“How can I share this?”: Sky Dancer Louise Halfe and the Poetics of Residential Schools

“Listen to the bones”

     -Louise Halfe, Blue Marrow

Louise Bernice Halfe

Sky Dancer Louise Bernice Halfe breathes life into silence. For more than twenty-five years, Halfe, who is Cree, from the Saddle Lake reserve and Treaty Six territory, has used Cree poetics to delicately craft voice out of silence: out of the unheard; out of the ongoing violence of Canada’s colonial history and out of the repression administered in Canadian residential schools.

Halfe, like her narrators, “hung[ers] / for voice” in a system designed around famine and, perhaps more than any other poet in Canada, Halfe’s work captures the danger that Indigenous peoples risk in breaking colonial silence. But while it bears witness to the unsaid, Halfe’s poetry also makes plain the labour, love, and healing that Indigenous people—particularly Indigenous women—dedicate towards sharing language, stories, and history. The poems in this collection, while a small sample of the breadth of Halfe’s work, aim to capture the poet’s ongoing engagement with the unsayable while highlighting the intimate, healing spaces she has carved out.

Writing the History of Residential Schools

Poetry traces out the unsayable. It outlines silence. It darts in and out between the perimeters of the impossible. But the unsayable that Halfe contends with is not always of a romantic, Wordsworthian order—although it often does reach towards the divine. Like residential schools, which are only a symptom of a larger, more systemic problem, the colonial narrative itself is always threatening to silence and erase Indigenous voices. Canadian poetry plays its own role here.

Take, for instance, Duncan Campbell Scott: on the one hand, as the author of poems such as “The Onondaga Madonna,” Scott is lauded as one of Canada’s great “Confederation Poets.” On the other hand, as the deputy superintendent of Indian Affairs, he is rightfully deplored as an architect of residential schools. Scott’s poetics (and his politics; each is inseparable from the other) aimed at assimilating and effacing Indigenous presence: “I want to get rid of the Indian problem,” Scott famously wrote.[1]

Read within the larger context of Canadian poetry, it becomes evident that when Halfe writes of the ineffable, or the barely-effable, she’s not attesting to the failure of language to capture and represent a thing, she is writing, more specifically, of the difficulty of Indigenous self-determination within political and poetic systems of terra nullius that actively work to erase and repress it.[2] In this sense finding voice, for Halfe, is not simply about speaking around and through settler colonialism, but, more paradoxically, articulating silence.  

Residential schools were designed, quite literally, to silence Indigenous peoples via violent assimilation policies. Students were punished for speaking in the language of their communities; siblings were separated and forbidden to communicate; even letters home were read by staff and edited for content.[3] In his classic history of residential schools, Shingwauk’s Vision, published in 1996, the historian, J.R. Miller unearthed records documenting an Oblate Principal’s insistence that residential school students remain “in silence practically all the time.”[4] Records also show that, as punishment for speaking her language, an Anishinaabe student was forced to write, “I won’t talk Indian anymore” five hundred times, under the threat of “be[ing] strapped, or made to kneel in a corner for half an hour.”[5]

Poetry and Poetics from Residential Schools Survivors

How does one articulate this kind of silence? Words that have been stolen away or buried deep inside? Experiences that can or will never be spoken? How does a poet trace these lines? How does poetry speak alongside, or against reconciliation? As the backdrop against which Indigenous voices are cast, the silence that historians have identified in Canada’s residential school system is rendered even more frighteningly lucid in survivor testimony. In Residential Schools: The Stolen Years (1993), a collection of writing by residential school survivors, including Halfe, Janice Acoose and Maria Campbell, Acoose speaks to the silence that resonates out of those schools:

As a child, I tried to tell anyone who would listen about those night visits to our dorm, the cruel punishments, and the deadly threats, but my voice was silenced by my family’s fears, the community pressure, and the church’s power. As a result I grew up believing that what I felt, heard, and saw was not real.[6]

Acoose’s testimony documents the ways in which silence permeates survivor consciousness, calling into question the possibility of their experiences, and upending their connection to the real. Like Acoose, Halfe’s early work contends with the residential school experience and the pervasive silence that quickly became reality for many students, but always with an eye towards healing.

Like Acoose and her parents before her, Louise Halfe is a residential school survivor. She was taken from her home at the age of seven and forced to attend Blue Quills Residential School, a federally sponsored and church operated school in St. Paul Alberta.

Her experiences at Blue Quills would go on to form the basis of much of her writing: from early poems such as “The Residential School Bus” (1993) and “Returning” (1993), published in Residential Schools, to her 2016 collection, Burning in this Midnight Dreamwhich contends explicitly with survivor experiences within the context of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) of Canada.

In her first published work, released in Writing the Circle: Native Women of Western Canada (1990), silence takes shape as an interlocutor.  The poem “Valentine Dialogue” is a dialogue in name only given that there is only one speaker, an Indigenous woman suffering from sexual abuse. Emulating the confessional, a recurrent theme in these poems, the narrator speaks to an unseen, and, in this case, unheard recipient. “Valentine Dialogue” uses the rez-english that Halfe will go on to perfect in Blue Marrow in order to tell this story:

Dired of dis crucifixion
Dew ya dink confession will help?
Dew ya dink penance will clean me?
Maybe I’ll be born again.
Guild, guild.
Da pain in my heart
hurts hurts. (84)

In focusing on Catholicism and the confession, the narrator of “Valentine Dialogue” draws attention to the ways in which guilt and voice are linked under settler colonialism as a means to silence Indigenous women.

In order to perceive herself as “clean” the narrator of this poem must articulate abuse committed against her as her own sin, rather than the depravity of the perpetrator. Speaking out therefore becomes a matter of speaking in, inasmuch as the means for bearing witness to abuse necessitates the narrator falsely implicating herself.

However, “Valentine Dialogue” is not simply a treatise on repressive colonial practices. It also demonstrates how Indigenous voices defy the silences of settler colonialism and generate spaces of resistance and love, through a practice of what Halfe calls, in Blue Marrow, riding english“. For instance, “guilt” comes out as “guild” in the narrator’s dialect. Heard as

“guild”, the second half of this passage cannot only be read as an admission of culpability, or remorse; it is also an appeal to a community to help her contend with the pain she is experiencing. In this sense, the reader is identified as the second half of the dialogue named in the poem’s title. The potential for resistance and renewal thus comes down to a matter of community built within the structure of the poetics themselves: as a matter of hearing, engaging, and bearing witness.

Poetry as Resistance and Resurgence

In the even deeper solitude of their perspective, however, the poems in Residential Schools convey a much different sense of alienation and loneliness than “Valentine Dialogue”. A detached observer-narrator, who provides a “fly on the wall” point of view of the student experience in residential schools, relates “The Residential School Bus.” In its sparse descriptions, short stanzas, and brisk line breaks, the poem brings form and content together to depict the profound estrangement experienced by students within the walls of residential schools:

At night the little ones
press their bodies
between cold starched sheets.
in the huge dorm
sobs quietly.

Punctuated by purposefully vague descriptors (“somewhere”, “someone”) sequestered in single lines of verse, “The Residential School Bus” proffers a cold, antiseptic space that strips children of their identity and connection to place: they become no one, no where. Indeed, while bodies and people take up a large portion of the space in this poem, silence is the primary character.

The only mention of sound lies here, in these final lines, with “quiet sobs” and an earlier mention of an “echo” in a “long white empty hallway”. The entire poem feels as if it is taking place in an oversized vacuum. The silence is dense, palpable, and smothering, but out of it Halfe traces the outlines of resurgence through the voices that lead us out of the darkness towards the possibility of healing rooted in the truth of these experiences.

Indeed, Halfe’s narrators, like Halfe herself, dedicate themselves to pushing silence back, (re)inserting themselves into the colonial narrative in order for Indigenous stories, Indigenous languages, and Indigenous peoples to survive, thrive, heal, and grow. But battling back against silence does not come without a cost.

The emotional energy and risk required in undertaking the labour of voice is conveyed in a vignette from Blue Marrow, told by âcimowinis, Keeper of the Stories. In this excerpt, an Indigenous woman shares a story about attending, with her children, the family reunion of her white husband. Each member of her husband’s extended family “has brought a book they’ve lovingly compiled” and as the settlers convene, they re-read, and, in doing so, re-substantiate the “heroics” of the colonial project:

… Laughter and wonder
as fingers move across the atlas. This is where
great-granddad Arne crossed on the barge.
This is where great-great-granddad travelled
and preached the law of the land where his
wife Isobel taught the little savages to read.

It is not a coincidence that each member of the white family carries a book in this passage. According to the Creek scholar and author Elizabeth Cook-Lynn, “the invasion of North America by European peoples has been portrayed in history and literature as a benign movement directed by God, a movement of moral courage and physical endurance, a victory for all humanity.”[7]

Of course, the (re)telling of this “benign” narrative, which Halfe captures in the above excerpt, is anything but. Told, and re-told, settler stories of courage and endurance naturalize and glorify systems that displace, dehumanize, erase and silence Indigenous people—even when, as in Halfe’s story, Indigenous people are in the room when those stories are told. In this sense, uncritical

tellings of the colonial narrative re-enact colonialism in that they contribute to the erasure of Indigenous presence and the persistent ideologies of terra nullius.

Indigenous Poetics: Breath and Whitespace

So how do Halfe’s poems breathe? According to Anishinaabe critic Niigaanwewidan James Sinclair, “Indigenous poetics are the intricate and intellectual acts of gifting words full of breath, rhythm and expression in the hopes they will be accepted in a world constituted by language.”[8] To write against colonialism is to find oneself in a room in which the walls are perpetually closing in.

Yet, within Halfe’s poems we get a deep sense of breath, of rhythm, of love, and of restoration. In the reunion excerpt, for instance, quoted above, Halfe’s Indigenous narrator and her children find themselves at the centre of a colonial storytelling project. The feeling of erasure is palpable for the narrator, as the stories from the settlers’ books and maps quite literally white out Indigenous histories before her eyes. The poem concludes with âcimowinis attempting to remedy the imposed whiteout by weaving a healing counter narrative for her children:

I tell them
how my relatives lived around the fort,
starving and freezing,
waiting for diluted spirits
and handouts from my husband’s family.
I tell them
how their little children died wrapped in
smallpox blankets.
My breath
won’t come anymore.
I stare
at the wheatfields.

Form and content come together as this section of Blue Marrow draws to a close. While the lines beginning the passage are long and descriptive, the majority of them containing ten to fifteen syllables, when âcimowinis begins to share her Indigenous histories, those lines become much shorter, with fewer syllables, echoing the loss of breath she describes in the penultimate sentence: “my breath / won’t come anymore.”

Indeed, breath and whitespace are intimately linked in this scene. Whitespace, the area of a page unoccupied by text or an image in a poem, is an important element of any poet’s craft. However, for Indigenous poets, in the context of silence and terra nullius, it takes on political contexts and meanings: “this chosen walk is a blizzard whiteout. / My Cree-ing alone in the heavy arm of snow,” Halfe writes in Blue Marrow, emphasizing the struggle of Indigenous poets to push back against settler colonial narratives and to nurture Indigenous voices in a colonial landscape.

The wheatfields, that great symbol of agricultural development, and therefore settler “ownership” of the land, are a literal example of white space as it marks the prairies, and physicalizes the narrator’s silence at the end of the reunion scene.

Mirroring the colonial landscape then, white space creeps into this poem as part of its structure and rhythm as well, punctuating the narratives that âcimowinis attempts to share and, at a gradually increasing rate, generating the effect of a story told between desperate gulps of air (“my breath won’t come anymore I stare at the wheatfields”).

The reader can hear how the short lines are punctuated by the speaker’s gasps. Yet the takeaway from this excerpt is not the narrator’s loss of breath—it is the very fact of her breath. The love with which she pushes back against silence and white space in order to share these stories, these âcimowinisa, with her children.

As Sinclair puts it, the words in these poems are of gifts of breath, passing from poet to reader through the lobes and alveoli of Halfe’s poetics. As the breath moves—in and out, in an out—between Halfe, and text, and reader, these poems become acts of resuscitation and renewal.

Bearing Witness with Poetry

Halfe’s commitment to breath and story constitute a poetics of witnessing. According to Kwagiulth (Kwakwaka’wakw) scholar and activist Sarah Hunt, bearing witness, within an Indigenous context, is a means of holding oneself accountable to one’s community: first by attentively listening to the stories and accounts of history than go unheard in the broader public discourse, and second by amplifying those voices and sheltering them against the din of settler colonialism.

According to Hunt, “witnessing… might be understood as a methodology in which we are obligated, through a set of relational responsibilities, to ensure frameworks of representation allow for the lives we have witnessed to be made visible.”[9] In witnessing stories, Hunt goes on to write, “[we are] obligated to ensure they are not denied, ignored or silenced.”[10]

As a witness to colonial history and for Indigenous people (namely Indigenous women and children), Halfe’s poetry is a conduit for silenced voices. Bearing witness, as it is defined across Halfe’s works, therefore often means holding space for those who cannot speak, or, more radically, holding space for the dead: “Weep for those who haven’t yet sung,” Halfe writes in Burning in this Midnight Dream: “Weep for those who will never sing.”

In Blue Marrow, for instance,the narrator testifies to her position as medium for, or—more succinctly—as collector and inheritor of these voices:

My hunt is without a rifle,
without a net,
my bone
filled with the fists of women
of the fur trade. 

The bone in this passage stands in for the pen through which Halfe testifies to the experiences of Indigenous women, women who can no longer speak for themselves, women who are dead and dying because of the ongoing effects of colonialism. “Blue marrow” is the ink that fills Halfe’s pen.

The stories she writes, or perhaps translates, are written with the bones of the dead—their marrow her ink. In this sense, Halfe is also writing, quite literally, with the “blue quills” of her residential school experience—re-appropriating a tool of colonial silence to bear witness to the attempted erasure of Indigenous children. Like the bones, or as an extension of the bones, Blue Quills becomes a tool through which to mark and hold up Indigenous experience.

As a methodology, or a “recipe for voice,” as she identifies it in Bear Bones & Feathers, Halfe’s poetics of witnessing make visible those who have been forced into silence, or who have lost their lives to the colonial system. Significantly, then, Halfe also bears witness for the children of residential schools who will never have the opportunity to share their stories, or for whom testimony to their experiences in those schools is impossible.

In The Crooked Good, for instance, she shares the story of wiyipiyiniw, or “filthy man,” a residential school survivor whose experiences were so traumatic that he cannot find the will, nor the words to express them:

I was shipped to St. Judas. Spoke little English
hid my Cree. Cut my braids. I thought someone died
I wanted charcoal to paint my cheeks. Father-What-A-Waste
became a hornet, unbuckled his belt. My breath ran those
hallways. I fought. His neck was a cobra. Sister threw ice water, a
scrub brush, lye soap. I burned. Forced cod-liver oil.
I vomited and vomited. Licked the floor.
Sacred old man buggered me. Bastards. How can I share this?

Wiyipiyiniw’s story captures the atrocities of residential schools, the sexual and physical abuse that ran rampant in these spaces,[11] but, more importantly, it marks their (im)possibility—by which I mean their actualization in testimony. Indeed, the story ends with an open recognition of this voice,

and voices like it, as a ghostly presence in the narrative, marked by italics and off set from the rest of the poem. The narrator himself also acknowledges the impossibility of registering his story, even as he attempts to mark it: “How can I share this?” he questions. How does he, and how do we, now as inheritors of this story, bear witness to the impossible?

In the poems in this collection, Halfe brushes us against the Truths that escape the capture of language. She calls us, as readers, to bear witness to the violence of residential schools and settler colonialism writ large.

When she demands that we “listen to the bones,” the quotation that opens this introduction and this collection, Halfe asks that we bear witness to those who cannot speak, and who will not speak. Importantly, the imperative is not a demand for others to speak.

It is not a call for those who have been harmed to re-open their wounds by sharing their stories. It is a petition to hear and to listen, as Halfe herself does—closely and compassionately—to silence.

By sure to buy Halfe’s latest, awâsis — kinky and dishevelled, longlisted for the League of Canadian Poets Prize!

For more reading on reconciliation and residential schools see 20 Books that Will Change How You Think About Canada.

Read more about Halfe’s poetry and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

Works Cited

Acoose, Janice. “Deconstructing Five Generations of White Christian Colonial Rule.” Ed. Linda Jaine. Residential Schools: The Stolen Years. Saskatchewan: University Extension Press, 1993. 3-13.

Cariou, Warren. “Edgework: Indigenous Poetics as Re-placement.” Indigenous Poetics in Canada. Neal McLeod, ed. Wilfrid Laurier UP, 2014.

Cook-Lynn, Elizabeth. “Why I Can’t Read Wallace Stegner.” Why I Can’t Read Wallace Stegner and Other Essays. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1996. 29-40.

First Nations Child & Family Caring Society of Canada. “The Legacy of Duncan Campbell Scott: More than just a Canadian Poet.” July 2016. Web. https://fncaringsociety.com/sites/default/files/Duncan%20Campbell%20Scott%20Information%20Sheet_FINAL.pdf 

Hunt, Sarah. “Researching Within Relations of Violence: Witnessing as methodology.” Contexts of Indigenous Research. Editors: D. McGregor and R. Johnston. (forthcoming).

Miller, J.R. Shingwauk’s Vision: A History of Native Residential Schools. University of Toronto Press, 1996.

Perreault, Jeanne and Sylvia Vance. Writing the Circle: Native Women of Western Canada. Alberta: NeWest Publishers Ltd., 1990.

Sinclair, Niigaanwewidan James. “The Power of Dirty Waters: Indigenous Poetics.” Indigenous Poetics in Canada. Neal McLeod, ed. Wilfrid Laurier UP, 2014.

Truth and Reconciliation Canada. Honouring the Truth, Reconciling for the Future:

Summary of the Final Report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada. Winnipeg: Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada, 2015.

[1] First Nations Child and Family Caring Society of Canada.

[2] At the onset of colonialism terra nullius (literally no man’s land)was a legal definition, a means of erasing Indigenous presence on a territory so that settlers could claim it. For Métis author and critic Warren Cariou, however, terra nullius is not simply an historical reference; it has deep resonances in contemporary settings as well, including in literary spaces: “Indigenous space has become terra nullius in terms of being a wasteland, as something that doesn’t even register in the colonial mindset at all Cariou writes (35).  Terra nullius, as it exists today, is the persistent and ongoing erasure of Indigenous presence from the land, from the history, from literature and from language.

[3] Miller,311.

[4] Miller, 202.

[5] Miller, 204.

[6] Acoose, 6.

[7] Cook-Lynn,29.

[8] Sinclair, 208.

[9] Hunt, 1.

[10] Hunt, 9.

[11] Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada,103-112.

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