Rita Joe, ‘poet laureate’ of Mi’kmaq, dies

By Morgan O’Neal

The woman known as the poet laureate of the Mi’kmaq nation died on Teusday, March 20. Rita’s work as a poet and spokesperson for First Nations peoples has been recognized by her appointment to the Order of Canada in 1990, and an honorary Doctor of Laws degree from Dalhousie University in 1993. Over the years, she published seven books, including five poetry anthologies and an autobiography, The Song of Rita Joe. The author of numerous articles, and an active speaker in schools, on university campuses, and in government forums, Rita remained active to the end of her life despite the increasing debilitation brought on by Parkinson’s disease. Her poetry and activism made her a symbol of native pride.

Rita Joe was born in 1932, in Wycocomagh (a reserve on Cape Breton Island) living in foster homes after her mother’s death in 1937, when she was sent to the Shubenacadie Indian Residential School, which she attended until the eighth grade. Of her experience in this infamous system, she stated bluntly: “I was brainwashed. ‘You’re no good,’ I was told every day at Shubie.” She married Frank Joe in 1954 and they had eight children and adopted two more. She did not begin to write poetry until the late 1960’s; her first book was not published until 1978, but her poems immediately struck a chord, as she gently presented Aboriginal experience within Canada, and advocated love and understanding between peoples. Rita wrote one of many popular poems, “Five Hundred Years” in 1993, the International Year of Aboriginal Peoples. Her many books include The Poems of Rita Joe, Songs of Eskasoni: More Poems of Rita Joe, Lnu and Indians We’re Called and The Mi’kmaq Anthology (1997) co-written with Lesley Choyce.

A long-time activist who wrote numerous articles about native issues, Joe also served on the Queen’s Privy Council for Canada, one of the few non-politicians ever to do so. She was given the Order of Canada in 1990 and also won the Nova Scotia Writers Federation Prize. She naturally gravitated to acting as an ambassador for native arts and culture throughout Canada.. This always proud but humble woman told CBC in a recent interview that she was quite amazed by all the accolades she had received. “I accepted on behalf of my people every time I was given an award,” she said. “They helped, everybody helped in their own way.”

“I told the audience that no matter from what circumstances you come from, and no matter from what culture, or how poor you are, everybody can do this,” she said after receiving an Aboriginal Achievement Award in 1997. “If you write in a positive way, or think in a positive way about your culture,” she told CBC Radio in February, “… it will come back positive.” The Aboriginal Achievement Foundation emphasized, in granting her award, that Joe had worked throughout her life to counter native stereotypes, and her poems and songs reflected both pain and hope.

Her energetic productive life can best be summed up in her words. “I am,” she said, “a daughter or grandmother to everyone in Eskasoni. Who can ask for more? I want to be an exceptional writer, a memory I want to leave behind, an orphan child, picking herself off the misery of being a nobody, moving little grains of sand about the nation of the land…. Representing my people gives me a good feeling, a natural high, just reading from the book or singing an Indian song with a drum. I wish more of my people would write beautiful stories I hear them tell. The Micmac are good storytellers.” (Joe 1993).

Her recently published Usmiani, included her now well-known “Oka Song,” written following the 1990 Oka crisis in Quebec. When the poem was first heard it led to an association among Rita Joe and two academics, Kevin Alstrup and Gordon Smith. Field research conducted in the summer of 1992 in Eskasoni on the Bras d’Or Lakes near Sydney on Cape Breton Island, resulted in a musical transcription of the “Oka Song.” This ground-breaking transcription was published in the Canadian Journal for Traditional Music (1995).

In describing collaborating on the “Oka Song,,” Rita Joe stated with characteristic humility, “I was a songwriter before I became a poet. From the time I was a little girl I was what you would call a hummer. Melodies would roll around in my head… not knowing if I picked them up as hymn songs, the roll of an incoming wave, or wind sounds. I am a shy native so the songs were put away and I sang only when I was speaking at a school or a gathering. . . ..The Oka song became a popular, often-requested melody, so I thought I had better find someone who would transcribe it: “I asked Elizabeth Cremo, the daughter of the famous fiddle champ, Lee Cremo, from Eskasoni. She told Professor Gordon Smith of Queen’s University. . . . He took my song on a cassette tape and the typed words, and returned in a day or so with the transcribed song sheets.”

Gordon Smith transcribed the Oka Song. “first in a literal, note-for-note, word-for-word fashion. The text was especially moving, given the recent events at Oka it described, as well as the theme of gentle protest that is present in much of Rita’s poetry. The text was ominous for [Smith , a non-native, and the experience of participating in this work took on an extraordinary kind of honour”

The two academics summed up their appreciation of Rita Joe’s work in the following words: “After discussions with Rita about presenting and publishing the songs, it became clear that her intention is educational: she wants the songs to be sung by children and adults from any ethnic background who are interested in First Nations culture. Rita’s goal, and subsequently ours, is to make the songs accessible to a broad, inclusive audience.”

The three worked closely together to satisfying what Rita Joe, the creator, had wanted most passionately:definitive versions of the songs that would be accessible to as many people as possible, or in her plain, poetic terms, “nothing fancy.” The Academics had “to maintain a respect for the words, since [they] knew that Rita’s message (educational intent) would be conveyed inevitably through the song texts. Smith discovered Rita Joe’s innate sense of rhythm, phrase, and melodic shape. “Often, I saw the intimate connection of the rhythmic values to her poetic text metre. From a variety of musical influences she ha[d] learned certain melodic styles, melodic chordal structures, and cadential formulas.. Some songs maintained a distinct country-and-western feel. . . . Others derive[d] from the Roman Catholic chant and hymn-singing tradition, which is often changed and, indeed, enriched, with the addition of the Micmac language”

During their stay in Eskasoni, the songs were often performed. Normally, the poetry was accompanied by traditional Micmac drumming and dancing, Cape Breton fiddling, and step dancing. One such performance was in Halifax for the Society for Canadian Artists of Native Ancestry (SCANA), and another took place in the Provincial Legislature at a televised ceremony marking Treaty Day. The performers gathered on the floor of the legislature with the Micmac Grand Council behind them, and some three hundred people in the audience witnessing the historic meeting.

At every performance of this sublim mixture of indigenous creation and rigorous scholarship the material us positively received, often overwhelming the audience. Rita Joe nearly always ended her speaking engagements with a song, usually accompanying herself on a hand drum, and each event was an important and generous extension of the ancient Micmac tradition of storytelling.

The now famous “Oka Song,” for example, has since been translated into Mohawk and sung in Quebec communities on several occasions. Other poems, such as the Christmas song, “And Then We Heard a Baby Cry,” have been performed at Midnight Massess in the church at Eskasoni, and performed in arrangement by the Cape Breton Chorale at its Annual Christmas Concert in Sydney. The “community” in this context therefore extends well beyond the Micmac reserve to other First Nations groups, and to people from other ethnic backgrounds living in Cape Breton and elsewhere.

Rita Joe’s death at the age of 75, after a long battle with Parkinson’s disease, deprives this nation and indeed the North American continent of one of those rare individuals who seem naturally to do good in the world, and to work tirelessly and selflessly toward enhancing communication between the peoples of the earth and building a genuinely better more loving, peaceful and prosperous world in which all human beings may aspire to their best. Her simple effective philosophy had been to search out and to discover the beauty in every place or circumstance and to communicate that beauty to others so as to enhance their experience of life. As Rita Joe expressed it, “You just have to put your effort into it and be positive. Don’t try to work on the negative stuff.” A one eulogy on an an Internet website dedicated to expressions of sadness and respect. One typical short not, by Jason Murphy from Toronto, read as follows: “An inspiring and unique Canadian voice has been lost.”