Rita Joe - Elder crosses   Sky Davis
  Mar 29, 2007 08:37 PST 

"On the day I am blue, I go again to the wood where the tree is
swaying, arms touching you like a friend, and the sound of the wind so
alone like I am; whispers here, whispers there, come and just be my

Above is an except from a poem by Mi'kmaq poet Rita Joe. She wrote
about living Mi'kmaq, from her experiences at residential school to her
deep connection with the environment.

The last time I talked to her was shortly after the dedication of the
Jani Grove at MTSF. I was feeling a lot of mixed emotions and she told
me something that I'll always remember. She said,"You know honey, it's
all the same. In the woods the old ones, the big trees, their job is
to give life and protect and nourish the young ones. When they're no
longer standing we think they're gone, that we've lost something
substantial. But they're still there. Their sap may no long be rising
but they're still providing and giving back. It's like that with people
too. When you think they're gone they're still here, taking care of
everything. Don't you forget that."

Mar 25, 2007 - Halifax Herald

Rita Joe, poet, 75 - Voice of Nova Scotia’s Mi’kmaq dies of Parkinson’s

Nova Scotia lost a cultural hero Tuesday with the passing of celebrated
Mi’kmaq poet Rita Joe in Cape Breton at the age of 75.

Known as the poet laureate of the Mi’kmaq nation, Rita Joe died after a
battle with Parkinson’s disease. Her daughters found a poem still in her

Rita Joe overcame a difficult childhood spent in foster homes and at the
Shubenacadie Residential School to publish seven books, mentor young
writers, champion Mi’kmaq culture and meet Queen Elizabeth II.

The publication of her first book The Poems of Rita Joe in 1978 was "an
extraordinary event," says Nova Scotia writer and publisher Lesley

"That was probably the first book of Mi’kmaq poetry by a Mi’kmaq writer
published in Nova Scotia. She was able to bring the Mi’kmaq language
into publication, which is very rare."

Joe, who just celebrated her birthday March 15, was born in Whycocomagh
in 1932. She was orphaned at age 10 and went on to live with a
succession of foster families.

When she was in her 30s, Joe began writing verses to counter images of
natives that filled the books read by some of her eight children. "She
didn’t tell any of us she was going to write," recalled her daughter
Frances Sylliboy.

Joe kept it a secret from her husband and children until her work was
selected for an award in an annual contest held by the Writers’
Federation of Nova Scotia, of which she was a long-time member.

The boost of encouragement cultivated her lifetime goal of changing the
perception some non-native people held of her people.

"She didn’t like them being portrayed in a negative way," said Sylliboy.
"She wanted to pass along that positive, gentle, loving image of the

"I want to put out positive images of aboriginal people," Joe said in an
interview years ago. "But everything I do is gentle persuasion. And that
had more effect than a blockade."

Joe, who lived in Eskasoni, was able to transcend pain through art, says
Jane Buss, executive director of the writers’ federation. "Her object
was to be a fine writer and to take all the pain and transcend it
through the stories, to transmute it into something that gave her people
and her stories an honoured place. She succeeded in getting that all

In 1997, Joe and Lesley Choyce, of Pottersfield Press, co-edited The
Mi’kmaq Anthology, a book featuring 16 Mi’maq writers and a resource
Choyce still uses when teaching the aboriginal and black students in the
Transition Year Program at Dalhousie University.

"She was out there encouraging Mi’kmaq writers to write and to publish
and she would guide them to me as a publisher," he said. "It was a
wonderful experience working with her. She had this quiet powerful voice
in her poetry and when she spoke in public."

Mi’kmaq poet Lindsay Marshall, related to the writer through her late
husband Frank Joe, said that upon meeting Joe "you would not think she
was a literary powerhouse.

"She was very laid-back, introspective, very dignified and reserved, but
through her poetry she spoke volumes. She didn’t let on her power."

He remembers seeing Joe, also a widely travelled public speaker, at
Chapel Island.

"I saw her speak and recite her poems on a summer day in July and, for
me, it moved me as a poet. It provided me with the courage to write.

"I think her legacy will be found in classrooms and universities where
people are studying her poems," says Marshall, now director of the
Mi’kmaq College Institute at Cape Breton University. "Poetry is a
snapshot of our past and our culture. It becomes a living legacy."

An officer of the Order of Canada and one of the few non-politicians
ever called to the Queen’s Privy Council for Canada, Joe received
honorary degrees from Mount Saint Vincent, Dalhousie, St. Thomas and
Cape Breton Universities as well as a National Aboriginal Achievement
Award. She was also featured in television and radio documentaries, and
wrote for several aboriginal and non-native publications.

"She fought hard and long to try to have some justice for the Mi’kmaq
realized," says Mi’kmaq author and consultant Daniel Paul, a friend of
Joe’s for 30 years. "I think she saw poetry as a way to express her
concern about the way the Mi’kmaq were treated, the racism they
suffered. She was very instrumental in inspiring people to strive for
excellence in their life.

"She never hated anybody."

Joe’s books include Songs of Eskasoni (1988), Lnu and Indians We’re
Called (1991), Kelusultiek (1995) and Songs of Rita Joe: The
Autobiography of a Mi’kmaq Poet (1996).

That work continued until her final days.

"When we came home, we found papers still on her typewriter," said
Sylliboy. The work found by her family was October Song, a poem with
many revised copies still scattered near her work area.

The final copy reads: "On the day I am blue, I go again to the wood
where the tree is swaying, arms touching you like a friend, and the
sound of the wind so alone like I am; whispers here, whispers there,
come and just be my friend."

Funeral for Joe will be held Monday, 10:30 a.m., in Holy Family Church.
She is survived by nine children and was predeceased by four including
one in infancy.


Tree, gather up my thoughts
like the clouds in your branches.
Draw up my soul
like the waters in your root.

-J. Daniel Beaudry
Re: Elder crosses   Andrew Joslin
  Mar 29, 2007 10:06 PST 

Thanks for posting that. I wish I had a chance to meet Rita Joe, I
will most certainly look for her poetry.

Is the short poem (shown below) at the end of the article by Rita Joe
or J. Daniel Beaudry? Either way it's a fine little poem.


Tree, gather up my thoughts
like the clouds in your branches.
Draw up my soul
like the waters in your root.

Andrew Joslin
Jamaica Plain, MA
RE: Elder crosses   Sky Davis
  Mar 29, 2007 11:41 PST 


It's by J. Daniel Beaudry. I'm really surprised you recognized the
poet! It's part of my signature here :)

Do try and read some of Rita's poetry. She was a wonderful woman and a
powerful ally for the natural world. She will be missed.