Eskasoni students celebrate Rita Joe at National Arts Centre
Performance based on poem I Lost my Talk, which describes being forced to speak English as residential school
A group of performers from Eskasoni First Nation in Nova Scotia are back from a triumphant journey to Ottawa that saw them stage a moving tribute to poet Rita Joe, who has inspired a generation of Mi'kmaq to celebrate their culture through poetry and song.
The show was part of a series of events at the National Arts Centre on indigenous storytelling.
Rita Joe, who died in 2007, wrote many poems about her own struggles and the hardships Mi'kmaq people endured during her lifetime.
Like so many of her generation, she was forced to leave her own community as a child and attend residential school in Shubenacadie.
Because Mi'kmaq children were forbidden from speaking their own language — and punished if they did — they no longer had a grasp of their native tongue when they returned home.
Her poem I Lost my Talk tells in a visceral way just how painful that was for the thousands of Mi'kmaq who experienced it.
With that in mind, a group in Eskasoni, including Rita Joe's daughters, put together what they called the Rita Joe Song Project. Last week they showcased it at the National Arts Centre in Ottawa.
A highlight of the stage production was the performance of an original song, Gentle Warrior, sung by Kalolin Johnson and Devon Paul. It was based on I Lost my Talk.
'I lost my talk, man'
The words have significant meaning for Paul, who is struck by his own situation — he's an aboriginal hip-hop artist who doesn't speak Mi'kmaq.
"That says a lot, coming from someone who's from a reserve who should be speaking his language," he says. "I lost my talk, man."
The performance at the NAC featured a recitation of the poem, an original composition from Canadian composer John Estascio and a film of an original dance created for the show.
Rita Joe's daughter, Frances Sylliboy, says the media attention in Ottawa was "overwhelming."
"We feel our mom is jumping for joy. Jumping for joy, in heaven!"
Another daughter, Anne Joe, says her mother was happiest when she was going around to schools sharing her stories and poetry. She says Rita Joe loved to encourage children "to create their own art, their own writing, their own music, their own poems."
Anne Joe says her mother was on her own and at one point wrote a poem about it called Blazing the Trail. Anne Joe says she'd be proud of what aboriginal youth are doing nowadays to celebrate their culture for the whole world to see.
"She was out there blazing the trail, but now these kids they're following it, and it's beautiful."
Rita Joe's I Lost my Talk
I lost my talk
The talk you took away.
When I was a little girl
At Shubenacadie school.
You snatched it away:
I speak like you
I think like you
I create like you
The scrambled ballad, about my world.
Two ways I talk
Both ways I say,
Your way is more powerful.
So gently I offer my hand and ask,
Let me find my talk
So I can teach you about me.