Community·Poetry Club

East Coast Poetry Club: Michelle Sylliboy

This week, Mi’kmaq/L’nu poet Michelle Sylliboy writes about her experiences with anti-Indigenous racism in Canada and Black Lives Matter.

Michelle Sylliboy shares personal insights into her poem, “Stepping on Intellectual Sacred Grounds”


Welcome back to the East Coast Poetry Club. This is the seventh week of the project, in which we share a poem and first-person insights from a local poet. This week, we have the honour of sharing "Stepping on Intellectual Sacred Grounds" by Michelle Sylliboy. Michelle was born in Boston, Massachusetts and raised on her traditional L'nuk territory in We'koqmaq, Cape Breton.

I find it sad that an anti-racism poem has no expiry date anywhere on this shared planet. 

(Submitted by Michelle Sylliboy)

A poem written in the early 1960s still has significant impact today. When I was asked to respond to International Day of Elimination of Racism while working at an institution of higher learning, it did not take much convincing — after all, I experience racism daily. By the time I was in my early 20s I was very familiar with the frowning faces when I arrived at any cash register in Canada. I was familiar with the office innuendos, slightly off comments, and my favourite, "it's just a joke".

As a young person, I quickly knew my place in today's world. I will not lie, oftentimes out of fear of retribution I laughed along with them but I cried inside, feeling defeated as I walked away. As I got older my inner warrior fought back with words. I no longer remained quiet. Getting older gives you strength and wisdom after years of remaining quiet.

After watching Black Lives Matter protests against senseless killings (most recently a young native woman in N.B., who we need to name, Chantel Moore) I will no longer be quiet. This poem is my story, a poem many people of colour have in common. It's a story for the people who are tired of wondering what might happen next. 

Stepping on Intellectual Sacred Grounds

March 20, 2009 

Charismatic symbols can be deceiving
reaching out beyond arms length
to a world that is hidden
we meet them in stairwell parties coaching
reciting out-dated belief systems on purpose

Racialization is my uninvited
genetic makeup constantly changing
collecting stories of unseen particles
representing a repetitive warning sign waiting
to be buried 

It's hard work to know every native
like your signature ignorance is not always bliss 

Across Mother Earth First Nations people
are weary at day's end from unwanted conversations
my body language screams 


The same way stepping on intellectual
sacred grounds topples belief system
when you rolled your eyes and looked away
you revealed yourself forever
resolute like dust balls that roll
across the desert creeping along until the wind
carries them without a care in the world
did it really make you feel important

This self-imposed exile is not my wish
to see myself in a corner
where no one can hear my cries
my pain or see my self worth 

my birth is political controversial
your sense of entitlement
does not give you the right to
insult me with words
forced upon me since birth 

I don't wear my culture daily
I live it
I don't hide my culture
I feel it 
I'm proud to be fluent in my
language to sing the songs
taught to me as a child 

Understanding what is sacred
what is meant to be shared 

Nisgam I would never question your lineage
enter your space without permission
or write hurtful words
on a poster Lysol 101
for everyone to see 

I guarantee an uprising would occur
if we turned the tables

Here we are in the 21st century
still at a place where people who appear different are
'affected' at every turn 

Western Society is not comfortable
hearing the truth instead they write new laws
denying us the privilege
in a dialogue or issue that you see as harmful
to your bottom line

Well, silenced no more you need to know
Someone a moment ago with brown/black/yellow/white skin
mentally brutally raped
Someone with white hair was pushed aside
Someone who is disabled was ignored
Someone who speaks a different dialect was ridiculed
Someone who loves the same gender was ostracized

Imagine if you went through this every day
what kind of world you would see

Fortunately there are martyrs in this world carrying
truth across the threshold of peace and kindness
traveling for the sake of learning carrying the wisdom of
their Ancestors

Through the people they meet sharing
songs stories by allowing us to be aware
of our gifts
our cultural strengths
our resiliency

Have mercy on those who
have no idea what it's like
to be different or not different at all 

My strength guides my spiritual awareness
solid burdens once carried released ignorance set free 

Enemies no more these gifts that make us stronger
whispers of peace keep us alive

Remember them in your dreams
Remember them when someone is still learning
Remember them when someone is born
Remember them when they move on to the spirit world 

Ancestors who
came while writing these words
the breath of ancient
air floating through my home
through my dreams
acknowledging my existence by
tapping on my shoulder late at night
because of them silence is not an option

Written for International Day of Elimination of Racism 
Inspired at birth
Published by Rebel Mountain Press 2019 
Author of Kiskajeyi—I Am Ready, Michelle Sylliboy.

Each week, in addition to sharing a poem and first-person reflections from the author, East Coast Poetry Club provides questions about the poem for readers to reflect upon. When you meditate on Stepping on Intellectual Sacred Grounds, we invite you to join us in considering these questions:

  • What role do poetry and art play in the anti-racism movement? 
  • What does this poem make you feel, and how does that relate to your own life experiences?

More East Coast Poetry Club:


About Michelle Sylliboy

Interdisciplinary artist and poet Michelle Sylliboy (Mi'kmaq/L'nu) was born in Boston, Massachusetts and raised on her traditional L'nuk territory in We'koqmaq, Cape Breton. While living on the traditional, unceded territories of the Musqueam, Squamish, and Tsleil-Waututh Nations, Sylliboy completed a BFA at Emily Carr University of Art + Design, and a Masters in Education from Simon Fraser University. She is currently a PhD candidate in Simon Fraser University's Philosophy of Education program, where she is working to reclaim her original written komqwej'wikasikl language. Her collection of photography and Mi'kmaq (L'nuk) hieroglyphic poetry, Kiskajeyi—I Am Ready, was published by Rebel Mountain Press in 2019.