Several weeks ago I won an award for poetry at the annual Word Guild Awards Gala in Toronto. I was not able to attend, so I’m grateful that my buddy Tim Huff was able to accept on my behalf. Tim is the illustrator and co-author with Cheryl Bear on a magnificent children’s book, The Honour Drum, which shares the “beauty of Indigenous People with children, families and classrooms.” I was honoured to write a forward for the book, and since my recent award was for a poem I wrote about Indigenous/settler relationships, it was very fitting that at least Tim could be there in my stead.
Before I share the poem, let me first say that I’ve been reticent to tell anyone I won the award. By no means do I consider myself a formal poet. I haven’t done that kind of homework, and I don’t have that kind of passion. Steve Heindrichs, editor of Intotomak Magazine, asked me to write and submit a poem in response to the United Nations Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. I told him I wasn’t that kind of poet and he asked me to take a stab at it anyway. So, even as I’m delighted it won an award, which gives me a reason to share it and talk about it, I accept the award with sheepish deference to those who do the hard work of poetry and commit their lives to the craft.
For those who have not read the United Nations Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous peoples, I wish you would. It’s dry reading to be sure, but our honour as a nation, and I believe God’s blessing, is contingent on a significant restart in the relationship between First Nations and settler people—one that returns to the spirit of the original covenantal bonds that made Canada a possibility in the first place. I use the word covenant here quite specifically because I think that to most settler people, the word Treaty is simply a legal, and not a relational term. Yet I’m quite sure that the spirit of the original agreements was far more relational than coldly legal. The difference is significant because when one party transgresses a legal agreement, anger naturally follows suit and restitution is required for justice to be served; whereas when one party transgresses a covenant, profound hurt naturally follows and a thorough process of healing and reconciliation is required for justice to be served.
A great reading of the United Nations declaration can be found in the book Lifting Hearts Off the Ground: Declaring Indigenous Rights in Poetry which pairs the poetry of one Indigenous, and one Settler poet (Lyla June Johnston and Joy De Vito) with each of the declaration’s 46 articles. The poems go far to humanize an otherwise fairly dry document.
What follows is the explanation and poem I sent to Steve Heindrichs which won the award:
There are a couple things I’d like point out. First, beside the main message of the sonnet— we’re only free to be when to the other’s freedom we commit— I wanted to associate treaty with covenant and declaration (declare: make clear), pointing out that a treaty is more of a relational document than coldly legal.
Then, as “the strait of the Great Spirit” is the meaning of the word Manitoba, and may refer to the narrows of Lake Manitoba, the association with the narrow Jesus way (the way of love known to our better angels) should be reasonably obvious. And for those who know the story of Freedom Road, some may discover in the narrow strait a veiled reference to the soon to be built bridge linking Shoal Lake 40 to the mainland, which has been made possible, in part, because Christians have recently discovered their own narrow way (Jesus way) in their solidarity with SL40 First Nation.
The phrase “our better angels” is from Abraham Lincoln’s first inaugural address. He used the phrase (perhaps cynically) after having just guaranteed the South that he wouldn’t interfere with the slave trade in an attempt to ward off civil war. It must have been a bitter concession for him as he hoped that by conceding to one evil, he was avoiding a greater one. So, it offers an interesting tension to the sonnet in that our better angels aren’t always our best angels… a certain sober humility befalls us when we realize that we can always do better than what we propose to do. Healing of the nations, of course, references Revelation’s healing waters (Revelation 2:2) that flow to bless all (Revelation 7:9) as compared to aqueducts, which, in our case, have blessed only some while bringing harm to others.
It is only a happy accident in this case that “declaration” means “make clear.” Considering that Freedom Road will hopefully make possible a water treatment plant to clarify waters that have been sullied, there’s a gratuitous poetic accident in the last word of the poem.
by Steve Bell
—on having read the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People
Treaty people know from history
The path of freedom teaches us this wisdom:
Ironically, we’re only free to be
When we’ve committed to another’s freedom
A curse, conversely, falls on those who wend
A selfish way, betray a trust forsaken
For covenant is holy and extends
Till all has been restored that once was taken
The narrow way, the strait of the Great Spirit
The way the ancients knew the meaning of
Our better angels know we need not fear it
The best of angels speak the truth of love:
We’ll come to see the healing of the nations
When first we learn and live our declarations.
*thank you to Malcolm Guite for reading the poem and offering great suggestions for it’s improvement.
Heads-up to Winnipegers from Steve Heinrichs: A 12 km march to the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation is being organized for September 17 in support of Bill C-262. This Bill is probably the most important piece of legislation to ever come before the House of Commons because it would say no to colonialism and yes to basic Indigenous rights (and actually articulate them, which the Constitution doesn’t do.)
Stay tuned for more info.