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a literary journal published by the Black Earth Institute dedicated to re-forging the links between art and spirit, earth and society

Louise B Halfe


I was fishing. When I looked down on the river’s edge I noticed the face of a Grandfather peering with gentle boldness through the swirl. I reached down and dipped my hand to caress the ancient face. That night I dreamt I was brought to the bottom of the river where the Grandmothers handed me a piece of paper. This granted me entry into a mental institute. There I saw deranged people; still the grandmothers probed me to dive deeper. I had trouble deciphering the words on the paper. “Dive deeper,” they encouraged. This dive and deciphering are my tasks. To be a word smith, a word thief, a recycler, a story sharer; to borrow and to listen to all the voices of the universe is a full time task. Evan Boland, an Irish poet writes: “The more volatile the material – and a wounded history, public or private, is always volatile – the more intensely ethical the choice.” [1]
       There are writers who approach the computer or their lined pages, with great anticipation and abundance. I wonder how they’ve bartered with their souls for this exchange; and for others writing becomes a hen scratching for grains. Still there are some who are gifted with sensuous praise of the land. They paint her surface with colors and passion that I see and feel, yet I can not merely walk her surface. I am driven deeper into her flesh. Diving. Diving.
       The sakahikan the lake, her mikakon her face is a muscle that moves like a natural born weight lifter; her flesh is sun oiled. In the ispatinaw the hills water follows the call of its bigger body as it humps along she flattens the maskosiy the grass. Maskosiy waits for its stillness sucking in its nourishment. The water’s birthplace a few weeks ago was the sleeping snow; now the earth reveals her weariness and stretches to expose her winter wounds. Crocuses unfurl here. I live between mounds of earth where we are surrounded by the ispatinawah the hills; they are a gentle climb and maskosiy makes faces as she sways beneath the hands of the different winds. The maskosiy grass and nipiyah leaves are slow to awaken and one day when I was listening to a choir of red-wing black birds, the land burst into green. On the reserve the medicine knowledge is being put into action, like bears the people are hunched over gathering their roots. I long to be my lodge inhaling, listening, absorbing, gathering and seeing.
       For weeks I have been struggling to write, to find a vocabulary I could use to make love to the word and to express how the land has loved me. I functioned without thought, without word. I yearned to reveal an akawatamwin (ah ka wah tamwin) a grief and desire so thick I could not return from this dive. I understood this akawatamwin as an unnamed longing. I wished I was the niska the goose sitting on miswamiy the ice sharing with it my body’s heat to thaw out its center. A goose will dance on the ice, sit on it, fan it, call out for what is deeper. Instead I am a plowed field, waiting, waiting in this katwaisik tahwaikan, this wounded abundance of land which continues to reveal its beauty.
       I am very much afraid of the water; afraid of the spirits I will encounter. The Crees have a legend in which a decapitated woman’s head drowns in the lake and it becomes a sturgeon. The head is the place where thoughts, ideas, debates, decisions and dreams are manifested. We are born in water and delivered from water. The sturgeon is one of the eldest fish and is a scavenger of the deep. These three concepts of water, head and fish are interrelated; it is from these depths, this digging and regurgitation that we create. To dream in water is to encounter the spirit. Yet, I thirst for water, revel in her youthfulness as she covers my tongue parched after exercise or from ceremony. She mingles with my blood, fills my membranes with her knowing and empties through my bladder. Water communicates with everything that I am made of – I slosh, roll, spash and gurgle with her. I cannot live in her depths though she lives in mine.  Nipi the water makes up the most of our body. We thirst for life in many ways. Yotin is the wind that simultaneously comes and leaves from our skin, nose, lungs and anus. Aski this soil is our body; we are all that was, is and is left behind. We are what moves forward. Iskowtwew the fire is soul of the being. When we are ill we burn; in joy we burn, in anger we burn, in sorrow we burn. Still, whether the depths of the earth boil and burn me, I must chew her meat, taste and swallow her blood, suck her bones. It doesn’t matter if the meal is delicious or burnt to a crisp, it is this mutual exchange that allows me to breathe, to live. In this sense I am no more than a parasite that feeds off her and perhaps harms her. I am brought to her to help save her and to bring from her, her knowledge so that humankind can save themselves. This quest is my own need to prepare for my return to her breast one day.
       Yotin the wind that we inhale and exhale will be the very last to exit in our death. The Canadian Flag flies in half-mast when a dignitary dies, whereas when my people enter ceremony we offer a meter of cotton to the wind. The word psyche, breath, principle of life, life, soul, to breathe, spirit, she/he is the wind that travels through our body continuously; there is no break like the wind that never stops moving, exploring in the universe, our bodies in its constant rhythm. The wind is a master and we think we know her, recognizing her steady committed blow. The tree breathes, purifies the air and she is dressed with the offering; the cloth dances and sways with direction from the wind. When the wind dies, all is still. Breathless. Soundless. The cloth hangs limp though a flutter of the wind’s breathe will indicate her presence, just like in sleep our chests heave in slow sound.
       We make choices in life and it is best to do so consciously, to be able to debate with oneself the wisdom of these choices. Four times I have stopped though I have walked in moccasin, traveled by wagon, car, bus, by train, ship and plane, yet the ceremony of the Quest is the dearest. In ceremony as we head toward sakaw the forest where we will be alone for days without miciwin food and nipi water only iskotew fire and yotin wind will be our companions. Food and water become something else. The seeker will wait and dive, burn and will return. On the journey towards the final stop, the Old One will pause and say; at this first stop you will think of the first years of life, where you come from. On the second stop you will think of your adolescent years, of where you are going. On the third stop you will think about how you will arrive, and on the fourth stop you will meditate on who you are. He doesn’t put these questions into words; he merely suggests that at these pauses we, the seekers, will meditate.
       My grandfather, the late Swift Walking Bird, was a man of few words though his intercourse with life was profound. He was a great listener. I longed to hear his wisdom. On his would be death bed he asked to be taken out doors, he staggered between my father and my Uncle and his miskiskaw his eyes, his big heaven gathered the vision of the aski the land. I never heard my grandfather’s story, nevertheless his love of the land and life was the example I needed. Evan Boland in her chapbook wrote: “The influence of absences should not be underestimated. Isolation itself can have a powerful effect in the life of the writer.” [2]
       Last fall as winter approached nipi repeated its natural and its usual story of forming into miskwaiy the ice. It becomes like calloused feet, its cracked skin sending whistling music into our bitter nights. In my walks I would be startled by its haunted sigh. At times miskwamiy made the sounds of a summer storm roaring in its belly as it struggled to give itself birth. Nipi the water asleep beneath the miskwaiy – perhaps this is what a writer does contemplate when asleep, as though in a conscious state.
       I called nechi iskwew anhoch my sister, a friend and we talked about the loss of language, the bruised spirituality and the various cultural mores which have been twisted or forgotten, all these which ought to have been passed onto us. Eh kiwachiah we are orphaned, pitiful and lonely without our ancestors. Our parents were wounded, our grand folks silenced and still through this we observed the pattern of their lives, picking up and sharing these memories. We turn to those whose grand folks hid them in the sahka the woods away from molesting thought and hand. Like the land, history has shifted and shaped us. We toil the soil, dig up our remains, fragments of living culture; through this gathering of memory we shape our ceremonies and celebrate. My white cousins on the other hand don’t know how to define their culture so busy are they excavating their burial grounds and others as well, digging and dating artefacts and cataloguing…thinking, so this is where we came from, so this is where we went and were we are going. They sigh as more and more debris clutters the aski the earth and kisick the sky. Sadly in this latter aspect no one is exempt. Still there is a need to define oneself; hence humankind is often on a quest.
       When nisimis calls, we stumble through our Cree, we help one another to form thought and language. We’ve both gone on a search and redefined and reclaimed what family means and renewed our relationship to ceremony and land. Today I spoke to nokhkomak the Grandmothers though I can’t specifically tell who was listening. You see, they are all spirit. I shared with them my frustration of how empty I was. I was without thought, without word and I needed them, wanted their help in sharing what needed to be said. This is how this paper came to be.
       After hunting season is over, all the pisiskiw the animals left. All pipon all winter I yearned for and waited their arrival. Now the piyesiska the birds flit in the tall maskosiy, a sparrow builds a nest beneath the window, a great horned owl is nesting a stone’s throw away from our house. A week ago a murder of crows taunted the owl and still she sat swiveling her head, glowering and hissing. Yesterday as two menacing hawks dived and circled her, she sat through their assault stone-stubborn, protecting her young. I know where to turn to as Cree somersaults into memory and action: like the land I constantly give birth to myself; “…in poetry…and in women’s writing…the private witness is often all there is to go on. Since my personal experience as a poet is part of my source material, it is to that I now turn.” [3]

Footnote 1. page. 7. LiP: A kind of scar. The woman poet in a national tradition, by Eavan Boland. Attic Press, Dublin, 1989. ISBN 0-946211-79-5
Footnote 2. Page 11. Ibid.
Footnote 3. Page 9. Ibid
This essay is based on a paper delivered at Writing Home Conference: Green’s College, Vancouver, B.C. May 2006
Louise Halfe, Sky Dancer, was born in Two Hills, Alberta and raised on the Saddle Lake First Nation, attending Blue Quills Residential School. She studied (Social Work) at the University of Regina and (Addictions) at the Nechi Institute. Her poetry debut was in Writing the Circle: Native Women of Western Canada, an anthology of life-writings by Native women.
       Halfe’s first book of poetry, Bear Bones and Feathers, won the Milton Acorn Award for 1996 and was short-listed for the Spirit of Saskatchewan Award, Blue Marrow (McClelland and Steward, 1998) –prose and poetry resurrecting past–was short-listed for the Governor General’s Book of the Year Award. The Crooked Good (Coteau, 2007), her epic poem based on Cree legend won the Saskatoon Book Award and Publishers Award She was as the first aboriginal Poet Laureate of Saskatchewan from 2005-2006.
       Halfe has traveled extensively in the US and abroad, reading and conducting writing workshops. Married, a mother of two and grandmother of two, she received an honorary doctorate of letters from Wilfred Laurier University of Waterloo, Ontario, and has served on the Saskatchewan Arts Board, Sagehill Writing Experience, the Public Lending Rights Commission and the Woodcock Writers Fund. She is presently on the Saskatchewan Aboriginal Literacy Board.
       She is an International Fellow of the Black Earth Institute.


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