This book is a witty and clever book of poems divided into four sections – Squaw Poems, What More Than Dance, White Noise, and Made of Water. They face everyday realities of racism, sexism and prejudice without flinching, but as well, are painfully honest discussion of self-identity and what makes an Indian “Indian,” both in our own Indigenous views as well as mainstream society’s eyes. I like how it challenged us, as Indigenous readers, to look at our own perceptions of what Indigoes writing is, as well as offering commentary, from an insider’s perspective, of being an Indigenous woman.
Squaw Poems – p.18-19
Even reading the title of this poem hurts. The section are outlined with Cree numbers – peyak (one), niso (two) and so on. Each section is a different perception of Indigenous women from an outsider’s perspective and how these judgements govern bodies.
Peyak is about the first time that a woman is called squaw by a man. The reader is placed outside of the woman’s body, as if we/the speaker is talking about someone else. We see how that word damaged but the woman branded drew in breath and screamed until the man disappeared. Niso speaks of the lateral violence that takes place within communities, how one Indigenous woman will use the word squaw to attack another woman, who is both native and black. Nisto speaks from first perspective, how a woman should not be drunk or dress provocatively – “I never wore red lipstick, never worse my skirts too short or too tight, never chose shoes that looked the least ‘hooker-like.'” The speaker aims for a respectable appearance that will make white people feel slovenly – perhaps a mocking of the knowledge that it is her skin colour that makes white people judge her, and no matter how she dresses or acts, she cannot get rid of that aspect of herself. Newo is a short blast of visual stereotypes – squaw, whore / Indian maiden, virgin and squaw, whore to Indian Princess to Lady – showing how limited the visual identity of Indigenous women is perceived to be in mainstream society. Niyanan is the only section that speaks of a man – white man – who carries on a relationship with an Indigenous woman and how he is mocked – called a squawman – referring to his lack of manliness in obtaining a respectable woman, and how by sleeping with her, he is diminished.
Wild Berries – p. 35
This is a love poem, a seduction poem, speaking of pursuit and the uncovering of gifts through the language of food and water, life giving sustenance. The opening lines of “my eyes are old hands / uncovering and furtively picking / wild berries” speaking of the knowledge that comes with age, the right time to pick, the seasonal time to gather. And “my eyes drink / till I am quenched / by your smooth taunt skin” where the speaker ‘s thirst for them is fulfilled by the viewing of their body. Finally, we get to see the speaker as “I open / my eyes long fingers / slowly untying a thin ribbon / that slips / beneath crisp paper.” At the end, it’s interesting to note that the poem speaks of action as being seen, making me think that the speaker never actually follows through with these thoughts – rather, this is the imagination of seduction.
Circle the Wagons – p. 57
This reads like a spoken word piece, a stream of conscious thought about the way that the “circle” is portrayed within and for Indigenous peoples.
The author speaks of “the circle, that goddamned circle, as if we thought in circles, judged things on the merit of their circularity” showing the readers right away that the speaker is having a problem with this ideal. That a circle defines us all, that “you’d think we were one big tribe, is there nothing more than the circle in the deep structure of native literature?”
However, in the next breath, she admits that she feel compelled to work with circles, as if her words aren’t identified as circular, therefor incorporating Indigenous storytelling structure within circles, then she is a ghost and her words vanish – that is our Indigenous writers don’t write the way mainstream, society thinks we should write, that we aren’t “Indigenous” enough.
She says is she doesn’t have a circle or the number 4 within her works, then she feels like “a fading urban Indian caught up in all the trappings of Doc Martens, cappuccinos and foreign films” but even with that, she sees “hoops encompassing your thoughts and canonizing mine, there it is again, circle the wagons.”
I feel that this is powerful, speaking of the need to be identified as Indigenous with our words, but not always being able to give those “traditional” aspects to our work, be it based on lifestyle, land, language, etc.
A^cimowina’ – p. 70
A^cimowina’ is Cree for “everyday stories.” The poem is about the stories of the speaker’s grandmother, how the speaker carries them with her like luggage. They spill out, they get left in weird places around the home, they are constant. She carries the stories of underwear and love life in her bathroom, their old teeth in the fridge, and their traditional medicine in her bathroom cabinets. She knows about their bunions and their canes another magazine covers and how “their cold tea stains my cups and teabags fill my garbage.” Finally, my favourite line – “their stories smell of Noxzema, mothballs and dried meat.”
I enjoyed this poem as I enjoyed the visual of placing stories within the home, how they permeate every nook and cranny of place. I think it accurately reflects how everyday stories are important, the connection between individuals and their family members – that first step into community stories as a whole.
Buy the book: A Really Good Brown Girl, Marilyn Dumont