobo Emerging Writer Prize for Non-Fiction.
In Unreconciled, his storytelling takes a highly personal turn. Wente says he wrote the book for his children, to explain his life and his decisions when they are ready to hear them.
When it comes to colonialism and the impact it’s had on Indigenous people, it’s immeasurable, he said.
Wente explains that residential schools replaced Indigenous stories with colonizer’s stories, weakening the ability of people like his own grandmother to pass their own stories on to future generations.
That process continues today through colonial systems, including the education system, he says.
However, Indigenous voices have not been silenced. Maintaining authenticity in storytelling is Wente’s advice for any aspiring creators and students.
A film lover at heart, he wraps his work around culture and filmmaking and sees hope in the field.
Wente says filmmakers like Alanis Obomsawin and Darlene Naponse have created stories authentic to themselves, free from colonial influence and labels. Another director who made a significant impact in the industry was Jeff Barnaby whose work consistently made headlines at the Toronto International Film Festival, an event Wente was heavily involved in, including serving seven years as film program director at the TIFF Bell Lightbox, a showcase and learning centre for emerging filmmakers and artists.
Barnaby passed days before the interview with Eagle Feather News.
Wente’s advice for aspiring filmmakers and journalists is about self preservation.
“Make sure you preserve something in your storytelling for you. Just for you. That you don’t give it all away, because the storytelling industry can be an extraction industry just like any other one, and they’ll take every single drop they can get out of you,” he says. “They’ll pull it all until you’re empty and what I would say is, I don’t know if anyone is deserving of all of it.”