The Effects of Settler Colonialism on Indigenous Self Identity, Culture, Family and Land Connection

During the fall of 2020, graduate students in the Ryerson University English Department’s Literatures and Modernity program worked on digital criticism projects that reflected on Indigenous literature in Canada and feminist forms of testimony. This post originally appeared on graduate student Selena Jodha’s Medium bog.

Who is Brandi Bird and Where do They Come From?

Brandi Bird is Saulteaux and Cree from the Treaty 1 territory, in the area now known as Winnipeg, Manitoba. Bird is part of two Indigenous communities: the Saulteaux and the Cree. The Saulteaux is a part of a larger tribe known as Ojibwa, located in what is now the northern United States and southern Ontario and Manitoba. The Cree, also a part of Ojibwa, occupy a large area of Saskatchewan, from the northern woodlands to the southern plains.

The word Saulteaux comes from the French word saulteurs, which translates to “people of the rapids.” This dates back to the seventeenth century when French explorers and missionaries entered the area around Sault Ste. Marie, on Lake Superior, and referred to the Indigenous community living near the water as the saulteurs. The European settlers and the Saulteaux came together to trap and trade and it wasn’t until the fur-trade rivalry between the French and English that the alliances were broken. The Cree, who are one of the largest Indigenous groups in Saskatchewan, have three main distinctions in relation to dialect and culture: Plains, Woodland and Swampy. The term Cree was derived from the French distinction of the Ojibway term Kinistino, yet the proper term in the Plains Cree language is nēhiyawak. In 1740, they began to move towards the Prairies with the fur trade, and became a middleman in their alliance with the Saulteaux and Assiniboine when trading with other indigenous tribes, the English and the French.

The Treaty 1 area was entered in August 1871 at Lower Fort Gerry, which includes many Canadian communities such as Winnipeg, the one of the more well known Canadian communities — at least to my Ontarian knowledge. Bird comes from Treaty 1, containing both Lake Manitoba and Lake Winnipeg fall into the area, which are significant markers in their poetry and perhaps to their identity within their community. As well, Birds relation to the prairies and bodies of water draws back into their heritage as both a Cree and Saulteaux.

Poetic Devices in “I am Still Too Much”

In “I am Still Too Much” Bird uses many literary techniques such as metaphors, imagery, repetition, and allegories to approach the trauma of healing within many Indigenous spheres, including navigating family, culture and tradition. In “At My Grandmas Funeral ” Bird powerfully opens their chapbook by using their words to capture both a sense of loss and belonging in their home territory, as well as to portray their loss of culture and family:

“I am a stone mausoleum

with a rough lip asking my Dad to teach

me anishinaabemowin. He tries

and in the silence my syllables skip like stones off of Lake Manitoba

and my Dad’s hand on my back

says Some day. (Bird 9).”

By referring to themselves as a stone mausoleum, they are embodying the identity of an “above ground tomb.” In relation to colonial violence in Canada, not to mention globally, Indigenous peoples were taken from their homes and ripped of their culture to appease Eurocentric societal norms and in doing so, entombed generations of Indigenous peoples from the entirety of what their culture could have been. By feeling like a mausoleum when trying to learn their language, they are using their textual self to represent how their cultural words cannot breach the entombed person they have become due to the nature of having more knowledge taken away from them as a result of colonial violence.

In addition, imagery within “their syllables skipping like stones off of Lake Manitoba” heightens the loss of identity that Bird embodies, using their literary self to portray how they’re unable to fully connect and immerse in the life that their father and grandmother lived due to a lack of generational knowledge in relation to colonial violence. Yet the carrying lines of “Dad’s hand on my back says some day” underlines the notation of hope that Bird illuminates throughout the chapbook. That despite the colonial violence that Indigenous communities like theirs have faced, Indigenous kinship in Canada can be felt.

In the same way, Bird approaches healing by personifying mother nature in “Mother is a Place.” In this poem, Bird channels their affection towards the Earth and their homeland by writing on the effects and trauma that mother earth has suffered through settlers colonialism. They start with a powerful statement that “Mother is a place where nothing grows anymore” indicating the physical hurt that nature is currently going through (17). This is amplified by indicating words and imagery that connotes negativity throughout the poem such as: dry well, die, no water, smashed skull, and skeleton. The use of these words suggest how Bird, and the society, perceives mother nature at the surface. As readers move deeper into the poem, similarly to the first poem, the message shifts to an optimistic one that contains room for healing, and suggests that although mother may seem to be disrupted, she has a chance to grow despite the hardships that were brought onto it. In the lines:

“She takes handfuls of soft

moss growing …

and throws it to the sky./

It settles itself to the ground…/

Mother is a place

where black is like turned dirt

where heartier plants will root, deep

and erosive as birth, as being,

always alive” (Bird 17).

Bird is connecting mother back to its roots by introducing the steps that must be taken in order to induce a healing approach to the earth and, in turn, to ourselves as Indigenous and non-Indigenous people. This Indigenous knowledge and awareness is not meant to be subjective to non-Indigenous or Indigenous peoples, but rather Indigenous testimonials and texts, like Birds, are meant to open the eyes of readers alike to the injustice treatment that we put into the world. It is only through acknowledgement that we are able to reconcile what we have done to disrupt the balance of healing and to hope that it will continue to grow and be alive. The allusion of hope that Bird breeds for a hopeful world in relation to Indigenous healing is one that is carried through the lines “black is like turned dirt where heartier plants will take root.” This notion that hope can grow is a continuity in Indigenous texts for survivors in cases of healing from abuse of all traumas.

Moving on to one of the last poems, “I remember and don’t remember many things that aren’t meant for you”, Bird writes to not isolate them-self but to bring forth their presence within the Indigenous sphere that works towards reconciliation in their territory, their identity and their family. Towards the end of the poem, Bird writes “I wrote this as if it happened because it could’ve and maybe did but not while I was there” (Bird 35). The use of this sentence amplifies the meaning of the whole poem, speaking on the core theme of remembrance, which is repeatedly called upon throughout the text. Bird encourages the reader to imagine themselves in each stanza and to find themselves within the pretending, the imagination and the recollection of memory. It is also a way in which they effectively use their rhetoric to translate oral stories in a visual medium, which will be explained later.

Furthermore, Bird writes in a way that speaks towards a hologram within Indigenous positioning, a term Dian Million explains as a “trick of illumination” in reading works containing power relations that often elude the authors true desire (25). In this poem, Bird gives a voice to those Indigenous peoples whose voices identify with becoming lost due to the continuity of settler colonial violence against them. By choosing to write for them, along with themselves, they chose to write their biography to claim a political space where those who identify can reclaim what was recognizably and unrecognizably lost to them. In doing so, Bird then acknowledges a sphere in the literary sphere that calls on the responsibility of storytelling beyond themselves, one that doesn’t just add to the community voice but carries Indigenous kinship entirely anew. Bird does not isolate the feelings of any one who can call claim towards any of the reflections, but rather decides to live them all simultaneously, which is one way to begin the process towards healing and kinship.

Indigenous Rhetoric and Closing Thoughts

In “I am Still Too Much” Brandi Bird uses poetry to approach healing themselves, the Earth, family, Indigenous tradition and culture. I find that Bird presents a beautifully pure picture of their homeland and the prairies that even a city girl like myself can appreciate whole heartedly. In this, their vision is one that is in the realm of the “Instagram Poetry” genre, which took off in the early 2010s, by which I mean it is refreshing to read poetry that’s appeal is truly authentic and belongs wholly to a person of colour. Bird’s rhetoric in their poetry can arguably be considered de-colonized. Even as they use conventional poetic techniques — as I took the time above to consider— the style, format and implementation of the words themselves within the poetic sphere is one that can be considered as an effective form of translation for oral stories and traditions. By choosing the poetry form, Bird continues to show the use for poetry to be utilized and understood in Indigenous communities as a method for effective storytelling. In addition, since Indigenous storytelling is traditionally oral, I find it important to hone in on the rhetoric Bird uses due to the alienating nature of the written word for Indigenous storytelling. Indigenous stories were meant to be transferred orally, however, the act of writing was gained through the effects of colonialism when forcing generations of children into residential schools, stripping many of their traditional orality. This is why understanding the impact of being able to transcend the written word into inspiring poetry is such an integral part of understanding Bird’s rhetoric.

Furthermore, Bird captures a sense of belonging and loss in a way that breeds optimism among the nostalgia and tragedy that has been brought into these Indigenous communities. Bird writes not to only blend their voice into the stories that are categorized as “Indigenous victims or survivors,” but rather one that uplifts the collective voices of many to speak on the realities that Indigenous people face with the underlaying hope of a better Indigenous future.

Selena Jodha

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