When I was 16 or 17, I was perusing the shelves in my high school’s library and I came across a book of poetry by Louise B. Halfe entitled: “Blue Marrow.”
Little did I know that this book was going to contain some of the most beautiful poetry I had ever read in my entire life up to that point and after. I’d read poetry before, but rarely had I ever read poetry that articulated perfectly the same emotions and experiences I’ve had as an Indigenous person. I had found a poet who I felt could understand me and reading her words helped heal some of the sadness I felt inside me.
For those who don’t know, Louise Bernice Halfe is a Cree poet whose Cree name translates to “Sky Dancer.” She’s published several books of award-winning poetry and was Canada’s ninth Parliamentary Poet Laureate. She was raised in the Saddle Lake Reserve and when she was a child she was forced to attend residential school and as an adult she worked for several years as a social worker.
Her book Blue Marrow is her second published book of poetry. The book encompasses and comprises several themes. I’ll be writing about a couple of these themes in this blog post..
Throughout Blue Marrow Sky Dancer often uses Cree words in her poetry. Which I really loved, since as someone who is part Cree I very rarely ever get the opportunities to read or hear Cree in any forms of modern media. So getting to read and see the Cree words on paper felt very healing to me. A Cree professor here at the University of Alberta named Dorothy Thunder said that language is a spirit. And I agree with that. Languages are so much more than just words. They’re a part of our spirits and culture, and it was a very violent act by the Canadian government to try and destroy Indigenous languages through residential schools and assimilatory practices.
But, it’s nice that Indigenous languages are slowly becoming more revitalized in Canada. But, I do think there definitely needs to be more Indigenous words and languages incorporated everywhere in Canada. From street directions, names of locations, books, movies and music — Indigenous words should be everywhere in Canada.
One thing that has always bothered me is how normalized it’s become for settler-Canadians to not even know a single word in any Indigenous language of the lands they occupy. Because, if I visited another country such as France it would be expected that I learn at least a couple words in French, such as how to say “hello” or “thank you.” Or, if I visited Spain then I would be expected to learn how to say some words in Spanish. Yet, so many people come to Canada and never learn how to say any words in any Indigenous language.
Also, it’s really sad that so many Indigenous people themselves have been disconnected from their languages due to colonization. My people from the band I am from, (Sunchild) have spoken Cree and Saulteaux since time immemorial, and now many of us now grow up speaking English. Which is because colonization is still continuing and many of us are still being legally required to attend the public school system where we have to speak and write in English. And of course, the continued cultural genocidal practices of forcibly taking Indigenous children away from their families (the residential school system has now been renamed “the child welfare system”).
I grew up being unable to properly pronounce the “r” sound. I pronounced it as “w”. I had to go through years of speech therapy to be able to pronounce so many English sounds correctly. For a while I felt like maybe there was something wrong with me. But, it wasn’t until I had a conversation with a friend that I realized there was never anything wrong with my mouth for being unable to pronounce those colonial sounds correctly. She was remarking on the way I talk and I said I had to go through years of speech therapy as a kid, and she told me she thought that it was sad. She said something along the lines of that I shouldn’t have needed to, since English isn’t even my language.
Because, my own languages are Cree and Saulteaux and Stoney Nakoda. And in the Cree language the “r” sound doesn’t exist. I had to go through years of speech therapy in order to better assimilate my tongue so that it could properly speak English, but why don’t settler-Canadians even try to learn one native word? And why was it prioritized by the colonial powers that I learn how to pronounce “r” properly instead of prioritizing me learning and speaking and becoming fluent in my own native language?
Colonization and forced poverty
One of those themes in the book is the colonization and forced poverty of Indigenous peoples.. At one point in the book, the narrator writes about how her non-Indigenous husband’s family would talk fondly about the history of their family’s settlement journey in North America, bringing along books that document the journeys of their family’s migration. Meanwhile the narrator thought:
“How many of my relatives were cattled onto the reserve during their settlement? How much of my people’s blood was spilled for this migration?” (from Blue Marrow, page 67)
Words that made me tear up. Because, yes I’m happy that many people have made their new homes and lives in Canada. But, the cost for that was the colonization and cultural genocide of Indigenous peoples in Canada. And it needs to be talked about and acknowledged. Settlers and immigrants in Canada have homes here because Indigenous peoples had their traditional homelands stolen from them. And now many Indigenous peoples are still homeless in their own homelands, and lots of Indigenous people are still dying on the streets. I was actually at event a couple weeks ago and I heard someone (I can’t remember his name, but if I find out his name I will come back and comment the right name) say that the deaths of homeless Indigenous peoples on the streets is an ongoing genocide since so many Indigenous peoples are dying due to the dangers and exposures they face on the streets.
Throughout the book, Sky Dancer also writes about the poverty and hunger that Indigenous people have to endure. At one point she writes:
“My memory snared
by my people, beggars in the land
that once filled their bellies.”
(from Blue Marrow, page 30)
Those words also broke my heart. For thousands of years Indigenous people lived off the land and were able to sustain themselves and be independent. But, then they got forced into a position of dependence and poverty on the government and had to rely on the government to provide them with food rations. Yes, many people are now rich in Canada and have made their wealth by mining and extracting resources from Indigenous lands and renting out property. But, the cost for that wealth was the forced poverty of many Indigenous peoples in Canada.
I will say this: I know that settler-Canadians have put a lot of work into the wealth they have acquired. Many settlers moved to Canada, not with the desire to usurp Indigenous lands, but in hopes of a better life. Many settler-Canadians had to work hard just to survive when they arrived in Canada. And many Canadians nowadays —- settler or Indigenous — are still struggling to survive, what with the rising costs of rent and the increased costs of food (shelter and food are both basic necessities that everyone is entitled to, but the modern Canadian society has designed it such that only people with enough money and economic resources have the ability to afford these needs.) And, I truly believe that if people could they would right the wrongs done to Indigenous peoples. But, reconciliation is a long and difficult process.
I’m happy with how diverse Canadian society is, and I think that settlers have as much right to live and be happy in Canada as Indigenous peoples do. The land belongs to everyone. But, everyone needs to know about the harms and violence that happened to Indigenous peoples so that the society known as Canada could be birthed. And I’m grateful to Sky Dancer for having the courage to talk about these difficult truths.
Blue Marrow is a very beautiful and impactful book of poetry. I only touched on just a couple of the themes. So if anyone is interested in reading more from the author or learning more about the contents of Blue Marrow I strongly encourage you to read it. It’s a book I often read whenever I am feeling sad and want to read words that can heal me. Poetry is medicine and can be intensely beautiful medicine at that. So, give Blue Marrow a read when you have the time, and thank you so much for taking the time to read this blog post.
Deena is currently majoring in English. She is excited to be a blog writer since shes hopes to spread more awareness on topics she is passionate about and to also hopefully spotlight women who are doing amazing things in the local community.