Book Review of Kiskajeyi – I Am Ready: A Hermeneutic Exploration of Mi’kmaq Komqwejwi’kasikl Poetry by Michelle Sylliboy (Rebel Mountain Press, 2019). 76 pp.
I think a lot about what Leanne Betasamosake Simpson calls Nishnabaabeg (hereafter broadened to Indigenous) brilliance—the myriad of ways in which Indigenous people are and have always been creative, resilient, intelligent, powerful, and sacred. I am fortunate to be surrounded by it often, and when I am I try my best to amplify it. As an educator and a scholar, I spend a great deal of time pointing out Indigenous brilliance to settler colleagues and students. In January, for example, I hosted a session on integrating Indigenous literatures into the classroom. Most of the students attending that session didn’t have much experience reading Indigenous literature, so it was incumbent on me to show them some of the amazing, rich, lush literature that comes from our own territory. Dawnland Voices is one of the many resources I used, and continue to use, to showcase the brilliance coming out of Wabanaki territory; Michelle Sylliboy’s recent book of poetry, Kiskajeyi – I Am Ready, is another.
A Brief Description of The Text
A combination of poetry written in English, original photography, and komqwejwi’kasikl poetry—poems written in the Mi’kmaw pictorial literary system, sometimes called hieroglyphs and directly translated as “suckerfish writing”—Sylliboy’s brilliance is on full display throughout this volume.
Her poetry connects the body to the world, both natural and social, through evocative metaphor, mimesis, and metonym. But these literary terms have no place here, I think. This is a lived reality embedded within a knowledge system where labels don’t tell us much unless they describe the doing, and Sylliboy’s words are always doing. In the poem “Breathe,” I am breathing the ocean air with her and listening to the music of the earth. This isn’t metaphor; this is material reality etched in blood memory. “We’ll Fight for Her” speaks loudly to ongoing struggles around resource extraction from sovereign territory and the military force Canadian and American nation-states use to hold capitalism in place. Fleeting images of land defenders from the Unis’tot’en, and at Oka, Sisson Mine, and Elsipogtog come to mind along with calls to “stop Alton Gas”—black snakes woven into the fabric of our nightmares over 500 years of colonial occupation. Brilliance, with which Sylliboy’s words radiate, shines brightest when it speaks to shared experience, holding up a mirror for others to see themselves shimmer.
Sylliboy’s photographic eye is attentive to changes in the natural world. Two intimately close images of thin tree branches thickly coated with (possibly melting) ice, on pages 51 and 61 respectively, show this attention most clearly. Through her photography, I am reminded of the teaching of etuaptmumk, two-eyed seeing, brought forward by Albert and Murdena Marshall, the latter of whom is honoured in Sylliboy’s dedication. I was reminded once by a mentor that etuaptmumk is only possible so long as we maintain our capacity to see through our Indigenous eye, to honour our Indigenous worldview. When I take in Sylliboy’s photography, I feel as though I am looking through her eyes—I am reminded of the immediacy and permanence of our interconnection with the natural world. Somewhere between the two images described above—in the poem “Personal Space”—Sylliboy reminds me that “I don’t wear my culture daily / I live it / I don’t hide my culture / I feel it”; I think she sees clearly through that Indigenous eye, and I wonder if I could say the same.
The 15 poems written “in the manner of a suckerfish”—as Peter Clair translates the word komqwejwi’kasikl—are laid out in three layers: Mi’kmaw words on top, English translation in the middle, and symbols at the bottom. My eyes are immediately drawn to the symbols, and I story each through my own history with them. My lips linger on Mi’kmaw words, pronouncing each into the air in a hushed voice—sounding them out like someone learning them for the first time. Some of these words I am reading for the first time. Others I’ve learned from generous teachers like Starlit Simon—another brilliant Indigenous author featured in previous volumes of Dawnland Voices. When I’m unsure of a word’s meaning, I look at the English translation and take note of questions I have for the next time I am in the presence of a Mi’kmaw speaker. These poems are, for me, an awakening, a teaching, and an invitation to open further my own Indigenous eye. The language of the Land teaches us who we are and how to walk in the world, and each Mi’kmaw word pronounced feels connected—from author’s pen to reader’s lips and back countless generations in time.
Emergent Meditations on Indigenous Brilliance
The first place I read the phrase Indigenous brilliance was in Leanne Simpson’s 2017 book As We Have Always Done. But the first place I remember being completely in awe of it was in Marie Battiste’s doctoral dissertation completed in 1984 at Stanford University. Among other things, Battiste’s work makes the case for a pre-contact Mi’kmaw form of literacy based on pictographs, petroglyphs, wampum belts, and notched sticks. As I understand it, our ancestors read these images symbolically. Each image held a particular shared meaning that was orally articulated in a broad, storied sense by the reader. Battiste and many others have recounted the transition that happened after contact where these symbols became a tool for the Catholic Church to facilitate the rote memorization of prayers.
What I find brilliant about Battiste’s work is the fact that she was writing about all of this in 1984—more than three decades before the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada released its final report and the current push toward honouring Indigenous knowledges in the academy got started. At the best of times, my own existence as Mi’kmaq in the academy feels contested, policed, and surveilled in ways to which my settler peers cannot relate. I can only imagine what Marie Battiste’s doctoral experience must have been like; the word “hostile” comes to mind. And yet, her work very clearly stands the test of time. In fact, in recent years a number of scholars and authors have echoed the validity of her work. Settler scholar Rachel Bryant’s 2017 book The Homing Place, for example, showcases the manner in which, during the initial phases of the colonial occupation of Wabanaki territory, settlers were unable to see or acknowledge the literary capacities and traditions of Indigenous people. This inability to see continues today in many cases. The history of Atlantic Canadian literature and literary scholarship, for example, continues to normalize settler voices and remains completely ignorant of the more than 11,500 years of literary legacy that predates colonial occupation—those rich, diverse, texts written in stone, birch bark, and wampum which tell the stories of the Land.
Wabanaki authors, however, are directly speaking back to our attempted literary erasure—Dawnland Voices is one example, Michelle’s work another, Peter Clair’s novel Taapoategl & Pallet another still. Clair directly takes up the literary legacy of Mi’kmaw people by envisioning a historically-situated story in which komqwejwi’kasikl writing is at the center. Clair links the past and the present together through the stories of the title characters and their convergence through Pallet’s discovery of komqwejwi’kasikl texts sharing Taapoategl’s history. In this, Clair holds up a mirror to show the brilliance of Sylliboy’s komqwejwi’kasikl poetry. Sylliboy’s words are original creations specific to her own lived experience, but they are also intimately connected to the past, present, and future (if such distinctions hold any weight—and I suspect that, for Sylliboy, they do not). The history of komqwejwi’kasikl writing aside, Sylliboy’s use of the writing system links her to Battiste’s early scholarly work. It also situates her in contemporary solidarity with Peter Clair and others working to bring komqwejwi’kasikl back to life. The future also seems bright where Sylliboy’s own doctoral research works toward “creating a L’nuk [mi’kmaw] Komqwejwi’kasikl curriculum with L’nuk teachers an Elders in Cape Breton” (Sylliboy, 2019, p. 75). Here, the dream of a literary resurgence grounded in L’nuk tradition, but responsive to the current socio-political moment, is so real I can feel it. What will the next generation of writers schooled through a komqwejwi’kasikl curriculum give to our extensive literary history? Only time will tell, but the future radiates with brilliance.
A Closing Fragment
Sometimes I have to remind myself that Indigenous brilliance doesn’t look like success in the settler world. As an academic, I can often get caught up by the measures of Western excellence—positive teaching evaluations, publications in peer-reviewed journals, conference presentations and, of course, money. I have some of those things, but when people refer to me as an “expert,” I feel like a total sham—I think they call that imposter syndrome. Personally, I’d love if we all felt safe to be bit more transparent about the fact that none of us have our shit together; we just pretend like we do from time to time and somehow manage to pull off the illusion. We are all trying to figure out what it means to walk in this world in a good way after 500 years of colonization. That is why I appreciate the title of Sylliboy’s text: Kiskjeyi- I am ready. I read this as a brilliant Indigenous woman asserting her presence on her own terms. “I am ready,” she says, and I wonder about my own path and how much I still have to learn. Her statement of readiness can be read in every page of her work—she is grounded, she is strong, and she is brilliant. It also paves a way forward for me; she says, “I am ready,” and I hear that it is also okay not to be ready. 500 years of colonial occupation, and we are all trying to recover. Michelle says “I am ready,” and I look to her confidence for guidance, as though her words can set me free from my own colonization—the inescapable tendrils of which seep into my own self-image and create doubt. She is ready and holding up a mirror of melting ice for all of us to see our own brilliance reflected and amplified.
aqq app numultes.
Battiste, M. (1984). An historical investigation of the social and cultural consequences of Micmac literacy (Doctoral dissertation, Stanford University). University Microfilms International.
Bryant, R. (2017). The homing place: Indigenous and settler literary legacies of the Atlantic. Waterloo, Ontario, Canada: Wilfrid Laurier University Press.
Clair, P. (2017). Taapoategl & Pallet: A Mi’kmaq journey of loss & survival. Woodstock, New Brunswick: Chapel Street Editions.
Simpson, L. (2017). As we have always done: Indigenous freedom through radical resistance. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
Sylliboy, M. (2019). Kiskajeyi: I am ready. Nanoose Bay, BC: Rebel Mountain Press.
Adrian M. Downey is Mi’kmaq and has family ties in the Qalipu Mi’kmaq First Nation. He is currently a PhD candidate at The University of New Brunswick and an Assistant Professor in the Faculty of Education at Mount Saint Vincent University. He holds undergraduate degrees in music and education from Bishop’s University and a Master’s of Arts focused in curriculum studies from Mount Saint Vincent University (MSVU). His recent scholarly publications have been focused on the role of spiritual thought, Indigenous knowledge, music, and poetry is changing the way we enact and think about curriculum.