July 16th, 2024

Ceremony launched poet laureate on her path

By Theodora MacLeod - Lethbridge Herald Local Journalism Initiative Reporter on September 29, 2023.

Herald photo by Theodora MacLeod Parliamentary Poet Laureate and Plains Cree writer, Louise B. Halfe spoke this week at the University on Lethbridge.

Louise B. Halfe, the ninth Parliamentary Poet Laureate of Canada, speaks with gracious certainty when it comes to her work. Her statements are clear, never faltering and with no indication of hesitation as she says, “I am doing the Great Mystery’s work.”

In honour of the National Day of Truth and Reconciliation, she spoke at the University of Lethbridge this week about her work.

Though Halfe, also known by her Cree name, Sky Dancer, has lived in Saskatchewan for 42 years, she spent her early life in Alberta. Raised on Saddle Lake Reserve, northeast of Edmonton, she attended Blue Quill Residential School for nine years and spent many of her summers doing manual labour in sugar beet fields in the Lethbridge area.

She jokes that she thought of Lethbridge as “the big city” when she was a child. Now having travelled the world her perspective has shifted.

“I don’t like to say Alberta is my home because my home is right here,” Halfe holds says holding her hand against her chest. “My heart.”

She explains though that there are threads of Alberta in her poems. “A lot of my work is certainly from my perspectives of residential school here in Alberta, and the work that I have done here as a teenage common labourer, and my own trauma that was experienced in this particular province.”

Her journey to writing and poetry began before fully putting pen to paper. Though she kept journals, she says “before I became aware that I was to be a writer, I actually started dreaming it.”

The Plains Cree people hold dreams in high regard and believe they are a means of communication between the physical and spiritual worlds, containing insight into the future.

It was at a ceremony with Elders that she received a prophecy that launched her on the path to poetry. They gave her three statements: Big wings, strong back, travels far.

“They didn’t even know that I was writing,” she says, adding that she was also told she would be “writing from every day of the universe.”

In many ways she has done just that, gathering pieces of the past – her past, the history of her community, and memories of a family infected by colonialism and suffocated under the weight of generational trauma, a result of actions by a mainstream that is only now recognizing the harm it caused. Though her presentation at the university was tied to Truth and Reconciliation, those words hold a different meaning for her.

“Reconciliation belongs to mainstream society,” she says.

“The reconciliation I have to do is with my own trauma. There’s a big difference.” Halfe adds that the trauma is not just within her but goes back to her grandparents and has spread to her children.

She writes of that trauma and her life with stark and vivid imagery, including words from her Cree language, with the occasional accommodation for readers who are not familiar. However, not all of her six books of poetry are strictly autobiographical, with the 2021 collection “Awâsis: Kinky and Dishevelled” having a more playful and mischievous quality, drawing from Cree folklore.

Despite making accommodations for readers – an act which some have referred to as code switching, though she does not identify with the term – she says she doesn’t write with an audience in mind.

“I write because I have to write. It’s part and parcel of my psyche and I’m not out there to please anyone except The Great Mystery.”

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humble, wise, and knowing we reside in our heart. we each are so much more than the material body we inherit so as to able to grow through our journeys here. i had never know of ms halfe, but i sure am inspired to look up the works she has shared.