2015 Review: Languages of our land - Indigenous Poems and Stories from Quebec

 Languages of our Land

Rich and compelling, writers reach emotional depth

Languages of Our Land 
Published by Banff Centre Press

Reviewed by Shari Narine 
Windspeaker Contributor

Languages of Our Land is a compelling collection of works by
12 emerging and established Indigenous writers living in Quebec,
published by Banff Centre Press.

The original work is in French, which is included side-by-side with
the English translation. For English only readers, the English
translation is rich and captivating.

And for lucky readers of French, one can only imagine how much richer
and more captivating both the prose and the poetry – especially the
poetry, with the special attention that must be paid to rhythm and flow–
must be.

And what if the stories could have been related in the true first
languages of the authors – Wendat, Innu-aimun, Cree or Algonquin? The
writing would have been even more beautiful. However, although the
writers did not use their mother tongues, it is evident that the writing
is influenced by the lived culture and the original language.

The writers have all been touched by the Indian residential school
experience. Indeed, a couple of the poets use the word “genocide” to
talk about what happened to their families, their communities, their way
of life.

“Cultural genocide” was the phrase spoken by Truth and Reconciliation
Commission Chair Murray Sinclair to sum up the federal government’s
policy of Indian residential schools.

In “Dust of our Blood,” poet Jean Sioui writes, “My father … /One day
you were the trapper/the next day you were the trapped/My father …/One
day you were the hunter/the next day you were the hunted.” It is easy to
feel the loss of a way of life and of culture in those few simple
lines. The work of Sioui, who is Wendat from the Bear Clan, is the first
in the collection and sets the tone for what is to come.

In “Lost Origin,” Manon Nolin’s despair is clear in her words: “I
turned away from my origins/I lost my heart of a child/I don’t know who I
am/Am I Innu?/Am I other? I am rootless.”

The way of life, of what it has become, is captured honestly in the
thoughts of an old woman:  “Poor Marie trying to get away from her man
when the bottle turned him mean.” Simple, straightforward, and bare is
the work provided by Carole Labarre in the short story, “Pishimuss.”

These poignant words capture the struggle of a people who have lost
seven generations to Indian residential schools. With no culture, no
language, no spiritual practises, where does the strength and direction
come from to move beyond hurt and self-destructive coping techniques?

Not all the poems and short stories are about loss.

“Though the shadows of residential schools/hovers still over our
communities/I know today’s youth will find there/a way to free
themselves,” writes Real Junior Leblanc in the poem “Uprooted
Childhood.”

And in “Day by Day,” Melina Vassiliou writes about hope: “my son’s
pure gaze/his winning smile/my son’s pure gaze/my winning smile/day by
day.”

In the greys and blacks of loss, the writers also share the bright colours of hope.

Writes Virginia Pesemapeo Bordeleau in the poem “Women’s Declaration
of Peace,” the final selection of the anthology, “Peace is an answer/to
all the wounds inflicted/on our dignity,/day after day./Peace is the
condition of our healing.”

Languages of Our Land was written at the Banff Centre in
Alberta. Says editor Susan Ourious in her introduction, “In the majestic
setting of the Rockies, the chosen Canada Council writers were given an
opportunity to reunite with the land, the river, the forests and the
sky.” That reunion has created a stirring collection of prose and
poetry.