Rita Bouvier: Nakamowin’sa kahkiyaw ay’sînôwak kici / Wordsongs for all human beings

Gabriel Dumont, Métis Leader, photographed by Orlando Scott Goff, around 1886-1888


Rita Bouvier ( Île-à-la-Crosse (Sakittawak), Saskatchewan )

that was a long time ago, and here we are today


that was a long time ago

and here we are today


listen, listen

the heart of the land beats


our children curious

as all children are

will ask the right questions


why does a nation take up arms

in a battle knowing it will lose?

knowing it will lose


listen, listen

the heart of the land beats


when the long night turns to day

remember, hope is the morning

a songbird’s prayer

.     .     .

I am created

(for my father, Emile)


I am created by a natural bond

between a man and a woman,

but this one, is forever two.

one is white, the Other, red.

a polarity of being, absorbed

as one.  I am nature with clarity.


against my body, white rejects red

and red rejects white.  instinctively,

I have learned to love – I have learned to live

though the politics of polarity

is never far away.  still, I am

waiting, waiting.

.     .     .

a spider tale


behind the shed

in the tall yellow grass

a cardboard box

is my make-believe home

no one can see me

but I can see


their comings

and goings

my auntie Albertine

is washing clothes today

and needs the power

of my long arms

and lanky legs

to haul pails and pails

of water from the lake


I watch

as she searches for me

mumbles something about

kihtimigan – that lazy one

walks back inside the house

and out again

calling my name


when I appear

out of nowhere

she looks relieved to see me

nitânis, tânitê oma î kîtotîyin?”

my daughter, where in the world have you been?”

I tell her –

I was here all along


what I don’t tell her is

that I have been spinning tales

trying to understand

the possibility of…

myself as a spider

all legs

travelling here and there

with disturbing speed

my preoccupation with food

my home a web

so intricate and fragile

yet strong as sinew


today I remembered

not as sure footed

as I would like to be

someone calling my name

I lost my footing

falling, falling

.     .     .

we say we want it all


we fight amongst ourselves

jealous, one of us is standing.


there are no celebrations

for brave deeds among the chaos, instead


we joing the banner call for rights

forgetting an idea from the past –


responsibility.  we join the march

for freedom, forgetting an idea


from the past – peace keeping.

we say we want, want it all


a piece of the action we know destroys

our home – our relations with each other


we are mired so deep, drowning

in our own thinking, thinking


we too could have it all, if only…

if only we could see ourselves

Louis Riel's two children, Jean-Louis and Angelique, age 6 and 5_photographed at Steele and Wings studio in Winnipeg_around 1888Louis Riel’s two children, Jean-Louis and Angélique, ages 6 and 5, photographed at Steele and Wings studio in Winnipeg, 1888


Riel is dead, and I am alive


I listen passively while strangers

claim monopoly of the truth.

one claims Riel is hero

while the other insists Riel was mad.


I can feel a tension rising, a sterile talk

presenting the life of a living people,

sometime in eighteen eighty five.

now, some time in nineteen ninety five


a celebration of some odd sort.

I want to scream.  listen you idiots,

Riel is dead! and I am alive!

instead, I sit there mute and voiceless.


the truth unravelling, as academics

parade their lines, and cultural imperialists

wave their flags.  this time the gatling gun

is academic discourse, followed


by a weak response of political rhetoric.

all mumbo-jumbo for a past that is

irreconcilable.  this much I know

when I remember – I remember


my mother – her hands tender, to touch

my grandmother – her eyes, blue, the sky

my great grandmother – a story, a star gazer

who could read plants, animals and the sky.

.     .     .

that’s three for you


a young man came to me one day wanting

to understand me – the distance between

separate worlds, his and mine, his and mine.

surely, he begged, we could forsake the past

for the future, yours and mine, yours and mine.


I listened intently trying to find

the right words to say, to reassure him

my intentions, telling my story – the same.

I told him perhaps the past remembered

holds our future, yours and mine, yours and mine.


I wish it was easy to forget

as it is writing this poem for you.

I wish I could believe, I wish we could

break this damn cycle of separate worlds.

I wish I wish I wish.  that’s three for you.

.     .     .

last night at Lydia’s


Celtic toe-tapping fiddle

Red River jigging rhythm

runs in my veins

a surge like lightning


that testosterone

in the mix tonight.

ohhhh, it feels good

to be alive


plaid shirted, tight blue jeans

good-looking, knows it kind-a-man

you hurt my eyes


pony-tailed, dark skinned

women in arm kind-a-man

your hurt my eyes


rugged, canoe-paddling

handsome kind-a-man

you hurt my eyes


muscle busting, v-necked

silver buckled kind-a-man

you hurt my eyes


cool leathered, scotch-sipping

drinking kind-a-man

you hurt my eyes


quiet wire-rimmed

spectacled kind-a-man

you hurt my eyes


you – you – you –

holding my hand kind-a-man

ohhhh, you hurt my eyes

Shane Yellowbird_Cree country-music singer from Alberta


hand on hand


we made a pact but you were only three.

I was so much older I should have known

better.  I promised then to take care of you

as long as my hands were bigger than yours.


in return, you promised to take care of

me, when your hands would grow bigger than mine.

today, you came to me wanting to measure

your hand against mine;  I said, go away


your hands growing way, way too fast for me.

just then, a thick fog descended across

the street.  you ran into it curious

unafraid, unaware you were disappearing


with every step you took.  I ran after you

trying as best as I could to hold on

with you in sight, letting go at each step.

hand on hand we made a pact, you were three.

.     .     .

wordsongs of a warrior


what is poetry?  how do I explain

this affliction to my mother

in the language she understands,

words strung together, woven

pieces of memory, naming

and telling the truth in a way

that dances, swings and sways


why the subject of my poetry

is sometimes difficult to deliver

why my subjects are terrorized

even controversial, why

the subjects are the essence

of my own being – close to the bone.


nakamowin’sa   wordsongs

kahkiyaw ay’sînôwak kici   for all human beings

ta sohkihtama  kipimâsonaw   to give strength on this journey

kitahtawî ayis êkwa   one of these days, for sure now

kam’skâtonanaw   we will find each other

.     .     .

when the silence breaks


I am a reluctant speaker

violence not just a physical thing.


words are one thing

I can hold them in my hand

later embroider them

like you do fine silk

on white deer hide

if I want.

but dead silence

that’s another matter

there is nothing to hold on to

like the falling

before you awaken.


I imagine it this way, simply

kitahtawî êkwa

one of these days now

when the silence breaks

the deer will stop in their tracks

pausing eyes wide

the wolverine will roll over and over

on the hillside, and

you will hear my voice

as if for the first time

distant and then melodic

and you will recognize it

as your very own.

kitahtawî êkwa

.     .     .

a ritual for goodbye

(in memory of Albertine)


walking the shoreline

this crisp spring morning

in our matching

red-line rubber boots

my cousin and I

are reminiscing

the days gone by


I remember first

one early spring

the water so low

we could get

from one island

to the next

our clothes piled high

over our heads


she remembers then

no human debris

like there is now

just the odd

piece of driftwood

she reminded me

we wondered then

where it came from

a guessing game


walking the shoreline

this crisp spring morning

our walk is certain

clinging close

to what we know best

this shoreline, this bond,

we don’t speak of the fact

that our aunt is dying

.     .     .

earthly matters


when I came to your grave site

late last fall, a chill in the air,

I was feeling sorry for myself.

I came looking for a sign

one might say it was –

guidance on earthly matters.


lifting my face skyward

I found nothing but blue sky.

I searched the horizon,

it was then I discovered

a la Bouleau in the distance.

I smiled, recalling

that walk we took

through the new cemetery

on a break from city life.

you didn’t want to be buried

near the saints anyway,

roped in, in a chain-link fence.

you were pointing out,

as if it were a daily business

family plots here and there.

best of all, you claimed

you had selected the ideal plot

for yourself and your family,

a la Bouleau in the distance.

.     .     .

All poems © Rita Bouvier – from her Thistledown Press collection entitled Papîyâhtak.   In the Cree language Papîyâhtak means:  to act in a thoughtful way,  a respectful way,  a joyful way,  a balanced way.


Rita Bouvier is a journeyer who searches along the way.  Her poems are unafraid to take chances;  they are complex in emotion, unsparing in intellect.  Papîyâhtak includes a number of poems written for actors in The Batoche Musical which was conceived and developed by a theatre and writers’ collective and performed at Back to Batoche Days in Batoche, Saskatchewan.  The poem That was a long time ago, and we are here today was inspired by an essay written by South African anti-apartheid activist Steve Biko.

.     .     .

Gabriel Dumont (1837 – 1906) was a leader of the Métis people in what is now the province of Saskatchewan.  It was Dumont who brought the exiled Louis Riel (1844 – 1885) back to Canada to pressure Canadian authorities to recognize the Métis as a Nation.  Sharpshooter with a rifle, Dumont was Riel’s chief right-hand man and he led the Métis forces in the North-West Resistance (or Rebellion – as Ottawa-centric history books described it) of 1885.

Louis Riel was one of the towering Hero figures of Canadian history.  For more on Riel – and a letter/poem he wrote to Sir John A. Macdonald, his ideological opposite – (along with a letter/poem addressed to Macdonald by contemporary Métis poet Marilyn Dumont) – click the following ZP link for January 11th, 2012:


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