Fire Brings Us Together
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
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.
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