READ | 'mihkokwaniy' by poet 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."
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:
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
they don't mean beauty as in:
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"
that's my grandmother:
she is a mino iskwēw
the beauty queen
a woman with a name:
i read somewhere that saskatchewan
is an economic machine
for producing rape—
& 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
my kokum is famous
a real holly golightly
i bet she even eats
fried bologna sandwiches
aint that right gran?
when i visit your grave
i see the face of kozaruk
on the prairie scene
& 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?
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
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
you know that right?
did you have to die for me to be alive?
i'll let you be
& stop being sick'ning
i bet you're busy
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
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.