In so many ways, the making of this manuscript represents one of the more challenging times of my life. And yet, in so many other ways, I have been lifted up by the many friends and family who have supported me in this effort. My father, Mowat Edgar McIlwraith, died when I had barely started this work, but his memory has sustained me through difficult days. This is for you, Dad. As I know you know, in writing these poems, I have made my peace with you and with myself. My mother, Lavona Lillian McIlwraith, has given me legs to walk on, hugs to hope by, and words to work with. This is for you, Mom, for your gift of the power to carry on. To my siblings, Charlene, Cameron, and Tina, and their spouses, my thanks for your interest and your encouragement. I am grateful as well to my late Grandpa and Grandma McIlwraith, for their work with Aboriginal people and for the opportunities it gave my Dad to become a fluent speaker of Cree. And to my late Grandpa and Grandma Meakes, who had the ingenuity to survive the harsh prairies of the 1920s and 1930s. In particular, the poem “Spinning” was written to honour my Grandma Lucabelle Meakes. To my Uncle John and his wife, Shauna, and to my Auntie Ruth, I say thank you for your love and support. And my thanks to my great uncle David Meakes and to my second cousin Mike Meakes for reading my thesis and sharing your thoughts on it. These poems all started with my family, and they are for you all.
This book has its roots in my master’s thesis, which involved work in both the Faculty of Native Studies and the Department of English and Film Studies at the University of Alberta. To Ellen Bielawski, Richard Price, Dorothy Thunder, Bev Findlay, Lana Sinclair, Shalene Jobin-Vandervelde, Val Napoleon, Nathalie Kermoal, Daniel Johnson, Sarah Carter, Craig Womack, Don Perkins, Tracy Bear, Karen Solie, Nuno Luzio, Marjorie Memnook-White, the late Donna Paskemin, and Billy-Joe Laboucan, all of whom worked with me in some capacity during my years in the Faculty of Native Studies, I extend my deepest thanks for teaching me so much about our Aboriginal heritage. And in the Department of English and Film Studies, I was enriched by working with Patricia Demers, who trusted me and Dorothy with the monumental task that finally became The Beginning of Print Culture in Athabasca Country: A Facsimile Edition and Translation of a Prayer Book in Cree Syllabics by Father Émile Grouard, OMI; with Cecily Devereux, who chaired my thesis defence so magnificently; and with Christine Wiesenthal, who read my thesis so very closely and asked such insightful questions about it. I am grateful as well to Earle Waugh, who also read my thesis carefully and sat on my committee; to Heather Zwicker, who helped me through some hard times after my father passed away; to Garrett Epp, who encouraged me whenever I needed it; and to Marcy Whitecotton-Carroll, who was, and still is, always ready with a warm hug of welcome. I want especially to thank Jonathan Hart, my thesis supervisor, for knowing that when I said I would write that thesis, I would eventually do it, no matter how many challenges, or years, got thrown in the way. Thank you, Jonathan, for recognizing the significance of this labour.
I also want to thank two other people at the University of Alberta: Harvey Scott, who reminded me of the importance of my Grandma Meakes’s life, and Chris Edgelow, who wrote to me after I sent him the poem “Two Men Talking” to tell me how deeply it moved him and to predict that my life would continue along exciting paths not previously foreseen.
At Athabasca University Press, I want to thank Walter Hildebrandt, Pamela MacFarland Holway, and Megan Hall, as well as Manijeh Mannani, the editor of the Mingling Voices series, for working with me to turn this manuscript into a book. Each of you welcomed me and treated me with respect, which helped me overcome my fear of publishing these poems. Any important work must be done right, and it must be done well; thank you for allowing me the time to hone this manuscript into finer form. I am also deeply grateful for Jenna Butler’s empathic understanding of my poems and for her kind words about them. Thanks also to the two anonymous readers who affirmed the importance of this project.
Jean Okimâsis and Arok Wolvengrey — who have dedicated a life’s work to helping people understand the greatness and grandeur of nêhiyawêwin — deserve my highest praise for editing the Cree in these poems. I am so very grateful that you recognized the sincerity in these poems, and your immense editorial skills have helped me get this right. When so much has been taken, it’s reasonable to be suspicious, but instead your patience tells me you understand that I want to give, not take. kinanâskomitinâwâw mistahi for guiding me through these pages and for your wonderful dictionaries and books on nêhiyawêwin.
I tip my hat to my colleagues at Fort Edmonton Park, who love history and people and who labour in the face of a sorry lack of support for public history. Alice Harkness, Ida Favel, Olive Modersohn, Ellen Favel, Cheri Fiddler, Tom Long, Benita Lawrence, Tim Marriott, John Dolphin, Joan Fitzpatrick, Andrew Langvand, Carolynn Gosselin, Joseph Isserlis, and Julie James, know that I regard you as some of the most creative, dedicated, honest, and talented interpreters that visitors to a living history museum could ask for. My work at Fort Edmonton Park finds its way into these pages, and in my spirit I will continue to light fires by flint and steel.
Colleen LaPerle and the Late Martha Dobbin, who mentored me when I worked at the Edmonton Institution for Women, will always have my deep admiration for their calling: to teach female inmates that there is a way to live peacefully. Thank you, Miss Colleen and Miss Martha. How lucky I am to have worked with you both!
My thanks go to so many others who have encouraged me as a writer. Allan Boss published my poem “I Am Learning to Speak Cree” (now titled “Language Family”) on CBC radio’s Alberta Anthology several years ago, reminding me that my words are worthy. Louise Halfe, Marilyn Dumont, and Pamela Young each took an interest in these poems. I belong to two writers’ circles, and I want to thank the writers in each for their instructive feedback. In particular, I am grateful to Shirley Serviss for telling me so many years ago that I can manage a metaphor or two, Diane Buchanan and Jennie Frost for advising me that no matter how much rewriting a poem needs it is still worth the work, Alice Major for hosting so many fledgling wordsmiths over the years, and all the other poets from the Edmonton Stroll of Poets who have honoured me by listening to my words. Linda Goyette is a wonderfully outspoken champion of writers, and I have benefitted from her advocacy.
I am grateful to my teachers — Anne LeDressay, Paul Harland, Harry Prest, Jan Johansen, Lucille Marr — at Augustana University College (now the Augustana campus of the University of Alberta) for teaching me how to read and think and write. My thanks as well to Roger Epp, not only for honouring me with an Eagle Feather last January but also for his important efforts to preserve the spirit and dignity of rural prairie communities.
Finally, in this crazy old beat-up world there are musicians who keep me sane: thanks to Paul Simon, for your words “empty as a pocket with nothing to lose”; Leonard Cohen, for so many beautiful poem-lyrics but especially “Like a Bird on a Wire”; K.D. Lang, Jennifer Warnes, and Nancy Griffiths, for your stunning voices that make this poet ache to sing; Pete Seeger, for your fierce belief in peace; Alison Krauss and Union Station, for your voices and your instruments; and Kid Rock, for “Care.”
To all my friends and relations I say kinanâskomitinâwâw kahkiyaw!