Mi’kmaw I am: Poems of Rita Joe + We are the Dreamers

ZP_Portrait of Rita Joe drawn by Tylesia

ZP_Portrait of Rita Joe drawn by Tylesia

Rita Joe

(Mi’kmaw poet, 1932-2007, Whycocomagh, Nova Scotia, Canada)


“A Mi’kmaw Cure-All for Ingrown Toenail”


I have a comical story for ingrown toenail

I want to share with everybody.

The person I love and admire is a friend.

This is her cure-all for an elderly problem.

She bought rubber boots one size larger

And put salted water above the toe

Then wore the boots all day.

When evening came they cut easy,

The ingrown problem much better.

I laughed when I heard the story.

It is because I have the same tender distress

So might try the Mi’kmaw cure-all.

The boots are there, just add the salted water

And laugh away the pesky sore.

I’m even thinking of bottling for later use.

.     .     .

“Street Names”


In Eskasoni there were never any street names, just name areas.

There was Qam’sipuk (Across The River),

74th Street now, you guess why the name.

Apamuek, central part of Eskasoni, the home of Apamu.

New York Corner, never knew the reason for the name.

There is Gabriel Street, the church Gabriel Centre.

Espise’k, Very Deep Water.

Beach Road, naturally the beach road.

Mickey’s Lane. There must be a Mickey there.

Spencer’s Lane, Spencer lives there, why not Arlene? His wife.

Cremo’s Lane, the last name of many people.

Crane Cove Road, the location of Crane Cove Fisheries.

Pine Lane, a beautiful spot, like everywhere else in Eskasoni.

Silverwood Lane, the place of silverwood.

George Street, bet you can’t guess who lives there.

Denny’s Lane, the last name of many Dennys.

Paul’s Lane, there are many Pauls, Poqqatla’naq.

Johnson Place, many Johnsons.

Morris Lane, guess who?

Horseshoe Drive, considering no horses in Eskasoni.

Beacon Hill, elegant place name,

I used to work at Beacon Hill Hospital in Boston.

Mountain Road,

A’nslm Road, my son-in-law Tom Sylliboy, daughter,

three grandchildren live there,

and Lisa Marie, their poodle.

Apamuekewawti, near where I live, come visit.

.     .     .

“Ankita’si (I think)”


A thought is to catch an idea

Between two minds.

Swinging to and fro

From English to Native,

Which one will I create, fulfill

Which one to roll along until arriving

To settle, still.


I know, my mind says to me

I know, try Mi’kmaw…


Na kelu’lk we’jitu (I find beauty)


Me’ we’jitutes (I will find more)

Ankita’si me’ (I think some more)


We’jitu na!*


*We’jitu na! – I find!

.     .     .

“Plawej and L’nui’site’w” (Partridge and Indian-Speaking Priest)


Once there was an Indian-speaking priest

Who learned Mi’kmaw from his flock.

He spoke the language the best he knew how

But sometimes got stuck.

They called him L’nui’site’w out of respect to him

And loving the man, he meant a lot to them.

At specific times he heard their confessions

They followed the rules, walking to the little church.

A widow woman was strolling through the village

On her way there, when one hunter gave her a day-old plawej

She took the partridge, putting it inside her coat

Thanking the couple, going her way.

At confession, the priest asked, “What is the smell?”

In Mi’kmaw she said, “My plawej.”

He gave blessing and sent her on her way.

The next day he gave a long sermon, ending with the words

“Keep up the good lives you are leading,

but wash your plawejk.”

The women giggled, he never knew why.

To this day there is a saying, they laugh and cry.

Whatever you do, wherever you go,

Always wash your plawejk.

.     .     .

“I Washed His Feet”


In early morning she burst into my kitchen. “I got something to

tell you, I was disrespectful to him,” she said. “Who were you

disrespectful to?” I asked. “Se’sus*,” she said. I was overwhelmed

by her statement. Caroline is my second youngest.

How in the world can one be disrespectful to someone we

never see? It was in a dream, there were three knocks on the

door. I opened the door, “Oh my God you’re here.” He came in

but stood against the wall. “I do not want to track dirt on your

floor,” he said. I told him not to mind the floor but come in, that

tea and lu’sknikn (bannock) will be ready in a moment. He ate and

thanked me… But then he asked if I would wash his feet, he

looked kind and normal, but a bit tired. In the dream, she said, I

took an old t-shirt and wet it with warm water and washed his

feet, carefully cleaning them, especially between his toes. I

wiped them off and put his sandals back on. After I was finished

I put the TV on, he leaned forward looking at the television.

His hair fell forward, he pushed it away from his face. I

removed a tendril away from his eye. “I am tired of my hair,”

he said. “Why don’t you wear a ponytail or have it braided?”

He said all right but asked me to teach him how to braid. I

stood beside him and touched his soft hair and saw a tear in

his eye, using my pinky finger to wipe the tear away. He smiled

gently. I then showed him how to braid his hair, guiding his

hands on how it was done. He caught on real easy. He was

happy. He thanked me for everything. You are welcome any

time you want to visit. He smiled as he walked out. He is just

showing us he is around at any time, even in 1997.

I was honoured to hear the story firsthand.


* Se’sus – Jesus

.     .     .

“Apiksiktuaqn (To forgive, be forgiven)”


A friend of mine in Eskasoni Reservation

Entered the woods and fasted for eight days.

I awaited the eight days to see him

I wanted to know what he learned from the sune’wit.

To my mind this is the ultimate for a cause

Learning the ways, an open door, derive.

At the time he did it, it was for

The people, the oncoming pow-wow

The journey to know, rationalize, spiritual growth.

When he drew near, a feeling like a parent on me

He was my son, I wanted to listen.

He talked fast, at times with a rush of words

As if to relate all, but sadness took over.

I hugged him and said, “Don’t talk if it is too sad.”

The spell was broken, he could say no more.

The one thing I heard him say, “Apiksiktuaqn nuta’ykw”,

For months it stayed on my mind.

Now it may go away as I write

Because this is the past, the present, the future.


I wish this would happen to all of us

Unity then will be the world over

My friend carried a message

Let us listen.


sune’wit – to fast, abstain from food

Apiksiktuaqn nuta’ykw – To forgive, be forgiven.


All of the above poems – from Rita Joe’s 1999 collection We are the Dreamers,

(published by Breton Books, Wreck Cove, Nova Scotia)

.     .     .     .     .

The following is a selection from the 26 numbered poems of Poems of Rita Joe

(published in 1978 by Abanaki Press, Halifax, Nova Scotia)




Wen net ki’l?

Pipanimit nuji-kina’muet ta’n jipalk.

Netakei, aq i’-naqawey;



Ktikik nuji-kina’masultite’wk kimelmultijik.

Na epas’si, taqawajitutm,

Aq elui’tmasi

Na na’kwek.




Espitutmikewey kina’matneweyiktuk eyk,

Aq kinua’tuates pa’ qlaiwaqnn ni’n nikmaq.


Who are you?

Question from a teacher feared.

Blushing, I stammered



Other students tittered.

I sat down forlorn, dejected,

And made a vow

That day


To be great in all learnings,

No more uncertain.

My pride lives in my education,

And I will relate wonders to my people.

.     .     .



Ai! Mu knu’kwaqnn,

Mu nuji-wi’kikaqnn,

Mu weskitaqawikasinukul kisna


Kekinua’tuenukul wlakue’l



Ta’n teluji-mtua’lukwi’tij nuji-

kina’mua’tijik a.


Ke’ kwilmi’tij,

Maqamikewe’l wisunn,

Apaqte’l wisunn,


Mukk kas’tu mikuite’tmaqnmk

Ula knu’kwaqnn.


Ki’ welaptimikl

Kmtne’l samqwann nisitk,

Kesikawitkl sipu’l.

Ula na kis-napui’kmu’kl



we’jitutoqsip ta’n kisite’tmekl

Wisunn aq ta’n pa’-qi-klu’lk,

Tepqatmi’tij L’nu weja’tekemk



Aye! no monuments,

No literature,

No scrolls or canvas-drawn pictures

Relate the wonders of our yesterday.


How frustrated the searchings

of the educators.


Let them find

Land names,

Titles of seas,


Wipe them not from memory.

These are our monuments.


Breathtaking views –

Waterfalls on a mountain,

Fast flowing rivers.

These are our sketches

Committed to our memory.

Scholars, you will find our art

In names and scenery,

Betrothed to the Indian

since time began.

.     .     .



Kiknu na ula maqmikew

Ta’n asoqmisk wju’sn kmtnji’jl

Aq wastewik maqmikew

Aq tekik wju’sn.


Kesatm na telite’tm L’nueymk,

Paqlite’tm, mu kelninukw koqoey;

Aq ankamkik kloqoejk

Wejkwakitmui’tij klusuaqn.

Nemitaq ekil na tepknuset tekik wsiskw

Elapekismatl wta’piml samqwan-iktuk.



Nkutey nike’ kinu tepknuset



Tujiw keska’ykw, tujiw apaji-ne’ita’ykw

Kutey nike’ mu pessipketenukek



Mimajuaqnminu siawiaq

Mi’soqo kikisu’a’ti’kw aq nestuo’lti’kw.

Na nuku’ kaqiaq.

Mu na nuku’eimukkw,

Pasik naqtimu’k

L’nu’ qamiksuti ta’n mu nepknukw.


Our home is in this country

Across the windswept hills

With snow on fields.

The cold air.


I like to think of our native life,

Curious, free;

And look at the stars

Sending icy messages.

My eyes see the cold face of the moon

Cast his net over the bay.


It seems

We are like the moon –


Grow slowly,

Then fade away, to reappear again

In a never-ending cycle.


Our lives go on

Until we are old and wise.

Then end.

We are no more,

Except we leave

A heritage that never dies.

.     .     .



Klusuaqnn mu nuku’ nuta’nukul


Mimkwatasik koqoey wettaqne’wasik

L’nueyey iktuk ta’n keska’q

Mu a’tukwaqn eytnukw klusuaqney

panaknutk pewatmikewey

Ta’n teli-kjijituekip seyeimik


Espe’k L’nu’qamiksuti,

Kelo’tmuinamitt ajipjitasuti.

Apoqnmui kwilm nsituowey

Ewikasik ntinink,

Apoqnmui kaqma’si;

Pitoqsi aq melkiknay.


Mi’kmaw na ni’n;

Mukk skmatmu piluey koqoey wja’tuin.


Words no longer need

Clear meanings.

Hidden things proceed from a lost legacy.

No tale in words bares our desire, hunger,

The freedom we have known.


A heritage of honour

Sustains our hopes.

Help me search the meaning

Written in my life,

Help me stand again

Tall and mighty.


Mi’kmaw I am;

Expect nothing else from me.

ZP_Panoramic view of part of Eskasoni First Nation_2012

ZP_Panoramic view of part of Eskasoni First Nation_2012


Rita Joe, born Rita Bernard in 1932, was a poet, a writer, and a human rights activist.  Born in Whycocomagh, Nova Scotia, Canada, she was raised in foster homes after being orphaned in 1942.  She was educated at Shubenacadie Residential School where she learned English – and that experience was also the impetus for writing a good number of her poems.  (“I Lost My Talk” is about having her Mi’kmaq language denied at school.)  While identity-erasure was part of her Canadian upbringing, still she managed in her writing – and in her direct, in-person activism – to promote compassion and cooperation between Peoples.  Rita married Frank Joe in 1954 and together they raised ten children at their home in The Eskasoni First Nation, Cape Breton, Nova Scotia.  It was in her thirties, in the 1960s, that Joe began to write poetry so as to counteract the negative images of Native peoples found in the books that her children read.   The Poems of Rita Joe, from 1978, was the first published book of Mi’kmaq poetry by a Mi’kmaw author.   Rita Joe died in 2007, at the age of 75, after struggling with Parkinson’s Disease.  Her daughters found a revision of her last poem “October Song” on her typewriter.  The poem reads:  “On the day I am blue, I go again to the wood where the tree is swaying, arms touching you like a friend, and the sound of the wind so alone like I am;  whispers here,  whispers there,  come and just be my friend.”

.     .     .     .     .