“Riding English”: Tradition and Innovation in Louise Bernice Halfe’s Blue Marrow

Skydancer Louise Bernice Halfe

At the beginning of the long poem Blue Marrow, âcimowinis (the keeper of the stories) imagines and introduces nôhkom Emma, a strong-willed, adventurous, grandmother. Colonialism has fragmented much of Emma’s history, but âcimowinis uses what she knows of her from stories and pictures to stitch Emma’s history back together and mend her own genealogy.

Reflecting again on the origins of the light-coloured skin that runs in her family, âcimowinis notes,

Guess you could say that about my father too, white-skinned Indian, though nimasôm and Adeline were Indian. as Indian as me anyway. Where else would nôhkom Emma learn to ride English? But nôhkom Emma, there was nothing white woman about her. (My emphasis. Coteau 8)

Riding English, Poetry in Motion

To “ride English” refers to a British style of horse riding, without the deep seat, high cantle or saddle horn seen on a Western saddle. English riding is typically seen as giving the horse more freedom to move.

In this passage however, to “ride English” also refers to the ways in which nôhkom Emma, and the narrator herself, are able mobilize the English language toward their own purposes, without forfeiting their Indigenous selves. As the narrator emphasizes above, nôhkom Emma may ride English, but there is “nothing white woman about her”.

In this sense, Halfe establishes “Riding English” is a decolonial act, a poetics of resurgence and revitalization that straddle Western forms as a means to transport and dissemination Indigenous language, culture and politics. 

In the words of Seminole-Creek art historian Mary Jo Watson, what makes Indigenous culture so unique and so persistent is Indigenous peoples’ “ability to take a foreign material, or a foreign technology, and make it” their own. The process of using colonial technologies to deliver traditional messages provides a dynamic culture of changing continuity in Indigenous communities. Louise Bernice Halfe makes this plain in her use of Cree poetics in the long poem Blue Marrow, a poetics that mount, straddle and command English in order communicate an Indigenous history which that same language works to disavow.

Sky Dancer Louise Bernice Halfe

Louise Bernice Halfe, is an award winning Cree poet based in Saskatchewan. She was forced to attend the Blue Quills Residential School and is the author of three books of poetry: Bear Bones & Feathers (1994), Blue Marrow (1998/2005), The Crooked Good (2007). Halfe was Saskatchewan’s poet laureate from 2005-2006, a finalist for the Governor General’s award for poetry in 1998 and the recipient of the Milton Acorn People’s Poet Award. I have been reading and writing about Halfe’s work, particularly Blue Marrowsince 2005 and, in terms of poetic methodology and storytelling, I regard her as one of the best poets currently living in Canada. (click here to watch her read from Bear Bones & Feathers)

What I would like to focus on in this post is not Halfe’s poetry per se, but rather the ways in which we might argue that its materiality, i.e. the way it is produced as a text, inflects how it is read: how does the form of Blue Marrow dictate its critical reception? Addressing this question should be of interest not only to those who do work in Indigenous studies, but also to those working in print culture, because of the ways in which Halfe’s decisions to revise change the meaning and reception of the text(s).

Material approaches to Indigenous literature provide new avenues for thinking about the relationship between Indigenous languages and literary criticism while demonstrating how Indigenous authors and poets “ride” Western forms in order to provoke healing and resurgence.

M&S Edition, 1998.
McLelland and Stewart editing of Blue Marrow (1998)

Blue Marrow

Blue Marrow provides an important point of access here because it was published in two very different editions, the first, by McClelland and Stewart in 1998 and the second by Coteau in 2005. While both were released under the same title, and contain roughly the same content–a history of colonialism in Canada as told through the stories and memories of the narrator’s family–these “Blue Marrows” have a number of material changes that compel readers to question their immediate reactions to the text and the validity of the tools they might use to unpack it.

The differences between the two editions ask us to readdress our critical assumptions about the text and its “intent”. We might ask: if the same analysis cannot be layered onto both Blue Marrows, is it fair to say this is the same text? Do we need to treat these two editions as different books altogether? And, if so, how and why should we be altering our approaches?

Blue Marrow itself expresses a fraught connection between the idea and its material form. During a  particularly metacritcal moment in the text the narrator reflects on the implications of translating her ideas into a medium that exceeds her control. Halfe writes:

My words get in your way.
I feel your sting
My printer refuses to feed my leaves
A squirrel stakes out
the sink
I feed him my apple.
My printer sins. (Coteau 33)

Combined with the image of the apple, the printer (which  we can correctly interpret as both the machine on her desk and the publisher she sends her manuscript off to) is identified as original sin. The “leaves” she would like to use, i.e. the pages which will frame how the text will be received, are not compatible with the technology she is forced to use in order to make her ideas, like the apple, consumable.

Coteau edition
Coteau Books edition (revised with glossary, 2005)

This passage makes us aware of the way in which Halfe herself struggles with the ways in which the materiality of the book, a predominantly European form, influences her work, a notion which makes her decision to republish, to feed new leaves into the printer, even more interesting.

The image of the apple–a slur used to refer to an Indigenous person who has lost touch with their heritage (“red on the outside, white on the inside”)–draws further attention to the narrator’s anxiety over whether she is betraying her Cree heritage to a Western form, which, perhaps, can never adequately convey her history. Her “words get in the way” inasmuch as the signifier is abstracted from the signified and her “Cree-ing” (15) is distorted by Western form.

Blue Marrow and Cree Poetics

There are a number of production changes between the first and second editions which one can analyze to unpack the problem of the book as such and develop a version theory of Blue Marrow. The Coteau edition includes a new cover, added sections, in-text glosses, and a seven page Cree-to-English glossary at the end of the text. For my purposes here, the latter two changes, particularly the glossary, are of special importance because of the way Halfe uses the Cree language in her poetry.

Blue Marrow is distinctive for its use of Cree words and phrases. âcimowinis, The Keeper of the Stories, is our guide through the text and along the way we also encounter nôhkom âtayôhkan (The Keeper of Sacred Legends), ohkomipanak (Eternal Grandmothers who speak) and môniyaw-kisêyiniw (Old white man). We are also confronted entire passages in Cree:

pê-nîhtaciwêk, nôhkomak.
kwâhkotêw, nipônênân.
pê-nîhtaciwêk, nôhkomak.
ê-sôhkêpayik. kimaaskihkîm.
pê-nîhtaciwêk, nôhkomak.
kitimâkinawinân. sawêyiminân.
(Coteau 16-17)

The first edition provides little or no gloss for the Cree sections and this has served as a major point of analysis for literary critics, who draw attention to the ideological importance of Halfe’s choice not to include a glossary. According to Meira Cook, the absence of a glossary in the McClelland and Stewart edition “is an editorial choice that signals [Halfe’s] acknowledgment that she is not writing predominantly for a white, English-speaking audience” (Cook 93). For Cook, an Indigenous readership is interpellated by the language itself, both implying and creating a Cree literary community while simultaneously estranging the non-Cree reader.

Similarly, Shelley Stigter (Cree) argues that “since no glossary is included, Halfe leaves the reader to rely on context to gain understanding, or he/she must do outside research.”[1] For Stigter, the lack of a glossary has very real effects on how the text is read and the additional work the non-Cree reader must put in in order to understand the richness and subtly of the narrative.

Both Cook and Stigter argue for an alienation effect of language in Blue Marrow as a productive element of the text’s poetics. For these critics, by estranging the non-Cree reader, Halfe incites a more radical interaction with Indigenous culture and the history of colonization. In order to make this point succinct, both critics appeal to an inside/outside binary in order to give the text its shape. According to Cook, “the untranslated word… situates a trope of incomprehensibility that functions to mark the non-Cree outside, as opposed to his/her habitual mode of fluent language user in the North American context where the linguistic currency is English” (93).

In other words, the form of Blue Marrow, in its first edition, plays a primary role in conveying its politics: through the lack of a glossary, the colonizer/colonized dichotomy is inverted. It is the non-Cree reader that is pushed outside a familiar landscape (i.e. the book itself).

By turning to Stigter’s reading of a passage from Blue Marrow we can flesh out the potential productivity of alienation a bit more. This is from the first edition of Blue Marrow:

The medicines they’ve thrown
to thorn my path
I’ve gathered, the Bundles
given to amisk, iskotwêw
and the swan. (M&S 23)

According to Stigter’s reading of this passage,

 The reader is left to guess through context the meanings of “amisk” and “iskotwew.” This passage shows not only dialectic separation of Cree and English, it also carries cultural meaning regarding the medicine bundles that is not made explicit…. Since cultural meaning is not clarified for the non-Aboriginal reader, the connection of the medicine bundles to the animals is lost upon them. The dialectic [between culture and knowledge] then becomes more apparent. (Stigter 2006)

In other words, the use of Cree displaces its non-Indigenous readers and compels them away from of the text: towards the “outside research” she mentions earlier, which is here clarified more specifically as being cultural and historical investigation. As both Cook and Stigter agree, as long as the reader is willing to do his or her cultural/historical homework, the lack of a glossary revitalizes Cree as a living language and challenges the non-Cree reader’s propensity to view the text as something they can control or know in its entirety. Blue Marrow thus becomes a way to disrupt the smooth flow of discourse that maintains the colonial status quo.

Glossaries in Indigenous Literature

However, with the addition of a glossary, the newer edition does not necessarily force its readers to go outside the text to find meaning. Clarification is readily available in the text itself and the “guessing” which Stigter privileges as such a critical aspect of the poem, can no longer be identified as such an explicit issue. For better or for worse, in the sense that Cook and Stigter argue for, the glossary makes Blue Marrow a more contained entity, insofar as the reader does not have to move “outside the text” for clarification. In reading the same passage I just cited above, the reader can almost instantly learn the Cree meaning of “amisk” and “iskotwew” without putting the poem down and turning to a secondary source. (“Amisk” means beaver “iskotwew” fire).

In personal correspondence, Halfe told me that accessibility was one of her reasons for deciding to add a glossary:

To re-publish one must add and it also gave me the opportunity to respond to the people who are too lazy to research who claimed the original Blue Marrow was inaccessible, it is the same reason for the glossary. Most people do not bother to think that there are Cree dictionaries available.

So there is a sense, from the author herself, that while the 1st edition holds the potential to invite its readers into a deeper understanding of Cree culture and language, critics (including myself) that would like to use this trope as a starting point, perhaps underestimate the apathy of the reader. Instead of inciting him or her to find a Cree dictionary, Native speaker, or even an online resource, and thus engage with the language and culture in a more profound way, the Cree word without a gloss actually has the potential to (re)establish itself as a dead letter with in an English system.

The “meaningless” word is something to skim over or ignore, rather than being approached as part of a vital language. In this sense, the alienation effect that we, as critics, might be inclined to privilege, actually has the potential contribute to the (fallacious, yet unfortunately prominent) idea that Indigenous languages are dead or dying, that Cree cannot be revitalized by, or help to revitalize an English context.

Louise Halfe, Blue Marrow (Kegendonce Books, 2022)

Structuralism allows us to think through the issue of the “dead letter” in more detail. In structuralist theory a word is brought to life in the readers movement through the text. Not only are later ideas informed by earlier contexts, but readers are also compelled to move backwards to see how new understanding inflects earlier representations.

As Vladimir Nabokov famously put it, “there is no reading, only re-reading.” For instance, at the end of the text, we find that the Butler really did do it, it is always interesting to return to an earlier chapter, armed with our new knowledge, to locate the clues that were previously invisible to us.

Detective fiction is only an exaggerated example: reading is never just a forward progression; we are constantly, if not unconsciously, moving backwards through a text to fill in gaps that an author (purposely or not) leaves in the construction of story.

I argue that by adding a glossary to the second edition of Blue Marrow, Halfe amplifies this process by asking the reader to move back and forth through the text, encouraging the reader to “grow” the Cree word in relation to the English context it is planted in.

To borrow from Halfe the glossary presents the reader with a new way to “ride English” as it necessitates a continuous movement across the material landscape of the poem. Rather than simply receiving meaning, we are asked to help produce it through a particular interaction with Cree language and the materiality of the text.

The words are made alive by compelling the reader to trace them through Blue Marrow, creating a linguistic dynamism that is not as readily available in the 1st edition. By tracing the word to the glossary and back, the reader revitalizes the Cree word and the passage itself by connecting it to larger webs of meaning that are implicit to the poem itself.

Materialism and Indigenous Poetics

To push this idea a little further, the glossary in Blue Marrow also makes us very aware of the text as text, as a material object, that requires a specific performative interaction with its content. Suddenly, pages and spelling themselves become a vital aspect of our ability to negotiate the poem, and the “dead letter” becomes a living form that is (re)activated as we map out meaning through the pages. In emphasizing its materiality, forcing the reader to interact with it on a sensual level, the second edition of Blue Marrow draws attention to the way in which Cree can inflect our understanding of the text qua text, how reading itself is a performative interaction with the words on the page, as opposed to the passive reception of a constative report.

As such, it is important to note that in how it calls for a certain performance from its readers, this glossary also challenges the idea that meaning in Cree language is something that necessarily exists outside of the text itself, i.e. in culture and history, a notion which Cook and Stigter presuppose. By emphasizing the importance of the lack of a glossary, both of these critics tacitly make a case that presupposes “outside research” as the primary hermeneutic tool for investigating the Indigenous text. The “alienation effect” of language they privilege forces the reader out of the poem itself in order to discover the meaning Halfe is working with.

However, while the second edition surely can stake a similar claim to a cultural hermeneutic, the Coteau version of Blue Marrow, is not only about how culture and history shapes language, it is also about how text shapes language itself. Blue Marrow demonstrates how language is performed within a closed system to create meaning. This has important implications for how Indigenous texts can be perceived within the “modern” world of the written word.

Louise Halfe Sohkeyihta (Wilfrid Laurier Press, 2018)

By presenting itself as a closed system, the reader is not compelled to turn outwards in order to locate the meaning of a “foreign” language in a Western form, he or she is asked to view it as “Native” to the text itself. The Cree words belong properly to the entire constellation of meaning Halfe is working with, in both English and Cree, and thus must be read in relation to that system.

To treat the Cree words as if they have no connection to Halfe’s English, as if they were entirely other to the text itself (thus necessitating outside research to guarantee them), is to contribute to the idea that Cree and English are entirely incompatible, the Cree cannot “ride English” (or, for that matter that English cannot ride Cree) in order to convey meaning.


As such, close reading and material approaches to the text become more applicable than the cultural or historical analysis that Stigter and Cook emphasize in the first edition. For example, using the glossary, the reader learns that wêpinâsowin, can mean five different things: something thrown in the wind, a flower print, material that flows in the wind, an offering, or a flag.

It is up to the reader to use the text itself to understand how and why each definition fits into the passage in question. But the glossary also asks us to enact a kind of performance of wêpinâsowin adding another layer of meaning to the word.

As we fan through the pages looking for meaning, Blue Marrow itself becomes a material that flows in the wind, a poem caught in the breeze of our own interpretive process. Indeed, the “play” of language Halfe evokes with language such as wêpinâsowin again adds a new vitality to the word, not as set or stagnant meaning, but as a process that can be continually (re)animated and (re)developed by considering the word in relation to its material structure, not only its cultural or even textual implications. Imbibed with the meanings from the glossary, wêpinâsowin is no longer a dead letter, impenetrable and stagnant, but a vital and volatile element of the text itself.

In conclusion, I would suggest that while cultural/historical analysis is certainly a relevant and informative way to unpack Blue Marrow (in either edition), it also risks foreclosing material readings of the text itself by insisting, in an inversion of parental law, that the reader go outside to “ do his homework” before going inside the text to play. This kind of thinking can perpetuate the idea that the form of the book necessarily colonizes Indigenous language and that some sort of supplement is always necessary to liberate it. However, the Coteau version of Blue Marrow demonstrates the Indigenous text’s ability to stand and fight on its own, to “ride English” confidently and with purpose.

As the passage I begin this blog post with indicates, Halfe is certainly cautious of the colonial implications of the printed form, but her readiness to republish Blue Marrow, to jam new leaves into the printer, also demonstrates her willingness to continue to challenge this formulation.

[1] It is important to note that this article was published after the release of the 2nd edition. Stigter is either ignoring the Coteau pressing or choosing to see these books as two distinct entities.

For a more extensive reading of Blue Marrow and Halfe’s poetics as read alongside the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada order a copy of The Theatre of Regret: Literature, Art and the Politics of Reconciliation in Canada

One comment

  1. […] “Riding English”: Cree Poetics in English Literature […]

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