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Rights + Justice

Indigenous Brilliance Is Everywhere

Get to know these local poets. They’re changing the world.

Fiona Tinwei Lam 30 Jun

Fiona Tinwei Lam is Vancouver’s sixth poet laureate.

Events commemorating National Indigenous History Month have been held throughout B.C. over the past four weeks, but efforts to recognize the distinct, diverse histories and cultures of First Nations, Inuit and Métis can and should continue past June 30.

Vancouver’s fifth poet laureate, Christie Lee Charles (also known as “Miss Christie Lee”), performed a fabulous spoken word poem at the Vancouver Street Dance Festival in 2019. The Musqueam hip-hop artist’s opening words in the hən̓q̓əmin̓əm dialect lead into a poem that affirms the long-standing and integral connection of the Musqueam people to the land and its ecosystems: “We are the first people of these here lands, sent as caretakers and instructors... a creation story passed on from centuries ago, written in the land and told in the language.”

She mentions the role of the salmon and cedar, Coast Salish weavings that are “mathematical and scientific formulas, and not just art,” and the past existence of seven Musqueam village sites in Vancouver and five more on the University Endowment Lands. Running through the piece is the moving and rhythmic refrain, “My heart is the earth, and the earth is my heart.”

Watch Christie Lee Charles perform a story written by her late father, Henry Charles. Video via Indian Summer Arts Society.

Indigenous languages — the loss and the reclamation of them — are addressed by many notable local First Nations and Métis poets. “Cree Dictionary” is a poem by Cree poet and UBC professor Dallas Hunt from his 2021 book, Creeland. The poem was recently featured on Poetry in Transit, a program that has displayed work by B.C. poets on public transit for over 25 years.

Hunt plays with the act of translating everyday cultural concepts through language:

    the translation for joy
    in Cree is a fried bologna sandwich
    the translation for bittersweet in Cree
    looks like a cows and ploughs payment
    eight decades too late
    the translation for patience
    in Cree is an auntie looking after four of her own children
    and two of her sister’s
    the translation for evil in Cree
    is the act of not calling
    your mother on a Sunday

Listen to Dallas Hunt reading four poems from Creeland. Video via National Poetry Month.

University of Victoria professor Gregory Scofield’s “I’ll Teach You Cree" poetically explores a number of Cree words and phrases, with italicized translations alongside the lines:

“I’ll teach you Cree, nêhiyawêwin    the Cree language
that is the taste
of pimiy êkwa saskarômina       fat and saskatoon berries
Your mouth will be the branches
I am picking clean,
a summer heat ceremony that cannot be translated.”

Selina Boan turns her head to look at the camera. She is wearing a colourful beaded earring in the shape of a flower. She has long dark hair. There is greenery in the background.
Selina Boan published her debut poetry collection last year. ‘Throughout the collection, I experimented with forms as one way to think about the ways language and naming yield power and inform identity, memory and cultural knowledge,’ she says. Photo by Kayla MacInnis.

White settler–nehiyaw poet Selina Boan’s terrific debut collection, 2021’s Undoing Hours recently won the Pat Lowther Memorial Award for the best book of poetry by a Canadian woman.

Threading through poems about family, friendship, love and heartbreak is a journey to understand the world through nêhiyawêwin, the Cree language.

In an excellent interview last year with Rob Taylor for Read Local BC, Boan noted that “there is inherent tension and violence between English and nêhiyawêwin, a tension I think about a lot given my work as a writer. nêhiyawêwin was spoken by my nohkom and nimosom. As a result of residential school and other assimilation tactics used by the Canadian government, my father can understand nêhiyawêwin but is not a fluent speaker.

"Language learning for me is one way to connect and empower myself while challenging assimilation policies on my own being and the landscapes I inhabit. It is about being able to communicate with Elders and with ancestors in our own language. Throughout the collection, I experimented with forms as one way to think about the ways language and naming yield power and inform identity, memory and cultural knowledge.”

Her poem, “a run, a burn, a beck” illustrates Boan’s ability to weave together sensory language and imagery with carefully honed nuggets of narrative:

                 …you girl
    are a gamble made during the planting of
    trees, a pickup truck and a bump of plastic
    beads stitched by hand, a clot of years
    you don’t know how to carry and the fear
    that this body is not    where
    you belong.

In another poem from her book, “From all you can is the best you can,” Boan writes about hope in the face of anger, fear, shame and pain:

    remember, love, we can
    draw from all directions

    of time, we can hover & gut
    ourselves into new stories

    be sad & not sad
    about it all

Boan has won numerous awards for her writing, including Room Magazine’s 2018 Emerging Writer Award and the 2017 National Magazine Award for Poetry. Her poems have also been anthologized in Best Canadian Poetry 2018 and 2020.

Watch Snewíyalh tl’a Stakw (Teachings of the Water), performed by Elektra Women's Choir. Video via Elektra Women’s Choir.

Indigenous languages and cultural practices are brought together through choral music, poetry and images of nature in a gorgeous 28-minute a cappella music video, Snewíyalh tl’a Staḵw (Teachings of the Water) performed by the Elektra Women’s Choir in collaboration with First Nations that premiered on June 9. T. Patrick Carrabré, director of the UBC School of Music and Chan Centre for the Performing Arts, composed the music, based on Squamish text gifted by Tsitsáyxemaat Rebecca Duncan.

At the start of each of the five movements, Indigenous knowledge keepers discuss the cultural significance of water and the need for stewardship.

The third movement integrates the poem, “Water Heals,” written and read by Candice Halls-Howcroft, a Sḵwx̱wú7mesh Úxwumixw, or Squamish Nation, weaver, storyteller, poet and educator.

It begins with the lines, “When we are born into this world, / It is from water that we come” and flows toward an expression of profound gratitude and a call to protect and honour all our waterways.

“This poem really comes from a place of healing for me. My beautiful, amazing father passed away last July 21 and so it literally took me going to the water and releasing my tears and grief to write this poem,” Halls-Howcroft says. “The ceremony that I did with the Elektra Choir was so powerful for me. It was three generations of my family performing the ceremony, my mom, me and my daughter, and it helped us to leave something in the water that day.”

You can see the cedar brushing ceremony in the video. Halls-Howcroft is a lead artist for the Royal Conservatory's Learning Through the Arts program and teaches essential skills at the Native Education College in Vancouver.

A listener’s guide provides more information about the cultural context and creative process behind the music video. Co-curators Morna Edmundson, choral conductor and Dr. Jeanette Gallant, ethnomusicologist, discuss key concepts running through the composition, such as relationality, in which everything is seen as interconnected and interdependent. An additional component to the project is a Squamish-language pronunciation guide with Tsitsáyxemaat Rebecca Duncan.

One of the groups doing vital work in centring and celebrating diverse Indigenous voices is the Indigenous Brilliance Collective. According to the website, the Indigenous Brilliance series "Grew out of the shared desire of Massy Books owner Patricia Massy and Room Magazine editorial board members Jónína Kirton and Jessica Johns to raise the voices of Indigenous women, Two-Spirit and queer writers. This series is the result of different communities coming together with a shared vision of Indigenous resurgence: a resurgence that exists through the act of making space for ourselves and each other, through community building, and through the radical act of living and loving."

The founders, along with collective members jaye simpson, Emily Dundas Oke and Karmella Cen Benedito De Barros organize a quarterly reading series, community workshops, social media engagement and a podcast series, and also collaborate on projects with Room Magazine, Massy Books and the BIPOC Art Ecosystem.

This is just a small sample of some of the talented Indigenous writers and writing in our province. Look on the shelves of your favourite independent bookstore or local library for poetry collections by Joanne Arnott, Tawahum Bige, Billy-Ray Belcourt, Molly Cross-Blanchard, Francine Cunningham, Joseph Dandurand, Jessica Johns, Jónína Kirton, Janet Marie Rogers and jaye simpson, among others.

Check out the Vancouver Public Library’s Indigenous Poetry Picks recommended by staff. You can also find other terrific poems online by First Nations, Inuit and Métis writers across Canada on the Poetry in Voice website.

And there is plenty of Indigenous prose to discover, too: the VPL also has recommended booklists of fiction, non-fiction, teen and children’s books, as well as DVDs and Blu-rays featuring Indigenous writers and themes.

Indigenous History Month will soon be over. May the literary beacon of local Indigenous brilliance continue to shimmer through the months ahead and beyond!  [Tyee]

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