As it turned out, my reading dovetailed with the Right Honourable Paul Marin’s emphasis on education for aboriginals in his lecture.
In November, 2002, I was invited to the Labrador Creative Arts Festival, based in Happy Valley-Goose Bay. By day I was a visiting poet, taken from one school to another, to work with grades 6 to 12. By night I was in the audience in the Goose High School theatre, mesmerized by three hours of plays written and performed by students.
This was the height of the horrifying images on the nightly news about children of Davis Inlet dying from glue sniffing and suicide. Imagine, then, my delight to see the gripping play by Davis Inlet children, based on an Innu legend.
Please picture a darkened stage, bare but for a teepee and fake campfire, with an orphan boy, an elder, a young husband and his young wife gathered around it. Far off to the side a slim boy, about ten, narrates the story, while it is being pantomimed by the others. Here is my short version:
Orphan Boy, An Innu Legend
All fall there have been no caribou. An elder says unless they find the caribou
they will starve. She and the young couple ignore the orphan boy
when he tries to speak. The elder says, “We must sleep now.
Tomorrow we must move to better hunting grounds.”
Because the elder is wise, soon all are asleep, except the orphan boy.
He sneaks out of the teepee.
By moonlight, he finds the tracks he wanted to tell
the elders about. Bow and arrow in hand, he tracks the caribou
and kills it. Before dawn he wakes the elder
who doubts the boy, but follows him to the caribou.
The story ends with the elder announcing to all:
“I am sorry I misjudged the wisdom of youth.
Even an elder has much to learn.”
What I’ll never forget was the part not in the narration:
The young storyteller dazzled us with his memory, until
mid-way through the story he went silent, squirmed, sighed,
looked across the stage to his schoolmates.
Fidgeting in my seat, I wondered why no one was feeding him the next line.
Then I saw each actor communing without words,
full eye contact, across that big stage.
Beaming the thoughts, You can do it. Just breathe.
That little boy took a long, deep breath, then resumed his story.
Not once after that did he hesitate or forget a word.
Witnessing their wordless faith in each other, I learned a lesson—
an echo of the legend the children of Davis Inlet had brought to this stage.
Imagine my despair when, after writing this for you, I turned on the radio to hear a repeat of the glue sniffing story—now in the community of Natuashish where all of Davis Inlet was moved in 2003. I wonder, how are those Davis Inlet children I saw, ten years later? Has the leadership they showed then, prevailed?
Which brings me to my reading at Sheshatshiu:
The school looked like a battered metal warehouse.
I was to read poems to grade 12.
As the teacher walked me to the classroom.
he blurted, “We had a storm day,
this is a grade 8 class of boys expecting
the Family Life class they hate”, as he opened
the door to a group of over-aged bored boys.
[omitting some failed attempts to engage the boys]
I took a deep breath, like that young narrator in the Davis Inlet play, and waited for inner strength. It came to me to read poems about adversity in my life. I asked them if they knew anyone who had polio, or anyone who was blind. They looked surprised, then opened up and answered with stories of uncles, grandparents.
I read Reachers (pg. 75 Long Reach Home).
The final lines are: _I soon quit skating/couldn’t stand the gap between/
dream and reality…Mom wonders if quitting/ was the right thing./ So do I._
When I asked them whether they thought quitting was the best thing, a lively debate broke out. Knowing that Sheshatshiu is still a struggling community today breaks my heart.
We can’t quit our dream of a healthier way to live for communities like Sheshatshiu, and Natuashish… But it is clear that new ways are needed to help the dream become reality.