BILLY RAY BELCOURT READS “ODE TO NORTHERN ALBERTA”
Ode to Northern Alberta
after joshua jennifer espinoza
here, no one is birthed
only pieced together.
i tire myself out
pretending to have a body.
everyone worships feelings
they don’t have names for
but no one is talking about it.
love is a burning house we built from
love keeps us busy while the smoke clears.
history lays itself bare
at the side of the road
but no one is looking.
history screams into the night
but it sounds too much like the wind.
cree girls gather in the bush
and wait for the future.
in the meantime
they fall in love with the trees
and hear everything.
in the 1950s
my not-yet mooshum ran away
from a residential school
in joussard, alberta.
as an adult
he kept coming back
heaven is nowhere near here
NOAH RICHLER (HOST): Years ago—in Resolute, Nunavut, with the American writer William T. Vollmann—we chatted with an Inuk who’d spent tough years in Winnipeg—“outside,” as many then called the populated cities south, before deciding to return to Resolute. As a child, he’d been part of the approximately 100 Inuit from Inukjuak, in Northern Québec, who’d been moved to Ellesmere and Cornwallis Islands in the nineteen fifties, ostensibly for their own good—the caribou herd in Inukjuak was said by the government to be depleted in Inukjuak and more plentiful further North—though they were likely moved as pawns, too, in a Canadian government effort to establish sovereignty in the region. The “High Arctic Exiles,” as they came to be known, boarded the CGS C.D. Howe for territory unknown, Resolute Bay more than 1,900 kilometres away. Essential skills of their Inuit Qaujima-ja-tuqangit —their traditional knowledge — were useless in the new place, among them igloo building as the snow on Cornwallis Island, land classified as polar desert, is scant and doesn’t collect. Families starved, some reduced to foraging for food and wood from the Resolute Bay waste dump.
The conversation we had what, twenty-five years ago now—is indelible in the memory: “What was the worst thing about being relocated here?” Vollmann asked.
“Having to learn how to survive,” he said.
“And the best?”
“Learning how to survive, I guess.” He paused. “You live in any place long enough and you learn to call it home.”
And how true is that? Salutary or not, our ties to places we call home are ineradicable ones of belonging, so that anyone who says, for instance, “the best thing the residents of Laloche or Attawapiskat could do is leave the reserve” is reprehensibly discounting these attachments.
Home, of course, is much more than that, and the reality is not just an indigenous one. Plenty are the Canadians who have left flourishing careers in ostensibly more rewarding places to come home to Canada, territory legions of Americans and Europeans still consider a kind of nowhere, the best thing the Canadian able to do being leaving.
I’m a part of this bunch and know why I came home thirty years ago now, and yet still I was interested, if not surprised, when two young indigenous artists I know—one, Dale, a Cree from the Enoch Reserve outside Edmonton, Alberta, and the other, Hunter Cardinal, of American Jewish and Cree descent—decided to leave the metropolis and the burgeoning success they were enjoying here. Dale, 28 years old and a talented and thoughtful wordsmith who’d helped me at Luminato and in a failed but eventful political campaign, decided to leave Toronto, where he was on his way to joining the Soulpepper Academy, a multi-year paid training program, now suspended, for a theatre that has known better times. And Hunter, 24 years old, quit an incipient career at the same company, with which he had just travelled to New York, singled out by the New York Times for his part in the bold and rewarded theatre’s venture off Broadway there.
And yet, Hunter left. To return to Edmonton, and family, and explore his indigeneity.
And to play Hamlet.
HUNTER CARDINAL PERFORMS HAMLET ACT II SCENE II:
I have of late—but wherefore I know not—lost all my mirth, forgone all custom of exercises, and indeed it goes so heavily with my disposition that this goodly frame, the earth, seems to me a sterile promontory; this most excellent canopy, the air—look you, this brave o’erhanging firmament, this majestical roof fretted with golden fire—why, it appears no other thing to me than a foul and pestilent congregation of vapors. What a piece of work is a man! How noble in reason, how infinite in faculty! In form and moving how express and admirable! In action how like an angel, in apprehension how like a god! The beauty of the world. The paragon of animals. And yet, to me, what is this quintessence of dust?
Hunter Cardinal (HC): Hi, my name is Hunter Cardinal, I am Director of Story at Naheyawin.
Noah Richler (NR): And what does ‘Naheyawin’ mean?
HC: Naheyawin is actually a play on the Cree word for the Cree language, so that is nêhiyawêwin. But when we were basically thinking of a name for our company, we didn’t want to give people a nosebleed… so we thought that nêhiyawêwin have people fall into like a loop, when they’re saying it – nêhiyawe-yawe-yawe-awin. So we were like, well, what if we made it just a little bit easier, but the reason that we picked that word is because we have this saying in our family, and we actually don’t know where it came from.. But it is: When the people forget, the language remembers. So we were really intrigued by that and looking into the teaching of our ancestors found in the words – seeing the lense that they looked at the world through and really tried to bring that to what we were doing now.
And bring that perspective into the systems, the tools and the problems that we’re facing today.
NR: Do you mind sharing the details of your provinence, if I can put it that way, because they’re quite unique and extraordinary, and I don’t know if your sister shares that.
HC: So, back in the day, this was before I was born. My dad’s name is Lewis Cardinal. When he was I don’t know, I think he was around 27, he went on this cross-country run, essentially, to retrieve Big Bear’s Bundle. A bundle is a sacred artefact that is passed down through generations – there’s medicines, there’s certain teachings attached with those medicines, and it’s used as a way to help our future generations. So, Big Bear, Cree leader, had this Bundle that was being held by the Smithsonian museum, so when this one fellow had this … vision, so to speak, of retrieving Big Bear’s Bundle, he went into ceremony and basically gathered these runners who would go across the country to raise awareness publicity about what they were trying to do, and my dad was one of those runners who ran across Canada to New York – where he met my mother through a whole series of circumstances. My nimosôm happened to know my grandma because they met at an alternative health conference in Montreal. And classic grandma was like “You need a place to stay in New York, and you just let me know..” and my nimosôm was like ‘Ok.’ And then, sure enough, when they were in NY, he called them up, and they stayed together and that’s where my dad met my mom and that’s where they fell in love.
NR: And you’re mother’s name is…
HC: Patricia Robbins.
NR: And Patricia is Jewish?
HC: Yes, she comes…well, we’re secular Jews… we have the joy of escaping genocide on that side of the family, by the skin of our teeth. So we are non-practicing. But my grandma and my grandpa have a strong connection to their Jewish history/ancestry… and so they have really intense stories. More so my grandpa because he was actually fleeing Poland when Germany was invading.. In I think 1938. And he has stories of when he was a little boy seeing Warsaw on fire, when they were on a train from Lodz to the border to escape Poland at that time, so really really intense stories.
NR: So, tell me how you came to Toronto.
HC: Yeah, so I graduated with a bachelor in fine arts in acting from the University of Alberta in 2015, which seems like decades ago now. And for the first year, I spent gigging, and I got to work with legends like Brent Carver, and I got to work with all these people who were based in Toronto. And one of the things that kept on popping up in conversation was – the Soulpepper Academy is doing auditions and the more I researched into it, I thought this may be a good fit. I ended up getting accepted and I moved to Toronto I think it was like at the end of July in 2016? And then I was in Toronto for a year, studying acting, and that’s how I got here.
NR: And you were a part of the Soulpepper troupe that enjoyed considerable success in New York. And yet, after the success and the ongoing success in Toronto, you decided to leave, and I think I can say, go home, back to Edmonton, back to family, back to ceremony, I’m not sure. Is that what happened?
HC: Yeah, I mean, as soon as I got to Toronto, I felt a pit of anger and grief and loss and really profound sadness, that I, of course, attributed to it was just me… and I should really be thankful and be… happy about where I am, but I never felt like I really fit in as an indigenous person. And the more that I started doing research to connect with that while I was in Toronto, and this for whole time that I was there – for the year – I started really seeing a need to vitalize myself as an indigenous person. And one of the catalyzing moments, sort of the call to action, was researching about indigena-ity, looking at the issues and the complexities around the conversation of reconciliation, and really studying the shape-shifting forms of colonialism, I found that one scholar was saying that we as a genetic group, a very distinct cultural ethnicity… we will survive but in terms us as a sovereign people, we may, if things continue how they are going, be completely eradicated within two generations.
And looking at what I was doing, and looking at what I was kind of leaving on the table, in that moment of really diving into a Western system of theatre or a Western system of story-telling, I was like I really can’t be spending my time here – I need to be actually trying to figure out how to vitalize my Indigenous ancestor systems rather than I guess trying to go within an already violent system to try to change it from the inside. It just kind of felt like I think my energy would be better spent creating an alternative. And you know what, I don’t have the answer, but I think that trying as much as we can so that the next generation could see what worked and for sure what didn’t work, is really important and is definitely worth it.
NR: Hunter you’re one of two extraordinarily talented young Indigenous people I know who made the same decision to leave, what is it that makes it so hard to support your Indigineity in the metropolis? Did you feel a terrible aloneness or was it an issue with how ceremony is practiced in the city?
HC: Yeah, I mean so that dives into the complexities around indigeneity. In our language, the word for people is asinîskâwiýiniw, is actually a diminutive form of the creator, ayi, apihci meaning small. So when we say the word for people in our language, what it is is ‘Little Creators.” And with that comes a dynamism and a utility that isn’t really talked about widely when we consider indigeneity – we often historicize it or put it in the past – we never look at it as something dynamic and responding to the environment and the specific challenges that come up. We never look at innovation as a part of indigeneity, rather we look at how we can preserve the past and bring it into the future. Which often ends up turning us into weird myths that should be long gone by now. And I think that’s caused by a very linear understanding of time. And a linear understanding of progress which I’ve come to disagree with a little bit more.We often think that indigeneity can’t exist within the city, but what do you call a crow that finds itself in a city? A crow. It’s not an urban crow. So for me I didn’t actually find I couldn’t fit in in the city. But it was because I wasn’t able to give my consent to partake in the dominant society. I think we’re seeing this now as a larger society … a very violent system. That is no one’s fault, really, but we’re inheriting tools that aren’t working for us, and there hasn’t been much work on those tools themselves to make them work for everyone. So that’s kind of what my problem was and what my particular difficulty was – I didn’t have access to that alternative that I can use to supplement and recharge while I was participating in the dominant system.
NR: Because I would imagine that your idea of representation, representation of self or of the indigenous goes beyond what happens so much, which is let’s say inclusion of indigenous people in the cast of the play when in fact it’s the stories themselves you’re trying to give life I think.
HC: Yeah, I think it’s the stories but it’s also the different processes. For me, I think, having an aesthetic representation of an indigenous narrative is important, but I think what is more important is ok, how do we tell stories? What do we do to prepare ourselves to facilitate the telling of stories? And for me that gets into processes. And I think that focusing on ok so how do we visually represent diversity on the stage – is one step, and it’s a very important step. But it’s also, what are the tools that we are using create those stories, and what are the systems that we are perpetuating that are continuing to silence people’s stories that happen before the stage and after the stage. So for me it’s like what are we doing as Canadian theatre really in the process of how we create and tell stories.
NR: So, you are playing Shakespeare’s Hamlet at the moment.
NR: So it’s been a year now since you’re return to Edmonton, you’ve founded your own company, made your indigeneity the focus of how you’re living and working, How has that affected your taking on the role of Hamlet?
HC: Oh, it’s been really interesting. Actually, one of the cool things that happened while I was at Soulpepper was a director by the name of Daniel Brook, we were talking about Chekhov, and so I was playing the character Cooligan and the Three Sisters who was Masha’s husband, he was a latin teacher and very awkward, and a profoundly abused person. And I just for the life of me could not figure out who this person was. And I could say the words, and I knew the area that I wanted to explore … sort of… but I still felt like I was wearing someone else’s clothes and I was like this is not working– I have no idea what to do. And you know, Daniel sat down with me and he was just like, ok, what if we were to look at this character and really examine the larger questions that this character is struggling with? And we went into this really beautiful conversation about someone trying to reach for some sort of cultural tool to help them get through where they were at in that moment. And that kind of shifted everything for me and I was like “oh my gosh, I totally understand that.” So when I was looking at Hamlet – because before that I always looked at Hamlet as a petulant child I could never really understand his rage and how he could treat certain people the way he does. And whenever I looked at hamlet it was always so how do I do a good Hamlet? And it was always for the outside people watching. It was never focused on ok what can I do that was unique? That furthers my goal as a person. So kind of with that idea, I looked at Hamlet and say, ok, what do we have happen? And Hamlet is actually from a very old Danish myth called Amleth. And we have this ghost of this very militaristic, aggressive father figure and if you look at it through the lense of Jungian psychology, you get the wise father, an aspect of Hamlet so to speak. But also for me was representing a very patriarchal masculinity that Hamlet was trying to become. But he couldn’t because that’s not who he was. So for me, looking at Hamlet through that lense, ok so we have a very patriarchal image of masculinity, and someone not able to live up to that because it doesn’t work, however feels very disenfranchised, very powerless, very emasculated so to speak and that was kind of how I found my way into it. So I was actually looking at the system of the more negative aspects of the patriarchy and how violent that system really is on someone who is finding that doesn’t work for them. However, being told over and over again by the society that that is who they must be. And that of course comes through the form of this ghost. So that’s how I approached Hamlet, and I don’t think I would have approached that two years ago. Which is once again a step in the process as opposed to “I’m gonna do an indigenous Hamlet,” and slap on a bone choker. It was about looking at some of the things that I’d been considering as an indigenous person and incorporate that into the process of learning Hamlet.
NR: Well, you’ve done a brilliant thing. You’ve brought something of your own experience in inhabiting Hamlet, and I would say that’s possible because Hamlet is a play with universal appeal, but that universal appeal depends on an idea of a common humanity. I would say. That won’t be a strange idea to you.
HC: No, and I think that goes back to the word we use for people, which is little creators as opposed to different types of people that don’t have a shared humanity. I mean, like even when we greet each other in Nêhiyawêwin in the Cree language, the flame of your spirit acknowledges the spirit of the other. Which I find to be a really interesting way of understanding that we are all related in a sense – that we do have that connection to each other. So yeah, that is definitely not a foreign idea to me.
NR: And to say that we are fundamentally alike doesn’t negate the idea that we are meaningfully different – you know, biodiversity of people is an important thing. But we’re living in extraordinary times here in Canada. We’ve had to, and this is a big collective we, emphasize our differences in order to show up the lack of egalitarianism, the prejudice against certain communities, the poverty of certain communities, and I suppose I’m wondering if all this is successful, if you can imagine a renewed confidence in a kind of Canadian idea that is almost characterized as being naive at the moment, in which we are striving towards the society of equal place and equal privilege and equal potential.
HC: That’s a really tricky conversation. For me, what’s interesting is how my ancestors would make relationships with other people. I find they looked at it in a very specific way. The Nêhiyawêwin word for understanding was the same word that we would use for treaty. So that word was nisitohtamowin, and when I sat down with a language holder, he said, “Do you recognize any words within this word?” And I said, “Absolutely not. That’s a new Cree word, I have no idea.” And he was like, so the first word is ‘Nisto’ – does that ring any bells? And I was like, once again, absolutely not, and he was like, well that’s our word for three. And I was like, interesting. And this elder went on to tell me that the number three refers to the three parts of any relationship and the order in which you develop them.
So the first level and it’s the most important thing and has to be done in this order, is developing our understanding of the context of our interconnectedness to all things. And he was saying we are a part of all acts of creation, we have an obligation to grow together in a way that is good and a way that is healthy for us all and that is a process that is very important.
The second level is the development of our own self-recognition. And then the third is the compassionate enquiry and knowledge-building about the other.
So if you look at that as more of an ecological lense of how you relate to someone, or your surroundings, your human and non-human relations, it’s far more complex and it’s a really dynamic process of being part of a larger system.
NR: I’ve been arguing for more than a decade now that a course in Indigenous studies of some kind should be a mandatory requirement of graduating from high school.
HC: Mmm hmm.. I think that as Canada we have a really excellent opportunity as Canadians and our narrative that we have ourselves that our strength and our beauty does come from our diversity – I think it would be really great to have an opportunity to dive into those worlds and respectfully go to the other side and be transformed. And that’s what we’re trying to do with Na is build a bridge between the indigenous and non-indigenous worlds. And the goal isn’t to have people meet in the middle to shake hands and leave and be happy that no one was upset. We think there can be a far more transformative experience to actually go to the other side, be transformed and returned with that knowledge, and to go back and forth. So really what we’re seeing is we want to invite others to peer through our indigenous lens, and empower all to travel the bridge to the places we dream of going and in that journey become the people we think we can be.
NR: Well, it’s interesting just to consider the meaning of the word ‘treaty.’
HC: Yeah, I do find it interesting that the Western perspective of treaty is diametrically opposed to the indigenous concept of treaty. The indigenous perspective being an echo of a far longer tradition of preserving relationship for the sake of preserving the relationship as the main focus and creating a living agreement between people that is preventative. As opposed to the Western perspective which is based off of creating an agreement post-conflict to basically divy up the winnings from the loser, and give it to the winner and then never speak of it again.
So what I find really exciting is researching this thing called the spirit and intent of the treaties which is getting back to these promises that were made and agreed upon by both sides, actually, of the Crown and the indigenous nations of Canada’s numbered treaties. But I think even more importantly, it really flies in the face of the us vs them mentality that is really dominating the mainstream culture of indigenous vs non-indigenous. And I think that that treaty relationship is so important now because we have a lot of problems ahead and if we can renew and revitalize that spirit of peace, friendship and understanding, that is at the core of who we are as Canadians, is so important and crucial for the validity of our justice system… if we can tap into that… I think that we’ll really be able to be the Canada that we were always meant to be.
BILLY RAY READS “GOD’S RIVER”
it is september 2009 and health canada sends body bags to god’s river first nation—a community hit hard by swine flu
a body bag
is a gun
is a smallpox blanket
is a treaty
—call it a medicine chest
they call it H1N1
you call it
the pass system:
only leave if
—call it “moving”
“it’s like sending
body bags to
that canada is
—call it colonialism
to live in
trenches like these
is to be
and soldier all at once
—call it “a suicide epidemic”
how many deaths
it takes for a
is another word
for body bags
—call it home anyways
The poems you’ve been hearing are by Billy-Ray Belcourt, a member of the Driftpile Cree nation, queer, and just 22 years old when, this last June, he won the Canadian category of the Griffin Poetry Prize, is a phenomenon. He is a Pierre Elliot Trudeau Foundation scholar, a Rhodes Scholar and the recipient of more than $300,000 in awards and scholarships. Billy-Ray Belcourt is a phenomenon; his academic output is prestigious and, like the poetry, profound and original. This Wound is a World, his single collection of poetry, challenges the legacy of inter-generational trauma First Nations, Inuit and Métis know with poems that are intimate and pushing the boundaries of what it means to be indigenous, two-spirited and queer, even those terms feeling rudimentary in the face of the fluid nature of these states. This Wound is a World is also a volume in which, no matter how punishing its reality may be, the idea of home is very much in the foreground—as it is in the poems Billy Ray kindly agreed to read for us. So it made sense for me to begin by asking just what means to Billy Ray Belcourt.
BILLY-RAY BELCOURT (BRB):
BILLY-RAY BELCOURT READS “THERE IS A DIRT ROAD IN ME”
You’ve been listening to “Home,” the ninth episode of the Walrus podcast series Pivot. You heard from Hunter Cardinal, now in rehearsal for Hamlet; and from Billy-Ray Belcourt, whose poetry collection This Wound is a World is published by Frontenac House .
Pivot is produced by Angela Misri and Judy Ziyu Gu of The Walrus with this episode with the assistance of Seila Rizvic. Should you wish, you can find transcripts and links to this and other episodes of Pivot and subscribe to the series at thewalrus.ca/podcasts.
Let me leave you now with Dale Alexis, a member of the Enoch Cree nation I am fortunate to count as a friend. It was Dale’s leaving Toronto that prompted the questions that launched this program. His pivot, like Hunter’s, was one for home—and ceremony. Dale is proud, and honest, and made it clear to me many times that he was not comfortable in Toronto, and inevitably he returned to Enoch, open skies and family.
I’ve been encouraging Dale to write a book someday. In the meantime, here’s what Dale wrote.
I’m Noah Richler. Thanks for listening.
DALE ALEXIS READS “HOME”
DALE ALEXIS: Home, for me, isn’t defined by as a place where you hang your hat or where you sleep at night. To me home was a collection of culture, emotions shared, family and your interconnectedness with nature. So when I moved to the big city I had a hard time adjusting to the city Indian lifestyle of disconnection with self and others because of how I was raised, as I was taught from a very young age to respect my culture, the earth, the people around me, and to be humble with the knowledge that we were gifted. So I was very thrown off by how being Aboriginal in the concrete jungle felt like a hollywood affair. For instance, instead of your standard greeting of shaking hands and saying “Hello my name is Dale nice to meet you” the natural greeting had become “ My name something you can’t pronounce, here’s a list of all my famous ancestors, you are on my traditional territory, I am very powerful in my ways, and this is what I can do for you for a price and this is everything I have ever done that has been very good for others, and I am also very humble as I was taught by my great grandfather who was a good hunter and an amazing chief”. These individuals were so caught up in image that not once did they ask for the name of the person on the other side of that handshake. Which is sad as that was your typical interaction with self proclaimed city Indians whom I couldn’t tell where aboriginal to begin with. I also noticed that this type of behaviour extended into the ceremonies I attended. I found there was a lack of respect and attention to proper protocol. I would leave without any sense of healing or spiritual calmness/cleanliness that ceremonies tend to bring. After each event I would talk to others that attended to see how they were feeling after and if they found what they were looking for. The end result of those conversations were that of feelings very similar to my own, we would all leave feeling unfulfilled, Our spirits were left searching for guidance and clarity. After a while I started to long for a place where I could touch the calm soft earth and feel the vast open sky above me, a place where I could connect to the energies of the past which fueled my hope that the future holds. I wanted to be free of my concrete prison, to be away from all the power lines that shift and morph my own energies, A place where the thoughts and views of others did not determine my own personal worth, A place where I am proud to wake up everyday and just be me. I wanted, to be home. A home where the earth knows my dance and carrys my song though the air for all. A place where the hearts of others is warmed by the fires created in vast gatherings of unity and pride, where love transcends worldly possessions and money. Where food is always meant to be shared with everyone at anytime, This place, this home, is where my mind, body and soul can be free and thrive off the land of those that came before us. This place of Culture, of shared emotions, where family is key and our connection with the universe is uninhibited. Where we can grow into the people our ancestors prayed we would be. It was this beautiful collection of life, love and nature that made my decision clear as day to go back to a place that I call my home.