National Poetry Month: Marilyn Dumont – "the land she came from"

the land she came from

“If men had wings and bore black feathers, few of them would be clever enough to be crows”
Rev. Henry Ward Beecher, mid-1800’s
Candace Savage, Bird Brains, Vancouver: Greystone Books/Douglas & McIntyre, 1995.

cree woman crow
cree woman caw
black shiny bird-woman
crow and caw those who
command you, “Go back to the land you came from”

so shiny black bird woman plants herself in front of Frank Oliver’s house
has her photograph snapped in 1885
her image singed into his pupils
into the inky black and white pages
of his Bulletin
the official but negative space
in Edmonton’s story
not the other story
of Metis river lots
severed into city blocks

a quarter from a Metis river lot
crow knows what was what
when it all went wrong

cree woman crow
cree woman caw
call out those names
caw caw caw: Rutherford
call out those names
names that now, mysteriously bear title
to land once granted your husband
his reward for 30 years HBC service
as carpenter and blacksmith

a quarter for a halfbreed lot
crow knows what was what
when it all went wrong

cree woman crow
cree woman caw
crow and caw names
of those known as “better men”
when Indians couldn’t own land
call out their names
cawcaw caw: Oliver
stand iron-fisted before
his two-story-red-brick-house
rising civil in the background

a quarter for a Metis river lot
crow knows what was what
when it all went wrong

cree woman crow
cree woman caw
crow woman dig down
scrape away the layers
of sleeping memory
down to the stake lines of river lots
in Rossdale and beyond
far down to the Metis family names
still breathing there: Donald, Bird, Ward
push away the top soil, sand and silt
to names: Daigneault, Charland, Gladue
uncover their stories of migration
to build and supply Beaver Hills House
before it all went wrong

uncover the names of profiteers
Lord Strathcona, for one
snapping up script and reserve land
for the price of a sack of groceries
when Pahpaschee’s people
were starving and deprived of rations
recite his name: Pahpaschees, Pahpaschees, Pahpaschees
so it won’t wash away in the flood of “progress”

1. The poem’s subject, Elizabeth Brass Donald, Cree/Saulteaux, was born 1836, a member of the Key Reserve signed under treaty 4 located in southwestern Saskatchewan. At age 17, married George Donald, Metis HBC carpenter and blacksmith and raised 11 children. Later she became a member of the Papaschase Band, but extinguished her Indian status by taking Metis Scrip in July 1885 likely under duress of starvation. “Edmonton Pentimento: Re-Reading History in the Case of Papaschase Cree,” Dwayne Trevor Donald.

In two surviving photographs of Elizabeth Brass Donald (Betsy Brass), she is diminuitive, with rounded shoulders, and she wears a dress of crisp black fabric and a black shawl. In one photograph she stands defiant in front of Frank Oliver’s house, the owner of, The Bulletin, Alberta’s first newspaper that advocated the Papaschase Band ‘be sent back to the country they originally came from.’ R.S. Maurice, Statement of Claim: The Papaschase Indian Band No.136., Pimohtewin: A Native Studies E-Journal, October 2, 2001.

2. Frank Oliver, the founder and editor of Alberta’s first newspaper, The Bulletin, was opposed to the establishment of the Papaschase Reserve in what is now South Edmonton, and he was among a vociferous group of Edmontonians who adopted this attitude. “They argued that the Reserve would impede the growth and development of the town and deny the settlers access to valuable resources and fertile land.”

3. The line: when it all went wrong is a derivation of “Where it went wrong” “As McLeod explains, this is the English translation of the Cree word e-mayikamikahk which refers to the tragic events of the so-called Northwest Resistance of 1885.” “Edmonton Pentimento: Re-Reading History in the Case of Papaschase Cree, Dwayne Trevor Donald. See also Neil McLeod, “nehiyawinwin and Modernity in P.Douaud and B.Dawson (Eds), Plain speaking: Essays on aboriginal peoples & the prairie (pp 35-53). Regina: Canadian Plains Research Centre.

An award-winning writer of Cree/Métis ancestry, Marilyn Dumont earned her M.F.A. in Creative Writing from the University of British Columbia. Her work has been widely published in literary journals around the world. Marilyn’s first collection, A Really Good Brown Girl, won the 1997 Gerald Lampert Memorial Award presented by the League of Canadian Poets. This collection is now in its 11th printing, and selections from it are widely anthologized in literary texts. Her second collection, Green Girl Dreams Mountains, won the 2001 Stephan G. Stephansson Award from the Writer’s Guild of Alberta. That Tongued Belonging, her third collection, was awarded the 2007 Anskohk Aboriginal Poetry Book of the Year, and the McNally Robinson Aboriginal Book of the Year.

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