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Louise Halfe – Healing Through Orality and
Spirituality in Poetry
Louise Bernice Halfe was born in 1953 in Two Hills, Alberta. Her Cree name is SkyDancer. She grew up a member of the Saddle Lake Reserve and at the age of 7 was sent to the Blue Quills Residential School in St. Paul, Alberta. . After leaving the school at the age of 16, she attended St. Paul’s Regional High School where she began to journal about her life experiences. (McNally Robinson)
Halfe has a degree in Social Work from the University of Regina, as well as training in drug and addiction counseling (Moses and Goldie 396). In 1990, she made her first appearance as a poet in Writing the Circle: Native Women of Western Canada. Her other works include Bear Bones and Feather which received the Canadian Peoples Poet Award and Blue Marrow which was a finalist for the Governor General’s Award for Poetry. The Crooked Good is her latest novel which has just been published.
In January of 2005, Halfe was named Saskatchewan’s poet Laureate. She currently lives in Saskatoon with her husband and has two grown children. (McNally Robinson)
“I write because I love. I write for the survival of self, my children, my family, my community and for the Earth. I write to help keep our stories, our truths, our language alive”. (qtd. in Anthology 396.)
This quote describes how Louise Halfe uses all four common elements of native literature in her writings. I have chosen to discuss two of the elements she frequently uses, Spirituality and Orality in relation to three of her poems: My Ledders, She Told Me and The Heat of my Grandmothers.
Orality is used widely in Halfe’s poetry. In My Ledders she writes as if it were being spoken, using phonetic spelling. It is written in the form of a letter from a native woman to the Pope. She starts the poem “dear pope i no, i no, you dired of my ledders i couldn’t let dis one go i dought you could do somedin ‘ bout it.” (403)
Halfe also uses the repetition of words to express orality.
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Another example of how Halfe uses storytelling and oral traditions is in her poem The Heat of My Grandmothers. Here Halfe tells the story of her Grandmothers’ life, marriage, birth and the death.
In all three of these poems, Halfe intersperses the Cree Language with English, which again shows oral traditions and her need to keep her culture alive. I also feel that it shows her struggle with living in a white society and being a native person. In My Ledders, she says “years ago you stopped nōhkom and nimson” as well the words ‘isistawina’, ‘mātotsān’, and ‘kimoti’. (403-404). In She Told Me, Halfe says “Āstam, we are leaving āstam do not stay” (398) and in the first verse of The Heat of my Grandmothers “The old man calls my Nōhkomak, a bunch of bitches, pisikwatisiw.” (405)
The element of Spirituality is a main theme for Louse Halfe. This is shown greatly in her poem The Heat of my Grandmothers.
Here Halfe describes intimacy and love in the first verse “yes I took painted warriors molded their sinew thighs into my flesh” (405) and in the second verse “that winter in our teepee the smoke couldn’t hide the fragrance of muskeg tea and juniper we mixed between our bodies.”(406)
This poem also shows her connectedness with nature when describing the deaths of her grandmothers’ husbands: “called magpie, crow and raven to clean his body” and “wailed till the buffalo sweat melted his skin into the prairie grass.” (406)
Spirituality is also used in the poem She told me. Halfe describes the menstrual cycle as the moon and the power that women have during this time in the line “never to walk over me while I was in my moon or they would die from my power”. (398) Furthermore, in this poem she talks about spirits in the line “to put the food away at night to cove the dishes or the spirits would crackle and dance whistle in our ears and drive us mad” and “take a willow branch and gently whip the spirits out of the house”.(398)
The Spirituality in My Ledders speaks of how it is not right to steal native ceremonies and customs. In this poem, a native woman is writing a letter to the Pope, asking how he would like it if her people performed Holy Communion without the understanding and respect of the bread and wine. “I don’t dink you like it if I dook you gold cup and wine pass it ‘round our circles” and “I haven’t married you jeesuz and I don’t kneel to him cuz he ain’t my god”. (404) How the white men lack understanding of the native rituals, tobacco and the sweat lodge is shown in the verse “dese men, pope don’t know what tobacco mean, what suffer mean”.(404)
By using spirituality and orality in her work, Halve shows us how sharing her history, language, traditions and her connectedness to the earth can help in healing others and past injustices.
“I don’t tell the story, I share the story. And so its’ showing rather than telling” (qtd. in Windspeaker)
Halfe, Louise. “She told me.” Moses and Goldie 398.
Halfe, Louise. “My Ledders.” Moses and Goldie 403-404.
Halfe, Louise. “The Heat of My Grandmothers.” Moses and Goldie 405-406
Moses, Daniel David and Terry Goldie, eds. An Anthology of Canadian Native Literature in English. 3rd ed. Canada: Oxford University Press, 2005.
McNally Robinson. 12 Feb. 2008. http://www.mcnallyrobinson.com/event- 6934/Louise-Bernice-Halfe
Petten, Cheryl. “Saskatchewan’s new Laureate Alberta-born.” Windspeaker Mar. 2005:18.