Poems for Earth Day: Rita Joe’s “Mother Earth’s Hair”, “There is Life Everywhere” and “When I am gone”Posted: April 22, 2013
Rita Joe (Mi’kmaw poet, 1932-2007)
“Mother Earth’s Hair”
In August 1989 my husband and I were in Maine
Where he died, I went home alone in pain.
We had visited each reservation we knew
Making many friends, today I still know.
Near a road a woman was sitting on the ground
She was carefully picking strands of grass
Discarding some, holding others straight
I asked why was she picking so much.
She said, “They are ten dollars a pound.”
My husband and I sat alongside of her, becoming friends.
A bundle my husband picked then, later my treasure.
I know, as all L’nu’k* know,
that sweetgrass is mother earth’s hair
So dear in my mind my husband picking shyly for me
Which he never did before, in two days he will leave me.
Today as in all days I smell sweetgrass, I think of him
Sitting there so shy, the picture remains dear.
*L’nu = an Aboriginal person
. . .
“There is Life Everywhere”
The ever-moving leaves of a poplar tree lessened my anxiety as I walked through the woods trying to make my mind work on a particular task I was worried about. The ever-moving leaves I touched with care, all the while talking to the tree. “Help me,” I said. There is no help from anywhere, the moving story I want to share. There is a belief that all trees, rocks, anything that grows, is alive, helps us in a way that no man can ever perceive, let alone even imagine. I am a Mi’kmaw woman who has lived a long time and know which is true and not true, you only try if you do not believe, I did, that is why my belief is so convincing to myself. There was a time when I was a little girl, my mother and father had both died and living at yet another foster home which was far away from a native community. The nearest neighbours were non-native and their children never went near our house, though I went to their school and got along with everybody, they still did not go near our home. It was at this time I was so lonely and wanted to play with other children my age which was twelve at the time. I began to experience unusual happiness when I lay on the ground near a brook just a few metres from our yard. At first I lay listening to the water, it seemed to be speaking to me with a comforting tone, a lullaby at times. Finally I moved my playhouse near it to be sure I never missed the comfort from it. Then I developed a friendship with a tree near the brook, the tree was just there, I touched the outside bark, the leaves I did not tear but caressed. A comforting feeling spread over me like warmth, a feeling you cannot experience unless you believe, that belief came when I was saddest. The sadness did not return after I knew that comfortable unity I shared with all living animals, birds, even the well I drew water from. I talked to every bird I saw, the trees received the most hugs. Even today I am sixty-six years old, they do not know the unconditional freedom I have experienced from the knowledge of knowing that this is possible. Try it and see. There is life everywhere, treat it as it is, it will not let you down.
. . .
“When I am gone”
The leaves of the tree will shiver
Because aspen was a friend one time.
Black spruce, her arms will lay low
And across the sky the eagles fly.
The mountains be still
Their wares one time like painted pyramids.
All gold, orange, red splash like we use on face.
The trees do their dances for show
Like once when she spoke
I love you all.
Her moccasin trod so softly, touching mother
The rocks had auras after her sweat
The grass so clean, she pressed it to cheek
Every blade so clean like He wants you to see.
The purification complete.
“Kisu’lkw” you are so good to me.
I leave a memory of laughing stars
Spread across the sky at night.
Try counting, no end, that’s me – no end.
Just look at the leaves of any tree, they shiver
That was my friend, now yours
Poetry is my tool, I write.
. . . . .
For more of Rita Joe’s poems please see our April 11th posts…
(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.
. . .
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.
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! – 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,
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
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 weskitaqawikasinukul kisna
Ta’n teluji-mtua’lukwi’tij nuji-
Mukk kas’tu mikuite’tmaqnmk
Kmtne’l samqwann nisitk,
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 scrolls or canvas-drawn pictures
Relate the wonders of our yesterday.
How frustrated the searchings
of the educators.
Let them find
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
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
Mi’soqo kikisu’a’ti’kw aq nestuo’lti’kw.
Na nuku’ kaqiaq.
Mu na nuku’eimukkw,
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,
And look at the stars
Sending icy messages.
My eyes see the cold face of the moon
Cast his net over the bay.
We are like the moon –
Then fade away, to reappear again
In a never-ending cycle.
Our lives go on
Until we are old and wise.
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
Ta’n teli-kjijituekip seyeimik
Apoqnmui kwilm nsituowey
Pitoqsi aq melkiknay.
Mi’kmaw na ni’n;
Mukk skmatmu piluey koqoey wja’tuin.
Words no longer need
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.
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.”
. . . . .