Secwépemc poet, residential school survivor Garry Gottfriedson says poetry was his 'saviour'
'Through poetry, I began to speak about things that I was too afraid to share with another human being'
Renowned Secwépemc poet Garry Gottfriedson is set to receive an honourary Doctor of Laws degree from the University of Northern British Columbia (UNBC) in Prince George on May 26.
According to the university, Gottfriedson has been at the forefront of advocating for Indigenous self-determination and identity reclamation for four decades, beginning with his land-based teaching at Mountain Cree Camp — a remote community in Alberta also known as Smallboy Camp — during the '70s.
Gottfriedson, 68, was born the youngest of seven siblings in a ranching family near Kamloops, B.C., a city in the Interior, about 356 kilometres northeast of Vancouver. He attended Kamloops Indian Residential School for five years before his parents transferred him to the public school system.
He has published 11 books of poetry, including Skin Like Mine in 2010, which was shortlisted for the Canadian Authors Association Award for Poetry. He was inducted into the International Library of Poetry Hall of Fame in 1997.
Gottfriedson has worked with UNBC professor Sarah de Leeuw, who specializes in health inequalities, on efforts to combat anti-Indigenous racism in the health-care system across north and central British Columbia. He is currently the Secwépemc cultural advisor for Thompson Rivers University in Kamloops.
Gottfriedson spoke to host Margaret Gallagher on CBC's North by Northwest about his writing career, the revitalization of Indigenous culture, and decolonization of Canadian universities.
The following transcript has been edited for clarity and length.
You're a poet, you're an educator, you're a community leader, you're also a rancher. How are all of these things connected for you?
I grew up in a rodeo ranching family in my community and I witnessed both of my parents actively involved in the fight for Indigenous education and Indigenous rights over the years.
My mother was deeply involved in starting out with the dismantling of the residential schools, because she took us right out of the residential schools and put us into the public school system, which eventually led to the dismantling of the residential schools itself.
My dad worked very much with the B.C. Native Brotherhood, which eventually led into what we now know as the Assembly of First Nations in Canada.
So I grew up understanding politics very well, but mostly the fight for Indigenous education in this country.
How did you find your way to poetry?
I was living in Alberta for quite some time and I got my undergraduate degree there. I was teaching out there. I moved back to B.C. and I got a job teaching at the En'owkin Centre [in Penticton, B.C.]
At the En'owkin Centre, Jeanette Armstrong used to have poetry readings at her place every Friday night, and she introduced me to a wonderful poet, a Creek Muscogee poet called Joy Harjo — she asked me to read one of her poems.
That's when I fell in love with poetry and that's when I started to write poetry — Joy Harjo's words and the way she wrote totally inspired me to write.
You actually went on to study with Alan Ginsberg and Marianne Faithfull. How did that come about?
My friends put together a manuscript and sent it off to Naropa Institute, which is now called Naropa University [in Boulder, Colo.], where Alan Ginsberg was the founder of the institute of creative writing, and I got scholarships to study creative writing there. He was my poetry instructor, and Marianne Faithfull was my music composition teacher. I had an amazing experience there.
The whole collection that you've written is a powerful collection. You look at love and identity, masculinity, colonialism, climate change. How has your work changed over time?
My voice has gotten softer as I age.
My earlier writing was like … I was still angry and very strongly set against the church and what happened in the residential school.
Now my poetry is shifting to a different voice — it's a little bit of a calmer voice. It still has that tinge of tough move. There is also a steely strength and a sense of justifiable anger in some of the works.
How does poetry help you make sense of the world?
Poetry really was my saviour, because my own writing became my own therapist. Through poetry, I began to speak about things that I was too afraid to share with another human being, but yet I could write it on paper.
It was a release, and each time I did that, I started to move on a better journey in my life. What poetry can do for people is it offers them a place of solace that sometimes we can't go to with another person.
It's something that you write alone based on your experiences, but yet you still connect to people because people read the work and it's such a powerful way of connecting.
Absolutely, and I'll tell you a story that happened to me one time and I was reading in Regina.
Before I went to the reading, I went and watched a lacrosse game, and there was this native guy that kept walking back and forth and he kept looking at me.
Then finally, after the game he came and he said to me, "I know who you are." I said "Really? Who are you?" He told me his name, and he said, "I wanna tell you I read your poetry.
"I really was able to connect to it and it brought me to this field. It brought me to a different place where I could express myself through this game of lacrosse." I eventually wrote a poem about that experience.
You speak three languages. What role does language play in your life?
It's lucky enough to be exposed to Secwepemctsin, which is my first language learned through my mom and my grandmother, and I learned Cree by teaching in a full immersion school many years ago. And I speak Spanish and a tiny bit of Syilx, which is my dad's language.
Language is a really beautiful thing, and our languages are poetic anyway. I love words and I love to play with words. Language has such a significant role in creativity and in expression.
How challenging has it been to hold on to Indigenous languages?
In my particular culture, it was almost extinct — even right now we have probably less than two per cent fluent speakers in the whole Secwépemc Nation.
But what's happening is there's such a strong movement to revitalize our language and to bring it back to life again in many communities, including my own community here at the Tk'emlúps te Secwépemc.
Certainly Indigenous languages across the country have had a really hard blow based on colonial history and colonial policy, particularly with the residential schools, and so it's been a slow comeback. But we're getting there, and I see a lot of initiatives happening.
How would you like to see post-secondary institutions decolonize?
There's three processes to look at when we decolonize. First, universities have to really understand what colonization is. When they understand what colonization is, they can begin to dismantle colonization.
Indigenization is the third phase, but before we can reach Indigenization, colonization and decolonization are two aspects that really need to be examined and thoroughly thought out.
Right now, I would say all universities are at the very baby steps of that process — universities have a long way to go before they can reach an understanding of what Indigenization is.
There is resistance within universities to decolonize and to Indigenize, but slowly we're getting there. And you know, we don't have enough Indigenous people working in universities to speed that process up.
With files from North by Northwest