Reviewed by Susan Blight
Traditionally in Ojibwe culture, as in many Indigenous North American cultures, women’s voices were valorized and their contribution to society and community were valued and respected. As an Anishinaabe woman from a First Nation in Northwestern Ontario, I grew up with strong Native women as role models. As a Native woman away from her home community now living and working in the largest city in Canada, my mentors continue to be strong Indigenous women. My mother, my grandmother, my sister, my aunties, my cousins, and my community members were and continue to be examples of strength in the face of adversity and marginalization. Racism, sexism, colonization and all of its mechanisms—policy-driven poverty, legislative extinction by means of the Indian Act, the prison system, and the continued lack of justice for our missing and murdered sisters—have taken their toll on our communities. But our women remain strong, defiant, funny, and loving.
This truth was partly why I enjoyed reading FIREWEED #22: Native Women so much. Its contributors wrote with voices determined to tell our stories from our perspective and with the diversity that defines our experiences. With February 14th,—the day of the annual Women’s Memorial March to honor the memory of the over 600 Missing and Murdered Indigenous women–approaching, this issue of FIREWEED seemed especially poignant.
FIREWEED: A Feminist Quartlerly was founded in Toronto in 1978. The Native Women issue, published in 1986, was guest edited by Ivy Chaske, Connie Fife, Jan Champagne, Edna King, and Midnight Sun. The determination of the editors to have their voices heard is clear from the beginning as they write in the opening editorial:
“Our decision to accept the responsibility of being a guest collective of Fireweed; came from our belief that our words as Native women have been unheard, silenced, and invalidated too often.”
It’s a powerful sentence that reveals a principal part of the problem and lays the blame directly on those who refuse to hear. They go on to write: “It is our recognition, our acknowledgement and our definition of who and what we are that is important. The majority of us are not and have never been willing to allow that definition to come from ‘outside’.” With those two sentences, the editors declare the sovereignty of our voices and the self-determination we never relinquished and sets the tone for the rest of the contributions.
The acclaimed Anishinaabe activist and writer Winona LaDuke writes about The Indigenous Women’s Network Gathering at Yelm, WA in 1985 and the importance of women meeting to talk and share ideas. Conveying the significance of talking circles in the process of healing and the holistic approach of the gathering, Winona LaDuke writes:
“Our communities need a holistic healing—from the internalized oppression of men and women, to the disruption of our natural and treaty law systems that protect our people and land.”
Berenice B. Levchuk of the Navajo Nation contributes four poems to FIREWEED #22. One of the most emotional for me was Government Boarding School, Carlisle, Pennsylvania, in which the poet writes from the perspective of her clan grandfather, John Curley. Throughout the 18th and 19th century, Navajo children were taken as far away as Pennsylvania to attend residential school, a practice perpetrated in many other Indigenous communities:
Though it’s forbidden we talk in mother tongue
in secret, to give comfort.
We remind the small children
So they don’t lose memory of it
With this poignant line, we recognize the trauma of the experience of residential school as children were punished for speaking their language but also the resistance that kept our languages, and our cultures, alive.
The poem is heartbreaking in its honesty. I felt a wave of sorrow overcome me as I read the following line, a line that speaks to a yearning for home:
I would request an extra song
For well-being for me and
those who must be here.
I must keep the life of balance.
I long for my life to be with you, Nabahó Diné.
I long to be in the land of my people.
The extraordinary Menominee activist and poet Chrystos addresses racism and classism in her poem Interview with the Social Worker:
It all started because I gave her my best chair with the black velvet cushion
embroidered with red roses & she sat in it like it was a disease
She said how can you live like this
I said how can you live like that.
Chrystos’ poetic approach often centers around giving a voice to the disenfranchised, those who have had injustices committed against them. In these lines, which are funny in their insolence, Chrystos makes sure that we identify with the person being interviewed and not at all with the symbol of systemic power. Rather than paint those on one side of the power equation as weak, Chrystos imbues the first person narrator in this poem with a strength and defiance that is admirable. The closing lines of the poem continue this:
I am through here
I said I’ll never let you through here
Not if I have anything
To say about it
FIREWEED #22: Native Women has a diversity of voices that makes it an incredibly fulfilling read and displays a commitment to the rejection of imposed boundaries by acknowledging that these are the written works by “Women of Sovereign Nations”. It is interesting to note that the editors were initially encouraged to focus on writers in Canada but rejected the idea in favor of including those women living elsewhere. Above all, these stories and poems are at once celebrations of the lives of Native women and powerful calls against injustice. And in doing so, FIREWEED #22: Native Women honours and recognizes the teaching that we all have a responsibility to speak the truth.
She received an M.F.A. from the University of Windsor (2007) in Integrated Media, a Bachelor of Fine Arts in Photography (2004) and a Bachelor of Arts in Film Studies (1999) from the University of Manitoba.
Tune into Black Coffee Poet Wednesday February 15, 2012 for an interview with Bridget Tolley of Families of Sisters in Spirit + a photo essay of the February 14th, 2012 rally in Toronto.