“We are from people that have been forced to give up everything and we have this one opportunity to give something to ourselves and we’re going to take it. We are fucking taking it. Even though occupation anxiety has worn our self-worth down to frayed wires. Even though there is risk. After all, everything we are afraid of has already happened.”
It’s 7:30 in the morning and Leanne Simpson is speaking to me through a 123-page book that I’ve started reading while on a crowded airplane next to a guy who is watching Fox News and eating a warmed blueberry muffin. My immediate thought is, “This is what I get for upgrading to first class.” I upgraded to get a relatively cheap comfortable seat on an early flight and to remind myself how the other half lives. The other half gets warm blueberry muffins while everyone else walks all the way back to coach.
Simpson writes that “she is standing on / tentative ice / glory singing,” and I want to find some way to virtually high-five her but can’t bring myself to post emoji to her Twitter and writing “virtual high-five” seems sad. Her book This Accident of Being Lost alternates between short narratives of modern-day Native life and poems about the strength and continuation of Native people. Simpson writes as though she and the reader were in on some joke together, like when she tries to convince me that there are “A Few Good Reasons to Wear a Long Skirt.” I’ve had this conversation with friends before: why are Indigenous women asked to wear long skirts while Indigenous men are never asked to wear loin cloths? Are we inscribing patriarchal structures onto Indigenous culture? Would our old ones have said that you needed a skirt? What’s so good about a skirt?
Simpson counters: “If you need to attack a fort, you can get everyone together to play a fake game of lacrosse with the shirts, and then when one of the skins ‘accidentally’ throws the ball into the fort, & they open the gates to get it, you & all your skirted friends can take your knives & axes out from underneath your skirts & attack the fuck out of the british.” I yell out “ha!” on the plane. The man next to me looks over his glasses and I want to turn to him and say, “Get it? You can attack the fuck out of the British. Get it?” But instead I scratch a silent “HA!” in the margin of the book.
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.
The strength of these women is etched into every page.
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.
Bird-Wilson’s poems illustrate the strength and thoughtfulness of Indigenous children, recasting an archive heretofore dominated by the voices of teachers and superintendents. By combining fragments of both family stories and historical documents, Bird-Wilson allows us to experience a Residential School from the perspective of Indigenous children. The poem “Hundreds of Boys—A Response” begins with an explanatory note: “In the early 1990s one of the worst known cases of abuse in the history of the residential schools was formally brought to light. It involved one notorious administrator and ‘hundreds of boys.’” The poem repeats the numbers: one hundred, two hundred, three hundred, more.
The very next poem confronts us with “The [black bar]’s Situation,” incorporating throughout the black bars used to censor the same abuse report under the “access to information act.” The black bars cover the names of those responsible for the sexual abuse of Native children while simultaneously highlighting the severity of the crimes committed. We are forced to fill in the blanks, only to be then confronted with a “Reply from Mr. R. F. Davey, Superintendent of Education, Indian Affairs,” who tells us that “after a thorough and exhaustive investigation / I have found / no evidentiary evidence” of assaults on Native children. Thus did History silence Native victims, called their experiences “propaganda” and “confusion.”
For centuries, Indigenous peoples weren’t written about, codified, or even thought of as people capable of loving.
There is love in Bird-Wilson’s poetry as well, love for her father and for others who came before her. She writes of the hope that arises from the connections between bodies, of the sense of reclamation in fleeting moments of physical joy and love. Connection to the body and to love threads through Halfe’s work as well, which focuses not only on the moments between lovers but also on the strong bonds forged between parent and child. Looking to the next generation, Halfe confronts the cold, harsh side of herself that shadows her as she tries to move forward. She describes how she “wrestled” this other self, the one who “watched / from her dark sky.” She resists spanking her child in this moment, calling him “innocent”; she notes that “his child’s light” chases away the darkness that tries to overtake her.
The complicated and often muddled experience of love is what binds these collections together, love between a mother and child, between partners; love for one’s culture, one’s home, and even one’s history. The narrators of these poems must learn to love and are learning how loving is complex, especially for generations negotiating the lasting effects of Residential Schools, which taught Indigenous peoples to consider their love dangerous and backward.
Simpson’s reclamation also lies in the way she loves: animals, the waters, her friends and family. The characters in her book love. They love their children, they love each other, they love and long and weep and laugh. They laugh about the ridiculousness of “bleeding-heart liberals” and children’s ballet classes or the life of Kate Middleton and how hard it is to get along with people named Rachel. Her characters fall in love so unashamedly and with such abandon that they stalk people on social media, worry and fret over love gained and love lost. Simpson’s Native voices are contemporary, they are lovers, they are human and they are also navigating the often confusing world of dating. For centuries, Indigenous peoples weren’t written about, codified, or even thought of as people capable of even loving.
Colonizing regimes have often cast attempts by Native people to maintain their traditional knowledge as threatening and “illegal.” Simpson weaves into her words the resulting precariousness of Indigenous life, the ever-present threat to our bodies and our land. One story, for example, describes characters who must find a nonthreatening way to continue their accustomed gathering of maple syrup. Hundreds of years after the invasion of our lands Indigenous peoples have to be tough: “For NDNs the tougher we act, the purer our hearts are, because this strangulation is not set up for the sensitive and we have to protect the fuck out of ourselves.” This strangulation is colonization, the continuous and ever-present system designed to claim Indigenous land, to erase Indigenous life, to disappear the Indigenous story.
But we carry our stories with us wherever we go, and now we have the books to place on our folding tray tables in first class on an airplane while we nibble on warmed blueberry muffins and wonder what the old guy next to us could possibly be thinking about our reading selection for this trip. I lean these books against each other to create a precarious three-sided pyramid, as if they could catch on fire at any moment. What if they did? What if I opened one of them and flaming words flew from the page and danced around us? The man next to me eyes my pyramid of books, or maybe he’s eyeing me eyeing him, eyeing me, eyeing him. We could get caught in this loop forever, so I sink back into Simpson’s text.
By the time we land I will have finished the book, I will have written many notes in the margins that are mostly “exactly,” “HA!,” “!!!,” and “I better not send this story to my friend Rachel.” Simpson’s effervescent charm is contagious, her humor is on point, and the modern way in which she illustrates her Indigenous ties to land, history, and culture is an important addition to Indigenous literature. She lives her Indigenousness while debating the merits of a “tidy bun” or when posting just the right photo to Instagram.
Simpson warns me to be careful of “reconciliation,” to critique it and to take control of what it can really mean for Indigenous peoples. Colonization, she writes, tried to erase Indians so that modern-day “bleeding-heart liberals and communists / can stop feeling bad / for the stealing / & raping / & murdering / & we can all move on.” In the hands of the colonizer, this is reconciliation. In the hands of Indigenous women like Simpson, Bird-Wilson, and Halfe, reconciliation is about reclaiming Indigenous love—a love that has surmounted hundreds of years of colonization. Simpson calls out the words: “Oh love, come to me” / “Oh love, come to me.” I close my eyes and repeat it to myself as the wheels touch the ground and we land.