Poems about Canada's Aboriginal (Native, Indian) and Métis (mixed-breed) peoples.

Lenny has written two books of poems about these peoples, The Minor Odyssey of Lollie Heronfeathers Singer (woman travels to check out her Aboriginal and Métis ancestry) and Louis Riel and Gabriel Dumont in Purgatory (ghosts of the Métis madman and buffalo hunter talk).

The following poems are taken from those two books.

From the Stone Walls of Old Québec

(Origins of Métis)

Jean Dumont never knew
What happened to his parents
In the stone walls
Of old Québec
He scuffed the deep stoneless
Prairie soil
Watched branches drift by
On the Red River
"I married a sauvage," he laughed
"I made four Métis.
Beware the sauvages!" he’d say
Wagging his finger at the kids.
I made green onion soup
And told them to beware white men, black tobacco, and
Grain whiskey
"Where are your parents?" they asked their mother
But I laughed, too
Said, "My children will be my parents
You, daughter, will remember me as a sauvage,
As a child of the long grass
And you will be a mother
Of a brave people"
But I wished I could touch
The stone walls
And two old French people
Looking in a mirror
For a long-lost son.

 

A Remarriage

(Heron Feathers signs on to Jean’s faith.)

Jean insisted we get married in the new church.
Fine, I thought, better that his God be on our side
Just in case.
How can one have too many Gods?

I told the priest he had a face like
A moose’s afterbirth
But it was in Cree, and quiet so he thought
I was saying "I do."
Jean nearly choked, but
I figured if Jesus was any good He’d have seen us
Married by the lake two years before.

I’ve often wondered since if Jesus
Is a lonesome spirit that wanders around
The insides of churches hoping
Someone will come visit
Occasionally
And just how much Cree He knows.

I Guess I’m a Métis

(Lollie meets Lucy)

"I guess I’m a Métis ," I said
Trying to dance around the subject a bit.
"My grandmother..."

She silenced me with a raised hand
Put her fingers on my forehead

"Yup," she said, "you sure are. I can feel it.
It’s strong, like the movement of Mother Earth.
Hang loose, babe, we’ll find you
A plug of bannock and sell you a sash
But you’ll have to leave tobacco
At the foot of a cross, then
Baptize a moose."

"Been there," I said, "Done it.
Didn’t get the T-shirt, though. Say
Any more Métis around, or are we
The only two left in this province?"

"You’re a bear for punishment," she sighed
"There’s a Métis band playing tonight at the Legion.
You can buy me a beer."

Then she hugged me.

Bridge

(A bit of Métis history, according to George.)


We were the bridge
Between the east and the west
The dark forest and the big skies

We were the bridge between
Red and white


Using the Métis bridge
Canada carried itself
Onto the plains
And up to the highest mountains

So what happened?
We were the bridge to the prairies
The road to the mountains
And they walked
All
Over
Us


People of the Wind

(migration of the Cree from the deep woods of
northern Ontario to the open plains)

We became the people
Of the wind

Wind brought us
To the coulees
Blew in the buffalo
Scattered sweetgrass smoke
Howled in the oldgrass moon
And left us silent
Hearing footsteps
Of bad spirits
On nights
When only the children
Dared sleep

We could deal with the spirits
Of the spruce woods
We had a thousand legends
Of bear and loon
But we are all silent
When a crane circles
Eight times in the morning
And the wind dies
Unexpectedly

Minnehaha

(Lollie approaches her first Indian, a woman behind a counter in a reserve crafts store)

"Can I help you?" she asked
Tan skin, dark hair behind the counter
I hesitated, my light brown hair
Out of place, out of place
"One of my ancestors," I said
Looking at the moose mitts
"Was a Cree."
"Ah," she said, unsmiling
In the August heat.
"An Indian princess, of course?"
"Minnehaha," I said,
"Laughing Water."
"We remember her well
In our legends. She married
Chief Maxihaha."
"Why yes! Her son,
Medihaha, my great grandfather
Was a famous warrior."
"Would you like to buy a dreamcatcher?" she asked
"In honor of your native roots?"
"Got one," I said. "Real good one.
Made in China."
"Best kind. Be good Injuns,
Them Chinese, soon as
We get them civilized.
Moose mitts? Scalps? Lucky bookmarks?"
"Moose mitts," I said
"Good idea. You never know:
It might get cold."
She wrapped them carefully.
An owl hooted once in broad daylight.
We both paused to listen
For the second call

Jerusalem

(Tom Small Wolf tells Lollie about his religion)

So you’re
Returning to the old religions?
Are you leaving
The Good Book
The World Tomorrow
The smiling priest?


Did you know, he said, that
Jesus had tan skin
Dark hair
A big hooked nose


Maybe
When Jesus enters Jerusalem
His black hair in braids
And hooked Semitic nose
Just a little out of place
Among tourists from Toronto
It’ll be time to talk again

For sure
If he’s riding a ’78 Skidoo
We’ll hold a powwow
Just for him.

Suffer the little Métis

Gabe never had much truck with religion. Stuck with a religious maniac for a co-conspirator, he spent his later years openly hostile to religion. Maybe that was his aboriginal upbringing. Maybe he was bitter what it had done to Riel and the rebellion.


Suffer the little Métis
To come to the church
Learn the pleasant truth
About God and about birch

They’ll go no more singing
To gather berries in the sun
Their childhood now measured
By the steel rule of a nun.

Suffer the little Métis
To be told about God
While other men’s plowshares
Turn their ancestral sod.

The Sieve

Selected by the Bishop of St. Boniface to become the first Métis priest, Louis studied at the College of Montréal. Four months before graduation, he abruptly left the school.

Picture me at twenty-one years old
Outside the seminary in Montreal
On the stone steps, snow curling around ankles.
"You’re incomplete," they said, "Not willing to
Finish the course."

The priests not wanting to let me go
Wanting a voice among the Métis.

Father René said nothing, just handed me
A sieve.

Oh, I knew what he meant, that a holey
Vessel doesn’t get you much soup

But I held it up over my ear, and said
I can still hear the wind this way, Father
I can still hear the wind
And a Métis
Should always be able to hear the wind.

Hubcaps

A bit bitter, are we, Gabe? This poet does not recommend anything illegal, including rebellions.

I could write you an opera
About the Métis, Louis
It would go like this:
On the first of July, the Métis steal
Every hubcap in Regina
Put them in boxes
Take them to the legislature
Cover the lawn with hubcaps

Think of it, Louis
The media, the TV cameras
The police cars
The long lines of Métis coming down the street
Chucking hubcaps onto the lawn

We’d have some young woman singing
Red River Valley and selling carnations

Don’t knock it, Louis, it makes as much sense
As anything else I’ve seen happen to the Métis
In the last hundred years

The Diurnal Breathing of the Land

In the day the prairie breathes out under the callused hand
Of Ottawa

At night the west breathes in the haunted cry
Of the Métis

Foolish, imprudent, irresponsible, simple
Maybe even crazy we were
But in our wildest, ranting moment
We were still better than what this

Has come to.

Silver Bell

I could give it all up. Louis
If I were alive, now
Trade the wandering for the works
Strawberry-rhubarb jam, garden hoses
Plush carpets, popcorn, tennis shoes, Toyotas
Niagara wine, mountain bikes, rubber rafts and
Ball-point pens in a plaid shirt pocket

But on top of the TV, or just beside my recliner
I’d keep a little silver bell, for freedom.
I’d ring it when the world got too much for me
To say. "you haven’t gotten all of me, yet."

It would tell the world I am Métis

I signed no treaty.

Ever.

Chains

Once our people were free
Now they spend their time in chains
Sears, McDonald’s, Toys R Us
And even in Blockbuster Video
Renting other people’s dreams

It’s alright, you know
As long as they pick one wild flower
For the dash of a car
And look longingly
To the highway
They have not forgotten
They are Gabriel’s people.

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