ARC Review - Bear Bones & Feathers

Voices from the Urban Rez: Three Native Writers
Reviewed by: Nancy Cooper

Native literature is enjoying a growth spurt that is timely and much appreciated by readers all over Canada. Native voices speak of Native experience with no apologies. There is much to learn and enjoy from these writers. No longer are the voices of Native people silenced by anthropologists speaking for a culture. Native writers now speak of a history that has not been kind, the importance of family and the pain that often lies therein, how we as Native people are often forced into realities that mirror the expectations mainstream society has of Native people, and they celebrate their cultures in wonderful, dynamic and sometimes humorous ways. Three such writers are Marilyn Dumont, Gregory Scofield, and Louise Halfe. These writers have each released books of poetry that are straight from the reservation, straight from the street and straight from memories and dreams. This is poetry that celebrates the human experience without glossing over for one minute the harsh reality of First Nations peoples' lives.

Plains Cree poet Louise Halfe makes great use of her language and her gift of imagery to describe her life. Her work is largely based on her family and the reservation and the stories found there. Even a simple wagon ride becomes something to cherish for a small child:

I peer at the skies,/ stick out my tongue/ catch tiny diamonds,/ cross my eyes to look at/ the snowflakes before they/ melt on the tip of my nose.

She enjoys this time with papa because,

"Today there is no smashing first/and kicking working boots,/ no thunder of an outraged bull,/no snarling of a rabid cat."

Her poems become stories about the people in her life, both past and present. She describes the people realistically, and speaks frequently of her parents, her grandmother, and other close members of the family. Her poems are living, breathing memories. Her visit home with her mother in "Fog Inside Mama" is a perfect example of the way she can bring the reader right to the spot she is describing:

I'm going to take you home, Mama./ Yes, to that log shack where Papa skinned beaver/ on the dirt floor./ The grass is tall. There'll be lots of mosquitos./ Yes, Mama, the old fridge is still there and no, there's no/ lightning going through to make it breathe./ The windows are broken and the barn swallows have built/ their nest where the stovepipe used to smoke./ Oh Mama don't, Papa hasn't walked on that land, not for/ years. Not since the last time he crushed your ribs on that fridge./ He's on skid row somewhere./ It's safe. All we have are the old ghosts drifting/ through the clouds of our heads.

Halfe's use of the Cree language is an important part of the book. Through her use of her language we are able to gauge just how strong she is connected to and living in a culture that is not static but one that is living and breathing and constantly shifting to incorporate different experiences and meanings. In "Boarding School" her father's phrase "Namoya maskoc" translated to "it's a mistake," underlines the incredible pain felt by the family as the children are taken away. This deed was unthinkable, a mistake unlike any made before.

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