Fire Brings Us To­gether

Prairie Fire - - TABLE OF CONTENTS -

IN THE CREE LAN­GUAGE, iskwew MEANS “WOMAN” (even though there is no gen­der dis­tinc­tion in Cree), and iskwew is re­lated to the word for “fire,” Isko’tew.

And fire brings us to­gether for warmth

for food

for con­nec­tion

emo­tional, spir­i­tual con­nec­tion to other an­i­mate be­ings of earth: plant, an­i­mal.

As Indige­nous women, we have his­tor­i­cally cooked and gath­ered plants, roots, medicines and food; we have birthed and minded the ba­bies, tended the sick, ac­com­pa­nied the dy­ing as they crossed over, sur­rounded by fam­ily. I know this role be­cause I watched my mother and aun­ties hold all the threads that kept us to­gether as an ex­tended fam­ily through poverty, colo­nial racism, ill health, ad­dic­tions and per­sonal tragedy.

We held our com­mu­ni­ties to­gether, along with oth­ers who iden­ti­fied as women, not as god­desses or earth moth­ers, but as tough women who were ca­pa­ble of get­ting things done.

Marie Annharte Baker ex­presses this well in her poem:

Pretty Tough Skin Woman

old dried out meat piece

pre­served with­out a mu­seum

miss­ing a few big rips

her skin was guar­an­teed

her bloomers turned grey

out­liv­ing the city wash­ing

not enough drinks to keep her

from get­ting home to the bush

tough she pushed bear fat down

squeezed into sally ann clothes

she cov­ered up her horny places

they tried stick­ing her un­der

soft jelly spots re­main in bone

hold­ing up this pretty tough hide

use­ful as a dec­o­rated shield for baby

swing­ing in her sweet lit­tle stink

just smell her old mem­o­ries, gut­ted fish

baked muskrat—she saw a lady

in a shop­ping mall with a fur coat

told her an In­dian must eat such del­i­ca­cies

her taste was good she just needed a gun

to find a room in the city to put down

her beat-up mat­tress where her in­sides fell out

vis­i­tors ate up the ban­nock drank her tea

they were good at hock­ing her ra­dio or tv

ev­ery­where she stopped she told her trou­bles

if I press my ear down on this trail I bet

I’ll be able to hear her laugh­ing and gab­bing.

(Arm­strong and Grauer 67)

As il­lus­trated by Annharte’s poem, this role re­quires spe­cial per­sonal at­tributes and re­la­tional sup­port from other women who as­sist in sus­tain­ing this equi­lib­rium, this in­vis­i­ble web of re­la­tion­ships built over cen­turies. I know Indige­nous women are not ex­cep­tional in this; I’m aware that cul­tures of woman have in­hab­ited this role through­out the cen­turies. Their earth-cen­tred be­liefs and prac­tices like mid­wifery have been sys­tem­i­cally re­pressed by church and state. But there is some­thing unique about Indige­nous women, at least the ones who raised me. These women led their lives through mis­for­tune, strug­gle, sur­vival and per­se­ver­ance.

For ex­am­ple, my mother, as the el­dest of five si­b­lings, took on adult re­spon­si­bil­ity early, as­sist­ing her ill mother and also her fa­ther when she some­times filled in as Cree trans­la­tor on the Onion Lake Re­serve in Saskatchewan.

In a life where the or­di­nary is strug­gle, in­di­vid­u­als in­habit dif­fer­ent un­der­stand­ings of what “or­di­nary” life is. In­di­vid­u­als who have grown up in ad­ver­sity ex­pect to en­counter it and have ac­quired cop­ing skills. They don’t al­ways have healthy ways to deal with it, but they ex­pect strug­gle and fre­quently rise to it.

The women who raised me passed this on to me, this un­der­stand­ing of work­ing in coura­geous and prac­ti­cal ways with other fe­male and fe­male-iden­ti­fied in­di­vid­u­als to form com­mu­nity, ways that sus­tained us through the Dark Times in Métis his­tory, when the Métis com­mu­nity went un­der­ground for fear of reprisal af­ter the “Riel Re­bel­lions,” when we were vil­i­fied as traitors. Per­haps this fe­male­cen­tric knowl­edge is part of a ge­netic, in­ter­gen­er­a­tional trans­fer­ence of col­lec­tive re­sis­tance, a col­lec­tive con­scious­ness of ac­tion, of co­op­er­a­tion in the face of obstacles.

Like the sup­port of women in my fam­ily, the writ­ing of Indige­nous women writ­ers has sus­tained me through the dif­fi­cult early years as a fe­male Indige­nous writer try­ing to es­tab­lish my­self as a se­ri­ous artist. Indige­nous women writ­ers have helped me heal the colo­nial wound with their sto­ries, which have been more than cathar­tic in their telling. These women have el­e­vated our Indige­nous col­lec­tive ES­TEEM through their courage in telling their sto­ries. Indige­nous scholar Jo-Ann Episke­new ar­gues:

In­un­dated with the neg­a­tive at­ti­tudes of the set­tlers, many Indige­nous peo­ple ha­bit­u­ally see them­selves ‘through White eyes’ and the im­age they see is one that pro­vokes feel­ings of shame. (Episke­new 83)

And yet, just as Indige­nous rights are of­ten framed around colo­nial and pa­tri­ar­chal no­tions of man as leader or man as hunter, there also ex­ists the con­cep­tion of man as writer, which over­looks the ef­forts of Indige­nous women over the cen­turies in main­tain­ing our fa­mil­ial con­nec­tions and com­mu­nity-sus­tain­ing ef­forts.

Writ­ers over the years have helped in my heal­ing, but it’s par­tic­u­larly Indige­nous women writ­ers and artists I ad­vo­cate for, be­cause their labour-in­ten­sive work fre­quently goes un­ac­knowl­edged, along with their role as strate­gists in main­tain­ing the so­cial fab­ric of our cul­ture.


It may have been Maria Camp­bell’s 1973 pub­li­ca­tion, Half-breed, that first sparked my in­ter­est in writ­ing by Indige­nous peo­ples. I was eigh­teen years old. I had quit school in grade ten, and this was the

first time I read a book with my iden­tity as the sub­ject mat­ter. It was as if I had hap­pened upon a great dis­cov­ery, not only of my­self, but of Métis peo­ple’s pres­ence and his­tory in Canada.

As I read her open­ing lines, I had no doubt she was writ­ing about a life that I knew:

The house where I grew up is tum­bled down and over­grown with brush. The pine tree be­side the east win­dow is dried and with­ered. Only the po­plar trees and the slough be­hind the house are un­changed. There is a fam­ily of beaver still there, busy work­ing and chat­ter­ing just as on that morn­ing, seven­teen years ago, when I said good-bye to my fa­ther and left home. (Camp­bell 1)

This was my first ex­pe­ri­ence of see­ing my re­flec­tion in the Cana­dian mir­ror, and I was afraid to look, be­cause the im­age we had then of the Métis was of a crum­bling, va­grant pop­u­la­tion, who had once been great and pow­er­ful, but now were voice­less and in­vis­i­ble. I feared that Camp­bell’s writ­ing might ce­ment these en­trenched per­cep­tions of the Métis not only in my­self, but in the Cana­dian read­ing pub­lic. In­stead, her courage in re­lat­ing the in­ti­mate de­tails of her per­sonal life acted as a demon­stra­tion of ac­tive re­sis­tance to cul­tural era­sure that sparked pride and re­bel­lion in me, as I sensed it did in other fam­ily mem­bers who also read her book.


While watch­ing a Na­tional Film Board pro­file of Rita Joe’s life and work, I was im­me­di­ately drawn to Rita be­cause of the qual­ity of her voice, a voice res­onat­ing with both vul­ner­a­bil­ity and strength. Rita was fa­mil­iar with hard­ship. Her mother died when Rita was five years old, af­ter which she lived in fos­ter homes. Or­phaned at ten, Rita was shipped off to Shube­nacadie In­dian Res­i­den­tial School on main­land Nova Sco­tia at age twelve. Here she re­counts that ex­pe­ri­ence:

I Lost My Talk

I lost my talk

The talk you took away.

When I was a lit­tle girl

At Shube­nacadie school.

You snatched it away:

I speak like you

I think like you

I create like you

The scram­bled bal­lad, about my word.

Two ways I talk

Both ways I say,

Your way is more pow­er­ful.

So gen­tly I of­fer my hand and ask,

Let me find my talk

So I can teach you about me.

(Arm­strong and Grauer 17)

De­spite what can only be de­scribed as a heart­break­ing early life, Rita Joe’s voice and pres­ence were nei­ther bit­ter nor an­gry. In fact, if any­thing, it seemed as if her life of strug­gle had in­flu­enced her to be that much more mag­nan­i­mous and gen­tle. This was most ev­i­dent to me upon hear­ing her speak, the ten­der­ness in her enun­ci­a­tion and phras­ing, evok­ing mem­o­ries for me of fa­mil­ial re­la­tions. When mis­for­tune had be­fallen a loved one, the Cree speak­ers would al­ter their voices in this ten­der way to con­vey af­fec­tion or en­cour­age­ment: ni-ta­nis—my girl—is just one ex­pres­sion that con­veys this sense of Wahko­htowin—kin­ship, kin­folk, good re­la­tions—to act in a way that ben­e­fits all mem­bers of the group.

Joe’s gen­eros­ity and kind­ness, ex­pressed through her ac­tions and writ­ing, prompted me to re­flect on my own sense of self as a writer in re­spond­ing to cul­tural re­pres­sion and racism. Al­though the tone of some of my work re­mains sar­cas­tic and bit­ing, Rita Joe mod­elled for me au­then­tic­ity and dig­nity as an Indige­nous writer and en­cour­aged me to look deeper at what I had learned from my own Cree cul­ture as a model for be­ing in the world. She helped me re­turn to Cree val­ues of Wahko­htowin, that place where one’s ac­tions are judged by how ben­e­fi­cial they are to the en­tire com­mu­nity.


In 1987, Lee and David Mar­a­cle gave a pre­sen­ta­tion on their writ­ing in Ed­mon­ton. I had just pub­lished a cou­ple of po­ems in CV2. I was work­ing a full-time job and felt es­tranged from my own writ­ing. There was no com­mu­nity of Indige­nous writ­ers in Ed­mon­ton at the time, so Lee and David’s visit was a wel­come event for me in an oth­er­wise dry, colo­nial city. I per­ceived Lee and David Mar­a­cle as hav­ing “made it,” and I was hop­ing maybe some of their suc­cess would brush off on me. They both held books they had writ­ten, tan­gi­ble mark­ers of their suc­cess.

Af­ter the pre­sen­ta­tion, Lee lis­tened care­fully to my ques­tions, pep­per­ing her an­swers with her sig­na­ture laugh. The brief time she spent with me was enough to en­cour­age me to per­sist. I came away feel­ing hope­ful that my work would come to­gether as a book some­day, too.

Here is Lee’s amus­ing poem, about first en­coun­ter­ing the English lan­guage:

My Box of Let­ters

I was only six when they forced me to take

the box of beastly let­ters.

We were not friends from the start

We re­sented each other.

They tripped over each other in crazy sense­less and ridicu­lous pat­terns.

They jumped around me de­fi­antly

Hig­gledy-pig­gledy and round.

They got me in trou­ble, these mis­chievous lit­tle ras­cals.

They hated me. They said it was be­cause I didn’t un­der­stand them.

I jumped in­side the box, grabbed them and wres­tled them down.

This didn’t work, they fought hard.

There were 26 of them and I was only one. (Arm­strong and Grauer 182-83)


In 1990, I sat ner­vously across from Jean­nette Arm­strong1 in her cramped, swel­ter­ing of­fice at the En’Owkin School of Writ­ing.

I was aware that meet­ings with Jean­nette were rare, and we were in­ter­rupted more than once by the tele­phone or by sup­port staff re­quir­ing her ap­proval or sig­na­ture as di­rec­tor of the cen­tre. On the walls of her of­fice were im­ages of “Sen­klip” (coy­ote) whom the cre­ator sent to help the Okana­gan peo­ple sur­vive on the land. Books pub­lished by They­tus Press filled her book­shelves. I sur­veyed these ti­tles with envy over and over and en­ter­tained far-off dreams of pro­duc­ing sim­i­lar pub­li­ca­tions in my own Métis com­mu­nity. De­ter­mined to make the best of my brief time with Jean­nette, I be­gan ask­ing her ques­tions about writ­ing, hop­ing to hide my need­i­ness and des­per­a­tion with talk.

I was on hol­i­day from my dead­en­ing job, which had been slowly eat­ing away at my creative en­ergy. I had grav­i­tated to En’owkin as a place of Indige­nous creative refuge and in­spi­ra­tion. This writ­ing re­treat was a last des­per­ate at­tempt to re­new my com­mit­ment to cre­ativ­ity.

Jean­nette lis­tened calmly to my story of creative angst, her ex­pres­sion soft, her eyes kind, and her de­meanour open as I broke into tears. I re­al­ized then how de­mor­al­ized and ex­hausted I was by my job and by the lack of time in my life to create. Jean­nette was not un­set­tled by my sud­den melt­down. She gen­tly con­soled me and en­cour­aged me to con­tinue writ­ing. I went away feel­ing sup­ported but also fool­ish for hav­ing cried. As I con­tinue to write and pub­lish, this meet­ing re­cedes into a com­fort­able for­get­ting, an em­bar­rass­ing mo­ment on my creative jour­ney.

Ac­cord­ing to Jean­nette:

The pur­pose of my writ­ing has al­ways been to tell a bet­ter story than is be­ing told about us. To give that to the peo­ple and to the next gen­er­a­tions. The voices of the grand­moth­ers and grand­fa­thers com­pel me to speak of the worth of our peo­ple and the beauty all around us, to ban­ish the pro­fan­ing of our­selves, and to ease the pain. I carry the lan­guage of the voice of the land and the val­our of the peo­ple and I will not be si­lenced by a lan­guage of tyranny. (Arm­strong and Grauer 106)

Jean­nette Arm­strong con­tin­ues to re­search and write as the Canada Re­search Chair in Indige­nous Eco­log­i­cal Thought at UBC— Okana­gan. The En’Owkin Cen­tre con­tin­ues to sup­port Indige­nous emerg­ing writ­ers and vis­ual artists as the En’Owkin In­ter­na­tional School of Writ­ing, while They­tus Press con­tin­ues to pub­lish books by Indige­nous writ­ers and il­lus­tra­tors.


My first en­coun­ters with Kateri came when she was teach­ing at the En’Owkin In­ter­na­tional School of Writ­ing in Pen­tic­ton upon grad­u­at­ing with an M.A. in English from the Univer­sity of Ot­tawa in 1996. I hadn’t been aware of her work as a spo­ken word artist be­fore then. Kateri made an im­pact with her first pub­li­ca­tion of po­ems, My Heart is a Stray Bul­let (1993), be­cause of her com­mit­ment to oral­ity and spo­ken word per­for­mance as the pre­cur­sors to writ­ten po­etry. In 1993, Kateri es­tab­lished Kege­donce Press, which is de­voted to the work of “Indige­nous writ­ers, artists, and de­sign­ers” and to “the web of Na­tive writ­ers, or­a­tors and sto­ry­tellers that sus­tains me…”. (Arm­strong and Grauer 320)

Kateri’s pub­lish­ing ef­forts have launched into print books by Richard Van Camp, Joanne Arnott, Gre­gory Scofield, Al Hunter and Gwen Be­n­away, as well as one of my col­lec­tions, that tongued be­long­ing.

There’s an in­ter­est­ing term that I have been think­ing about ever since I learned it from sash maker Carol James. When one is hand-weav­ing a sash from 700 or more threads, one is taught to hold the en­tire bun­dle of threads in one hand, plac­ing the fin­gers in such a man­ner as to main­tain the or­der of the threads. Main­tain­ing this ar­range­ment is called “pro­tect­ing the shed.” I have held that earthy-se­cure im­age in my mind since I first heard it, and it makes sense to use it here: that many in their writ­ing life do not just pro­duce work, but hold space for other writ­ers. The writ­ers I ad­mire and re­spect hold space for me as they write and work in com­mu­nity, hold­ing threads of com­mu­nity to­gether through re­la­tional con­nec­tions. This is what I saw when my mother not only moth­ered her own chil­dren but also par­ented nu­mer­ous or­phaned cousins. This is what Rita Joe does when she speaks in that sooth­ing, kind voice to all who hear her; this pro­tect­ing the shed is what Maria Camp­bell does in com­mu­nity; it’s what Jean­nette Arm­strong re­sponds to when re­cruited to es­tab­lish an Okana­gan lan­guage and cul­ture cur­ricu­lum; this is what Lee Mar­a­cle does when she agrees to write a fore­word to Brick Books’ re­print of A Re­ally Good Brown Girl for me; this is what Kateri Akiwenzie-Damm and Kege­donce Press strive to build, as one would when mak­ing a ash or tend­ing a fire.2

Many other Indige­nous fe­male writ­ers have fed and sup­ported my work through their writ­ing and com­mu­nity build­ing. Names such as Joanne Arnott, Rita Bou­vier and Louise Halfe should not go un­men­tioned as re­mark­able poets pub­lish­ing in Canada. But there are two writ­ers I want par­tic­u­larly to ac­knowl­edge as im­por­tant con­trib­u­tors to the fab­ric of Indige­nous lit­er­a­ture in Canada who both passed in the last two years: Shar­ron Proulx-Turner and Con­nie Fife. I am in­debted to them and to all of the above-men­tioned Indige­nous fe­male writ­ers who pro­duced words that mo­ti­vated me to keep writ­ing.

Works Cited:

Arm­strong, Jean­nette C., and Lally Grauer, eds. Na­tive Po­etry in Canada: A Con­tem­po­rary An­thol­ogy. Peter­bor­ough: Broad­view Press, 2001.

Camp­bell, Maria. Half-breed. Toronto: McClel­land and Ste­wart, 1973.

Episke­new, Jo-Ann. Tak­ing Back Our Spir­its: Indige­nous Lit­er­a­ture, Pub­lic Pol­icy, and Heal­ing. Win­nipeg: Univer­sity of Man­i­toba Press, 2009.p

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