These writers use poetry to reclaim, repair and reflect their Indigenous selves

Indigenous poets are using their writing to work through traumatic experiences past and present, from residential schools to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Poetry 'helps people see themselves more fully,' says spoken-word artist Zoey Roy

Left to right: poets Louise Bernice Halfe — Sky Dancer, Zoey Roy and Duncan Mercredi use their work to reclaim, repair and reflect their Indigenous selves. (CHELphoto, Sweetmoon Photography, KC Adams)

Originally published March 15, 2022.

This story contains distressing details.

Feeling trapped at home in lockdown during the COVID-19 pandemic, Zoey Roy found herself reflecting on the two-year pandemic and our collective grief. 

'Two years of social, seismic shifts backing us into our comfort zone…' she began to write.

Roy, who is now a spoken-word artist and emcee, has used poetry to help her through challenges, chaos and celebration ever since she was a young girl.

"The writing of it is such an honest process... You just go to a piece of paper and open it and you write all of your secrets on there," said Roy, who is Cree-Dene, Métis and a member of the Peter Ballantyne Cree Nation in Saskatchewan.

"Anything you can say to it, it will never judge you."

She and other writers are using their work to connect with and reflect on their Indigenous selves — often in the face of traumatic experiences past and present, from residential schools to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Roy recalls the moment she fell in love with poetry and performance. It was in Grade 2 and her first time in front of an audience.

"I remember so clearly the facial expressions in that school gym. I remember the power I felt, the agency, and I knew there was a social code that people would listen until I was done. Like, talk about power!" she said.

At 13, Roy started writing hip hop as "a way to gain social cred on the street." Soon, however, her life took a wrong turn, leading ultimately to time in a youth detention centre at 15.

"I was really in a state of violence. I was really in harm's way. I was really at a high risk of being exposed to things that might have controlled my life. Poetry protected me."

Hitting "rock bottom" at 15 prompted Roy to find sobriety, a job and go back to school, she said.

Since then, Roy has become a creative force. Her electric performances weave story, theatre and verse.

LISTEN | Poet Zoey Roy reads her poem, The Tree

Zoey 'Pricelys' Roy reads The Tree

5 months ago
Duration 3:10
Poet Zoey 'Pricelys' Roy reads her poem, The Tree.

She recently performed with the Regina Symphony Orchestra, and has an album called Zoetry on the way.

Roy is also dedicated to helping others connect with their inner poets; whether that's teaching kids to create their own songs or collaborating with kokums ("grandmothers" in Cree) on a rap video.

"I know what it's like to have your fire burnt out. The work that I do helps people see themselves more fully," she said.

Balancing dark with light

One of the kokums Roy collaborated with on Kokum Rap was Louise Bernice Halfe, whose Cree name is Sky Dancer. She was born in Two Hills, Alta., and raised in Saddle Lake First Nation. 

Halfe's poetry journey began in a dream. 

"I didn't expect to write poetry, actually," she recalled. "I had prophetic dreams that took me a long time to understand, that I would be on my writing journey."

In the early 1970s when she was living in northern Saskatchewan, Halfe answered a magazine's callout for submissions by sending entries from her journal. The editors encouraged her to keep writing. 

Eventually, she wrote and published her first collection, Bear Bones & Feathers, in 1994.

"I've been on a roll ever since," she chuckled. 

Now considered a Poetry Matriarch by the Indigenous literary community, Halfe has since published five additional collections.

Her 2016 collection Burning in This Midnight Dream, about her family's history with residential schools, was sparked by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and its work.

A survivor of the Blue Quills Residential School near St. Paul, Alta., Halfe says she wouldn't be able to write about difficult subjects if not for two driving forces in her life: therapy and ceremony. 

"Writing itself is cathartic. It doesn't heal you. What it does is show you where you need to repair yourself," she said.

She also knows it's important to balance the dark with light.

"I thought: I'm tired of writing about this dark stuff, we're really funny people. That's what keeps us together, keeps us whole. Laughter is good medicine," she said.

Her 2021 collection awâsis — kinky and dishevelled follows the mischievous adventures of a gender-fluid trickster character named awâsis ("child" in Cree).

LISTEN | Louise Bernice Halfe reads her poem Crying Greed

Louise Bernice Halfe reads Crying Greed

5 months ago
Duration 1:16
Louise Bernice Halfe, also known by her Cree name, Sky Dancer, reads her poem Crying Greed.

"We carry this innocent child and she loves to play. She loves laughter and she loves to explore and she's adventurous because life is new," she said.

Her own poetry adventure has led Halfe to share her stories on a national level. Last year she was named Canada's Parliamentary Poet Laureate.

She says it's a challenging role, but an opportunity to share Indigenous perspectives, even about something as simple as gardens. 

Halfe also uses her platform to make room for other Indigenous voices, inviting them to submit poems for publication on the Parliamentary website. 

The response has been low so far, she said, but she hopes more writers answer the call.

"It's high time people hear our voices," she said. "I want to flood them with our stories because this planet is not going to last and we need to contribute something for our grandchildren and our great-grandchildren. They need to know our history."

Poetry reveals truth

Like Halfe, Cree Métis poet Duncan Mercredi writes about the dark, often forgotten history of residential schools. As Winnipeg's Poet Laureate, he says it's a history that society needs to be reminded of.

He wrote his newest collection, 215, as a response to the discovery of unmarked graves found at the former Kamloops Indian Residential School in 2021.

Even though Mercredi's mother is a residential school survivor, it wasn't easy at first for him to find the words to express the emotions he felt upon the discovery.

"When I decided to write something about that 215, I remembered a friend of mine whose dad used to work on the burial detail."

LISTEN | Duncan Mercredi reads his poem bury them bones

Duncan Mercredi reads bury them bones

5 months ago
Duration 1:50
Cree and Métis poet Duncan Mercredi reads his poem

Students who died while attending residential schools were buried in graves on or near the school grounds. Many schools were also notorious for the sexual abuse that students suffered at the hands of staff. Former residential school students have detailed experiencing, or witnessing, this sexual abuse — which sometimes led to girls becoming pregnant. 

The gruesome task to bury the babies who had died fell to older students including the then 14-year-old boy, Mercredi said. 

"He asked his dad, 'Well, do you know where they were buried?' And his dad said, 'They're buried all over…. We just buried them deep.'"

Mercredi believes that poetry has the power to wake Canadian society up to the truth of residential schools. This truth can non longer be denied, he said.

"This is not just a story. This is not just a fairy tale. This is reality. This is the truth and we're still dealing with it."

Written by Rosanna Deerchild. Produced by Kate Adach, Laura Beaulne-Stuebing and Kim Kaschor.

Support is available for anyone affected by their experience at residential schools or by the latest reports.

A national Indian Residential School Crisis Line has been set up to provide support for former students and those affected. People can access emotional and crisis referral services by calling the 24-hour national crisis line: 1-866-925-4419.

Add some “good” to your morning and evening.

A variety of newsletters you'll love, delivered straight to you.

Sign up now