This is a poem with a rope around it
because I speak poorly.
These are the words I want to say
to the great-grandfather mistahi-maskwa
but first I must speak with the Elder’s helper.
Tell Big Bear I am sorry
for trying to speak for him.
anohc nitapahtêyimison êkâ ê-nihtâ-nêhiyawêyân.
This poem has a rope around it
the way a fence confines freedom,
the way words are crushed
when the land is sectioned, sold, stolen.
Like that rope Big Bear said would grab
his neck if he signed the treaty.
He said he didn’t want
to be bound and bridled like a horse,
but the corpulent treaty commissioners
thought mistahi-maskwa was afraid
of the hangman’s noose. Instead of hanging
the great-grandfather, they tethered him
to a jail cell in Manitoba.
There’s a knot in the rope clutching this poem.
ayis mwêstas tahto-askiy kêyâpic
Because after all these years of study, still
I am not capable.
What does it mean that it took
me twenty years to reclaim
the word pîsâkanâpiy from
Shaganappi Trail? What
does it mean that it took me
twenty years to untangle the knot
of a traffic jam on a freeway
in Calgary and to recognize
pîsâkanâpiy for what it is?
A rawhide rope.
Why did I have to go to a museum
to learn how to make rawhide?
What does it mean that I smell
diesel fuel in the frigid mid-winter
instead of the hot mucky membrane
of a hide scraped in the fever of mid-summer?
How has it come to this?
the roar of transit busses
instead of the rumble of buffalo: paskwâwi-mostoswak
the aftertaste of caffeine
instead of the tang of Labrador tea: maskêkwâpoy
instead of pîsâkanâpiy mêskanaw.
The knot in this rope âniskohpicikan pîsâkanâpîhk
must surely be akin to the knot
stuck in his great-granddaughter’s throat.
Big Bear’s great-granddaughter, Yvonne, the one
who spent so many years unable to talk
because of a double-cleft palate.
What kind of malicious irony is this
when forked tongues knit together
like a steel foot-hold trap?
Tell the great-grandfather I’ve learned
that the knot in this poem
is not like a bead on a string
namôya tâpiskôc âniskôhôcikan ôma kâ-tâpisahoht,
and not at all like those chains
used to hold the old man
at Stony Mountain Penitentiary.
mwâc ahpô tâpiskôc anihi pîwâpiskwêyâpiya
kâ-kî-âpacihtâhk ka-sakahpitiht ana kisêyiniw
Take this poem and tell mistahi-maskwa I’ve learned
that cêskwa! means “Wait!”
and nakî! means “Stop!”
Tell him that ê-tapahtiskwêkâpawiyân
osâm nika-âpahên âniskohpicikan nahiyikohk
ka-nisitohtamân ê-kî-nôhtê-pîkiskwâtât ostêsimâwa
anihi kâ-wâpiskisiyit ostêsimâwa
I stand humble, my head bowed
because I will loosen the knot just enough
to understand that he only wanted to talk to his brothers,
those older white brothers who wrote the treaty.
Take this rope and this poem
and tell the old man
êkwa ê-nôhtê-wîci-pîkiskwêmimak otayisiyinîma.
namôya kîkway ayiwâk.
I want to cut the rope.
I want to speak with his people.
ay-hay I say to you,
the one who helps Big Bear
kiya kâ-wîcihat mistahi-maskwa.