Indigenous Editing and the Gathering Place

We have been thinking and talking a lot about Indigenous editing here at Dawnland Voices 2.0.  Since 11 tribal community editors came together to assemble the book Dawnland Voices, we have tried to think of editing itself as a kind of gathering place--where community members come together, exchange ideas, are fed and sustained, and in turn sustain others.

How best to continue this model in digital space? For a time Cheryl Savageau (Abenaki) served very ably as Editor-in-Chief of this online magazine; eventually, though, other opportunities came her way, and she had to move on. More recently, Carol Bachofner (Abenaki) and Mihku Paul (Maliseet) have agreed to work as editors-in-chief, alternating years between them. Almost immediately we discovered the limits of this model, as Carol experienced family pressures that took her away from editing the issue at hand. Clearly, a more collaborative and sustainable model of Indigenous editing is needed. If you are interested in joining a regional Indigenous editorial board, please contact us at As we work with Carol and Mihku on establishing this board, we offer to you a number of submissions from talented writers and artists. Alice Azure (Mi'kmaq), one of the most prolific Dawnland writers--and a loyal contributor to this project from the very beginning--is our featured poet. Another loyal contributor, Carol Dana (who edited the Penobscot section of the Dawnland Voices  book) has sent us a new short story; another, Wendy Newell Dyer (Passamaquoddy) has written a timely new memoir about her experience of out-adoption. We have gorgeous photographs from Rich Holschuh (Abenaki) and some new work from the always entertaining Starlit Simon (Mi'kmaq). We are pleased to welcome a new poet, Sebrena Tomah (Passamaquoddy), and to include another beautiful poem from the late Charlie True (Abenaki), sent to us by his lifetime partner Rhonda Besaw (Abenaki).

As Carol Bachofner anticipates reading submissions for our Issue 8 (due this spring)--which she keenly hopes to focus on water--she has also sent us the following powerful essay, which gives some insight into how she views the literature of the Dawnland:

Part of It: Issues of Land and Indigenous Writing

I prefer to walk and to be barefoot. Yes, I have always loved pretty shoes for special occasions and wear them when socially appropriate to do so. However, in my natural way of being, no shoes, no socks, no slippers. I am barefoot every day in my home. My feet actually experience a sense of claustrophobia encased in shoes or socks, even in winter. Friends look at my no-socks-in-winter ways as odd, even unhealthy. But I am healthy. I feel free and strong when my feet are bare. It never occurs to me to cover up my feet at home. That is sometimes discomfiting to guests. Sometimes I catch myself when I am headed off to somewhere and look down to see I haven’t put on shoes.

For me, the feeling of my feet in sand at the ocean is the best of all worlds. I feel a part of it, an integral part of something way larger than myself. Something, a connection of epic proportion. It’s as if I have my own root system. While I was living in the upper California desert (Mojave), I longed to be where I started out, the Maine seacoast and New Hampshire mountains and woods. I wrote about this phenomenon, a state of dis-ease “landsickness” (as I name it) in my Vermont College of Fine Arts Master’s Thesis in 2004, describing a connection so DNA-deep that even people who did not grow up on tribal home ground FEEL connected to that landscape and that connection is palpable. As research, I interviewed several Northeast Woodlands people about how they felt or did not feel connected to home ground and whether that had an impact (positive or negative) on their writing. One by one, these poets described to me a sense of place that was visceral and profound. To quote Janet Rogers (from my thesis):

Janet Rogers, Mohawk/Tuscarora poet, has never lived on her home ground, born and raised across the continent. Yet she feels the bond and expresses its effects on her life in her poem, “No Reservation.” It is clear that Rogers has a full-blown case of land sickness.

                                 No Reservation

I am an Indian, without reservation

Without memory of a land

Where my ancestors lie sleeping

My blood does not show traces

Of the crops raised there

And my accent does not say

I am a part of that tribe.

No, I was born and raised

Away from them, away from there.

Our sufferings, the same

Our lessons, equal

I look to them, who have remained

Part of that territory

And see a mirror image looking back

I learn from them, and they from me

I need their past to know me more

A fresh breath is breathed into the language, the culture

As I ask and inquire

Of a way of life, in jeopardy of death

No, my upbringing does not recall

Kidnapping to institutions

Of sadness of a language lost, I never had.

And I share all the same

The skin I walk in, and brown black eyes

That house ancient secrets unrevealed even to me.

An Indian is an Indian is an Indian

We are the true travelers of more than one world

Your journey is my journey and mine is yours

This we share, in this granule of time.

I know my brothers and sisters by the way we feel.

The enemy can look similar, so trust your ancient instincts

There is an indescribable joy

In returning to a land, meant for you by blood

I embrace all that it is

For this ... I have no reservation.      (Gatherings XI  72, 73)

We are, as Rogers says, “travelers of more than one world.”  This is the status conveyed upon Indigenous peoples of Turtle Island since time of first contact with the invading peoples from Western Europe. The journeys we share, one Native person to another, and Native to non-Native, begin to obliterate the boundaries between those worlds. This is not assimilation in the sense that we have become, or wish to become, homogenized. Securing the ties to natal, ancestral ground is not diminished by the close contact we enjoy with people and writers of other cultures. It is the contrast, the diversity within the human family, that makes life richer. It is, in large part, the land that keeps the family stories, which in turn support the culture.

Poet after poet I interviewed echoed this notion of a connectedness with landscape and with people OF that landscape. For me, the connections are so strong that I cannot help but feel them in everything I write. To the several readers of my work who assume I ought to be “writing more Indian,” I ask what is that? How does one write in any other way than one is at her core? I write what I feel, see, do, experience. All of it is from my perspective as an Indigenous woman/person. So the landscape, the LAND, Ndakinna, is my visceral framework.

It is historical fact that, since contact with Europeans, Indigenous peoples have been separated from and/or denied access to their homelands. What was once a freely inhabited space, filled with the natural flow of language and event, has become claimed, colonized, and often hostile territory. The resultant physical estrangement has perpetrated a sense of disjointedness in the Indigenous culture. This wholesale displacement was the germ of land sickness.

In her essay, “Colonization: Effects on Native Peoples,” Barbara-Helen Hill  (Six Nations, Grand River), remarks that the stress within the individual [Native person] centres around the self-image and sense of place in the world. ... governmental control resulted in frozen groups of people without trust in themselves, let alone others. (Shaking the Rattle 13) 

Indeed once the Indigenous person was displaced from home ground, even the tribal stories began to blur. Despite governmental assertions that assimilationwas a worthy goal to be embraced by Native cultures, Native American people entered into a state of forced compliance in order to survive. Passive compliance would eventually lead to a state of cultural obliteration, a situation not acceptable to the writers of Indigenous America.

People, I believe, are connected to each other as the roots invisibly connect the trees in the forest. It may not be an overt connection, such as showing up at a family gathering with known relatives. It often takes the form of poems written years apart from one another by two separate poets which seem so much of the same mind, spirit. The two poems below were subsequently published in the My Home as I Remember (Lee Maracle & Sandra Laronde, eds., Natural Heritage Books, Toronto 2000). These poems illuminate what it is to be “land sick,” and describe the connection to land which is understood and experienced by Native poets, one to another. I include the two poems together here by way of illustration. It is interesting what a partnership of thought and what an understanding of the first’s longing the second unveils. It is further proof of the common cultural perspective held by Indigenous peoples: we are all related, we are all connected.

Land Sickness

I’m flung away, flung far from the edges

of ocean, beneath brown, unsettled skies;

I have no salt spray for my hair, no chill

gray sand beneath my feet. I am bereft

of crisp ocean kisses and wild seaweed,

dancing like a sultry lover around my ankles.

Perhaps I will die from land sickness,  this

never-ending orphanage from Maine’s shore.

Soon they will find my body, petrified and blue

in a corner of the desert, eyes squeezed shut

against fetid breeze and fiery desert sky.

In one tight fist will they find a single drop

of salt, a tear that began in the surf at home.     

                                                  Bachofner 1995

The persona of this poem, the poet/narrator/storyteller, is afraid she will die away from the land that defines her. She is an orphan, a person “flung away.” This feeling of loss and estrangement is dire, is fated perhaps to become permanent.

Cheryl Savageau is concerned for her fellow poet, for me her tribal relative. She successfully attempts to alleviate suffering by creating a poultice for the wound. She is connected, both to place and person. Savageau does what she can as poet, she writes a salve. The interrelatedness that characterizes the Native world view and gives rise to the writing aesthetic.

Earth Medicine for an Abenaki Woman

Landsick in L.A.    for Carol Snow Moon

Sister, I send these pebbles

from the mouth of the Dawn Sea,

and the snow that swirled around us

on the beach in York as we gathered them,

and the voices of the gulls as we walked

the furthest reach of the tide. I send you

storms, a northeast wind, and waves

that toss you in the arms of passion.

Sister this is a bed of desire I send you,

an ungentle lover who howls outside

your door day and night, who embraces you

with a song deep as a growl, who

stings you with winter kisses

that make you feel your own heat.

Sister, this is how we know who

we are. We are alive. Taste

the salt of home.

                               Cheryl Savageau 1999

It may astound some people to see these two poems and their obvious connection, cause confusion or wonder at that connection, so many miles apart and years apart, each of us unaware of the other’s poem until Savageau sent hers to me. It is not at all strange or wondering to us. It is the land, the connection by rootedness that allows for this to happen. We are trees together. We swim in the same sea. We warm beneath the same sun. We are related.

It is important to note that “poet” is used synonymously with “storyteller” and “poem” synonymously with “story.” This is the way these words work within Indigenous culture. If the aboriginal poet holds a world view wherein the land and stories of their most basic existence are tied, as in a creation story, then one can expect that a break in the relationship would cause at the very least, a profound dysphoria, a disordered psyche. Gregory Orr, in Poetry As Survival, says“Every encounter with disorder of any sort that results in a poem is a successful encounter in the most basic sense we can mean it — namely, the poet survived.”

Writing about home ground seems to be, for the Indigenous poet, palliative in treating land sickness. This painful and chronic condition can only be relieved by return to ancestral lands, or by writing about being there or being away.

For the Indigenous poet, the writing truly is about storytelling, and that storytelling must honor the roots of each and every particular tribe’s history, even while bringing the stories into modern life, lest they die. There is a desire among many modern Indigenous writers that non-Native readers be allowed in, fostering an understanding of Indigenous cultures, a hope that others outside can accept them as part of the new landscape, not assimilated necessarily but included and not dismissed or disappeared.

Contemporary poems/stories/films expand the look into the modern world where the Indigenous poet lives. The writings are far from stereotypical; not all feathers, beads, canoes, or buckskin clothing. There are as many or more poems about city life, tv, cars, trips to the Dairy Queen or Wal-Mart, jobs in factories, dating, marriage, and school as there are “rez poems.”

Just as we say “all my relations,” so might we understand ourselves and our writing as part of it, part of the landscape of people and place.

So, go forward with the challenge of being part of something older that today and rooted one to the other in such a way as to honor those who came before, and passing something sacred 7 generations forward. We are getting more sun each day now as the seasons whirl. Take off your shoes and feel it coming.

Special thanks to Katelyn Ratta for her editorial assistance in uploading and formatting this issue!

Dawnland Voices