Indigenous Poetics, An Island in the Neutral Sea, and Decolonization Moves
August 6, 2019
by D.A. Lockhart
Let’s start with where my thought process begins. I am waiting in a sun-baked parking lot at the edge of the Leamington, Ontario ferry dock. July heat is cooking the rows of cars and trucks around me. Around us, Waabishkiigo Gchigami is lightly rolling waves into shore and forest of sailboat masts and speedboat windshields stretches between us and the shore to the east. You spend a sizable amount of time waiting while in transit to Pelee Island.
The waiting harkens back to some portions of us and of creation that have been lost to the last century or so of highspeed travel, the synching together of spaces, the homogenization of what that means. While myself and the couple hundred of my fellow travellers wait for the Pelee Islander II to make its appearance on the horizon and pull into the huge mechanical dock before us, I take in the motion of creation around me. The gulls moving languid-like from fence to rock to light poles. Distant vees of cormorants skim the lake surface, heading towards the island most of us daydream of in the still heat of the parking lot. Waiting is part freedom and part purgatory. Left with our thoughts and visions we are able to feel creation as it is and not as what it is told to us to be.
In truth, I know that this could be seen as a odd start to an essay on decolonization and Indigenous poetics. But for me, in the placid moments between, this is where I have time to conceive of the world I choose to write about. I would argue that in the quiet between preordained time we exist in the only true form of self and creation. Being outside of time, waiting on a ferry to draw you across the shallow freshwater sea that settlers renamed Erie for their brief time upon this portion of Three-Fires Confederacy land, one can locate the songs, the stories, the parcels of creation that predate colonization. In the authentic world, the one that successful writing finds its roots in, we look to touchstones to share these pathways, to illustrate what the world is rather than what it is prescribed to be. The lake known in recent generations as Erie returns to its essence as Waabishkiigo Gchigami, the Neutral Sea, those birds obsidian cutting pathways find their true names spoken again, gaagaashibigsak, rather than the alien cadence of the words double-crested cormorant. These are the melodies to the songs creation taught our ancestors to sing. Melodies that I would say provide the backbone of what Indigenous Poetics could and should be.
"[...] I believe the best possible place to begin with decolonizing ourselves and our work is to overcome the primary act of the colonizer, to kill the native, and proclaim that this voice, those songs, the cultures to which we count our ancestors and our relations, are here."
These poetics are a contemporary take on the songs and melodies creation taught us before. They are different in the sense that have found form on page primarily and in that they are primarily constructed in the tongue our colonizers taught us. But it is as much our language now as is the written word around it. When one locates that original thread of stories or sounds or crackles of creation, to maintain the pre-colonized essence, one must find a path to record this. That atavistic essence recorded is central but we must also hear it in the context of our inherited world. It is critical that our songs transform with the times. The traditional portions of our songs of creation have come in response to the portions they grew from. Our new ones must as well. They must find their footholds in the books and writings and stories of our contemporary world. And these new songs and portions of creation must become because all things that are alive with spirit must change. Change is growth. Growth is to be alive. And I believe the best possible place to begin with decolonizing ourselves and our work is to overcome the primary act of the colonizer, to kill the native, and proclaim that this voice, those songs, the cultures to which we count our ancestors and our relations, are here. They are here transformed and transforming, traditional and non-traditional. And that basis alone is worth creating new in response to our contemporary world.
I find myself, multiple times per month, considering this as the Pelee Islander II pulls up to the dock at Westview. The long body of the island called Pelee by its lease holders, its actual name still lost to me after years of searching and asking, and over the dull thrum of the ferry’s engines I find myself overwhelmed by the sense of what lies before me at this point. The name is the right name for the island. This is something we can share. But understand that with it comes the fact that for the island something central to its essence has changed, its spirit discovered a new pathway to move upon. Pelee is partially what it used to be. But in its renaming it found a new path, and is essentially what it is now. Forests and marshlands have become dominated and mostly displaced by farmland, vineyards, and cottages. The name reflects those changes and the people that inhabit it full-time. Pelee is their homeland and we must call it as that. They walk upon it daily. They understand what songs should be sung of their part of creation. There must always be space for that. Decolonizing is not about erasing that which is blatantly there. And there is a wonder to the mechanical bird song of the alarms on the ferry as we all await the car deck to open and us to be flung out into the island air. There is also wonder in distant sound of tires churning up gravel and dust along the handful of roads. Childlike awe in the vision of pheasant feathers disappearing into the underbrush of soybean plants. By all measures the island is farming community with a strong appetite for wine and love affair with hunting an imported bird. The name and the identity is something it has forged out of its experience. It is much, much different from the 1788 primarily marshland hunting grounds the local Three-Fires folks agreed to lease to a settler named McKee for 999 years.
"We have changed like the island has. We are multilayered. We are both Canadian and Indigenous."
However, one will still come to regularly greet the original portions of the island. Pelee is home to a decidedly rich portion of wildlife for this part of extreme southern Ontario. When my ancestors were forced out of their homelands, they were forced to bring the smaller parts of creation with them. These are the moving parts of creation. Here, in public, I call these portions by the words and sounds that those who originally inhabited these places did. We share similar stories and our connection points are key. Lenape are the grandparents to Odawa and Anishinaabe. They knew this land and their songs and words speak to the essence of this place, they are the words that creation most longs to hear. As I walk the road by our property I often walk across the paths of waaboozoog, wiigwassikaa, and gichi-binewag. The use is personal. These are the names I refer to them as because rabbit, the birch trees, and wild turkey do not match the significance these aspects of creation have in my mind. My experience says that that infamous trickster is skirting our boundaries at every moment, that broken promises leave inter-generational marks, and a no-property line could ever contain a wild clan animal. At surface level we all see the same basic things. But the traditional words given for those things reflect the parts of creation originally afforded us by our ancestors and Gzhi-Manidoo. To use them, to sing them aloud and read them in type is important. For the readers to see them and hear them is equally as critical if we are to reach a place we can call decolonized. This is the most clear gift I can see offered by Indigenous Poetics. It is the gift that I hope to offer with my work, using the new homeland I find myself in, reopening the pathways to the essences that ran and continue to run through this part of creation.
All of this is to say that an island in the middle of a great lake named for the People of the Deer is what I see as the most apt way to speak about the mixing pot of Indigenous Poetics. We have changed like the island has. We are multilayered. We are both Canadian and Indigenous. We speak English and occasionally French. We are and must be learning our ancestral and traditional languages. Contemporary Pelee is multilayered like all of creation is. Creation as we know it is multi-layered with connection points between. These connection points are our stories of place. They are all of us and of the places we inhabit. I have seen feu folet amble across a Victoria Road farm field to taunt me and my fellow bonfire revelers. I’ve heard the ancestors sing prayers in Anishinaabemowin through the windbreaks around us. I am certain that I have seen mishibizhii patrol the waters around Fish Point. I am certain that Rowdy Roddy Piper once caroused the Westview Tavern well past its posted closing time. Each of these melodies vibrate the fabric of what we know a place and an experience to be. They are portions of the same continuous songs delivered to us by our ancestors. Pelee, the Neutral Sea, and pathways cut by gaagaashibisak live on in all their essences.
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D.A. Lockhart is the author of The Gravel Lot that Was Montana, This City at the Crossroads, and Big Medicine Comes to Erie. His work has received multiple Pushcart Prize nominations. He is also the publisher at Urban Farmhouse Press. A Turtle Clan member of the Moravian of the Thames First Nation, Lockhart currently resides at Waawiiyaatanong on the south shore of the Detroit River (most often referred to as the border cities of Windsor ON and Detroit MI). Devil in the Woods (Brick Books) is his fourth poetry collection.
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