First published in 1996, Marilyn Dumont’s debut – A Really Good Brown Girl – was reprinted thirteen times and later republished as part of Brick Books’ classic series in 2013.
In Lee Maracle’s introduction, she talks about keeping a worn copy next to her bed, taking good care of it.
Like it “was made of ancient birchbark scrolls”. How she would wash her hands before reading.
This is what happens when books are sacred. “No other book so exonerates us, elevates us and at the same time indicts Canada in language so eloquent it almost hurts to hear it.”
Marilyn Dumont’s “Letter to Sir John A. MacDonald” begins “Dear John: I’m still here and half-breed / after all these years”.
In “Memoirs of a Really Good Brown Girl”, she writes: “Some learning theories say that native kids learn best by watching, because they’re more visual. I always knew that I learned by watching to survive in two worlds and in a white classroom.”
It’s parenthetical, and one realises, while reading these poems, that Marilyn Dumont is willing to share not only plain-speech commentary but parenthetical observations.
This is a reread for me, but it feels fresh in its tidy new package; when I first read it, the cover was pink and glossier, and in my memory the pages were ultra-white and the binding tight.
This time, I was in the midst of reading the last of L.M. Montgomery’s Anne books, The Blythes Are Quoted, a reissue of her final manuscript, which was originally published as The Road to Yesterday, heavily edited to remove all the problematic subject matter (like adultery and talk of the loss of life in wartime which verged on being unpatriotic); what was not edited out was the story with the character of Squaw Girl.
In Marilyn Dumont’s “Squaw Poems”, she writes: “Indian women know all too well the power of the word squaw. I first heard it from my mother, who used it in anger against another Indian woman. ‘That black squaw,’ she rasped. As a young girl, I held the image of that woman in my mind and she became the measure of what I should never be.'”
In Green Girl Dreams Mountains (2001, Oolichan Books), Marilyn Dumont’s palour and palette seems to shift slightly, but she is still writing from the memory of that “old school house / jut out of the flatness / like a misplacd monument / to the wanderings home and away / of an extended family of halfbreeds”. (“monuments, cowboys & indians, tin cans and red wagons”)
Still present is the quiet grieving at the tangible and intangible losses, the heritage of injustice which has played out in addiction and depression, as in further explorations of her father’s descent: “’til his spirit is sucked from his eye, and / he is taken again / ghosted away /from the one who is my father / into a stranger, into an Indian / staggering down the street”. (“ghosted”)
But her indigenous identity is not the only means by which readers might relate to the work, but also a sense of the formless quotidien existence, from the working-class perspective: “stop at corners / look both ways, walk / to the number 4, appear / at work for eight hours, retrace / our steps home, lock the door behind us, feed / the cats, then ourselves, settle / back into our armchair with / newspaper, magazine or television monitor”. (“Salisbury”)
Despite the yearning for meaning, a stretching for a true (not prescribed) identity, persists and one thread remains secure: “‘What is it? What is it I am supposed to do?’ And the voice / that came back said ‘Write’ / and she knew that she had landed / once more / up/write”.
That Tongued Belonging (Kegedonce, 2007) opens with the title poem: “Cree survives in the words / my niece offers her tearful daughter, ‘It’s O.K. my girl.’ Words of belonging. The significance and sacredness of indigenous language is considered in the earlier volumes as well, but seems to move to the centre of the circle with this volume.
Language as a tool of oppression is examined as well, even in the second poem, ” this, is for the wives”, which considers the native women who were good enough to keep house and bear children until the proper white financees and wives were brought over to the “new world” to sit at the dinner table with their men once more.
Lines about the tedium of low-paid maintenance work share space with poems about the tedium of domestic work (like the litany of tasks in “what older sisters are good at”, from 15 shirts – and nearly as many pairs of pants – for pressing to holding it all together.
Necessarily and appropriately, there is a lot of anger in these poems, but there is also humour and persevernce, an appreciation of irony alongside a need for resistance. So “my breasts are sensible” made me smile and “inventory” made me cheer: there are so many ways to feel and these verses create a space for all of them. (The sad and angry poems are often my favourites.)
“do I think of minds that design
an extended family of threads into
story? do I think of the women and children
who survive mothering these textiles?
do I think of the plant’s yellow leaves?
whether it still grows, or if anyone
knows how to cultivate it? do I
think of the water needed and
if there is enough?”
(From “madder root”)
Most recently, The Pemmican Eaters (ECW Press – MisFit Press, 2015) includes a reprint of her “Letter to John A. MacDonald” from the first volume.
But here, Marilyn Dumont is viewing history slightly differently. Perhaps, in this sense, this entire collection is a letter to Gabriel Dumont.
“My family’s acknowledgement of our blood connection to Gabriel Dumont has taken a long time. I frequently found my lack of interest in history puzzling, fraught with a reluctance to approach a subject that seemed merely to recount the lives of famous men; I knew the history of women, like my mother, deserved retelling too. Perhaps this loyalty to my mother was part of the reason for not writing about Gabriel Dumont before now.” (“Our Gabriel”)
Questioning the way in which “we” personally and “we” politically view the past, and the ways in which “we” re-view the past from another perspective is core to these writings.
There are so many challenges looking backwards, as described in “Our Prince”, about Louis Riel.
“It’s not just that the path is narrow
but it’s also borrowed from
The epigraph which precedes “The Land She Came From” draws upon Reverend Henry Ward Beecher, looking back to the mid-1800s: “If men had wings and bore black feathers, few of them would be clever enough to be crows.”
And, yet, sometimes it is easier to define how NOT to do this, easier to identify what is not helpful:
“no, what we don’t need is
another expert who can be bought by industry and government
to lead us to our own destruction” (“What We Don’t Need”)
What we don’t need are more images of “good Indians”.
“We ride, Pahaska, the showman marshalling the re-enacment of the Battle of Little Big Horn, a bison hunt, a train robbery, the attack of a burning cabin, we ride whooping pageantry, in mock battle before the Improved Order of the Red Men, we show Indians, those of the horse and buffalo culture given a final chnce to be ourselves and many had a good time playing Indian; the only safe kind to be” (“The Showman & Show Indians”)
But it is so difficult to acknowledge the past, to witness the suffering and injustice, but not at the expense of the present, still affording opportunities to move through the present and to work towards another way of being.
“I want to forget the 192 amended Criminal Code of Canada
and its three-year time limit on scrip fraud
And finally I want to forget the number of Metis
less than one percent
who hold property from that scrip today”
(“To a Far Country”)
How do we both remember and forget. Here in this country.
These four books are counted towards my reading for the 10th Canadian Book Challenge. My sign-up post is here (and you can still sign up, too!) and I’ve previously read these other works by indigenous writers for the challenge: Robert Arthur Alexie’s Porcupines and China Dolls, Paul Seesequasis’ Tobacco Wars, Harold Johnson’s Charlie Muskrat, Editor Hope Nicholson’s Moonshot: Indigenous Comics, Tracey Lindberg’s Birdie, Richard VanCamp’s Angel Wing Splash Pattern, and the Summary Report of the Truth and Reconciliation Committee.
Have you read some of these? Care to recommend another title or author?