New Fire

READ | 'mihkokwaniy' by poet Joshua Whitehead

'I dedicate this poem to all missing and murdered Indigenous women, girls, and two-spirit peoples; for their families, friends, loved ones, and kin. We are a collective trauma that demands to be examined, reconciled, resolved, and healed.'
A young Joshua Whitehead, on right, and his father. (Submitted / Joshua Whitehead)

Joshua Whitehead is an Oji-Cree, two-spirit poet from Peguis First Nation.

This week, he spoke to New Fire host Lisa Charleyboy about how he and his father have learned — and are still learning — to talk about intimacy and sexuality. You can listen to their conversation by clicking the 'listen' button above. 

Joshua also shared a poem with us. Written in commemoration of the grandmother he never met, murdered in the sixties, he says the poem is "survival and it is resistance; it is bringing the historical into the present to disrupt the everyday."



mihkokwaniy

my kokum has many names

the indian woman

the whitehead lady

​a saskatoon female

but my favourite is:

the beauty queen;


they never meant to call her beautiful

what they meant by beauty was:

cheapdirtybrownprostitutedrugaddict-

alcoholicfirewaterslut

when they write:

"an indian about 35 years old

naked from the waist down

died from asphyxiation

at the queen's hotel

effects of alcohol

&sedatives"

they don't mean beauty as in:

mino iskwēw

or: "pleasing the sense or mind aesthetically;

of a very high standard; excellent"

what they mean is

she is beautiful for a squaw in '62

she pleases the body

of white men who burn in the loins

for the teal-shade of a browning bruise;

when i type into google

"how to say beautiful in cree"

i get: shaoulle

& when i type that into google i get:

"brutal murder-sex assault case"

seeRE:rinelleharpercindygladuetinafontaine

 

that's my grandmother:

 

she is a mino iskwēw

the beauty queen

a woman with a name:

rose whitehead

&shediedbecauseofit

 

i read somewhere that saskatchewan

is an economic machine

for producing rape—

seed&honey

& in tisdale you can buy a mug that says:

the land of rape and honey

that's where my kokum is buried

 

& her grave is a modest little place

where rabbits visit & sometimes chew

where little dandelions bloom

grant wishes to the wind

to her children who are scattered

across the plains of kanata

looking for a quick fix

& for anger to heal

or at least amend

like it does for a judge

who gifts a man six years

for the death of three women;

i think of my nôhtâwiy

her son who lost his name to a polish man

& felt the sting of day schools

even if priests beat & made honey

with their fists smooshed

into the sweet rot of little brown boys

who liked hockey & lived in suburbs

with whites who made them wait

in the freezing cold

& broke their noses on the ice—

but you're still not ready to apologize

for that just  ̶w̶h̶i̶t̶e̶ yet

 

my kokum has made many headlines:

"woman found strangled"

being the most consistent

a fifty word article that calls for sympathy

not for the "strangulation death

of the whitehead woman"

but for the man:

steven kozaruk of esterhazy

who "was suffering from the effects

of alcohol and sleeping pills"

even with a "seven-man jury"

& "thirteen witnesses," lives—

his whiteness is his weakness

(even if its biceps can crack a brown neck like a wishbone)

and that weakness is his innocence;

the life of my kokum is worth:

six years & fifty words;

all these things overlap

interweave, interlay, interplay, interact

 

penes

|inter|intra|

|probo|capio|vita|

terra|corona|letum|nullius

tansimaslow

 

my kokum is famous

a real holly golightly

i bet she even eats

fried bologna sandwiches

at tiffanys

aint that right gran?

 

when i visit your grave

in saskatoon

i see the face of kozaruk

on the prairie scene

fatteninginsuburbia

& here you are

with a rag-tag little monument

made of sticks & leaves

stems from jackrabbits

that seem to visit often

a little blue ribbon

god knows from who

& a sad little brown boy

with a million questions like:

how are you doing?

do you hate klik too?

what would life have been like

if you had lived beyond thirtyfive?

would i be alive?

would the cancers in my dad

not have crept & lived

spelled doom on his skin?

would i be able to speak cree

without having to google translate

this for you?

would you make me cookies

& teach me how to sew back on the limbs

to my plush rabbit floppy ears?

would you call me "m'boy?"

& take me to sundances

powwows, bingo nights too?

would you make sure i feed the rez dogs

when they all come around?

would you make me a jingle dress

cause i want to be a pretty dancer like you—

would you teach me what it means to be two-spirit

tell me i can be a beautiful brown boy in love?

make me say niizh manitoag—feel the power on the tongue?

would you teach me to knead bannock

make life from lard—

a real ratio for reckoning?

 

hi kokum?

can i call you on the phone?

i promise not to call collect

i just want to hear your voice

tell you i learned what it means

to say i love you

& feel the whole of cree

coalescing in my breath:

kisâkihitin; my god, kisâkihitin

 

hey gran?

can i ask you something quick?

are you okay up there in godknowswhere?

do you see what we've all done?

my dad says these things all happen for a reason

that i wouldn't be here if they didn't

hey gran?

i'm sorry—

you know that right?

did you have to die for me to be alive?

heygranheygranheygranheygran

 

i'll let you be

& stop being sick'ning

i bet you're busy

cooking macaroniandtomatosoup

for twelve hundred missing & murdered women,

girls & two-spirit folk

 

it's just, am i supposed to hate him, gran?

tell him that with one death

he ruined the lives of an entire family?

i want to tell him that the life of a person

is an archive of memory

& when you he strangled the life out of you

in a queens hotel shoddy little bed

the last gasping breath you exhaled

held in it little particles

fragments of time:

a bay leaf boiling in tomato sauce;

a flake of tuna that a

cat named randy

licked&licked&licked;

the soft cry of a baby boy

plummeting into day;

the smell of sweet grass smudging

monsters from our bedrooms;

tell him: when you kill a memory

you snuff out metaphor

turn off the light in a home;

you destroy a world where children

are nursing still&still;

—& aint that the hardest truth?

 

to be honest

i'm no aeneas

no marvellous country house poem

no faeryland, no golden world

no chimeric homeric epic

i'm just a little brown boy

queered by his colour

writing for a kokum he's never met;

but i promise you:

these spaces can transform

an injun into a warrior

who can claw, scrape, fight

who can write on a piece of paper

sign a name instead of an 'X'

that says, "this is my kokum

& her name is Rose Whitehead;

and she is

beauty queen extraordinaire."

 

I dedicate this poem to all missing and murdered Indigenous women, girls, and two-spirit peoples; for their families, friends, loved ones, and kin.  We are a collective trauma that demands to be examined, reconciled, resolved, and healed.

Today we survive; tomorrow we resist.

now