Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

Land, Poetry and Me

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I recall living in the Okanagan valley. I was attending Enowkin writing school back then with Aboriginal students from across the country. During the winters the clouds would settle into the valley and pretty much stay there until spring, some of the staff at Enowkin would take the students, mostly students from the prairies up to the mountains. It was the worst time of year for people from the prairies, the depression seemed to have a much greater effect on them than anyone else. The feeling of confinement within the valley and everyday being cloudy, had a real negative effect on them.
I recall driving back to Northern Ontario, leaving Vancouver Island for good and I kept thinking to myself as I was traveling back across Canada; How strange to be leaving Vancouver Island with its mild weather, no black flies or mosquitoes to Northern Ontario with its muskeg, freezing winters and hordes of winged blood suckers. But there was no question that I had to go back, I could feel it in my blood would be the best way to describe it, like the land was literally calling me back.
I hated it in Victoria, there were no thunderstorms, it never really got cold, it never really rained, it never really got sunny, that real sunny like when the sunlight is beaming back at you from the snow.
When I moved back to Northern Ontario I had dreams there, dreams while I slept, of Nanabush, Mishi-Pishu and my ancestors.
I do not dream of these ancestors as much as I did then when I was up north.
Alas I had to move away again- economics. Jobs are very scarce in Northern Ontario, the population in probably shrinking faster than it is in Newfoundland. With the exception of my mother all of my brothers and sisters live near Ottawa. Employment and educational opportunities are much greater in the urban areas. It is not home.
Home-sickness is something that comes through in my writing, home experiences, missing the water because in Northern Ontario that is all there seems to be, water and hills and in the Ottawa valley has very little. I live about an hour out of the city; the area is very rural, mostly dairy farms growing corn for feed. Although rural I don’t feel the same attachment to it.
There are stories I heard about my land. Stories of my ancestors-Ojibwa/French Canadian (my father’s family settled in the Ottawa valley in the 1660’s) stories of the Ojibwa spirit world I know the places where Mishi-Pishu makes his abode. Places where my father’s ashes are spread, my grandparents, aunts and uncles, cousins are buried.
These are my relations to forget them would be disrespectful and disowning my own identity. There is still what some would call wild-ness there, where my grandfathers trap lines used to be, where my grandfather cut timber in the winter to sail down rivers in the fall.
I daydream sometimes (best learning you can ever do) about returning there, but working is also a part of my identity- my manhood.
In my poetry my land is my home-is so tied to my identity, I could not think of myself otherwise. For me it is in most of my poetry not a metaphor, it is literally me. This land is a physical being it is biologically part of me and what happens to it happens to me.
I grew up in a uranium mining town, my father was a hard rock miner, I’m sure it wasn’t his first choice of employment, but it put bread on the table. It was his land too and we watched it go to waste, my mother’s reserve about thirty miles south suffered the worst from the mines. It was her land too.
The city causes disorientation or shall we say a re-orientation in the Aboriginal metaphorical mind (the part of the mind that holds the symbols and the sounds of Aboriginal identity). In the city there is nothing to replace them, no transform adaptable to the city. The city becomes white noise and for someone like me it becomes very disorientating.
We can think about friendship centres (a social need) to help aboriginal people readjust to living in the city. Right now in Ottawa the is a group of Aboriginal artists, writers and musicians forming a collective to support each other, trying to keep our identity within city limits.
Many aboriginal people take for part of the summer to go back home, but this has always been the case for most aboriginal people from when the treaties were signed through residential schools to now.
Once we lived on it now we live away from it, but not too far away, because reserves are so small and isolated, we in the city have become economic refugees. After contact I believe this was inevitable. There are second perhaps even third generation aboriginal people who’ve always lived in the city. What does the land mean to them?
I believe that there are two minds here, the reserve-treaty Indian-governed by the Indian act and leaders the government believes appropriate. People continuing the dichotomies of catholic and protestant religions, whichever is most prominent on a particular reserve. People who will continue to fight within the confines of a reserve over whatever scrapes the government will throw them. Those people, if they are anything like my reserve will continue to receive welfare, mothers allowance, ODSP and will not bite the hand that feeds it. My mother’s reserve is rote with nepotism and cronyism. There are the haves and have-nots, it just depends what your last name is.
And then there are the city Indians, these were mostly the reserve have-nots. Think these people chose to find a better life. For themselves and their children. There are many perils, many temptations in the city, but there is also opportunity, opportunity for employment and education. This is why I believe the is almost 50% of the aboriginal population in this country live in an urban setting.
If I could find employment in Northern Ontario I would have never left.
The Indians I meet in the city are actually more inclined to believe in traditional aboriginal beliefs then on the reserve. I am one of them.
Doing a quick scan over my own work, I find what I write most is urban Native life and the injustices suffered there. I think that whatever poetry I do have about my spiritual ties to the land are most popular with White editors and gritty aboriginal urban life is not something most like to publish. If I talk about spirits, land and Indians that seems to be what they want to hear, most of what I would like to keep personal because I believe whites do not have any cultural context for beings such as Nanbush or Mishi-Pishu. My land is far distant to me, yet I carry it with me.
The land is kin, but it is not the only one.
The term “land” in an Indigenous sense is all encompassing including all living non-human beings. The structures and I don’t want to generalize the Aboriginal nations on Turtle Island, but the structure of a Native cosmology contains a respect and responsibility to the land.
In contrast, a European view of land compartmentalizes it for exploitation. To do this you must alienate yourself from your own environment, otherwise to act in such a way would not be possible.
The Aboriginal Cosmology contains at its most elemental, interconnectedness to all things, through spirituality, land is paramount to Native identity. There is no need to become ‘overemotional or maudlin’ (Deloria) about the land. Native spirituality can be very pragmatic in the views of the land, but that does not undermine the significance of the role land plays in Aboriginal spirituality. We are not ‘tree huggers’.
Our sacred places are still known to us. Our sacred places are not Rome or Stonehenge or Jerusalem or Mecca. Our sacred places are here on Turtle Island weather we live in the city, the country, or those concentration camps called reserves. I do not believe that we should compartimentize the city from the rural area. I do not believe at this moment there is any need to differentiate the two. A reserve is not a homeland, a place where traditions remain strong, but the opposite; they are legal terms, separated only in law. If anything I believe they are dominated by the churches, nepotism and corrupt politicians, and leaders approved of by Canada through the Indian Act. Reserves are not our homeland, they were never created for that, they were created to open the rest of the country to White settlement. To me reserves (are only .01% of Canada’s land mass)cause a disorientation of the Aboriginal mind, limited physically the movement of Indians, as well as the possibilities of economic progress on our own terms, terms containing a world view that includes sustainability.
Aboriginal people in Urban places, I believe understand the corruption, poverty and hopelessness of reserve life (again I must apologize for generalizing for the sake of a point). Urban aboriginals want opportunity and are optimistic for the future. We know where we come from, we know who we are, and as urban Indians we are not afraid of the future of change, we are not staid Most Urban aboriginal people I’ve met tend to be more tradition spiritual, more include to celebrate their aboriginal-ness through Indigenous ceremony and in ceremony, everyone is welcome.
The land is always with me and me with it. It is literally in my blood.
I recently had a discussion with an ardent Christian. I cannot believe these people. They have cut themselves off from the earth. They don’t believe they belong to earth, they believe their home is up in heaven.. For me as an Aboriginal person, death is simply a return to the earth where I again become a part of all things; take into the animals, air, plants, and water. We do not come from someplace else, we do not go away from earth, we remain in a different form. I believe we cannot separate the city from ‘the land’ for beneath the city there is the land. And it is this land, our land that we still live upon.
“Land is bread, but more significantly land is dignity” Franz Fanon

The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book: Toronto.

David Groulx

Award-winning poet David Groulx's most recent poetry collection, Rising with a Distant Dawn, is published by BookLand Press. David’s poetry has also appeared in over a hundred periodicals in Canada, England, Australia, Germany, Austria, Turkey and the USA. He lives in Ottawa.

Go to David Groulx’s Author Page