Indigenous Life in Poetry and Prose

Compiled by Mahboubeh Baboli, staff member, Halifax Central Library 

Literature and its values and function

Literature is art in written form, or words passed along orally. It is the culturally valuable capital of a nation or ethnicity. Literature shows how people understand the world around them, their relationship with the world, and their human and historical position in the world. Literature shows our ethnic and national values, our feelings and emotions, and is a reflection of the moral and social understanding of people.

Indigenous literature

“I would think that Aboriginal literature really is the heart of Aboriginal being.” – Neal McLeod, opens a new window

Indigenous literature manifests Indigenous Peoples' history, relationship with nature, life experiences, and their traditions and cultures. Indigenous literature includes prose and poetry, ceremony, song, and storytelling. 

“First Nations people also used other methods to record their stories, such as rock paintings, birchbark scrolls, and wampum belts and carvings; but the foundation was always the oral narrative.” – Christine Smith, All Lit Up, opens a new window

Oral tradition, oral literature

The “oral tradition” or “oral literature” is a very important part of Indigenous Peoples' literature that connects past to present.

“The cultures of First Nations and Inuit peoples are rooted in their oral tradition. An oral tradition is a culture’s collection of spoken words that have been handed down for generations. The words of the oral tradition are the inheritance of an entire cultural group. This tradition may include epic poems, prayers, speeches, spiritual teachings, songs, stories, and histories.

Repetition is a central part of the oral tradition. The words are heard many times throughout a person’s life. Stories are told and retold. Eventually they become an integral part of an individual’s sense of identity and everyday life. The words are then passed on to younger generations in the same fashion. Traditionally, the oral tradition is the primary means of cultural transmission. Cultural transmission is when a society’s culture is passed on to individuals, who adopt the values and perspectives of the culture as their own.” – Excerpt from Aboriginal Perspectives, opens a new window

Indigenous poetry

"Poetry is a particularly compelling literary form for comforting the ruptures of history and the fragmenting effects of settler colonialism. Poetry distills the rage, pain, and defiance of indigenous people, who remain under ideological and physical assault by the settler population that so often insist that our continued existence is an effort and an impossibility. Yet given its intimate subject matter, its sensual rhythms, and its bittersweet distillations of love and longing, poetry is also an ideal form for naming the fierce beauty of contemporary indigenous personhood." "Poetry is the language of love and war alike, often at the same time." – Daniel Heath Justice, opens a new window, Why Indigenous Literatures Matter, opens a new window P. 60

Why Indigenous Literatures Matter, opens a new window

Poems by Indigenous Canadians

All poems republished with permission

I Lost My Talk

By Mi’kmaq, opens a new window poet, Rita Joe, opens a new window

I lost my talk
The talk you took away.
When I was a little girl
At Shubenacadie school.
You snatched it away:
I speak like you
I think like you
I create like you
The scrambled ballad, about my word.
Two ways I talk
Both ways I say,
Your way is more powerful.
So gently I offer my hand and ask,
Let me find my talk
So I can teach you about me.

Reprinted with permission from Nimbus Publishing.

I Lost My Talk copyright text Rita Joe ©2019 copyright art Pauline Young ©2019

I Lost My Talk, opens a new window


By Mi’kmaq, opens a new window poet, Michelle Sylliboy, opens a new window

Reprinted with permission from the poet, Michelle Sylliboy.

Nanoose Bay, B.C.: Rebel Mountain Press, 2019

Kiskajeyi - I Am Ready, opens a new window P.9

Kiskajeyi, opens a new window

In Like a Lion

By Mohawk (Six Nations), opens a new window poet, Janet Marie Rogers, opens a new window

blew in
bringing the entire family
rainstorm hail sisters
condensed clouds fused to make grey
sky ceiling screaming under pressure
underground creatures feeling things shift
above them knowing on this day
to take cover and remain

brings us
new ways of thinking
revisiting old friends
while dreaming
pushing our memories to and fro
tornado warnings can't protect
or prevent what's coming
its like emotional forecasts
we can never be ready for
can taste the doom in the air
change vibrates like the weakest
of limbs clinging to forces stronger
than themselves

is exciting and threatening
where will this shift take us
away from places of comfort
we build our reality inside stillness
but she is here to shake us up
break us up so finding each other
again becomes our purpose
find me

Reprinted with permission from ICTMN, opens a new window.


By Anishinaabe (Ojibway), opens a new window poet, Kateri Akiwenzie-Damm, opens a new window

i twist and gasp
open and close my mouth
searching for air
whenever a sturgeon is caught in the rainy river
i know
the feel of strange hands touching my body
the struggle
to be free
the longing
to go where I want to go
i feel
the impact of stick or rock on bone
the splash of colour
then the emptiness that is my head
my head like a midnight sky if the stars and moon were captured
by another heaven
i know
even when i am awake again
sitting at the kitchen table
staring at my plate with its bramble design
and rough chipped edges
i know

that is why i do not eat sturgeon
because i know
when a sturgeon is caught in the rainy river
i am a sturgeon
and i dangle on hooks

Source, opens a new window


By Anishinaabe (Ojibway), opens a new window poet, Richard Wagamese, opens a new window

Ceremony doesn’t change you
The old woman said
You change you

Is just the trail
You learn to follow
Until you reach the place
Where that can happen

I became an Indian after that

Source, opens a new window, Runaway Dreams, opens a new window

Runaway Dreams, opens a new window

Con Game

By Cree, opens a new window poet, Louise Bernice Halfe, opens a new window (Sky Dancer)

The children were meat
for the scavengers. Indian Affairs, the brick walls,
the Saints of many churches.
Filled with their disease, we ate the maggots
off their dead.
This cannibalism devoured our mother's hearth.

Yes, I followed this routine:
clapping hands and electric light,
on our knees to give the Christ
a difficult time, no time to rub the sleep
from our eyes. Each month I counted the stars
to see how often I'd gone to mass
my heart so wanting. March to breakfast,
to the scullery, hand-peel potatoes,
wash the many pots and pans
under the supervision of the kitchen nuns.
To the laundry room to starch and iron,
to the rectory to serve the higher saints
and finally to school to swallow Europe.

In those many seasons our winds
took a turn and entered winter.
When we were released
with no hair to braid,
no language to call our own
no parent to cradle us
those storms awoke.

Reprinted with permission from the poet, Louise Halfe (Sky Dancer).

Brick Books, May 1, 2021

Burning in This Midnight Dream, opens a new window

She is Spitting a Mouthful of Stars (Nikâwi’s Song)

By Métis, opens a new window poet, Gregory Scofield, opens a new window

She is Spitting a Mouthful of Stars
She is laughing more than the men who
beat her.
She is ten horses breaking open the day.
She is new to her bones.
She is holy in the dust.

She is spitting a mouthful of stars.
She is singing louder than the men
who raped her.
She is walking beyond the Milky Way
She is new to her breath.
She is sacred in her breathing.

She is spitting a mouthful of stars.
She holds the light more than those
who despised her.
She is folding clouds in her movement.
She is new to this sound.
She is unbroken flesh.

She is spitting a mouthful of stars.
She is laughing more than those
who shamed her.
She is ten horses breaking open the dark.
She is new to these bones.
She is holy in their dust.

Reprinted with permission from the poet, Gregory Scofield, Nightwood Editions, 2015.

Source, opens a new window

Mother Earth

By Vancouver Aboriginal poet, Denise Mckay

She reminds me of my own Mother.

She has many scars that are not Her fault.
She has seen many battles and has endured
each and every one of them.

She has never stopped supporting me though.
She still continues to protect me and looks over me.
She gave me the tools I need to survive.

I return the favor by supporting Her, protecting Her, and
giving Her the tools she needs to survive.

Most of all I am grateful every day for the gifts my
Mother and Mother Earth has given me and continues
to give me each and every day.

Source, opens a new window

Hope Matters

By Coast Salish, opens a new window and Tsleil-Waututh, opens a new window poet, Columpa Bobb, opens a new window

Hope lives inside the artist:
instrument, brush, voice, pen, sculpture, body.
Hope breathes life inside those shadowy crevices
where doubt waits to feast on our weakened and dimmed dinner light.
Hope gives us strength to trudge through the muck
and the mire to find solid ground.
Hope is the home of curiosity, imagination, intelligence, and compassion.
Artists are an empathic link between hope and the outside world.
Hope frees, hope relieves, hope moves us.
Artists move people from inspiration to action
and direct hope toward a new reality
that can be shared by everyone.
In the end.

"Hope Matters" from Hope Matters © 2019 by Lee Maracle, Columpa Bobb, and Tania Carter.

Used with permission of Book*hug Press.

Source, opens a new window

Hope Matters