Song of Rita Joe: Autobiography of a Mi'kmaq Poetby Rita Joe, Lynn Henry
Rita Joe is celebrated as a poet, an educator, and an ambassador. In 1989, she accepted the Order of Canada “on behalf of native people across the nation.” In this spirit she tells her
Here is the enlightening story of an esteemed and eloquent Mi’kmaq woman whose message of “gentle persuasion” has enriched the life of a nation.
Rita Joe is celebrated as a poet, an educator, and an ambassador. In 1989, she accepted the Order of Canada “on behalf of native people across the nation.” In this spirit she tells her story and, by her example, illustrates the experiences of an entire generation of aboriginal women in Canada.
Song of Rita Joe is the story of Joe’s remarkable life: her education in an Indian residential school, her turbulent marriage, and the daily struggles within her family and community. It is the story of how Joe’s battles with racism, sexism, poverty, and personal demons became the catalyst for her first poems and allowed her to reclaim her aboriginal heritage. Today, her story continues: as she moves into old age, Joe writes that her lifelong spiritual quest is ever deepening.
The youngest of seven children, Joe was born in 1932 on Cape Breton, in eastern Canada. Her parents were poor but happy; "everybody was soft-spoken and gentle," she writes, "even though we had such a sad lot." Joe does not say much about her home life, apart from quietly recalling that her grandmother blamed her for her mother's death, when the author was five, on account of Joe's difficult delivery. She touches only in passing on the foster homes she subsequently lived in (though she does note that a man in one of them sexually abused her). Nor do we learn much about the Indian Residential School she attended for four years; such schools proved traumatic experiences for generations of Indians. Indeed, Joe's memoir is shot through with a curious reticence, and it is clear that the author is not entirely comfortable with telling us about her experiences, good or bad. She admits, but with considerable reserve, to having been a battered wife for many years of her long marriage; as her husband drank more and more, she writes, "the beatings he gave me became a more frequent part of my life." (Those beatings stopped when a Mi'kmaq elder shamed Joe's husbandwhom the author recalls with nothing but love and forgivenessinto quitting his abuse.) Joe is more forthcoming about her almost accidental success as a writer: She began to write in her late 30s, after bearing nine children, contributing humorous columns to a Mi'kmaq-language newspaper, and has since produced several books of verse that are well known in Canada.
"You cry too much," an Anglo editor once complained of Joe's writing. One wishes that she had cried a little more in this spare memoir, in which so much goes unspoken.
Meet the Author
Celebrated Mi’kmaq poet Rita Joe is much in demand as a storyteller and spokesperson for First Peoples across Canada and the United States. Her poetry has been widely anthologized, in particular in educational materials. Born in Whycocomagh, Cape Breton Island, Rita Joe now resides on the Eskasoni Reserve on the Bras d’Or Lakes.
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