Turn left at desire. Take this burden
and never let go. Cling
as a burr latches onto fleece.
Be sure that your load includes
the self-imposed responsibility to learn
a threatened language: namely nêhiyawêwin.
Go home: kîwê.
Head north: kîwêtinohk itohtê.
Take a route unknown to you.
Do not plan too far
into the future. Do step forth with mute
naïveté. Invent a folktale so fantastic it can’t
be disbelieved. Do this in the same way
you would mould green truth from fact, tender
as the first prairie crocus — wâpikwanîs.
The story must tell of your entitlement:
your right to write
poetry in this native tongue. Approach
this task without foresight,
as you would a one-way street on a dark night,
Entitlement: a provocative word
when it comes to language and culture,
a word so easily twisted to mean
ownership. Worry about this enough
that it becomes humiliating.
Try reading and writing your second
mother tongue before listening and speaking.
Forget that poetry and Cree were spoken before written. Forget
this as you might your toothbrush, aspirins, or first-aid kit.
Forget not your Cree dictionaries,
because for all your literacy your aural
memory will be poor when you see the words
in print, twenty-five or even fifty times.
Bear the millstone of language loss
the way a woman drags home the last
as you confront the colonial tongue.
âkayâsîmowin: the only patois
you’ll ever perform with any finesse.
Learn how you’ve not learned
another mother tongue, well, a father
tongue: Scots Gaelic. Never mind
provisions other than baggage so heavy
it will take you years to reach your destination.
Don’t forget your heaviest tool,
a wrench to repair the damage you wrought
in admonishing your father for speaking
in code: namely nêhiyawêwin.
Take a course so meandering you’ll forget
where you’re going. Learn the Latin terms,
and then forget them,
for beauty you’ll behold before
even considering their Cree existence:
pelicans, bitterns, Great Blue herons, mergansers.
Now, write these bird words in nêhiyawêwin:
cahcahkiwak, môhkahâsiwak, misi-môhkahâsiwak, asihkwak.
Detour around decades of indifference
until you’re so far past puberty
that learning a second language disorients
you the way adolescence
attacks all its victims,
the way an overturned canoe crashes
through wild rapids.
Become so encumbered procrastination
offers your only reprieve. Argue with your sister
with such intensity she is moved
to leave a message on your answering machine,
how she couldn’t sleep last night: a wrangle
about history and pioneers and Indians,
the Indian Act and racism and loss.
Argue from the passenger seat of her parked car,
so ferociously you can’t quite separate
one issue from the other, or
even remember what your position is. Fathom
your frustration. Negotiate
an awkward amnesty two nights later
in a telephone conversation,
but contemplate your confusion
as a monk might meditate on meaning.
Once you find
your way back to a quest choked
with bus fumes, stinging nettles, and inarticulateness,
ruminate on your lack of fluency:
Embark on this pilgrimage in the midst
of your father’s passing. Start
a poem for your father, two weeks after he dies,
and title it tawâw, but leave it
for a year because it’s just too hard to write.
Tell Cree people why you,
try to write poetry in Cree and English. Tell
them in nêhiyawêwin as they lean
toward your crude Cree, trying
to understand, trying to give you some of their loss.
Speak these words, over and over, rehearsing them until you know you sound fluent:
ninôhtê-nêhiyawân ayisk ê-kî-pakaskît nohtâwîpan. ayîki-sâkahikanihk
ohci wiya mâka môya ê-kî-nêhiyâwit, kî-môniyâwiw.
êkwa mîna ê-âpihtawikosisâniskwêwit nikâwiy.
Say these words because they’re the most important. Consider
your mother’s experience, because she’s old enough to want
not to talk about being Métis. Study
the boundaries of the Métis National Council and then
don’t worry about them because they’re just like
four first-place ribbons at a local track meet. Stop
short of immersing yourself in a Cree community, the most
effective means of achieving fluency.
Learn about Cree syllabics:
Become so literate
you can teach them and maybe even
Standard Roman Orthography,
but don’t expect fluency in a classroom.
When you write that word —
doubt your tongue and consult your grammar
guide yet again just to make sure
you got the plural suffix right. Now quit
doubting yourself because your tongue remembers.
Take on transcribing and transliterating
a Catholic prayer book — written entirely
in Cree syllabics — that takes
only God knows how long to complete,
agreeing to translate the last fifty pages:
hand-numbing, elbow-aching, mind-worrying,
tongue-stuttering work as you labour over the words
in their strange Oblate orthography. Trust
only Dorothy, awa iskwêw ê-miyo-otôtêmimisk êkwa ê-pakaskît,
and Jean and Arok from Saskatchewan
to verify your work.
Discover that you’re a visual learner,
not aural. Then read everything written
about language and culture and with a certain innocence
partake in Indian identity and language politics
always brooding over Cree poetics.
Take so many Cree classes you lose count. But
kiskinohamâkosi tânisi ka-isi-nêhiyaw-akihcikêyan:
pêyak, nîso, nisto . . .
You cannot circumvent this unbeaten path, cannot skirt
the boulders and roots and loneliness of this mission.
But remember pen and paper anyway:
you’ll need them each time you learn a new Cree word.
Then throw away your writing materials: wêpina,
or stuff them so far down into your grizzled,
arthritic backpack they’ll be too deep to dig out.
Listen to these Cree words, these beautiful Cree words:
nitohta ôhi nêhiyaw itwêwina, ôhi kâ-katawasisiki nêhiyaw itwêwina.
Maybe then you’ll become not so much
a fluent Cree speaker but
a fluent Cree listener.
But hurry! You haven’t much time.
mâka kakwêyâho! môya kitawipayihikon.