notes on the poems
The Road to Writer’s Block (A Poem to Myself)
Mark Abley, in his book Spoken Here: Travels Among Threatened Languages, gave me the idea that a fluent speaker must first be a fluent listener.
pahkwêsikan - bread
“Beaver Mountain House”: The Cree people called Fort Edmonton amiskwacî-wâskahikan, “Beaver Mountain House,” after the nearby Beaver Hills.
ê-wîtisânîhitoyâhk êkwa ê-pêyâhtakowêyâhk - Relative Clause
In Cree, relative clauses are introduced by the particle kâ- affixed to the verb, rather than by a relative pronoun such as “who,” “that,” or “which.” Relative clauses also occur more frequently in Cree than in English. As Jean Okimâsis points out, when we translate from Cree to English, we will often need to eliminate a relative clause in the Cree in order to produce an idiomatic English sentence, and, as a result, “the English translation does not capture the thought process of the Cree and the way they express that thought.” To borrow from her examples: the Cree ê-nitawêyihtaman cî anihi maskisina kâ-mihkwâki? literally means, “Do you want those shoes that are red?” But in English we would say, “Do you want those red shoes?” Similarly, tânispîhk anima kisîmis kâ-kî-wâpamat? literally means, “When was it that you saw your younger sibling?” But we would say simply, “When did you see your younger sibling?” (See Jean Okimâsis, Cree: Language of the Plains = nêhiyawêwin: paskwâwi-pîkiskwêwin, 147–48.)
“The evidence of our Cree / inheritance, the baby blue / lumbar bruise”: Children are sometimes born with a bluish mark on their backs, most often in the lower lumbar region — the so-called “Mongolian spot.” Such marks, which generally fade by the time the child reaches puberty, are significantly more common among children of colour than among Caucasians. For more information, see Alberto Cordova, “The Mongolian Spot: A Study of Ethnic Differences and Literature Review,” Clinical Pediatrics 20, no. 11 (1981): 714–19.
tânisi ka-isi-nihtâ-âhpinihkêyan - How to Tan a Hide
I credit Alice Harkness, Olive Modersohn, and Dr. Anne Anderson for teaching me how to tan a hide, and I thank Cheri Fiddler and Jenny Baril for learning with me.
aniki nîso nâpêwak kâ-pîkiskwêcik - Two Men Talking
When this poem appeared in the Edmonton Stroll of Poets anthology Found in Translation (2010), I included the following note on the poem:
I wrote “aniki nîso nâpêwak kâ-pîkiskwêcik: Two Men Talking” to honour my late father, Mowat Edgar McIlwraith, and the late Dr. Harold Cardinal, both of whom were bilingual in Cree and English. Sadly, they never conversed because they did not meet each other before sharing a hospital room in their last days, and amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) took away my father’s ability to speak at all.
I write in Cree and English for these reasons: to search for meaning, to express peace, and to express hope that we can keep this beautiful language — nêhiyawêwin — alive.
In the epigraph, “ohci Mowat Edgar McIlwraith êkwa Dr. Harold Cardinal,” ohci means “for,” and êkwa is “and.”
nohtâwiy opîkiskwêwin - Father Tongue
Cree verb forms are extraordinarily complex. As in English, verbs can be transitive or intransitive, but they can also be animate or inanimate. The - ikawi suffix is added to the stem of transitive animate verbs to produce the “indefinite actor” form of the verb. It denotes that the action of the verb is performed by an unspecified actor. For example, ê-sawêyimikawiyân means “I am blessed”; ê-itikawiyân means “I am called.” Although there is some resemblance between indefinite actor verbs and the agentless passive in English, ê-kakêskimikawiyân — I have been cautioned — not to assume that the transitive animate indefinite actor verb form in Plains Cree is equivalent to the passive voice in English.
aniki nîso nâpêwak kâ-masinahikêcik - Two Men Writing
I wrote this poem after reading a written exchange between John Searle and Jacques Derrida on the subject of language and, in particular, speech act theory. It struck me that they were having a fistfight in words and that, in their preoccupation with delivering written blows, they had forgotten the spoken word and the power of conversation.
ê-kî-pîcicîyâhk - We Danced Round Dance
I thank Roger Epp, the Hobbema Elders, the University of Alberta Aboriginal Student Services Centre and Faculty of Native Studies, Shana Dion, Tracy Bear, and Ellen Bielawksi for hosting the Round Dance at the Augustana Campus of the University of Alberta, in Camrose, 29 January 2011: ohci kihiwîkwan ay ay mistahi nitôtêmtik! I also thank Aspen-Raine Northwest and her parents, Carrie and James Northwest, for permission to include her name in this poem.
maskihkiy maskwa iskwêw ôma wiya ohci - For Medicine Bear Woman
Early in the spring of 2004, I met Yvonne Johnson, the great-great-great granddaughter of the Cree leader mistahi-maskwa (Big Bear). She had been invited to speak at the University of Alberta. At the time, Yvonne was serving a life sentence at the Edmonton Institution for Women, a federal penitentiary not far from where I live in West Edmonton. Immediately after hearing Yvonne speak, I went to the U of A bookstore and bought Stolen Life: The Journey of a Cree Woman, which she wrote with Rudy Wiebe. Her story is disturbing. This poem expresses my amazement at the strange ironies of history: mistahi-maskwa’s oratory powers, Yvonne’s double cleft palate, which left her incapable of speech until she was in her late teens (when she underwent surgery), and current efforts to establish official language status for Plains Cree and other Indigenous languages, in the urgent hope that these languages will survive the relentless onslaught of English — that the ability to speak will not be lost.
The statements in the poem attributed to Yvonne and to Big Bear are from Rudy Wiebe and Yvonne Johnson, Stolen Life: The Journey of a Cree Woman (Toronto: Jackpine House, 1998). For reasons of euphony, I refer in the poem to Big Bear as Yvonne’s great-grandfather (and, in “Take This Rope and This Poem,” to Yvonne as Big Bear’s great-granddaughter).
In December 1882, after waiting six years for the Canadian government to deliver on broken promises, mistahi-maskwa finally agreed to sign Treaty Six. He was the last Plains Cree chief to do so, having understood that the government’s intentions were not honourable. Before signing the treaty, he harangued the treaty commissioners for several hours, suggesting metaphorically that he was being led around just like a horse with a rope round its neck. Two-and-a-half years later, at Easter 1885, mistahi-maskwa tried to stop what history now calls “The Frog Lake Massacre.” Unfortunately, too many of his people were sick and hungry, and the young men were angry. Old man that he was, mistahi-maskwa could not stop the killing of nine white people, including two priests. Caught and incarcerated a few months later, mistahi-maskwa delivered this speech — in nêhiyawêwin — to the people in the courtroom after he was convicted of treason-felony. William Cameron provides this English translation, but we will, of course, never know precisely what mistahi-maskwa said.
kâh-kîhtwâm - Again and Again
In Plains Cree: A Grammatical Study, H. Christoph Wolfart says this about reduplication:
Verb and particle roots are freely reduplicated. Reduplication adds the meaning of continuity, repetition, intensity, etc. . . .
With roots beginning in a consonant, the reduplication syllable usually consists of the first consonant (also of a cluster) plus â, e.g., kâkîpa ‘over and over,’ mâmêscihtâsôw ‘he carried on his work of extermination,’ câcimatâw ‘he plants it upright (everywhere),’ etc. . . .
Where a root begins with a vowel, the reduplication is normally marked by ay- (or ây-?), e.g., ayohpikiw ‘he grows up.’ (66)
This poem contains numerous examples of reduplication: ê-nâ-nitohtawak, ê-pâh-pêhtawak, ê-pâh-pahkahokoyahk kâh-kîhtwâm, ê-yâ-yêhyêyahk kâh-kîhtwâm, ê-mâ-minihkwêyahk nipiy kâh-kîhtwâm, ê-wâh-ây-âcimostâcik, and so on.