Meditations on the Medicine Line: Naomi McIlwraith on Writing a Book at the Boundary Between English and Cree
Historically, Aboriginal peoples called the 49th parallel the “Medicine Line” for its peculiar ability to stop American troops pursuing Natives heading north, so I find my current task to write a blog for the 49th Shelf about what it was like to write a single book in English and Cree a sweet and ticklish irony. I am a proud and defiant Canadian, yet I smile knowingly because language does not stop conveniently or obediently at an imaginary boundary. And the 49th parallel thrives in our minds’ eyes, so I appreciate the challenge to share my experience at the border between language and perception.
Twice this past week I approached a Cree-speaking person in my subconscious desire to bridge the deep chasm dividing Canada’s mainstream culture and Aboriginal people. That’s what I tried to do in writing the poems that form the collection kiyâm. I remember purposefully hefting this strangely abstract weight as if I could write all the wrongs of our collective Aboriginal history, as if I could convince all non-Aboriginal Canadians that they might take an interest in our First Nations and Métis history, as if I could convince all Aboriginal people that not all white Canadians are to blame. As if. How naïve I was to think that I could wield the political and social influence to facilitate a peaceful dialogue between two immensely polarized peoples.
It’s Wednesday night and I take my Mom for dinner at the Royal Fork Buffet, a lowbrow restaurant in the lowbrow neighbourhood of West Jasper Place, Edmonton, Alberta, Canada. Across the parking lot a pump jockey refuels a thirsty sport utility vehicle at Domo Gas, just as I did more than thirty years ago at this exact location of my second job. In the restaurant, Mom and I are already halfway through our meal when three Aboriginal women enter the Royal Fork. I can hear the older woman teasing the East Indian host who takes her payment for three meals, instructing the Filipino meat cutter to cut the roast beef into thin slices and not to put too much on the plate, and later conversing with the Chinese woman who gathers up all the dirty plates onto the dish cart. The Aboriginal woman asks the Chinese woman how many grandchildren she has. The Chinese woman has one grandchild, the Aboriginal woman three. This much they have in common: their grandmotherly status. The Aboriginal woman is loud, dynamic, with a joy as deep and broad and wide as her presence. I feel drawn to this delightful woman, and Mom tells me that the Aboriginal woman is a dead ringer for my grandmother’s cousin Hattie Park. On our way out, we pass the joyful woman and her companions; Mom smiles at her and the woman says an enthusiastic, “Hi!” in response. As we approach the door, I say to Mom, “I should ask her if she speaks Cree,” because earlier I had heard the woman call to one of her companions, “âstam!” Expecting some reticence on Mom’s part, I am surprised to hear her say, “Why don’t you go and talk to her?”
Approaching a medicine line, I say, “kinêhiyawân cî?” as my Dad has said so many times before me. The woman, looking only a wee bit surprised, answers me with, “You’re asking me if I speak Cree. Well, sure I do, but I’m not Cree…I’m Dene.” “Wow,” I say. “How do you know Cree then?” “Well, I was taken away from my parents for seven years to live at the residential school at Hobbema. That’s how I know Cree.” I can make sense of this because even though residential schools did much to “kill the Indian in the child” by punishing Aboriginal children for speaking their mother tongues, I know children enough to know that they will teach each other what they need to know to live and play and be. I also know this woman’s mother tongue, Dene, is a language that crossed the imaginary boundary of the 49th parallel sometime in our history so that speakers of Apache and Navaho share some linguistic relationships with northern Dene speakers. Somehow this woman is trilingual in a province where monolingualism was policy for all of the twentieth century. Somehow, this woman learned Cree outside the classroom walls at the Ermineskin Indian Residential School. I am learning that some boundaries are not so imaginary.
“Where are you from?” I ask. “Cold Lake,” she says. Mom is there beside me, and, if you are blind, you will not see how unbelievably much I look like her, and, if you are colour blind, you will not see that my Mom is a beautiful light brown, while I am a whiter shade of pale. In fact, you’d have to be deaf not to know that we are mother and daughter because we even sound alike. Only my brother and my sister can tell which of us is which on the telephone. Mom tells the woman about Dad, who grew up at Frog Lake, Fishing Lake, and the Elizabeth Métis Colony, all Cree-speaking communities east-northeast of Edmonton. I tell the woman my name and my mother’s name, and she tells us she is Marie and that she recently went to Frog Lake in her job as a social worker. She tells us she came out of retirement to become a social worker; we exchange a few other pleasantries, and this woman’s happy lack of resentment is refreshing.
It’s early afternoon on Good Friday, and my brother-in-law has just bought me another fast-food lunch at the Royal Alexandra Hospital canteen. My sister has just had a hip replacement two days ago. As Dave and I rise to leave the canteen, I see a handsome and somewhat familiar Cree man with long, thin, grey braids. When I see the name Carl on the right shoulder of his black jacket and the words “Pê Nêhiyawê Society” on the back of his jacket, I recognize him as a musician and singer. Dave returns to Charlene’s room, and I stay back to say, “tânisi,” to this Cree man. “namôya nânitaw. kiya mâka?” he says in response. I revert back to English, my Cree being suspect at best, but I go back-and-forth shaking in my shoes. I tell him my name, who I am, that my Dad was a white man who spoke Cree brilliantly, that my Mom is a beautiful Métis woman, and that I am a crazy white woman trying to speak Cree—“ê-môhco-môniyâwiskwêwiyân.” I tell this handsome man I know him because I have one of his CDs, but I can’t remember his surname. “Quinn. Carl Quinn.” A small Cree boy sits across from him and I say, “tânisi,” and extend my hand. His tiny brown hand grasps my bigger white hand. Tiny? Bigger? Brown? White? Where might the medicine line be in all this?
Carl and Skylar have just sat down to eat their burgers and fries, so I say, “I’ll go, so you can eat while your food is hot. I’m sorry but, môya ê-nihtâ-nêhiyawêyân.” Carl says, “piko ê-sôhkatoskêyan—you must work hard,” and I
manage to suppress the tears always so close to the surface when I step across the divide like this, in memory of my Dad and in honour of both my Dad and my Mom.
“kiyâm” is the last poem in my book kiyâm, and I offer a brief quotation here:
“kiyâmapi,” nipêhtawâw awiyak ê-itwêt,
“mah! kêhte-ayak ê-ayamihâcik.”
“Shhhh,” I hear someone saying,
“Listen. The Elders are praying.”
This is what it’s like to write a single book in two languages, when I speak only one of these languages with about as much poise as a linebacker wearing figure skates. This is what it’s like to write a single book at the boundary between English and Cree. This is what it’s like to write a single book in English and Cree a few hundred miles north of the Medicine Line at the border between truth and understanding.
Naomi McIlwraith serves as the current president of the Edmonton Stroll of Poets (2012-2013). Born and raised in Edmonton, Alberta, she has lived in Jasper, Yellowknife, Calgary, and Camrose, but once again calls Edmonton home. She has had a number of poems and essays published and her first book kiyâm was released by the Athabasca University Press in May 2012. Spring is a fitting time to publish kiyâm because Naomi’s spirit of adventure always gets the best of her at this time of year: she canoed from Rocky Mountain House, Alberta to Thunder Bay, Ontario in 1989, and she cycled across Canada in 1995. Her knees hurt sometimes now, so walking is a real privilege and it helps her find an outlet for too much thinking. Naomi is blessed to live near her family and to be able to continuing canoeing and cycling and reading and thinking and writing and teaching and talking.