Storying the Indigenous Experience

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 Samantha Baran’s Medium bog.

In their essay “Storying the Prairie West”, Gina Starblanket and Dallas Hunt elucidate Canada’s history of asserting sovereignty over Indigenous land in the prairies by way of storying the landscape. They explain how “This story of peaceful settlement and development either highlights Indigenous consent to the theft of our land and cession of our political authority, or glosses over it under the guise of partnership and nation-building” (Starblanket and Hunt 29). Although the Canadian government acknowledged the atrocities committed against Indigenous peoples in documents like the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, the act of storying the Indigenous experience is still prevalent. In numerous news articles that emerge from conflicts between companies and Indigenous peoples in the prairies, Indigenous peoples continue to be shaped as the Other. Starblanket and Hunt explain how “… this national identity is an imaginary construct” (Starblanket and Hunt 30); and what emerges from news and articles that bait Indigenous peoples against capitalistic enterprises and the nation itself is the “ ‘murderable Indian’ ” (Starblanket and Hunt 31). Indigenous identity, and in instances the Indigenous body, is murdered by way of storying the Indigenous experience to reflect an inherent Indigenous opposition to settler-colonial authority. Storying, thus, is not a past act of destruction to the Indigenous narrative but persists in the present.

The capitalistic goals of companies and the federal government are largely responsible for the act of present-day storying of the Indigenous experience. Thanks to the free press, the dichotic representation of Indigenous peoples’ experience is known. Returning to Starblanket and Hunt’s “ ‘murderable Indian’ ”, the dichotomy of the Indigenous experience in the media works by way of either murdering, or eliminating, Indigenous representation altogether or misusing Indigenous identity to portray Indigenous peoples as an opposing faction to capitalistic enterprises. In early examples of storying the prairies, Starblanket and Hunt state how “Early immigration materials described the prairie west as a vast, unoccupied, fertile hinterland with little, if any, mention of Indigenous populations” (Starblanket and Hunt 33). Canada’s historical record demonstrates an omission of Indigeneity despite Canada’s history of enterprises like the fur-trade that created a relationship between settlers and Indigenous peoples. Already storying was used to murder Indigenous identity to validate the land for colonialism and capitalism.

The Canadian government and corporations have a history of manipulating Indigenous identity into resembling an opposing faction inhabiting a space reserved for Canadians. Legislation historically antagonized Indigenous peoples by legally making them an Other who is at the mercy of Canadian sovereignty:

Starting in the 1820s, colonial administrators undertook many initiatives aimed at “civilizing” First Nations. One of the first such pieces of legislation was the Crown Lands Protection Act, passed in 1839. This Act made the government the guardian of all Crown lands, including Indian Reserve lands. The Indian Act of 1876 was a consolidation of previous regulations pertaining to First Nations. The Act gave greater authority to the federal Department of Indian Affairs.

Canadian authority segregated Indigenous peoples from stolen, colonial land by way of the reserve system. Reserves were not a trading of space, but instead were a system created to isolate Indigenous peoples from their original land within a space governed by settler-colonial authority. Indigenous peoples are imprisoned on their own land that was stolen by colonists who now continue to assert sovereignty over Indigenous space by way of the reserve system. Indigenous peoples are segregated and framed as the Other by being forced into existing within a space legislated as a part of Canadian space that is lent to them. Starblanket and Hunt explain: “Once [the land] ‘belonged’ to settler farmers, Indigenous peoples could be framed as criminals or … as intruders …” (Starblanket and Hunt 38).

Present-day capitalism is antagonistic to Indigeneity and garners justification and pecuniary success by antagonizing Indigenous peoples to the national identity. Capitalism is able to justify the murder of the Indigenous identity and body by positioning Indigenous peoples as an Other who is in opposition to capitalistic goals that are framed as a part of a national identity and endeavour. Starblanket and Hunt note this history: “Some ads also promised specific opportunities, such as the proximity to coal fields or to the railway, implying easy accessibility to urban centers and distant markets … and to provide a market for the manufacturers of eastern and central Canada” (Starblanket and Hunt 35–36). Today, capitalism continues to dominate Indigenous space and frames Indigenous opposition as an opposition to Canadian progress.

A present-day example is the TransCanada Keystone XL Pipeline. Again, a dichotomy exists between how the government and corporations frame the narrative of the pipeline versus how the free press articulates Indigenous experience with the pipeline. On the government website, an explanation of the project is articulated. The page textually and visually explains the route, purpose, and capabilities of the pipeline. However, the page does not explain the drawbacks of the pipeline for neither Indigenous peoples or the environment. In a news article on the pipeline, the author notes how the pipeline would pass through numerous Indigenous territories both in Canada and the United States. National Chief Perry Bellegrade of the Assembly of First Nations stated after the pipeline’s approval: “This is an important moment to remind Canadians that First Nations hold inherent rights and treaty rights recognized in Canada’s Constitution”. A Dene elder also mentioned how the pipeline will pollute the rivers, especially the Mackenzie River, and pollute the air. Despite the Canadian government’s legislation that gave Indigenous peoples rights in an effort to eliminate Indigenous identity and autonomy, the segregated space of Indigenous peoples is still subject to Canadian will. A second colonialism occurs because settler-colonial capitalistic goals are infiltrating Indigenous space once again. Ironically, the infiltration of this segregated space is like a double-colonial act: the Canadian government enacts a second colonialism on Indigenous space for pecuniary gain while simultaneously infiltrating and exploiting the land that is legally their own.

Storying issues like the Keystone XL Pipeline by murdering Indigenous existence within these enterprises parallels the storying historically done by the government in advertisements for immigration to the prairies referenced by Starblanket and Hunt. Indigenous peoples are storied into becoming the Other: Indigenous peoples are framed as intruders on Canadian land whose participation must be eliminated in order to preserve Canadianism. By historically and presently storying Indigeneity into the antagonistic Other, the national identity of Canada falsely claims the Indigenous body and space as Canadian land.


The Indigenous Parasite: How Settler-Colonialism Dehumanizes Indigeneity

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 Samantha Baran’s Medium bog.

Indigenous peoples of Canada have long been denied the status of a Canadian citizen. When I say status, I do not mean to say that they are illegal aliens on Canadian land, but that provincial and federal government treats Indigeneity like a diseased foreign entity intruding on Canadianism. In Canada, Indian status is granted to Indigenous peoples, excluding the Inuit and Métis, who qualify based on several factors. Indian status conditions are predominantly linked to a person’s lineage and the generational Indian status of family members. If an Indigenous person is granted Indian status, they do not have to pay federal or provincial taxes on personal and real property nor do they have to pay federal or provincial taxes on employment. However, these conditions are only in effect if an Indigenous person lives and works on a reserve. In other words, Canada tempts struggling Indigenous peoples with seemingly advantageous social conditions as a way of quarantining Indigenous populations from Canadian society. In her book A Mind Spread Out on the Ground, Alicia Elliott explains the nature of Indigenous treatment from her own experience: “As a poor, mixed-race kid, I was treated like a parasite, too. I was unnecessary, unwanted, a social bloodsucker. I needed to be eradicated” (Elliott 71). Canada treats Indigenous peoples as parasites to Canadianism and isolates these unwanted individuals like a disease by way of the reserve system.

The overlying technique that enables the reserve system to exist is called settler-colonialism. Settler-colonialismis, generally speaking, the replacement of Indigenous populations with an invasive settler society that develops an identity and sovereignty in order to eliminate Indigenous identity and sovereignty. Canada is settler-colonial; and the reserve system is an enterprise that fuels settler-colonialism. An Indian Reserve is land under the Indian Act and treaty agreements that is for the exclusive use of an Indian band. Despite Indigenous occupation, reserve lands are not owned by Indian bands but are held in trust for bands by the Crown. The Indian Act grants the Minister of Indian Affairs authority over reserves: “No Indian is lawfully in possession of land in a reserve … the Minister may, in his discretion, withhold his approval and may authorize the Indian to occupy the land temporarily and may prescribe the conditions as to use and settlement that are to be fulfilled by the Indian before the Minister approves of the allotment”. Elliott’s book is a testimony to the lack of agency that is legislated into the reserve system and continues to dichotomize Indian status from Canadian citizenship. Elliott explains how Indian status is a tool used against Indigenous peoples: “… Canada has chosen to blame our biology, as though those very genes they’re blaming weren’t marked by genocide, too … it was how we reacted to that genocide. It was our fault, our bodies’ faults” (Elliott 112). Settler-colonialism and the reserve system are a discreet genocide of Indigenous peoples in the 21st-century.

Genocide may sound extreme, but the conditions of Indian reserves is deplorable. The genocidal structure of Indian reserves is first understood by considering that the provincial and federal government funds the impoverished circumstances of Indigenous peoples. Elliott shows how the reserve structure is against Indigenous prosperity:

“… We … moved into a two-bedroom trailer with fake wood panelling and no running water. Our electricity came from an exceedingly complicated network of extension cords … Our heat came from a tiny wood-burning stove in the living room. For the first few months we paid for a port-a-potty to be set up next to the trailer. Eventually that became too expensive, so we used a commode that we dumped in the woods whenever the bucket got too full … even after a year, even after two years, even after five years, we still had no running water” (Elliott 84–86).

Elliott’s personal experience with life on the reserve is a part of larger statistics related to Indian reserves. A study published in 2017 by the Canadian government stated how nearly 20% of Indigenous peoples in 2016 lived in a reserve dwelling in need of major repairs and that about 36% of Indigenous peoples living in a reserve dwelling were living in over-crowded conditions. A report by CTV News in 2019 documented a United Nations report illuminating the “abhorrent” housing conditions on Indian reserves in Canada. The report from the UN notes the lack of clean water and over-crowding, revealing how 75% of reserves in Canada supply Indigenous peoples with contaminated water. Mould creates further housing concerns in reports from places like Cat Lake First Nation. Many residents, especially children and elders, suffer from scabs, respiratory problems, and other illnesses. Indigenous children are often evacuated from housing with these conditions because of the severe medical issues plaguing the reserves. A state of emergency has been declared on multiple Indian reserves due to these unbearable conditions.

Despite the long-lasting conditions on Indian reserves, Indigenous peoples suffer. Stories and images of suffering from Indian reserves are in the media and known, but the Canadian government still allows Indigenous peoples to be imprisoned within these conditions. Elliott explains how: “…the way every type of social service seemed to approach our unsavoury realities: don’t solve the problems of poverty or racism or violence or mental illness. Just hide them away … social services conflates not being able to afford adequate housing, food, clothing and health care with choosing not to have adequate housing, food, clothing and health care.” (Elliott 82–87). Elliott reveals that these undesirable social conditions, along with Indigenous peoples, are segregated from society via Indian reserves. She demonstrates that choice in the lives of Indigenous peoples is not apparent and that Indigenous peoples must succumb to traps like Indian status and Indian reserves. The Canadian government essentially treats Indigenous peoples as parasites: forcing them into reserved, undesirable, antagonistic sectors where they are limited and quarantined. Settler-colonialism positions itself as the solution to settler-colonialism by eliminating Indigenous identity and sovereignty by way of the reserve system.


Destruction and Healing in Arielle Twist’s Disintegrate/Dissociate

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 Shubhneet Sandhu’s Medium bog.

Arielle Twist writes an autobiographical collection of poems that explore how sexual violence can be linked to colonial power and also outlines how healing can be found through metaphorical destruction and death. Twist unwittingly condemns colonial systems and highlights the decolonial process, which occurs through her and her culture’s survival.

Arielle Twist is a Cree transgender woman who hails from George Gordon First Nation in Saskatchewan but is currently living in Nova Scotia. Disintegrate/Dissociate is a self-reflective poetry collection highlighting her experience. She writes poems that tackle identity, culture and healing.

In her poetry book, Disintegrate/Dissociate, there seems to be a continued tension between what she chooses to share and what is deliberately left unsaid. The reader is only made aware of what she wants to share. In her poems, it seems there is an exploration of identity that is inherently tied to sexual violence, which can be a codified way to describe colonial violence. Twist narrates her journey to healing by navigating Intergenerational and colonial trauma. In some poems, Twist’s “self” seems so reliant on validation by white cis men and can be just as easily destroyed by these agents of sex and violence.

Colonial violence is greatly interlinked with sexual violence as the poems describe white men who cross boundaries and aggressively take sexual pleasure ashamedly. We see Twist carry this trauma of sexual domination and violence, and it starts to manifest in the form of internalized self hatred. Dissociation can be described as a detachment from oneself, and it appears the word “Dissociate” from the latter part of the book’s title may be a reference to her reaction to trauma. Her poem entitled, “Dear White, Cis Men,” deals directly with self-worth being tied to men who do not respect her. It explores the complex nature of wanting validation from your abuser. This can be directly applied to colonial violence and ideas of changing your appearance and behaviour to please and appease people who inflicted unspeakable violence on your people and ancestors. She writes, “Dear white, cis men,/ with voices that boom/ power and authority/ demanding the respect/ you would not give me/ no matter how powerful/ my voice booms/ back.” (13) There is an apparent difference in power despite recognizing the power in her voice. In this poem, she acknowledges she is not weak, but he is stronger. The poem “Prairie Beneficiary” seems more explicit about colonial violence and settler colonialism. Twist writes, “My trust fund/ was a legacy/ of violence/ against bodies like/mine.”(18) In a completely unconcealed way, the effects of colonization become visible. It also reaffirms the continuance of colonial repercussions which affect Indigenous peoples. The physical and sexual violence that Indigenous people face today can be directly traced back to the same violence inflicted by the ancestors of settler colonials.

Another theme ever-present within her poems is Indigenous queer ethics and transgender Indigenous studies. Indigenous queer ethics explains the colonial isolation Indigenous queer people may feel due to altered networks and separation from community. Transgender Indigenous studies suggest the idea that Indigenous people who are transgender compartmentalize parts of their identity. Being Indigenous, queer, transgender, a woman, and many other things are all different aspects that create a whole person. It seems due to a colonial legacy, these parts of Twist’s identity need to exist in separate worlds, even though they all sum her up as a person. These ideas are explored in the poems “Brother” and “Who Will Save You Now?”

In “Brother,” Twist’s identity becomes compartmentalized because being a brother cannot coexist with being queer or a transgender woman. Twist writes, “But there are things I never told you either. Like how I loved a boy, and I know, I know it’s hard to hear that your brother was gay, but I fixed that too.” (33) This demonstrates the difficulty in negotiating one’s identity as it relates to others but also as it relates to one’s authentic self. The poem continues, “I never got to tell you about the time when that boy broke my heart…I’ll never give you pieces to find me, or tell you that maybe I could be a poet, a sculptor of words.” (33) Twist is saying that she never got to share this part of her identity with her brother. This again reiterates the theme of disclosing and withholding. The entire poem in itself is expressing all these unsaid things to her brother, but the poem concludes that these sentiments will remain unsaid, at least in person. There is a sense of loss because her identity cannot intersect for her to be whole. In “Who Will Save You Now?” Twist writes quite explicitly, “Queerness and indigeneity not intersecting quietly/white queers policing your existence/ indigenous blood telling you that you’re/ a new generation problem.” (40) Here we can see quite clearly that war that wages within her. Belonging to different groups can often mean you don’t fully belong to either at all. People who are white and queer cannot grasp the Indigenous side of her identity, and she feels the Indigenous community writes off her queerness.

As she navigates these ideas, it becomes so evident that, in many ways, her identity is quite refracted. This makes me think back to the first part of the book’s title, “Disintegrate” and its suggestion of pieces falling apart from what was once whole. Healing can mean becoming whole once more, and I think the primary ways Twist attempts to heal is through the idea of rebirth through destruction, Indigenous kinship, and Indigenous feminism.

We can see the theme of rebirth through death, as well as Indigenous feminism and womanism in the poem, “Mother/Creator.” In the title alone, we can see parallels are being drawn and the word mother is being elevated to, or very close to, the status of Creator. Mother is also capitalized in the same way as the Creator. This may suggest that the mother Twist is speaking to refers to something or someone much larger than a biological mom but the language is distinctly feminized in comparison to the Christian vernacular which would use God and/or Holy Father. This poem also speaks to the concept of healing as Twist tells the Creator, “I want you to know that I’m trying/ to cultivate/ to create/ to learn/ but I forget how/ to know I have not given up.” (38) She asks Mother, “I don’t know if I can do this/ can I process/ can I forget/ can I be whole” (38). Although Twist’s faith in herself is shaken in these questions, we can also see her recognize her survival is resistance. Mother is the one who she speaks plainly to, and to her, she makes herself completely vulnerable when voicing her self doubt.

The colonial violence and sexual violence Twist faces at the hands of settler colonials seem to be often paired with the idea of self-destruction — a concoction fuelled by self-hatred, which threatens her very existence and identity. In her poem, “VACANT,” we can see Twist struggled with the idea of belonging to herself as well as self-destruction in the lines, “They always told me this body is mine,/ that autonomy is key/ breakdown, undone/ I can destroy it freely/ so, I will.” (24) This showcases Twist’s lack of self-love and the difficulty she has valuing herself. Her identity remains incomplete because she does not fully accept herself as a person of value that deserves to live and thrive. Self-destruction does not only mean destroying who she is but it can also mean breaking down who she is expected and perceived to be. In this sentiment, you can find healing because you are allowing yourself to be born into your truest form. The final lines of the poem read, “break my jaw/ plant seeds/ in emptiness/ and hope that/ something grows.” (25) There is hope that in and despite loss, one day life can return and seeds will sprout into plants again.

This theme of healing can be found most clearly in the poem, “In Dying I Become”. The opening lines states, “death is a ceremony,” (31) suggesting that there is meaning in ritual. The title is repeated twice within the poem, each after describing the practises related to death. This line indicates that death is not the end. To become is to enter into the state of being. Death is not the ending but instead a pathway into realizing herself, which can be viewed as a form of healing. This final line states, “in dying I become, reborn” (32) and this makes it explicitly clear that there is new life in death.

Time and time again, Twist finds herself the victim of violence, but she does not succumb; she rises again. The final lines of “Prelude” read, “I will deconstruct myself, and rebuild in her vision” (11). In death and destruction, new life can be found, just like how forest fires leave the soil fertile for seeding.

The “her” she may be referring to is her kokum, when reflecting on her death. The women in her life deeply affect Twist’s being and reason to keep insisting on her existence. Indigenous feminism and womanism can also be found throughout many of Twist’s poems. Indigenous feminism comes from the intersection of Indigenous and woman where you experience twice the oppression: one from racialization in white spaces, and the other from the patriarchy in both white and Indigenous spaces. Similarly, Indigenous womanism looks within the community for support and seeks to uplift Indigenous women, and there is a view that Indigenous women are a life source for Indigeneity.

The poem, “Iskwêw”, begins with a dedication: “For my Nêhiyaw sisters” (64). This makes it very clear who this poem is written for. Twist has invited the reader into a poem not written for everyone. This poem calls on Kokum, Auntie, Mother, Sister and Matriarch to “be proud” (64–65). The poem calls upon images of the modern Indigenous experience and asks for all these women around her to be proud of their existence. The second stanza of this poem reads, “because I have feathers longer/ than my thick black hair/ draping my chest now/ and Cree is passing these red lips, a violence shade, carnivorous.” (64) Despite all the attempts to colonize and destroy Indigeneity, Twist calls on the female members of her life to be proud because they still retained parts of their culture such as beadwork, feathers, long black hair and most importantly the Cree language. There is an implied recognition that it is women who are the keepers of culture. This network of women can also be viewed as a part of Twist’s own Indigenous kinship.

Indigenous kinship can be understood as the social networks and community that are adopted after colonization. Yet it is more than just relationships, and is in fact a way to pass on traditional teachings and Indigenous laws. It can help to both explain and understand one’s place within the world. These female relationships help to pass along parts of Cree culture. Twist writes, “there is learning to do and I will try to unlearn/with you.” (64) This shows us that together as a community, there are practices that need to be learned but also colonial teachings that must be unlearned. There is decolonization that must take place, and Twist recognizes that this is a process that they must undertake together, in order to heal themselves but also the community.

We also see this theme continues in her poem, “Is This My Home?”. There is a continuous train of questions which ask about the truth of her experiences, and traumas, and so many things that have become a part of her identity. But in her questions, she reveals the truth. She writes, “Is it the place I ran away to with my Indigenous sister I met in the system that failed us both? Is it the city where we roamed, running through fountains during storms when we had nowhere to be and no one to care? Is it the community I found, of black and brown femmes who make me feel safe and whole?” (42–43) Here we see a condemnation of the system which fails Black and Indigenous queer people. In questioning what is a home, she wonders whether it is in her past traumas, but she also wonders if home is in her system of support. In this community, she finds safety and wholeness. This brings me back to the idea of her refracted identity, as well as the meaning of the title. Disintegrate means to fall apart, but in this community, she is put back together.

I will end with the poem “MANIFEST” which depicts healing as something larger than oneself by the means of Indigenous futurism. The words manifest can be seen as a play on words. To manifest means to speak into existence but it also hearkens back to manifest destiny, which was an ideology used to justify colonization. The poem is written “for Billy” and the opening line is, “I think I want us to be forever.” (55) The poem on the surface can be read as a love poem which seeks to immortalize love. But it can also be applied to ideas of self love and seeking to immortalize not only oneself, but one’s ancestors, traditions and culture. Twist writes, “And if we must survive, which means we must write, I’ll weave you into a poem, this art of quilting words.” (55) Writing a poem is compared to the by-hand craftsmanship of quilting and weaving. Indigenous futurism relates to the possibility of imagining a decolonized future. I think a part of this must include survival and the refusal to submit to colonial erasure — a persistence to be here for the future. With help from the women in her life, she begins to understand what it means to be a transgender Indigenous woman. Arielle Twist attempts to become whole by rising like a phoenix from the ashes.

Shubhneet Sandhu


The Collective “I” and the LGBT Voice in Twist’s Collection

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 Alanna Sabatino’s Medium bog.

Author of Disintegrate/Dissociate, Arielle Twist is of Cree descent, specifically Nehiyaw, and identifies as a Two-Spirit, trans women from George Gordon First Nation, Saskatchewan. Being one of the largest indigenous communities, the Canadian Cree community lives north and west of Lake Superior, and in Ontario, Quebec, Manitoba, Saskatchewan, Alberta and the Northwest Territories. Although the Cree community is one of the largest in North America, the people are still experiencing the horrors and trauma from settler colonization which has dramatically affected their sense of “Self” and identity.

Evident in Twist’s book of poetry Disintegrate/Dissociate the concept of the “self” and trying to understand one’s indigenous identity in modern days is a very striking theme that is prevalent in many poems. The search for an identity is not met with answers or happiness, instead Twist’s narrator highlights the struggles that indigenous woman have to face from settler colonizers, which include rape and assault with strong, graphic imagery. What is interesting about Twist’s collection is that the narrator seems to be speaking for the collective I, the collective of indigenous women in many of the poems.

Within “The Girls” there is a narrative arc of the “Self” that shows the progression of the narrator using her trauma to channel into self-love and healing”

I think the “self” is best exemplified in “The Girls” where we see an emotional responses from the narrator in regards to the narrative arc they experience transitioning from trauma into healing. The trauma being referred to in this poem can be located in lines such as “so you can ask these questions and validate”; “dirtyfuckingdesiresdaddyhadtoo”; “boys like you make us feel unlovable, a biological mistake” (Twist 28). These lines show the self-doubt and confusion that the narrator experiences being the postmodern Other Woman as a result of years of oppression from white cis men. This theme of postmodern Other Woman is prevalent in this poem in all the lines where the narrator describes herself with words such as “too brown” and “a goddess without a name” which implies the narrator’s lack of self identity from being considered the Other Woman.

The narration arc progresses away from trauma that the narrator experiences in a space of self-love and healing, highlighting the beauty of their body. Specially focusing on the last few lines, the narrator’s perspective shifts to use the strength they have learned from these past events to realize: “ I am the kind of girl who learns my boundaries by dating you” (29). I believe this is turning point in the narrator’s thinking. We see the change in appreciating her self-worth. Following, the narrator explicitly acknowledges her “self” in a positive light for the first time, using the literary device of anaphora by starting each line with “ This girl…” to strengthen her language and create a more impactful declaration of her healing and female empowerment.

The poem does not have any breaks but uses spaceless word clusters to fill the space that the break would be in a traditional poem format, this may be a subtle nod of rebellion against settler-colonialism society by not adhering to their poetry formatting rules and therefore alluding to not adhering to their rules in general. “The Girls” is a powerful poem that speaks to many themes and issues that the collective female Indigenous population faces from oppression, assault, and a general lack of self identity and awareness, Twist’s use of language is able to bring the reader onto this small journey that is part of her larger journey into the healing and beauty of the Indigenous Woman.

Her tweet above shows that Twist continues to support the beauty of all Indigenous women. And the self-love that she is able to present through her poetry.

Twist’s collective “I” voice goes beyond the postmodern Other Woman and Indigenous Feminism that is evident in “The Girls”. As an open Two-Spirit, Trans Woman, Twist also speaks to the Indigenous Queer identity and their transformation from trauma to healing in “Who Will Save You Now?”. Twist does not shy away from creating graphic and violent imagery to enforce the reality that these individuals face. She leaves no room for misinterpretation or ambiguity, she explicitly shows the trauma and abuse when she states:

“While these men choke you

beat you in bathroom stalls

crush your ribs against brick walls

in queer bars, downtown home.” (41)

As well, Twist makes it very clear who this violence occurs too, the Queer and Transgender Indigenous community. She brights the spotlight onto this population that is typically hidden in Indigenous and Settler societies in a very powerful and political fashion. Looking at the fifth stanza:

“Queerness and indigeneity not intersecting quietly

white queers policing your existence

indigenous blood telling you that you’re

a new generation problem.” (40)

Twist is able to address settler-colonialism as well as Indigenous queer ethics while acknowledging the Queer identity that is found within the Indigenous community and is often a taboo topic. By shedding light on this identity, Twist is giving them power and opportunity to express their needs and their narrative. As stated earlier, Twist does not provide the fairytale happy ending to the poems or the collection as a whole, these endings stay true to reality and highlight how the trauma Indigenous individuals have to endure. This specific stanza embodies the reality of being Indigenous Queer because they feel unaccepted by both their people and their colonizers which contributes to their lack of self identity. It creates the feeling of displacement that so many of these individuals, as well as Twist being a Two-Spirit, Trans Woman, may experience as a result of their “Otherness” in both spaces. This feeling of displacement that the narrator expresses in association with the lack of self identity creates the traumatic experiences in “Who Will Save You Now?”. Twist still does not end the poem on with the extremely graphic imagery of the abuse in the bathroom, she follows up with asking the reader an important question in regards to their “Self”: “who will save you now if you can’t save yourself?” (41). In an almost challenging- the-reader way, there is still a sense of hope and pleading for the realization that these traumas do not define one’s sense of “Self”. That you can still fight back and “save yourself”.

In “In Dying I Become”, Twist introduces the idea of the Transgender Indigenous Studies in a more explicit way. Similar to her other poems, there’s a feeling of self-destruction as a result of the oppression from settler society, but there is also a fleeting moment of hope, rebuilding and healing and the determination transgender Indigenous have. The poem follows the concept of having to die, metaphorically speaking, to be reborn into one’s new identity. The narrator explores the construction of the “Self” as a trans femme in a transphobic world, from both their indigenous world and the settler-colonized world, leaving a space of unknown for these individuals.

“two selves

not whole, not mine

not quite yet” (32)

But, their world is not hopeless, as Twist shows, in the closing line “ In dying I become, reborn.” (32). These individuals have the strength and desire to rebuild themselves and their place in society by creating a new cultural identity for themselves that have endured the long years of oppression from Canada’s historic efforts. Through this poem, Twist is essentially creating a space for a sub-culture within these two worlds, to live their truth. By encouraging them to ‘kill’ their old selves, metaphorically speaking, and to rebuild their new “Self” in this space.

Alanna Sabatino


The “Self” and Biography as Decolonial Storytelling in Brandi Bird’s I Am Still Too Much

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 Stephanie Rico’s Medium bog.

Brandy Bird is a Two-Spirit Saulteaux and Cree poet. Bird grew up on Treaty 1 territory in Winnipeg, Manitoba. They are currently living and learning on Musqueam, Squamish and Tsleil-Waututh land. Their work has been published in Poetry is Dead, Pearls and is forthcoming in Prism. Their debut chapbook, I Am Still Too Much, is a work highly concerned with place and family and was written with the prairies always in heart and mind (Rahila’s Ghost Press,


I am still

too heavy for the wind to take me

anywhere. I am still too much.

— Brandi Bird, “19”

Brandy Bird’s debut chapbook, I Am Still Too Much, is a clear, beautiful and honest vision of the prairies delivered by a contemporary voice that lingers long after the end of the book’s thirty-seven pages. With each poem, Bird distinguishes and constructs two distinct spaces: the prairies of Manitoba and the urban landscape of Vancouver. The grasslands and straits of the prairies in the first half of the collection gradually transition into the jagged coastlines of Musqueam, Squamish and Tsleil-Waututh land. The movement between these two spaces, shown by the structural order of the poems, represents the tension of being pulled between two spaces and places, both familiar and unfamiliar. For Bird, this tension in the collection forces new meanings of home and belonging. Therefore, it is a work deeply invested in the connections, and underlying tensions, between geography, territory, space, and identity in what is currently known as Canada. Through their use of the “self” and biography, Bird extends an invitation to their reader to hear the stories and knowledges held within their book and to take what they have learned and move it forward. The various intersections and connections that they construct and deconstruct throughout their work further point to the importance of applying Indigenous thought and theory to other disciplines, forms of art and knowledge. Hence, Bird’s collection resists and refuses to exist solely for their reader’s entertainment and consumption. As we begin to discuss their work, it is necessary to consider their poem “I remember and don’t remember many things that aren’t for you” which asks: “And is this a story for you? / Is this a memory?” (Bird 35). Bird asks their reader to look inwards and remind themselves that the collection means to offer something else — and for someone else.


To the Creator of our mouths,

we speak in unison. Come forward

any witness, come forward

any believer.

— Brandi Bird, “4”

Bird’s handle on narrative is unmistakably powerful. The dynamic and multiple stories and voices lifting off the pages afford us critical insights into how Bird approaches the themes of trauma, healing, their body, and the state through narrative. Throughout the collection, Bird’s use of the “self” and biography functions as a form of decolonial storytelling. From start to finish, the “self” simultaneously speaks for the individual and on behalf of the collective. It expresses both the complex personhood of Bird, as a Two-Spirit Indigenous person, and the grounded normativity and knowledges of their communities. As a result, Bird presents both an individual and an inter-generational perspective to address the various manifestations of colonial violence and how they reproduce in the structures of Canadian institutions to limit Indigenous sovereignty and governance. From the perspective of a collective voice, Bird’s poem “Post-Contact” speaks to the intergenerational and widespread violence done onto their communities by settler colonialism. More specifically, it illustrates the violent genocide of Indigenous children, women and animals with the phrases: “[f]ire of synapses;” “from the flame comes a child with a black mouth;” “industry pulsing in the necks of caribou, moose, women;” and the question, “What bodies are these?” (Bird 27). Importantly, Bird describes these scenes in the present tense. They reinsert the truth of these events of colonial violence and trauma as ongoing, rather than isolated moments of a forgotten past. Moreover, Bird’s use of dark and violent imagery throughout the poem presents an alternative perspective — an Indigenous perspective — of Canadian history and the hegemonic systems of settler colonialism. From this viewpoint, Bird redefines what it means in a Canadian context to think of the words: “Alberta,” “Lady Victoria” and “nation” (27). They are neither symbols of greatness, glory nor goodness, but of genocide, violence and dispossession.

Although the collection engages with the themes of trauma, violence and the state, it is equally interested in amplifying joy through the representation of Indigenous kinship and Indigenous governance and sovereignty. We learn from Bird’s use of “self” and biography the different ways that their communities practice kinship towards one another and the universe. For one, the motif of pickerel that appears in the poems “Marriage à la façon du pays” and “Pickerel” exemplifies how Bird’s communities relate to the land and the natural resources that gather on the straits of Manitoba. The speakers of these poems describe the tradition of “weaving nets,” “fishing pickerel” and an image of a mother “cutting pickerel into short strips / on the kitchen table” to smoke and “hang for winter” (Bird 18, 33). The significance and beauty of these descriptions stem from their double function as both resurgent and educational tools. One, they offer the intended reader a sort of step-by-step guide on how to fish, treat and store pickerel; and second, they demonstrate how Bird and their communities relate and practice kinship towards the specific ecosystem of their territory. As a result, Bird foregrounds the sacredness of different seasons, resources and the use of storytelling for learning and for passing down practices and traditions over generations.

Moving forward, Bird uses the “self” and biography to navigate the difficulties of a balanced representation of both trauma and beauty and how they occupy space in the chapbook. One of the primary ways that Bird achieves this is through their control of narrative and other literary techniques. As the chapbook progresses, Bird’s “I/Me” speaker is not a static presence but undergoes fragmentation and reinvention as the central themes of trauma, healing and the body find expression in nature, a source of ongoing inspiration throughout the poems. Bird exemplifies this notion in the first poem of the collection titled “At My Grandma’s Funeral,” with the lines: “I see / myself fractured in the ripples” (9). Their use of enjambment, along with the natural characteristics of ripples in water, creates a sense of fragmentation and distortion that Bird then applies to how the speaker perceives themself. However, from this fragmentation comes clarity. The following line: “I see myself” suggests an entirely new perspective born out of the action of the ripples (9). This cycle of fragmentation and reinvention puts forth notions of circularity that are central to the collection: ripples become peaks, peaks become waves, waves become still waters. Furthermore, these notions of circularity assist to balance the representation of trauma and beauty by the ways that they trace the chapbook’s overarching narrative. The earlier motifs of erosion, deterioration and death shift towards ones of growth, nurturing and futurity. Bird creates this transition in their narrative to honour the beauty and healing that can arise from inter-generational experiences with trauma and violence. This shift culminates in the final stanza of the chapbook’s closing poem, “Selkirk, Manitoba:”

The body

of the town a rose bush, a dry thicket,

a target for lightning strikes,

waiting to catch fire and begin again (Bird 37, emphasis mine).

Here, the motif of “fire” transitions from its earlier connotations of destruction and death to growth and fertility. The fertile soil left by the bush fire creates a haven for regeneration and regrowth, thus providing the strength and nourishment to move forward and “begin again” (Bird 37).

Stephanie Rico


The Path to Finding Oneself

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 Laraib Khan’s Medium bog.

When I was buying I Am Still Too Much by Brandi Bird, the title immediately caught my attention. The statement “ I Am Still Too Much” holds a certain intimacy that intrigued me. There is a sense of self-awareness that comes across from saying I am too much, a certain sense of acknowledgment, I suppose. Just from reading the title, I knew that the perfectly sized, convenient book would unfold deeper conflicts regarding one’s identity and concept of self-awareness. While reading this intelligently crafted, poetic chronicle I was inclined to read more about the speaker of the poems, Brandi Bird. They are a part of the Cree, Saulteaux, and Metis community, grew up on Territory 1 in Winnipeg, and this physical, geographic space is highly significant in the book. Their book is a fascinating collection of loss, trauma, displacement, and self-identity. Brandi has attempted to explore the path to recovery from the massive effects of colonial trauma and has expanded greatly on the struggle of finding one’s identity.

Published by Rahila’s Ghost Press, Bird’s book reveals the emotional and physical scars of losing one’s identity and their healing process throughout each piece. The everlasting effects of violence are explored through poetry. The pain is hidden within the descriptions of the beautiful prairies, reserves, territories, roads, and homes. Bird explores the memories associated with specific geographical places in their poems. For instance, the book starts with “There is a path of prairie/flowers growing in the graveyard…” in the poem “At My Grandma’s Funeral” and ends with a poem “Selkirk, Manitoba,” which is again dwelled with descriptions of the physical land. The geographical space is what the book opens with, and the book ends with describing the prairies as well, which shows how the organization of the book itself is wrapped around the land and nature.

The concept of Indigenous geography is dominant in many of the poems: “Manitoba,” “Flood of the Century,” “King Tide,” “Selkirk, Manitoba”, in which Bird has incorporated Earthly entities with their own self and body. They have personified physical spaces as part of healing; they speak about spaces as a part of themselves. Poem “19” starts off with “I triage the landscape. The prairies/are numb today and so am I.” The numbness of the speaker’s body is described through the imagery of the land being numb; the land here is given a feeling, hence making a connection between the space and their own identity. Perhaps a commentary on how constant violence and rejection leaves the body feeling nothing, only numbness is left within the body. In this poem, the speaker hesitates in being their own body; they describe the land as “The prairies are split/into farmland locked in the control/of continuity and destruction…” and right away there is an imagery of broken land. The idea of land being “locked in the control,” hones the idea of colonial violence, words like ‘split’ or ‘destruction,’, all indicate the presence of brutality. Then, this statement is followed by “A plaque/of canola on my arm itches and/I wand to scratch…” which shows the agitation the speaker is feeling inside their own body. Phrases such as ‘plaque’ or “scratch” are bodily language that paints a concise image of damage, or a disease. The last line of this poem — which is where the title comes from — “I am still/too heavy for the wind to take me/anywhere fast. I am still too much.” emphasizes the idea of not being able to fit in, not being able to satisfy some sort of power. The analogy of nature with the body, both depicted as something broken or disturbed is highly prevalent in this poem. Which showcases Bird’s conceptual tools used in this book: the descriptive geographical details in order to explore self-identity, damage, and the hope of healing.

In addition to identifying nature with the self, whether in relation to the loss of identity or due to colonialism, Bird ties nature with Indigenous kinship. Throughout the poetry, there are repetitive metaphors of natural substances being compared to deep relations such as a father or a mother: “…A father as water,”…” the Red River Valley,/are written on my father’s/back” or “ Mother is a place where nothing/grows anymore. A dry well” Majority of the concerns within this book are spoken about in comparison with nature. The mention of water, the Earth, the sky, and natural disasters are tied with human relationships to highlight the complications between them. More so, in some poems, the massive effect of a natural disaster is described as a metaphor for the disasters of colonization. “Flood of the Century,” for example is an extraordinary composition that highlights the physical trauma of the body and land through the descriptions of the land ‘erupting’. Phrases such as “this demolished metre,” “floodplain of glacial memory,” or ” The Perimeter cracking,” all allude to the notion of pain, destruction, and displacement. Along with these examples, other poems immensely show the struggles of lost identity and a strong urge to find one’s place after being displaced.

I Am Still Too Much is a highly personal narrative, Bird speaks on significant issues of settler colonialism, self-identity, and kinship. Due to identifying themselves as a nonbinary Indigenous person, Bird brings a lot of their own pains and contributes to the study of transgender Indigenous studies. Through their poetry, they manifest a great deal of trauma, injustice, and a feeling of not belonging. Along with colonial struggles, their work reflects their personal journey of finding a place in their own land.

Laraib Khan


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


An Observation and Analysis of “Disintegrate and Dissociate” by Arielle Twist

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 Rachel Gopal’s Medium bog.


Arielle Twist is from George Gordon First Nation, Saskatchewan and currently resides in Halifax, Nova Scotia. She is a Nehiyaw, Two-Spirit, Trans Femme writer and sex educator. Twist is a multi-disciplinary artist that has won the Indigenous Voices Award for English Poetry as well as has been named a finalist for the Dayne Ogilvie Prize for emerging LGBTQ+ writers, both in 2020. “Disintegrate and Dissociate”, published in 2019, is her first book and it consists of a collection of poems that speak of Twist’s experiences with identity, sex, femininity, kinship, and tradition.

Twist approaches trauma and healing in a very personal way that allows the reader to be able to feel the vulnerability and strength in her writing. In an interview with CBC Books in February 2019, Twist notes the importance of representation; growing up, she had never seen an Indigenous Trans Woman. Now, she receives support from Trans youth that are happy to see their perspectives being represented. In another interview with CBC Books later that year, Twist speaks on her experience writing. Despite not having any formal training on writing, Twist writes to prove that she can be successful without going through a system and believes that she has made that point.

The Self

Biography and the self are utilized in Twist’s work to analyze forms of colonial violence through personal experiences in the way she is made to feel about her femininity. Her poem, “Dear White, Cis Men” consists of four letters and express an attraction to white cis men, but also a fear. Twist addresses these men as “objects of affection” at the beginning of the first letter but then again as “the thing I fear the most” at the end of the last letter. This poem illustrates colonialism existing through Twist’s questioning of her desirability in the eyes of these men and also through her questioning her safety. She writes, “Because you are / the ones to decide / if I am f — -able / if I am smart / if I am worth love”, which illustrates the prevalence of a colonialized idea of beauty, intelligence, and worth, defining her being. There is figurate violence toward Twist and her culture in the way that everything is disregarded to adhere to colonized standards of beauty, intelligence, and worth. Colonial violence is also illustrated through the lack of mutual respect, she writes, “with voices that boom / power and authority / demanding the respect / you would not give me…” bringing to attention the unfair treatment of Indigenous individuals where they are made to feel and act inferior those demanding respect yet refusing to give it. Literal violence is also referred to in the same poem where Twist mentions feeling unsafe and worrying about dying at the hands of white individuals because of her Trans identity. Colonial violence is also alluded to in the poem “The Girls”. The line, “funny that your sex feels like colonization in this / body I call home” illustrates the feeling of violation on an intimate level. This expression further exemplifies the interruption of Twist’s experiences with the self as an act of intimacy gets impacted by generational trauma.

Indigenous Queer Ethics + Indigenous Womanhood

Twist’s writing has a strong undertone in the theme of Indigenous Queer Ethics. Indigenous Queer Ethics, which can be defined as the said demographic finding a way of being, doing, enacting, creating and resisting, is interrupted in Twist’s world as she tries to have regular experiences but gets marginalized and objectified because of her identity as an Indigenous Trans Woman. Poems such as “The Girls” are structed in a way that emphasizes her pride in Indigenous Womanhood but notes the how her identity and interactions are impacted by Queerness. The language in the poem suggests that her sexual experiences are hook-up based, for instance, “I am the kind of girl you pick up in your car at / three in the morning” as well as “I am the kind of girl you take on dates in dark / rooms”. Further in the poem there is evidence that the individual being addressed is only using her for hook-ups which results in her questioning why that is the case, she questions her features “…too trans? too brown? too fat? too femme? too tall?” and then a comparison was made, “I can’t stop thinking about when you left / me / for strawberries and cream, even though caramel is / sweeter” which symbolically refers back to a “cute cis white blonde skinny girlfriend” that was mentioned near the start of the poem. The mentioned adjectives can be analyzed in the way that her Indigenous Womanhood is being deemed less desirable in comparison to a white, cis woman. However, near the end of the poem, she takes back the portrayal of her own desirability. She describes herself as “this girl who stopped showing up / at three in the morning / The girl who knows I am not a secret / …The girl who is more desirable than f — -able”, Twist refuses to be othered and objectified. She refuses to continue associating with someone that made me feel as if her Indigenous Womanhood was less than the womanhood of anyone else.

End Note

Twist describes her book “Disintegrate and Disassociate” by explaining, “This whole collection is about grieving and the ways in which I am coping by disassociating or deconstructing or disintegrating or rebuilding.” There is evidence of her disassociating in poems such as “Under Uprooted Trees”, where she mentions “losing track of / selves I killed, / buried under / uprooted trees”. There is also evidence in her rebuilding of herself as well as her Two-Spiritedness in poems such as “In Dying I Become”, “words written / to welcome and dismiss / two selves / not whole, not mine / not quite yet // In dying I become, reborn”. Similarly, there is evidence of Indigenous Kinship within these themes. Mentioned in the Prelude, Twist writes about the passing of her kokum and how she will deconstruct her current self and will rebuild for her kokum, “Disintegrate or dissociate. / I will deconstruct myself, / and rebuild in her vision”. Twist’s poetry is reflective, powerful, and has themes rooted in her Indigenous identity. She uses her words to share her experiences and allow readers inside such personal moments that are meaningful to her rebuilt version of herself.

— Rachel Gopal


Reconstructing the “Self” and Speaking for a Collective Voice in Twist’s “Disintegrate/Dissociate”

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 the US and feminist forms of testimony. This post originally appeared on graduate student Megan Glover’s Medium bog.

Currently based out of Halifax, Nova Scotia, Arielle Twist is a Two-Spirit, trans femme Indigenous writer and sex educator from George Gordan First Nation in Saskatchewan. Made up of Plains Cree and Plains Saulteaux Peoples, the George Gordan First Nation community can be found near the village of Punnichy, Saskatchewan, in the heart of Treaty 4 Territory in Touchwood Hills. As the site of the longest-running residential school in Canada, operating from 1889 to 1996, the First Nations community suffers the intergenerational trauma of settler colonialism, and consistently works to provide services and support to the victims of this abuse. As a community, the George Gordan First Nation residents continue to strive to re-establish their traditional teachings, language and culture and to nurture a sense of pride and unity.

While Twist was born into George Gordan’s First Nation, she was adopted into and has been a band member of Sipekne’katik First Nation since 2003. Sipekne’katik First Nation is located in Hants County, Nova Scotia, near a village called Shubenacadie. It is one of 13 First Nations in Nova Scotia and the second largest Mi’kmaq band in the province.

New to the literary scene, Arielle Twist is an amazing example of a contemporary queer BIPOC artist who’s using her writing to practice Indigenous resistance and challenge colonialism in a way that is vulnerable, hopeful and seriously heartbreaking. Although not nearly enough praise has been sent her way, Twist has been recognized several times for her work in writing about her experiences as a trans Indigenous woman and what that means to exist in the modern world. So far in 2020, Twist has already been named a finalist for the Publishing Triangle Awards for Trans and Gender Variant Literature, the winner of the Indigenous Voices Award for Published Poetry, and the winner of the Dayne Ogilvie Prize for LGBTQ+ Emerging Writers.

In her 2019 work Disintegrate/Dissociate, Twist explores themes of the postmodern Other Woman, Indigenous Queer ethics, kinship and the importance of imagining Indigenous futures. Bringing forth the existing intersections of colonialism and transphobia, Twist cuts through to the core of her experiences with violent transmisogyny and colonial erasure throughout her lifetime. By way of her poems, she takes us through the uncertainties of her past, the joys and traumas of her present and the promise of her future. The collection as a whole is haunting and beautiful, with each poem offering insight into Twist’s struggles with her sexuality, identity and grief, each uncompromising in queerness and tone, and each so carefully crafted to navigate such personal subject matter.

In interviews she’s held since its publication, Twist makes it clear that her collection of poetry is first and foremost about grief, and the many kinds of grief that lived in her body at the time she put pen to paper. From the grief of losing her grandmother, to the grief of her body as she transitioned, to the grief of dating as a trans Indigenous woman, Twist introduces us to her personal trauma and takes us through her journey to self-love and healing.

The very first poem of her text, the “Prelude”, introduces us to the first example of this grief, namely the pain of losing her grandmother. The poem brings us to the night Twist’s kokum died, and describes the trauma of losing a loved one.

“The night our kokum died,

my mother cried out in

another language.

I hear her break,

the cracking of burning wood,

like it was my own bones

between walls of mud and dust,

the structure, on fire”

(Twist, 11)

The use of words like “fire”, “cracking” and “bones” conjure up images of death, destruction and disintegration, depicting the irrevocable loss of connection to one’s identity through ancestry when an elder family member passes. In an artist panel hosted by the University of British Columbia Okanagan Campus in 2019, Twist revealed that her grandmother passed away the same week that she was starting her transition. Because of this, the two of them were never able to have important conversations about what Twist’s future held as a trans BIPOC woman. Being the very first poem we encounter in her collection, the “Prelude” automatically brings readers into Twist’s struggle of identity and “self”. We feel her pain and longing as she experiences this loss of connection to her ancestry and deals with the unresolved feelings of not sharing such an important part of herself with someone she loved.

As the collection continues, this concept of the “self” remains an ever present theme, as Twist endeavours to name or locate her personhood and works to understand what it means to be Indigenous in a world that perpetuates colonial violence and cultural erasure.

The construction of Twist’s identity and how she sees herself as a Brown Indigenous trans woman is first introduced in the poem titled “Dear White, Cis Men”. In it, Twist presents four letters addressing the white cis men who act as both her “objects of affection” and the things she “fears the most” (Twist, 12–15). These letters provide insight into the ways in which Twist’s sense of self has been tampered with and heavily influenced by these men, who decide “if I am fuckable / if I am smart / if I am worth love”; by these men, who cause queer BIPOC women like Twist to wonder: “Is being trans worth being killed?” (Twist, 14). Defined by these men as a thing they “love to hate”, Twist highlights the colonial cissexist violence trans Indigenous women are subjected to as they are made to think of themselves as a “thing” that is undesirable and unworthy of respect (Twist 15). “Dear White, Cis Men” ultimately exhibits the narrator’s personal confrontation with how she defines herself, versus the identities that have been assigned to her unwillingly.

This concept of the “self” and the construction of Twist’s queer Indigenous identity can similarly be pointed to in her poem “Reckless”. Reminiscing on her sexual past, she ends this poem with three succinct lines:

“I’ve been reckless

because men

are reckless with me.”

(Twist 22)

This line is heartbreaking, as it shows us how deeply Twist’s sense of “self” has been manipulated by colonial violence and transmisogyny, and by these strangers who “never listen” but whose abuse of queer Indigenous bodies cause her to internalize self-hatred (Twist 21). By “fucking this thing I am”, these men cause women like Twist to see themselves as the postmodern Other Woman who is “unlovable, a biological mistake”, a thing that is “too trans”, “too brown” and simply “/toomuch/” to deserve integrity or tenderness (Twist 28–29). In “Under Uprooted Trees”, Twist similarly ruminates on this loss of power and identity, writing, “There are days / where I don’t / remember my name, / losing track of / who I am now / and what I was” (Twist 23).

Twist’s poems not only highlight this trauma of “thingification” and the colonial erasure of one’s identity, they also work to demonstrate the reality of physical violence and abuse that is perpetuated against queer Indigenous peoples. Throughout the collection, Twist includes graphic, disturbing depictions of this violence, with lines that describe sex not as an act of love, but as an invasive “colonization in this body I called home” (Twist 29). She speaks of the “Black hair / that you will grab fistsful of. / When I say no”, and of the “rough bites and cuts / swelling with blood” that are left on her body after sex (Twist 13–14, 20).

These depictions of sexual and physical violence can most prominently be seen in the poem titled, “Who Will Save You Now?”. The poem reads:

“While these men choke you

beat you in bathroom stalls

crush your ribs against brick walls

in queer bars, downtown home.”

(Twist 41)

Twist makes it clear that this abuse is a typical reality for Brown trans Indigenous bodies. She writes, “Queerness and indigeneity not intersecting quietly / white queers policing your existence / indigenous blood telling you that you’re a new generation problem” (Twist 40). From these lines, we can see identify the narrator’s struggle with the intersectionality and doubly emphasized feeling of otherness from being both queer and Indigenous in a transphobic settler society.

Twist explores the “self” as both an individual and on behalf of the collective indigenous LGBTQ+ community, within which she found a family. She introduces these themes of Indigenous queer ethics, Indigenous kinship and queer kinship in the city, thanking her “Indigiqueer and Two-Spirit kin” in her text and making sure the “black and brown femmes who make [Twist] feel safe and whole” know the collection is written for them (Twist 68, 43). Unapologetic and real, Disintegrate/Dissociate gives a voice to this group of othered individuals who are largely left unheard or silenced. Twist understands the great impact of providing positives representations for this community to look up to, as can be seen in her tweet below:

Throughout the collection, we see an evolution of Twist’s sense of biography, and how this Indigenous queer kinship starts to reconstruct the way she defines herself. While remaining honest in the way she portrays transmisogyny, sexual abuse and the attempt of colonial society to erase the postmodern Other woman, Twist starts to explore the potential for trauma and healing to coexist, and for kinship to support the reconstruction of queer BIPOC identity.

Evident in the poem “The Girls”—perhaps a call to the collective trans Indigenous woman community—is this reworking and reclamation of a queer BIPOC existence. The poem starts by detailing the “kind of girl” the narrator is as defined by the abusive white cis men who are “looking for a quick fuck” (Twist 28). While this text starts as a raw reflection of the way trans Indigenous bodies are dehumanized, we see a change in tone towards the poem’s end, as the speaker starts to define herself not through the eyes of her oppressor but on her own terms. Twist writes how she “became this girl who stopped showing up at three in the morning”, a “girl who is more desirable than fuckable” and “who loved herself more than men” (Twist 30).

Twist does not forgo the present colonial cissexist violence that exists in settler societies for a Brown trans Indigenous femme like herself, but suggests the possibility for queer Indigenous joy and self-love to coexist with trauma and grief. She reclaims her Indigenous trans womanhood and queerness, and reconstructs the portrayal of her desirability to show what Indigenous kinship can accomplish. In doing so, Twist also brings queer indigeneity into the future by approaching trauma, healing and her body with an analogy of death and rebirth. She returns to the imagery of fire, but instead of representing destruction, Twist uses fire to represent resistance and new beginnings. She speaks of her future children that will be “born by fire” and “fuelled by love”, and her plans to “sing them something beautiful / teach them how to speak” (Twist 35). In these lines, Twist imagines a future that makes room for queerness and indigeneity, and grants herself and the trans BIPOC community space to grow and rise from the ashes of their collective grief.

“Disintegrate or dissociate.

I will deconstruct myself,

and rebuild in her vision.”

(Twist 11)

Disintegrate/Dissociate presents Twist’s journey of self identity and empowerment in the face of oppression. Her words give the trans Indigenous community a voice, a true representation of their reality, and access to an example of joy and self-love as it coexists in the way of trauma.

Megan Glover


Wandering Sovereignty: The Trickster Figure and Culture Hero in Brandi Bird’s I Am Still Too Much

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 the US and feminist forms of testimony. This post originally appeared on graduate student Eli Burley’s Medium bog.

Anyone who writes poetry is in one way or another telling a story about change. In crafting a poem, the raw materials of language are translated into art that distills (and is distilled through) space, breath, sound, time, memory, voice, and meaning. Brandi Bird’s 2019 chapbook I Am Still Too Much (Rahila’s Ghost Press) is one with a special relationship to these forces that make transformation possible and impossible. As a Two-Spirit poet who is Cree, Saulteaux, and Métis, Bird has an intimate connection with the many landscapes of Manitoba’s Treaty 1 territory as well as the delicate, ever-shifting landscape of selfhood under late capitalism.

In “Ode to Nanabush” Bird addresses an important Anishinaabe deity, exploring these connections alongside the mythological tradition of the trickster figure and the culture hero. “Mother, Father, bingo caller/ Friday nights on Peguis First/Nation. Call out to me,” Bird begins, summoning the many networks of kinship and collective consciousness that fix and emancipate the self in a constant state of becoming. Nanabush is a shapeshifter, an entity who slyly embodies contradictions, a being with many forms, as mercurial as nature itself. As a culture hero, Nanabush also carries their world and culture forward through acts of discovery and invention. While embracing a spirit of celebration, Bird’s ode speaks to this as a position of simultaneous liberation and stuckness, of both deep, inertia-inducing expectation and secret potential.

The poem also addresses the towering responsibility of keeping tradition and how it too has a way of shapeshifting. In the model of Nanabush Bird finds the restorative possibilities of escape, convalescence, and radical joy. They write:

You/are Neolithic, red ochred, eaten/as I say my name aloud/with the shadow of artifice/against a white screen. Will I/find you listening? In the bottom/of my can of beer, drinking/you in, a snare. I know the rez/was a prison first and then a home/in name, if not in body, if not/in my hands. Were you a prisoner// too? Or did you slide in moon/-light over fences, over walls, over/city girls awake at 3AM, the ones/like me who aren’t like prophets,/who never remember their dreams

“Ode to Nanabush”reveals that memory is always a form of holding and then opens up all the implications of what holding means. As the title of the collection suggests, there’s rarely ever a sense of I am for Bird’s speakers without the nagging sense of too much following close behind. Like anything that talks about holding, meanwhile, I Am Still Too Much just as fluidly refers to letting go.

Another poem, “Manitoba”,adds to this complex understanding of closeness and exchange, recognizing that self-creation is often just as much about migration as it is about being grounded. The poemconcludes, “The straits of Manitou,/off the falsifiable horizon/of the Red River Valley,/are written on my father’s/back — a hydrography… A father/in an ice floe. A father as water,/faceless in the riverbed. Melting/like a body into another/body and coursing north/like all rivers here.” What the individual’s body remembers in I Am Still Too Much is just as often what the speaker’s ancestors and the landscape they inhabit remembers. Bird seems to know more than anyone that who you are is who and what you carry (or choose not to carry) on your back. “Manitoba”alsoalludes to the ways remembrance and honoring the past can be about acknowledging transience, ephemerality, and movement. Unlike colonial histories built on hostile archives, bookkeeping, and coercive systems of settlement, Bird’s is mapped out in a more inclusive, wandering set of self-evident sovereignties. The records they encounter are written in water and geologic deep time, inscribed on all the faces and bodies of human and natural relations that melt together.

The collection’s entanglement with stories and the traces of things that make them also allows it to touch an untouchable kind of evidence. Bird’s work constantly interrogates the things silence can say. “King Tide” for exampleends with the lines, “The ocean erodes what is man-made, what is upkept, what is mild. This new year is a territory with a name I can’t speak. It’s not mine to tell.” Here indigenous futurity is moored to cycles of erosion and reconstruction engendered by what is witnessed and what remains hidden. Here and many times elsewhere in the book, Bird tells the reader something by choosing not to tell.

This profound connection between privacy, agency, and stewardship over family history is especially pronounced in “Eat Your Elders”as well as “I remember and don’t remember many things that aren’t for you”In the first, another evocative title alerts the reader to a profound link between hunger and preservation (self or otherwise), which carries throughout I Am Still Too Much. Bird goes on to write:

To the Creator of our mouths,/we speak in unison. Come forward/any witness, come forward any believer. I lay back, pluck/the sun out like an eye/and eat my share of meat/in the dark. The heat/of my hands is a reminder/that all things are alive: a mourning/of bodies, a confess of fungus,/a commune of eggs. All things can/be eaten.

“Eat Your Elders” is delivered in a deeply mindful tone that mixes defiance and vulnerability. Here the nourishing interconnectedness of all living beings is juxtaposed with a hunger to be seen and recognized in terms of a distinct identity. The poem is vigorously grateful for divine provisions that sustain life, but at the same time has the courage to ask for more than just survival. At the center of it is a call, a plea, a command, a challenge, and a promulgation all combined.

The trickster and the culture hero are figures who demonstrate the magic of vital speech acts, but also ones of mischief and fabulation. In “I remember and don’t remember many things that aren’t for you”these dynamics combine in a poem about the perverse pleasure of oversharing trauma and the perverse pleasure of keeping it to one’s self. In it, Bird writes:

A slap heard in the shack/my grandpa built. My mother on the floor//on Christmas Eve, nursing her cheek/and her Pyrex cup of Pepsi and whiskey standing/untouched on the kitchen table. I remember/her shock as I remember the look on my grandpa’s//face as he built the shack. Which is to say I don’t/remember it at all. I wrote this/as if it happened because it could’ve/and maybe did but not while I//was there. And is this a story for you?/Is this a memory? I remember/and don’t remember many things/that aren’t for you. This is one of them

Memory has a way of playing tricks on the speaker and the reader simultaneously in I Am Still Too Much. When the duty to remember and the joy of imaginative production meet careful impulses towards protection, the result is a story that bears witness but won’t apologize for keeping its secrets. At times hesitant in voice, but always unshaken in its convictions, I Am Still Too Much becomes a book about the precarious balancing act of finding the sacred in having, sharing, and being just enough.

Eli Burley