SkyDancer: Our Poet Laureate and her Settler In-Laws
- David Butt | May 16, 2021
Cree poet Louise Bernice Halfe, Sky Dancer, has been, for decades, my sister-in-law. She is now also Canada’s newly named poet laureate. The family story I can tell reveals much about why, for the next two years, the position of poet laureate has transformative potential.
Louise married my older brother in the early 1970s; no doubt like most people marrying in their early twenties having little idea what sort of new family she was entering. We were then what would now be described as deeply cocooned in privilege. Upper-middle class professional whites in a racially homogeneous small Ontario town. We considered our values fairly progressive for the times, and I like to think we were good-hearted. But the standard history and civics curricula that framed our education and outlook disseminated uncritically the propaganda of benevolent colonialism. And we endorsed without question the nobility of a British-derived constitutional regime, oblivious to its deep-rooted complicity in the host of apartheid and genocidal practices that now self-evidently stain our national identity.
Indigeneity was invisible to us, and, as we have only belatedly acknowledged, that was by cruel design.
With Louise having recently emerged from the horror of residential school, I can only look back in wonder at how, in those early days of her marriage to Peter, she could possibly have navigated our family dynamics, and how endlessly patient she must have been with our condescending ignorance.
But Louise did far more than navigate the family landscape before her. With effort and equanimity she enriched it. She combined a ready laugh and a sparkle with well-timed, trenchant, unfiltered comments that delivered sometimes painful but always well-grounded truths. These were the precursors, inside our family bubble, of the poetry that was soon to take flight.
And take flight it did. Louise published book after book of poetry, travelling the world, connecting with indigenous groups everywhere, in pursuit of healing for herself, her people, and indeed everyone diminished in their humanity by colonialist degradations and misadventure.
Some of Louise’s poetry is very hard to swallow for those of us born to the privileged status quo. Coming as it does from her and her loved ones having personally endured the darkness of systemic indigenous oppression, it reveals with stunning clarity the pain of prolonged degradation inflicted willfully by both church and state. And I confess much of Louise’s poetry I can handle only in small doses. But I have come to understand that Sky Dancer is the medicine woman delivering the chemotherapy that yes, makes us nauseous in the short term, but in the long term helps eradicate the insidious anti-indigenous cancer that has infected both our souls and our body politic.
Louise’s poetry also radiates grace, and as such is far more than medicinal. While challenging, it uplifts us, educates us, wraps us in the poet’s inspirational embrace, as if to say kindly, “walk with me; you can take the same steps I am taking because you are just as human as I am.”
Louise has transformed our family. Using not just her powerful and captivating poetry, but her generous spirit, gregariousness, and bluntness to help us open our eyes, step out of our comfort zones, and re-think our country, our history, and our future. We are as a family surely only a few faltering steps further ahead in this journey of reconciliation, still far from the finish line; but any progress we have made is a debt owed to Sky Dancer’s wisdom and patience.
And that is precisely why choosing Louise as Canada’s poet laureate is such a wonderful choice for the country at this time. Reconciliation as a national imperative is indisputable. However we remain a nation struggling with the exceedingly difficult work of actualizing reconciliation, personally and communally. Inevitably, then, the conversation around reconciliation runs the very real risk of descending to the lowest common denominator: our reflexive habit of politicizing public discourse and packaging it in trite pre-digested formulations diluted and flavoured as necessary to appeal to partisans on each end of the spectrum, following which insults will be hurled back and forth across the partisan divide, to little practical effect.
A poet laureate can and should rise above all that hum-drum, all that petty self-centred political skirmishing. A poet’s talents enable her to soar above the often constricted and mean-spirited crucible of politics and the development of public policy. She can reach us all by dancing in the sky that we all look up to. Sky Dancer’s poetry, and her vibrant personality on the poet laureate’s stage, can teach us about our history, and ourselves, in ways that simultaneously haunt us, humble us, inspire us, make us ashamed of our past, and yet give us hope for our collective future.
Sky Dancer, my complacent white family in 1970s southwestern Ontario really did not deserve your transformational gifts. But now the country does. And needs them too.