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Louise Bernice Halfe on reconnecting with her Cree heritage through poetry

The Saskatchewan poet talks about her new poetry collection, the damaging legacy of residential school and how she reconnected with her Cree roots.
Louise Bernice Halfe says it was a painful but healing process to write the poems in her latest collection. (Coteau Books)
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Louise Bernice Halfe's new poetry collection, Burning in this Midnight Dream, is the profound and powerful poetic record of a journey. Halfe writes about a residential school and its legacy of family violence and estrangement from her roots, but the poems also chronicle her hard-won recovery and reconnection with Cree traditions.

Halfe is also known by her Cree name, Sky Dancer. She has published three previous collections of poetry, and has served as poet laureate of Saskatchewan. She joined Shelagh Rogers from Saskatoon.

ON HEALING THROUGH STORYTELLING

Writing Burning in this Midnight Dream was a very difficult process, and it had a lot of deep digging. I think I go to these places because of obsession and because of possession. I have to honour the story and the voice. They need to be witnessed and they need to be honoured and given their own life so that a person can move forward. In order to go forward in a healing way, we need to go into that darkness and rip it out and give it legs to walk away from us once it's been told.

ON DECOLONIZATION

There's seven phases of people's decolonization which I came across recently — one of them is to be aware of the colonization and to know the history, and then to explore the ways of acting out and how it impacts oneself and others, and then there's the rediscovery of Indianness, and then the recovery, then a mourning, and then a dreaming, then commitment and action to make change. My parents both went to residential school, and they took with them a lot of the culture, and I've had to be like a ground squirrel, scrounging for the crumbs and tidbits so that I can start feeling a little bit whole in my Indianness.

ON RECONNECTING WITH HER CREE TRADITIONS

I love my language. I think I have a delightful and rich poetic language. The whole writing experience brought me back to ceremony and back to my elders — it was a rediscovery of who am I and where did I come from. Very essential questions that people ask themselves in their adolescence, but I never knew those answers until I started going into ceremony and discovering that. Dreams have the capacity to make fun of you, help you problem solve or teach you ceremony. And I'm a dreamer, so I really pay attention to that.

Louise Bernice Halfe's comments have been edited and condensed.

Read "Con Game," an excerpt from Burning in this Midnight Dream, below.

Con Game

 

The children were meat
for the scavengers. Indian Affairs, the brick walls,
the Saints of many churches.
Filled with their disease, we ate the maggots
off their dead.
This cannibalism devoured our mother's hearth.

Yes, I followed this routine:
clapping hands and electric light,
on our knees to give the Christ
a difficult time, no time to rub the sleep
from our eyes. Each month I counted the stars
to see how often I'd gone to mass
my heart so wanting. March to breakfast,
to the scullery, hand-peel potatoes,
wash the many pots and pans
under the supervision of the kitchen nuns.
To the laundry room to starch and iron,
to the rectory to serve the higher saints
and finally to school to swallow Europe.

In those many seasons our winds
took a turn and entered winter.
When we were released
with no hair to braid,
no language to call our own
no parent to cradle us
those storms awoke.

From Burning in this Midnight Dream by Louise Bernice Halfe. Reproduced with permission from Coteau Books.