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Book Review: Indigenous Poetics in Canada

Indigenous Poetics in Canada edited by Neil McLeod is an in depth look at history and practice of poetry among native Canadians. McLeod grew up Cree on the James Smith Reserve in Saskatchewan. He has written two collections of poetry: Songs to Kill a Wihtikow and Gabriel’s Beach, and is also the author of Cree Narrative Memory. McLeod teaches Indigenous Studies at Trent University in Peterborough, Ontario. 

To start with, this is not a collection of poetry, but rather a very scholarly study of what indigenous poetry is and the experience of native authors. Each section meticulously sited with an abundance of source material. Sections that are not sited are interviews with scholars and poets — primary source material. At least one section is an excerpt of a graduate thesis. Actual poems are, however, few. 

There are several themes that seem to run through the book. First is the oral tradition (and an explanation why oral tradition is not a valid term) or verbatim memorizations of stories and traditions. The importance of remembering the story without changing a word. Words mean things, and changing even one word affects the story. Education and the Reserves play another role in the book. There is a paradox between Cree parents wanting their children to have White-Man’s Knowledge to move beyond the reserves and being “welfare Indians” and the death of culture:

“The objective of Indian Residential Schools, paid for by the government, was to kill the Indian within the child. Languages other than English were forbidden. Hair was cut and families torn apart, We were literally silenced.”

Modern Western society marginalizes poetry in general and native poetry even more so. There have been periods where there has been a resurgence in native literature and poetry, however, much of it is not in the tradition or is written outside the experience. One professor who receives many books of native poetry and literature and despite all the praise on the back cover, he feels sorry that trees had to die to make the book. Quantity over quality…or maybe just marketing is cheapening the genre. 

Although I was hoping for more poetry, I finished this book with a much better understanding of native literature and poetry than I would have gotten from reading a collection poems. Although, that will be my next step. Indigenous Poetics in Canada is a detailed and scholarly study of the Literature of the Native Canadian peoples. It is rich with background information and source material. An essential read for anyone wanting to know the philosophy of native literature. 

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