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Gathering the threads of Indigenous culture

The path that led Armand Ruffo to his position as Queen’s National Scholar in Indigenous Languages and Literatures didn’t follow the traditional academic route.

Armand Ruffo is Queen's National Scholar, and teaches in the Department of English Language and Literature and Department of Drama. He was recently featured in (e)Affect. (Photo by Bernard Clark) 

A lifelong passion for creativity has seen Mr. Ruffo produce poetry, plays, biographies and a feature length film, even as he’s written literary criticism.

“It’s always a juggle to work in so many modes,” he says. “I have to wrestle to find the time to do it all.”

It was just that type of wrestling that led him to produce his most recent work, Norval Morrisseau: Man Changing Into Thunderbird, a biography of the innovative and controversial Ojibway painter. He researched and conducted the interviews for the book over the course of years, finding what time he could from his teaching position at Carleton University and the production of his film, A Windigo Tale.

Driving Mr. Ruffo’s creativity and productivity is a desire to share the stories and histories of Canada’s Indigenous peoples.

“I’m very interested in the idea of Indigenous history being silenced for so long,” he says. “Indigenous culture — the Indigenous thread — is part of the greater Canadian fabric. Telling those stories is a way of gathering the threads together.”

Support to tell those stories is something Mr. Ruffo says he’s seen great improvements in, especially as the study of Indigenous literature took off at Canadian universities in the 1990s.

“I’ve seen the steps that we’ve had to go through to get to where we are now. I have a long enough view back to see that people have been working on this for a long time,” he says. “There are a lot of positive things happening and the fact that I can be here at Queen’s, teaching these Aboriginal literature courses is amazing.”

Since starting at Queen’s in 2014, Mr. Ruffo has continued the multi-disciplinary juggling act that he does so well. He’s teaching classes in the Department of English Language and Literature and Department of Drama, and has become active with Four Directions Aboriginal Student Centre. At Four Directions he’s led writing workshops and serves on their Aboriginal Council. He’s also completed a book of poems inspired by the work of Norval Morrisseau that will come out later this year.

Though Mr. Ruffo wrestles to find the time to do so many different things, he balances the mental challenge of being creative and being a scholar with a simple trick: he doesn’t think about it.

“It’s a different hat that I put on when I’m working in the creative realm. If I did think about it, I’d probably stop writing creatively. I do try to bring my creative side to teaching though, along with my interests in Indigenous aesthetics and epistemology. Those things help me,” he says, adding with a laugh, “but, I try not to teach my own work.”