Denise Marie Williams (Ladysmith, British Columbia)
“Land warmed by the sun”
My eyes were shut so tightly that I could see tiny shapes appear in blues and yellows on my eyelids. My hands clenched the top of my rolled-up wool blanket as I lay in bed waiting for sunrise. This would be my last day here at St. Mary’s Mission and I couldn’t understand how to feel. I had spent 10 years learning the white ways and I was thankful for my knowledge, but my heart ached and longed to be with my family.
There were other girls older and younger than me who hated everything here. They hated what was taken from us and they felt injustice in the way we were treated. I watched their anger build through the years, and then die like a wounded animal will do when its heart is no longer in the fight.
I am always alone; I never join the other girls when they talk; I just watch. Now leaving, I can see that I know everyone, but no one knows me. I think maybe I will belong better with my family. Maybe they are watchers, too. I realize suddenly that they don’t know me either.
Because I am sixteen now, I can’t go to school at St. Mary’s. I was only in school to learn white ways so I could become a good wife. That’s what I understood from the others. I don’t think I want to be a wife; I don’t know what a “wife” is supposed to do back home.
I arrived at last to the place of my birth. My mother came toward me, and her eyes were wild with astonishment. I had seen this moment in my head for 10 years and as it happened, I watched it as though I wasn’t there. She took my hands and shook them in hers; she was much older than I remembered. I walked to the house that I had memories of leaving as a child of six years old. I thought it would feel different; I thought I would be so happy, but the fear of what I didn’t know or understand overtook me and I was scared.
I had three brothers who stayed with my mother. They were much older, in their 30s, and the biggest men I had ever seen. I didn’t feel any connection to them, and I could see that they felt none to me. All three of them were there when I arrived; they said nothing and I followed along. I looked down at my shaking hands and shoved them quickly into my pockets. Did they hate me? Did they think I was white now?
That night dinner was being prepared, I watched my mother shuffle around the kitchen and over the tile floor that was thick with dirt. I wanted to clean it for her; in school nothing could ever be dirty like this. I stood up and took a broom from out of the corner in my hands. She looked at me in a blank sort of way, and as I put the broom to the floor, she took it from me with one sweep of her arm. Her arms pressed down on my shoulders as I was put back in my chair. What a strange reaction, why can’t I help?
No one spoke English at home very often, most everyone in Quw’utsun’ spoke Hul’qumi’num. Again, I was an outsider with almost no understanding of my native language. I thought and dreamed now in the white words. As the days went on in my new life, I realized that in school I was an Indian amongst whites, and on the reserve I was a white amongst Indians. I never felt bad for myself, but I did start to understand why the other girls were so angry that we had been taken. None of us asked to be different, but we were always being punished for it.
This new freedom took some getting used to. I waited for instruction, but when none came I realized I was on my own. Eventually, I found what I think my spirit had always been looking for. All these years I knew I was connected to something and now, here it was. All at once my senses came alive and my head swam with amazement and wonder.
The old trees reached high into the air; the branches were so thick I could not see the sky. Moss grew on everything and the ground was soft as I walked through it. The smell lifted my heart into my throat. I could hardly breathe, there was so much air. I touched everything as I found my way through the forest. I thought of my grandmother who had once told me that many years ago people fell from the sky and created us; they were our ancestors, and they lived only in the wilderness of this beautiful place. Today, I understood where I came from.
When the sun came down I went back home. The doors of our house were left open and I could smell food as I approached. My mother stood in front of a small pile of nickels that were placed on the wooden table where we ate. She looked at me, “Come here, my beautiful baby,” her hand out and her face encouraging. She piled some of the nickels into my hand, and we left for the Big House.
I could feel the drumming as we came close to this huge building in the middle of the reserve. I had a feeling that something was about to happen to me, but I didn’t know what. As we entered through the heavy cedar doors I was deafened by the Song that poured out of the people inside. I followed my mother closely and tried to copy her actions. We handed out money to the elders and to the families who had stayed here during the spring.
Around the fire they danced. There were masks and feathers; everyone was singing and chanting. Their voices went high and then low. I felt their spirits penetrate my heart; it was unstoppable as the smoke carried their voices through the holes in the roof. They pounded the ground with their feet as they switched directions and kept low to the floor like warriors in a hunt. I wanted to join; I wanted to be a warrior, and my eyes were alive with passion.
Sitting in this huge building up high on the benches, with all of these Indians, made me feel safe. The 13 tribes that made up Quw’utsun’ were all here supporting each other and showing respect. I didn’t know that people could live like this. I was so proud in that moment that I was a part of this place where all was spiritual and respectful. This was not a white world.
As we left the Big House I could smell the smoke in my hair and on my clothes. I was alive and I was Quw’utsun’! We walked home with my mother’s friend. The air was humid and night brought a damp chill away from the fire. I grasped my arms, one in the other, as we walked. Running from behind, a girl caught up to us with the biggest smile I had ever seen. She had long brown hair that was matted at the top of her head. Her body was small and lean, but her feet were big, and her sandals flopped in the dirt as she ran. She looked at me as though she was happy to see me; I couldn’t see why. Who was she?
Her mother introduced us, and she started telling me about her family and how they danced every week at the Big House. She grabbed my arm tightly and shook it; I could feel her fingernails stick into my skin. “Where’s your jacket?” she insisted. I told her I had nothing to wear because I was at St. Mary’s and we wore uniforms there. I was surprised when she told me she had attended a residential school too, but it had been closed by the government a few months back. She took off her jacket, a grey and white wool sweater with an eagle woven into the back. “It’s yours now,” she said, grinning from ear to ear.
As I stepped carefully through the marsh of this wetland I heard every sound that made this moment. My wool jacket gripped my body and rubbed my neck to make it itchy. I felt that this jacket was my rite of passage. It was a token of my proud Indian heritage which had to come to be familiar to me little by little. The air was warm and heavy in my lungs, and the sun came down on my face, cleansing my spirit.
Suddenly, geese flew up from the marsh. Straight into the air they went, darting together in every direction. They swooped back and forth, and I was captured in their noise. My arms shot up into the air; I held them there, feeling the spirit of the birds. I had felt this feeling before, so powerful and beautiful; they were like the people of Quw’utsun’. That day I could not speak to the birds, but they spoke to me.
I learned that summer about the people I was meant to be with all those years, and I was so proud. No one could ever take this away from me now. I felt that I was a whole person in my heart, nothing missing to wonder about. My mother told me that Quw’utsun’ in our language means “land warmed by the sun”, but I know this land is warm because of the people who live here.
. . .
Cory Cappo (Muscowpetung Saulteaux Nation, near Fort Qu’Appelle, Saskatchewan)
There are people fighting down the road. Yesterday I saw my older brother walk out of the house with a bat. He looked scared. All he told me was to “Stay put.” I haven’t seen him yet. My kokum‘s sitting on the couch watching TV.
I ask her, “Kokum, why is it like this?”
She tells me, “It’s election time.” Then she tells me to go to sleep.
I wake up to the sounds of men talking in the kitchen. I crawl out of bed and quietly sneak out of my room. I look out and see all the lights on in the hallway, kitchen and livingroom. I poke my head out and see my dad sitting with my uncles and my brother.
“Well I don’t know about the Redfeather family, they don’t seem like they’re on our side this year!” my dad says as all his brothers laugh. My older brother, Steven, is sitting there with a “shiner”, smiling but not laughing.
“Yeah boy, you got ’em good,” my dad leans over and puts his arm over my brother. He’s been crying
and is holding back tears. But he’s still smiling. Seeing him like that makes me hold back tears.
“What are you doing up, boy?” My mom, Linda, grabs my arm and sends me back to my room. I don’t fall back to sleep; I push my ear to the door and listen.
“Well, bro, we got ’em good,” my uncle Percy says.
“Yeah! I just said that!” says my dad.
“Well, we lost five votes there, that puts us roughly at about 235 or less, depending on how people react to this little…umm…little scrap,” says Percy.
“We gotta maintain! Guys, I want you to talk to your people and let them know this thing was not our fault, okay?” my dad says with his tired voice.
“Yeah, we got it, Tony. Don’t worry,” my other uncle, Sampson, speaks finally, after laughing for about five minutes.
They all get up and put on their shoes, except Steven. He sits there for about two minutes before he starts to whimper. My mother is already asleep. My dad is driving my uncle home. I take this chance to talk to my hurt brother.
I walk out the door for a second time. The lights are all on except the living room where Steven is lying on the couch. I sit across from him on a tiny chair.
“What’s wrong?” I ask him.
“Nothing, go back to bed.”
“No, you’re hurt. What’s wrong?”
“None of your damn business. Now get lost before you get smoked.”
“Fine then. Just thought I’d be nice. Not my fault you got hooked around,” I say viciously.
He gets up and walks right up to me and I’m cornered.
“I told you, you’re gonna get smoked!” BOOM!
Damn, should’ve stayed in bed, I think to myself.
I wake up on the couch with my dad watching CNN. He sits on the loveseat opposite me. He stares and lights up another cigarette: DuMaurier King Size. He has been smoking them since I was born. People say they’re bad for you. But I don’t care, that smell reminds me of him and home.
His name is Anthony Bear. He’s thirty-six years old, and in his fourth year as chief of the Redtree Saulteaux First Nation, two and a half miles south of Saskatchewan’s capital, Regina. He’s not a big man as his last name implies, and he’s not mean either. Well, as far as I’ve seen. I’ve been told he used to be a dangerous, angry young man in his younger days, but that’s all I hear. These days he’s quite mellow. Even with all the troubles surrounding him, he keeps a cool head. I try to be like him, but I can’t. Being a kid with dietary problems can give one a lot of anger towards many people. But all in all, he’s taught me well.
I wake up, sit up and he looks at me, smiling. Then it kicks in, the pain. My jaw looks like a purple grape. I got hit with a devastating right.
“Ow! Damn it, forgot all about that,” I say.
“I thought I taught you how to avoid those shots, my boy.”
He throws me a bag of frozen peas, and I place it delicately on my chin. It soothes my pain only temporarily, until I remember I have school in one hour and my bus will be here in ten minutes.
I am up and put on my clothes, and sure as sun, my bus is here. I hop on the bus and sit next to my best friend, Benjamin Redfeather.
“What do you want?” he says with a sharp sting.
“Huh?” I say stupidly.
“I know what your damn family did to my dad last night!”
“What are you talking about? What did my brother do?”
“Your brother? So it was Steven?”
“Look bro, I don’t know what you’re talking ’bout.”
I stopped and noticed the whole bus had stopped to witness me and my buddy’s spat. I recuperated and struck back. “Look, it’s not my fault our dads are running against each other!” I thought I said – but I didn’t. I meant to say it, but I didn’t.
When I came to, I was sitting in the back seat of the bus being held down by my cousin, Mick. He kept telling me to calm down. The bus was moving now and I could hear everyone saying Ben’s name and mine. Mick let me up and I saw everyone’s eyes. They were viewing me carefully, the way a child watches for a bee. I looked down at my white shirt, which was now striped with red, also my hands were looking as if I had been painting. I sat down and asked Mick what happened.
“Whoa! Bro, he started cutting up your dad and called you a fatty! Then you smoked him twice, and then he got you back with a few jabs that made your nose bleed.”
“Well, did I win?” I asked, out of breath.
“I dunno. I broke you two up before anything else bad happened.”
As we pulled up to the school, I saw Ben walk out of the bus ahead of me with his nose covered up with a shirt. He walked into the school and sat with his cousins. All my cousins surrounded me, throwing shots, pretending a rumble was about to happen. A couple were telling each other how to throw a haymaker and others were singing “Bad Moon Rising” (our ‘ about-to-scrap ‘ anthem).
I was still in a daze. Recovering from my trademark blackout moment, I read up on what happened to me. In a comic book, X-Men, Wolverine has something called the “Berserker Rage”. So I think I have that. It happens when I get mad.
Damn, I think to myself, I still got a whole day to go at school. How am I going to avoid the Redfeathers all day? That’s it, just stick with the Bears, they won’t try anything, yeah, that’s it.
First bell rings. The whole morning was a blur until lunch. Something always happens at lunch. I re-group with my cousins; we walk to the vacant laundromat and sit on the empty tables.
“Okay, I called this meeting to see what we’re going to do about these bastards, the Redfeathers!” my oldest cousin, Rob, says. He and Steven were very close until Steven graduated and Rob stuck around. People said he was stupid. I just thought he stayed here to watch my back.
“Now, Freddy here just fought it out with Ben on the bus. Ben was cutting up my Uncle Tony and our family. We cannot let this slide; if the Redfeathers want a war, they’ll get it! I’ve brought 100 water balloons!”
A laugh erupts from everyone, even me. Of course, he was joking. He said that to calm us down. We all talk for a bit, and they ask me how I feel. Here I am, Freddy Bear, looking pitiful with a bruised jaw and a bloody shirt. Everyone thinks I got the bruise from Ben. I’m going to get him back; he’s going to wish he never called me —
I’ve just been hit; this day is going good. The Redfeathers snuck up on us, just like them to do something so sneaky. My ears ring. I run outside with all my cousins. The showdown is on…there are six of us against ten of them. I volunteer my pride and myself. “Look! I’ll just fight Ben. It’s between us anyways!”
There were looks of acknowledgement coming from everyone. The fight was on. I walk towards him with my hands up and my chin close to my chest, my feet bounce and I get ready. Ben is also ready. We bounce at the same time; the unrest is building; the local storeowner turns on his sixties radio, and the sounds of old-school Creedence Clearwater Revival blast through the streets. I smile and lunge forward. The fight lasts as long as the Song does.
“I heard it through the grapevine” is stuck in my ears after and my knuckles and face are sore. I didn’t go into my Berserker Rage. It was a good fight. So good Ben and I didn’t notice the tears flowing down our faces leaving a clean spot through the blood and dirt. Rob picks me up and we walk to a back alley. He looks at me long and hard. With a cracked voice he asks, “You okay? Look, I’ll get you home; you don’t have to stick around this afternoon. I already got Little Jimmy to call your mom; she’s coming here now.”
The tiny car pulls up soon after. My mom doesn’t even look at me. I jump in and feel her shame towards me. She never liked the idea of me fighting. It is hot in the car and she doesn’t even put on the air conditioning or even let me roll down the windows. That was the longest ride I ever took home.
When we pull in, I see there’s a lot of traffic going towards the Band Office. I forget it’s Election Day. We are going to see who will be the chief. My dad still, probably. We walk in the house and I see my kokum sitting there with a braid of sweetgrass and the sweet smell of smudge hits my nose and I instantly feel at ease. I sit next to her and brush the smoke across my face with my still bloody hands.
I am about to go wash them when she tells me “Sit.” So softly and sweetly, it commands obedience. I sit there waiting for the worst. It is quiet. I finally figure it out. She is waiting to hear what I have to say. I speak, finally. Not knowing what to say, I blurt something out: “Why is it like this during election time?”
She looked at me.
“You know, back before the white man showed up, we had our own way of doing things. Our people travelled with the buffalo, and strong people governed our lives: spiritually and mentally.
Some groups had leaders that passed on chiefs through bloodlines while others simply chose their strongest. It was a good system, no problems, people did what they had to do, and there was no trying to gain control over people with money or things with no value on the other side. What’s valuable is in here – your heart and your soul – you have to be good to yourself and do what’s right. I’m not going to give you heck about your fighting. I want you to ask yourself: was that a good thing for you to do? To hurt someone over small things that don’t matter? That is what you have to think about. Will times ever change? That’s not our place to know. For better or worse, things sort themselves out, and in the end all you get is how you conduct yourself and how you love other people.”
She got up and left. I sat there thinking about what I’d done and wondered if Ben was okay. I hadn’t noticed how tired I was. I lay down and instantly went to sleep. I slept for what felt like an eternity. I woke up to the smell of DuMaurier King Size cigarettes. I opened my eyes to see my dad sitting across from me, drinking coffee and looking at a sheet filled with numbers. I wipe my eyes, look at the clock: 3 a.m. I had slept for twelve or more hours; my hands still have blood on them. My father looks at me:
“So? How did you do?” he asks.
“How did you do?” I ask right back.
“I guess as good as you,” he says with a laugh.
I think to myself: We both did good, but both are sad about what we put our families and friends through in one day.
We sit there, looking out onto the marsh in front of our house, glowing under the moonlight, both wondering what tomorrow will bring.
. . .
The stories featured above were published in 2007 in the book Initiatives: A Selection of Young Native Writings, edited by poet and teacher Marilyn Dumont and printed through Theytus Books. In 2005 Theytus Books, in partnership with The Dominion Institute, created a national aboriginal writing contest, known as the Our Story Challenge, and invited Native teens and twenty-somethings to submit their short stories.
“Land warmed by the sun” and “Election Day” were among the entrants in that first Our Story Challenge.
. . . . .
nôhtâwiy opîkiskwêwin – Father Tongue
I read about the –ikawi suffix
and the unspecified actor form,
wonder about the curiosities
of active or passive voice in Cree,
but mostly I yearn to learn
real Cree words, am eager to hear
nêhiyawêwin itwêwina in the air.
Want to hear your voice.
Food words like bread and tea
and water –
Words for tree and bud and leaf –
mistik, osimisk, êkwa nîpiy.
Seasonal words for winter, spring,
summer, and fall –
nîpin, êkwa takwâkin.
Weather words like snow and rain,
sunshine and wind –
mispon êkwa kimiwan,
wâsêskwan êkwa yôtin.
More food words like cookie,
tomato, and cheese –
Nature words for lake, mountain,
How to say picnic and camping –
papâ-mîcisowin êkwa kapêsiwin.
How we always picked bottles
when we went picnicking or camping –
How the sky is blue just now,
when it’s been grey for so long.
sîpihkonâkwan mêkwâc kîsik
mâka kinwês ê-kî-pihkonâkwahk.
I want to hear words for car and canoe
and toboggan and cradleboard –
sêhkêpayîs êkwa cîmân
napakitâpânâsk êkwa tihkinâkan.
Baby, boy, girl, man, and woman –
oskawâsis, nâpêsis, iskwêsis, nâpêw, êkwa iskwêw.
Kinship terms like mother and father –
nikâwiy êkwa nôhtâwiy.
Grandmother and grandfather –
nôhkom êkwa nimosôm.
My little siblings, sister and brother –
nîcisânak, nimis êkwa nistês.
Auntie and uncle –
nikâwis êkwa nôhcâwîs.
If only I had stopped long enough
to say “my girl” or “my boy” –
“nitânis” êkwa “nikosis”.
Words for old woman and old man –
nôcokwêsîs êkwa kisêyinîs.
Words for hard and soft,
loud and quiet –
ê-maskawâk êkwa ê-yôskâk
Words for the ground is hard –
the silence is loud –
your voice soft and quiet –
ê-miyotâmoyan êkwa ê-kâmwâtahk.
You always spoke so softly
like a steady rain on parched land.
Maybe that’s why you sound
so far away now –
kiyâwihtâkosin êkwa anohc.
Verbs for listening and persevering –
ê-nitohtawiyan êkwa ê-âhkamêyihtamohiyan,
and loving and raising children –
kiya êkwa nikâwînân
Words for birth and death and funeral –
êkwa kikî-âstêsinin kitaywêpiwinihk.
Verbs for kind and just
and humble and soft-spoken –
The verb for soft-hearted –
and how you had a soft spot
in your heart for all
Cree people –
Verbs for generous and caring –
ê-kî-sawêyimacik êkwa ê-kî-nâkatêyimacik.
Words for thoughtful and oh,
such good Cree speech –
Words for being so good
at so many things –
ê-kî-nahîyan mistahi kîkway.
Words for sadness and regret –
nipîkiskâtisin êkwa kikîsinâtêyihtamâtin.
Because sickness stole your speech
and I came too late to listen –
Yet now you’re whispering
and I’m listening –
mâka êkwa anohc âta ê-kîmwêyan
. . .
Like Bead on a String
Like an umbilical cord, the rainbow
connects sky to earth:
mother and child hold each other close.
tâpiskôc otisiyêyâpiy pîsimwêyâpiy
ê-itâpêkamohtât askîhk kîsikohk ohci
ê-âkwaskitinitocik awâsis êkwa okâwîmâw.
Like a rawhide rope, the vocal cords
secure the gift of story and song:
grandfather and grandchild hold each other close.
tâpiskôc pîsâkanâpiy pîkiskwêyâpîsa
ê-tipahpitahk miyikowisiwin âcimowin êkwa nikamowin
ê-âkwaskitinitocik mosôm êkwa ôsisima
Like a bead on a string, my great-grandmother
sits next to her kin just long enough
for me to reach for her hands.
tâpiskôc kâ-tâpisahoht mîkis, nitâniskotâpân
apîstawêw owâhkômâkana nahiyikohk
. . .
ihkatawâw ay-itwêhiwêw – The Marsh Sends a Message
Reeds breathe and I sense
that in this wet world
the breath utters a language
not yet lost, whispers words
not yet forgotten
cries a marsh message
that must be heard. âniskowaskwa
speak to me of kinosêw,
êkwa nipiy. Reeds
confident and eloquent
ê-sôhkêyimocik êkwa ê-nihtâwêcik
tell me a story
âniskowaskwa, fluid and flowing
a fluent kind of knowing,
whispering a story about this great land.
ê-kîmwêcik, ê-âtotahkik ôma kihci-askiy.
. . .
Naomi McIlwraith is an educator, poet, and essayist, with a mixed Cree, Ojibwe, Scottish, and English inheritance. Most recently at Grant MacEwan University in Edmonton, she has also held instructional positions at the University of Alberta and the King’s University College.
The poet here explores linguistic identity – loss and discovery, family history, belonging – as she experiments with two languages: Plains Cree (nêhiyawêwin) and English (âkayâsîmowin – “English” in Cree).
The poems above were selected from Kiyâm: Poems by Naomi McIlwraith,© 2012, and published by AU Press, Athabasca University, Edmonton, Alberta, Canada.
. . . . .