Native Stories from Native Perspectives

Reviewed by: Cutcha Risling Baldy

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There are three books on my tray table: This Accident of Being Lost, by Leanne Simpson; The Red Files, by Lisa Bird-Wilson; and Burning in This Midnight Dream, by Louise Halfe. All are relatively new publications, created by First Nations Indigenous women from Canada who speak to how Indigenous peoples tell stories about the land that disrupt the oversimplified colonized history that we learn in schools. Each of these women claims space in a world full of books that have told Native stories without Native perspectives.

Halfe and Bird-Wilson weave poetic narratives of the Indian Residential School experience and its lasting effect on future generations. Aboriginal residential schools were enacted by governments throughout the world including Canada and the United States. They were designed not as education systems but with the goal of assimilation and indoctrination. Children were forcibly removed from their families and faced horrific physical, emotional and sexual abuse in the system, which continued in Canada well into the 1970s. Halfe’s book aims to “celebrate the survivors and the lost”; Bird-Wilson’s gives space to voices silenced in the archives.

At the heart of these texts is an engagement with and critique of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada. The Commission is tasked with informing Canadians about Indian Residential Schools and documenting stories from survivors, families, and communities. But what does it mean for the survivors and their family members to participate in documenting these stories? What happens as they confront disturbing details from their own family histories, many of which continue to be dismissed by mainstream historical texts?

Halfe and Bird-Wilson filter their memories through poetry. Halfe also includes personal photos, often featuring smiling and happy family members. She names them. She gives them their own space in her work. These are not the nameless black-and-white photos of “Indian children in a field,” but Pete and Charlie Waskewitch, brothers, and Kakakon, Wilfred Chocan’s grandmother. Halfe’s poems address the difficulties of truth and reconciliation, which she describes as to “walk backwards on footprints / that walked forward.”

Revisiting history is not as simple as just telling a story, or sharing memories that have been passed from generation to generation. It involves mining stories that are often painful to share. Halfe’s poetry cuts deeply into the pain of Residential Schools. The opening poem, “Dedication to the Seventh Generation,” reminds her reader of the very personal journey we are about to take with her: “I forget to laugh sometimes, / though in these forty years / my life has been filled / with towering mornings, / northern lights.” Halfe insists that while these stories may be painful, we must not weep for her. “Not for me, not for you. / Weep for those who haven’t yet sung. / Weep for those who will never sing.”

The lost voices of those children who died while in Residential Schools, as well as those who might not be able or willing to share their own stories, seem present in the air as we open Halfe’s book. Her poems offer a visceral realness, testimony by someone who is both survivor and witness, and also convey the difficulty of reconciliation. In “nimihtātēn – I grieve,” Halfe describes the reconciliation process as asking her to “turn my / skin inside out.” She continues: “They want to know / how I survived this hot-coal trail. / I prefer to keep silence as my guest.” The person speaking in these poems wants to run away, but feels a responsibility to speak about the Native experience in her own voice. Through her poetry, Halfe takes back ceremony, takes back the words from her language, takes back the stories.

The strength of these women is etched into every page. Halfe talks about the markings she wears on her body in her dreams. These are X-marks that, she says, “beckoned me not to surrender.” They cover her body like tattoos, they mark her as Indigenous. For Halfe, reclaiming her words and her stories also means reclaiming her body. Colonization marked Indigenous women’s bodies, targeting us for gender violence and forced sterilization. Residential Schools tried to mold children’s bodies according to a Victorian ideal that marked Indian bodies as taboo and shameful.

 

This is an excerpt of a longer article that originally appeared in Public Books.

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