This conversation is based on an email exchange occurring between January 6 – 20, 2014. A glossary of anishinaabemowin (anishinaabe language, whose orthography does not employ capitals) is included at the end of the interview. A longer version of this interview can be found here.
Waaseyaa’sin Christine Sy (WCS): Language, our language is everywhere. I noticed the lovely inscription you wrote in the copy of wild rice dreams, particularly how you wrote “or, manoomin bwaadang” after the title. anishinaabemowin has an active presence in much of your writing and although it lives somewhat transiently in this collection, I was wondering if you’re fluent or if you’re reclaiming it like so many of our generation?
Vera Wabegijig (VW): So, I’m an adult learner. I’m not fluent by any means. I try to use it at home. My youngest daughter knows some words and phrases. It’s remarkable that she remembers what I teach her. When I was growing up I heard my granny, grandma, aunties, and uncles speaking it. They would always switch to English when they talked to us kids. If they were talking about something private, or to protect us, they would switch back to anishnaabemowin. This is when I would try to listen real hard, but I had no real grasp so couldn’t decipher any of it. All I really learned when I was a kid was being told what to do—the commands like wiisnin! bindigin! maadibin! eat! come in! sit down! besaanyaan! be quiet! lol! This tells me so much about parenting and child rearing. You were told what to do and not really asked if you wanted to do it. Now of course that has changed. So from being a kid to a young adult I only picked up a little bit more of the language but not enough to actually have a conversation.
When I questioned my grandma or my mother why they didn’t pass on the language I was told that my granny felt like there was no use for it. She saw the world changing around her so quickly with so many of her children and grandchildren going to residential school and learning more zhaagaanoshimowin that there was no use for anishnaabemowin. That’s how I understand it anyhow. My granny only taught one grandchild to be fluent and that was the one she raised. I’m not sure if he uses the language at all. I have only one other cousin who is just a bit older than me who practices the language and passed it on to his kids. He was raised in Sagamok First Nation with his mother’s family, so when he came to visit and meet all of us, his father’s family, he was able to speak with granny, grandma, our uncles, and our aunties. This is also a time when I picked up a little bit more. Reclaiming it, aabdek.
WCS: Many of us have a story about reclaiming our Indigenous language(s) or not reclaiming it. What is your story of reclamation and what is the relationship with this and your writing?
VW: In 2011, I had the opportunity to take anishnaabemowin basic language skills at Carleton University with Jean Akiwenzie from Cape Croker. Over the past 2 years, I practice it by looking at verbs and trying to understand the verbalizers. Then one early morning last spring, on my way to work, I was listening to the radio and here it was, anishnaabemowin being broadcast. It was beginner lessons with Basil Johnson! It was really early on Saturday morning, but I felt so fortunate to stumble upon it. Since last spring my skills have improved. I still consider myself a beginner. I know a bit about the basics and in my writing, I consider it at a grade two level, maybe, maybe if I’m lucky. I used to be hard on myself about learning it, but since listening to Basil Johnson I have learned patience because he says it takes over forty thousand hours for a baby to hear a language and maybe even longer before they attempt to speak and then more years piled onto that to actually read and write. So I’m being patient with it. I don’t hear the language everyday. At work there are a few fluent speakers in Algonquin and Ojibwe/Cree who I can go to for any grammar questions. They say words a bit differently, but the grammar doesn’t really change all that much from what I understand. My co-worker always tells me how important dialects are because it gives us information about where people are from without asking them where they are from.
Learning the language is very humbling and something that I have grown very fond of over the past few years. Last April during NaPoWriMo – National Poetry Writing Month – I challenged myself to write more with the language and it’s very rough and very basic. I made lots of mistakes. It’s all on my wordpress blog, “wild rice dreams”. It was a scary thing to do. I had to force myself to write in it. Now it’s my goal to do it more. My first book of poetry, wild rice dreams, only has a few words in the anishnaabemowin language like nokimis. (gchi baapi!) Everyone knows nokimis! And before this I really didn’t want any anishnaabemowin in my poems because I didn’t know enough. I didn’t want to be a poser. I used to dislike it when other writers would put in a word here or there, which were mostly nokimis or mishomis or semaa! But a friend of mine said to me that he thought it was important to the evolution of Indigenous literature, and that there would be more of our people using the language in every genre out there. I’m glad he said that to me because I was being arrogant and he set me straight. He changed the way I thought about using the language; that yes we will reclaim it little by little, and if we use it in our writing, it will help.
WCS: In three anishinaabemowin words what has it been like to publish your first book of poetry?
VW: I had to look these words up in my trusty Rhodes Dictionary. I hope that they are correct:
n’minwendam – I am happy
n’miigechwendam – I am thankful
ngiin’sendam – I am relieved
WCS: ggii giin’sendam… you are relieved?
VW: Ah yes! What a relief!
It just takes so much time—all the waiting. During that waiting time though, I had so many dreams of having a baby. It would come visit me from time to time and the baby was always so beautiful; just always smiling. The dream was telling me of birth and I associate this with this book. It’s a baby! Welcome to the world! Eyyyyy.
WCS: Speaking of babies, the child’s prerogative is powerfully conveyed in so much of this text: “it is not fair”, “tending memories”, the beautiful set of five poems reminiscing times with granny, and in “the final frontier”. Through these various children’s perspectives we bear witness to Indigenous children’s recognition and naming of unfair treatment as a result of being Indigenous; incest and fierce resistance against incest; wonderment for the universe; and loving, warm memories of nurturing relatives, particularly a grandparent. Can you discuss the strong presence of children in wild rice dreams, why it was important to you?
VW: Okay so when I first started writing back in my early 20’s almost twenty years ago, I was writing a lot about my granny – Ella Boyer (nee Niiganigijig) – and how I saw her as this really strong woman. She always amazed me when I was a child and youth. I heard so many stories from her so it seemed like it was a natural thing to do—like in homage to her. Although some of the poems integrate reality and fiction, like so many of the poems in the collection, it’s more about wishful thinking or like daydreaming. Like how would it have been if my granny braided my hair? What would she have said to me? It’s the same with “it is not fair”, it’s based on a school that my daughter went to in the downtown eastside (Vancouver) and how the monitors would go in early to pick up needles every morning. I just added a few more details about what really goes on in the schoolyards because kids can be pretty racist without really knowing what they are saying. They just repeat what they hear at home.
In the poem about incest, I wanted to write about a different kind of justice for all these little kids who may never talk about it because incest does happen in our communities, and in many Canadian communities as well, people just don’t talk about it. I wanted to explore how this little girl finds her justice through an innocent act of pushing past her predator. It was actually really hard for me to write that one because it’s so grim but so beautiful at the same time. And it’s a daydream again: it’s me wishing that all those little kids can skip away happy and without a care in the world again. That’s what childhood is supposed to be—happy and carefree. Children are such a gift. We should all have these wonderful memories of growing up with our granny braiding our hair and telling us stories that will help us grow up to be the magnificent beings we truly are.
WCS: You’ve mentioned that much of this collection is based upon wishful thinking or daydreaming. Dreams are clearly significant to this text. Can you share a bit about dreams and poetry in general or as it pertains specifically to your writing here?
VW: I’ve always felt like we have this whole other vivid life going on once we go to sleep. The sequences of dreams in the collection are based on dreams that I’ve had. One is about my own creation. One is even about zaabii who came to visit me and helped me during times of duress. Dreams give us so much information about who we are, where we came from, and the direction we should be taking. We just have to pay attention. The added bonus is when we sleep our bodies go through regeneration. It’s so sci-fi! Also I love that our ancestors always enjoyed sharing their dreams and took it so seriously. I’m not sure if that happens at a community level anymore. I sure hope that our people still share their dreams with each other and look for the signs or even understand all the metaphors, symbolisms and meanings or significance of what’s stored inside each of them. There’s a lot there to uncover and share.
WCS: [The author and I segue from the anishinaabe word zaabii she used which led to an exchange of stories and translations about the popularly known anishinaabe character such as Sasquatch and those in popular culture like Tonto & The Lone Ranger.] A strong story telling cadence exists in many of the poems in this collection. Is this a natural extension from your storytelling practice or is this strategic?
VW: The storytelling came during the rewriting. The poems transformed into narrative poems after receiving feedback from my mentor, Marilyn Dumont, during an Indigenous Writers Residency in 2010 at the Banff Centre for the Arts. During the ten day on-line residency, Marilyn really whipped my writing into shape and commented that I needed to add more details. First I struggled with how to add the details but when I began rewriting and rewriting it started to come. I did some narrative poems before but didn’t explore it further. Now it’s part of my creative process.
WCS: Who are other writers who have influenced your poetry?
VW: Some other writers at the beginning of my career were Sherman Alexie and his Summer of Black Widows, which blew my mind. That’s when I really fell in love with poetry. Also, Joy Harjo; she’s my literary hero. Reading Thomas King really inspired me to write Coyote and Nanabush stories in a contemporary way. If it wasn’t for his writing I’m not sure if I would have done any writing with those anishinaabe heroes. There’s so many writers that I enjoy and are inspired by I could really go on and on. Right now I’m reading creative non-fiction essays in Naked, Me Talk Pretty One Day, and When You’re Engulfed In Flames by David Sedaris. I’m loving them so much. They’re hilarious. And inspiring. He’s really fearless.
WCS: Reading this I’m reminded again just how far Indigenous peoples have come in the proliferation of our written literature; just how much has been accomplished in making space to express ourselves in contemporary forms of literature and in our always-literary-forms. I get goose bumps. You know, I read my first Indigenous text when I was in my middle-twenties and today my bookshelf and body are filled up with Indigenous literature. We are flourishing here and in my experience we seem to continue too. What do you think are some of the areas that we need to continue to press against to generate space for our words, our truth? How do you think you contribute to this generating of more space for Indigenous literature?
VW: I think we, Indigenous writers, just have to do it. If one of us wants to write then write. If there is a story that you want to tell then tell it. If there is a genre that you want to explore then explore it. And while we are doing it solutions will come to us. This can be for ourselves, our communities or for the Indigenous literary community. Or perhaps not even without any Indigenous clues at all. Just work at making the writing good and hook your readers to keep reading and come back for more. Strive for greatness. And don’t be afraid of it; embrace it.
One of the barriers I think that is the biggest is saying what is Indigenous writing or what isn’t or what’s expected of Indigenous people especially where our children are concerned. I’m thinking of my own kids here. They always feel so pressured to make everything about being Native like when they have to do projects in school. It’s expected that they will write about Native issues, do projects, or their visual art will be identifiable as Native and they get pissed off. So I tell them to do what interests them and don’t let anybody tell them what the subject matter has to be about. That’s a barrier that is built by their teachers and I see it all the time in our communities.
WCS: This leads me back to the important ways you render place(s): the unsacred in the supposedly sacred; the sacred in the supposedly unsacred. I read the pow-wow as pick up place, the front concrete step as a seat in the lodge or talking circle, the back alley as the beginning of a love story (one of my favourite to date I might add), the sports arena as both. Your skill at illuminating atypical nuances without diminishing what exists is apparent in rendering a fuller knowledge about that place, its potential. In the spirit of illuminating the (un)sacred of place would you consider sharing something about manoomin (wild rice), manoominkaang (the wild rice bed), or manoominke (harvesting wild rice) as place?
VW: Ah manoomin! I don’t know what it is precisely and what it does to me. It transports me to a place where I want to go often. When it’s on the stove cooking, I want to stick my whole head in the pot and just breathe and let it get all in me and fill every space in me. I feel so close to the earth when I eat it. It has that earthy taste. It makes me feel more alive like it’s feeding the cells and unblocking memory. It’s like the neurons in my brain are all fired up; it’s exciting! It makes me happy. Maybe it helps release serotonin? The only other foods or spices that makes me feel this way are pineapples, sockeye salmon, and curry.
I still have yet to harvest wild rice or even see where it grows. When I do I’m going to make a plaque for myself. I love reading stories about people who do it and do it for the first time. To me, it’s very anishnaabe and I hope that future generations will be able to harvest it for their families.
WCS: Thank you so much for this conversation. I’m as filled up with this as you are with smells of wild rice boiling. chi miigawech. Do you have anything final thoughts you’d like to share?
VW: Closing words… hmmm… what this has to end? Oh no! (chi baapi) I started working on another collection of poetry, which I am excited about. I love the re-writing part of it and also the reading of poems that I wrote in the past year, even the ones in the book. I forget about them, you know, my memory is on the weak side. I forget things easily so when I go back and read them and think, what? When did I write that? Whoa that’s trippy! It’s always a nice surprise that I can write something really good. It’s humbling, this gift. I hope that I always do my best and not take it for granted. Miigwech.
Glossary of Anishinaabe Words (Colloquial Translations)
aabdek – for sure
anishinaabe – the good people
anishinaabemowin – anishinaabe language
besaanyaan – be quiet
biindigin – come in
bwaadang – dream
gchi baapi –big laugh; here meant as “lol”
maadibin – sit down
manoomin – rice
manoominkaang – rice bed
manoominke – to harvest rice
Mishomis – my grandfather
miigwech – thank you
Nokomis – my grandmother
Nanabush – anishnaabe beloved hero
semaa – tobacco as medicine used as offerings to the land, spirit, in ceremony etc.
zaabii – Sasquatch
zhaagaanoshimowin – English language
Vera Wabegijig is a nishnaabe poet and artist from the Mississauga First Nation and Wikwemikong Unceded Reserve. Although she has yet to find out what living on the rez is all about. Her nomadic learning style has brought her across this land to foster growth as a contemporary storyteller at the En’owkin Centre, University of Victoria and the Banff Centre for the Arts. She has performed her poetry at many literary events in Ottawa, Montreal, Vancouver, Victoria, and Penticton. In addition to writing, Vera is also an emerging media artist. Her visual poems and other works have been screened at ImageNations Film and Video Festival, ImagineNative Film Festival, and Dawson City Film Festival. Vera has been honoured to receive the Louis Armstrong Literary Award and many grants and scholarships from the Canada Council for the Arts, Ontario Arts Council, BC Arts Council, National Aboriginal Achievement Foundation, City of Ottawa, and First Peoples Cultural Foundation. She currently lives in Nepean, Ontario with her two daughters.
Waaseyaa’sin Christine Sy is Ojibway Anishinaabe of mixed ancestry from the Treaty 3 area in Northwestern Ontario and Bawating (Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario) and presently resides in Williams Treaty (1923) area in Southern Ontario with her daughter. She affirms and promotes Anishinaabe life through multiple literary forms (i.e. poetry, short prose, short story, spoken word, storytelling) and photography. She is the winner of Briarpatch’s 2nd Annual Short Story Creative writing (fiction) contest (2013) and is the co-editor of Matrix Magazine’s first dossier of new Indigenous writing (autumn 2013). Christine is writing her first poetry manuscript, which illuminates biskaabiyaang, an Anishinaabe process of returning to self. She works in the field of Indigenous Literature and Creative Writing, and is a Ph.D. candidate in Indigenous Studies. Her blog, “Anishinaabeweziwin” can be accessed at firstname.lastname@example.org