Aboriginal Identity within Canadian Society: Comparison and Contrast of Two Poems
This review will provide analysis for two poems: the first one called “Helen Betty Osborne” written by Marilyn Dumont in 1996, and the second one “When’s the Last Boat to Alcatraz” written by Peter Blue Cloud in 1976. Two selected poems are related to the representation of aboriginal identity in Canadian society.
Marilyn Dumont herself is a Cree/Metis poet who has won several awards for her poetic talent, and the central topics of her writings concentrate on current policies related to the life of Metis people, and the biography of her famous revolution hero relative – Charles Dumont.
Doing a further research on Helen Betty Osborne if her personality has not yet become familiar to the reader, it is easy to find out that she was a Cree aboriginal lady from a rural Nation Indian Reserve community called Norway House in the province of Manitoba, Canada. This community is characterized by high seasonal unemployment because the local people majorly rely on fishing, government services, logging and trapping. Returning to the story of Helen Betty Osborne, we find out tragic details – the woman faced kidnapping and was murdered while she went on a promenade in Third Street of The Pas in Manitoba district in November 1971. This woman was ambitious about becoming a teacher and wanted to enter college but it had to take place away from her native community because there were limited opportunities for education. After two years of studies outside The Pas she was chosen for a governmental program to live and work with a Caucasian family. The Pas is mostly a cultural mix of whites, Native Americans, Cree and Metis people. It was late at night (2:30 am) when she became a subject for abduction, brutal beating, sexual offense and murder. After a long investigation is was found that four white men are guilty in her death but only one of them was eventually convicted sixteen years after the tragedy. The major reasons for it were identified by the court as indifference, sexism and racism.
This shocking story led to higher cultural awareness and the intensified intention to promote balance, peace and harmony in Manitoba community. Several educational and rehabilitation centers were called after the name of Helen Betty Osborne.
Analyzing the first poem “Helen Betty Osborne” we can note that in the first stanza the author calls for a girl Betty. The name appears as a usual one for any Native American female resident, and it also might partially stand for the author herself. The author implies that every native girl at some point faces misunderstanding, loneliness, horror, unsafely feeling and anxiety, residing in a town or city where there are just a few Native American people. The poem is the embodiment of grief and sorrow of American Indians. The first stanza also touches on the problem of the lack of cultural awareness and care on different ethnical backgrounds in Canadian communities which is especially sad with Native Americans who do not create huge masses in today’s conditions.
The second stanza is characterized by the expression of these girls’ innocence. Certain attention is also paid to sorrow for the events that might have taken place in this town in the past. The emphasis on the severity of Indians’ lives through the use of emotionally charged words and expressions such as “scraping”, “pounding”, “packing”, and “skinning” (Armstrong & Grauer 255-258). The second stanza also names several other people including Anna Mae Aquash who was an Indian activist from Nova Scotia in Canada and was killed. Her murderers were convicted after many years, and at first she was not even recognized as shot with a gun but rather identified as a victim of exposure and frost. Later it was found that she was raped too. Donald Marshall also belonged to Mi’kmaq India branch and was wrongly convicted of a murder and sentenced to life imprisonment. He was only 17 years old, just as his assumed victim, his girlfriend Sandy Seale. Only 11 years after the trial Marshall could walk out free. The manipulations of police were racist and unfair – they were eager to believe an older white man who claimed he hadn’t stabbed the young girl. Richard Cardinal is also mentioned – it was a teenage young man who ended his life with a suicide. All his life (only 17 years) Richard had to travel across foster houses and shelters of Alberta area in Alaska. The faults of Canadian Indian children welfare policies are seen in the diary that was left by this boy who just wanted to be loved.
The third stanza supports the idea expressed earlier: the author does identify herself with Betty just as any other female Native American due to the common sufferings that all these women had to go through without any reason for it. The author stops the stanza in a slightly incomplete way in order to get readers fall into deeper thinking about what is hidden behind her lines. The innocence of Native American women is the major focus of this poem.
The second poem “When’s the Last Boat to Alcatraz” is dedicated to Richard Oakes. He was a leader of Alcatraz occupation, and he was killed in 1972 in California. The poem appears to express the author’s understanding of the present as the result of what has been brought by the past. The past does not die; it is still felt by the author and is very important not to lose the understanding of what is happening at the current moment.
Richard Oakes was a Mohawk activist who insisted that Native Americans should have the same rights as any other people in the US. The occupation of Oakes’ group in Alcatraz was the longest in American history. He was marked with natural leadership talent and was called a “chief” of the community. Everyone in the community had access to food, clothes, sanitary institutions, day care, jobs, security, laundry and education. After Richard’s stepdaughter died, he left the island and since then no other leader came up, and the community did not exist for much longer. Right after exiting the island, Richard Oakes was hit by a heavy subject on the head, and after a month in coma almost no hope was left until he finally recovered with the help of a spiritual leader Wallace Anderson. The rough attitude towards Indian kids of Michael Morgan, a YMCA camp manager, did not pass through with Richard Oakes. The argument ended up with Morgan shooting Oakes, and the charges were milder due to the aggressive confrontation on Oakes’ side.
Peter Blue Cloud touches upon the problem of policy change regarding Native Americans in the US. The author wonders how life is on Alcatraz now insisting that since Richard Oakes had made his contribution, little has been done for any changes. All that is required is liberty to own land, get educated, and self-determination. Now the island is not as lively as before, and the darkening images of nature and depressive metaphors imply that the freedom of Indians is still limited. The author also gives a hint that the memory of Richard Oakes and his work is not being paid enough attention to in the lines “told never to say that name again” and “told to dream of other islands” (Armstrong & Lauer 24-27). The spirit of Richard Oakes is expressed in the image of a lonely bear that is a leitmotif animal for many other poems of Peter Blue Cloud. Although at times the bear expresses “anger”, it is completely justified and understandable.