While reading Stegner’s history of Wolf Willow, I encountered the term Métis, a term that somehow struck a chord with me, though I wasn’t sure why. Perhaps unconsciously, I picked up No Feather, No Ink, a book I’d bought a few months ago because Powell Bookstore had listed the author as Milt Acorn, a Canadian poet whose poems I’d been trying to buy for quite awhile. The book wasn’t really by Acorn, but, rather, a collection of poems centered on Louis Riel, a Métis martyr who was sentenced to death for leading a rebellion of the French-Indians in Saskatchewan in 1885.
Of course, being an American I’d never heard of the man or the rebellion, so I was a little surprised by the amount of information available on the web, like
this one at Wikipedia,
this one, or even this one.
While some understanding of the issues involved is necessary for a full appreciation of this book, the reaction to Riel’s Insurrection by various poets certainly reflects our own ambivalence towards American Indians.
I’m sure that the fact that Riel, among other things was a poet, had little to do with his appeal to other poets, but it is interesting to read some of his poems before turning to those written by others. Here’s a song apparently written by Riel that explains the title of the collection.
FATHER RUFIN TURCOTTE)
It is on the battle field,
I cried my pains,
You no doubt surpass yourself,
It makes the heart shudder.
So I receive a letter,
From my dear mother,
I had no feather, no ink,
To write to them.
So I take my pen knife,
I dipped it in my blood,
To write an old letter,
To my dear mother.
When she will receive this letter,
All written in blood,
Her eyes bathed in tears,
Her heart dying slowly
She throws herself on her knees,
Calling her children;
Pray your little brother,
Who is at the regiment.
To die is for dying.
Each die on his turn,
I prefer to die as a brave,
We all have to die one day.
If it hadn’t been written by Riel himself, it could certainly be dismissed as a rather saccharine poem, but it may reveal why Riel was such a popular leader. It’s hard to imagine an incident more apt to capture the heart of a reader.
While Riel himself seems compellingly complex, it is the cause of the people that most captures my sympathy, as shown here by Barry Dane:
How many buffets must the bondsman bear,
Till in just anger he return the blow
With a swift stroke that lays the tyrant low?
How long must he the galling fetters wear,
Till it be well that he arise and dare
To rend and cast them, counting each his foe
Who would subdue within his breast the glow
Of equal manhood that is kindled there?
How long a people mutely suffer wrong?
How long be suppliant ere they make demand?
How long be spurned, till in a surging throng
They gather, stern of purpose, strong of hand,
To throttle the oppressor of the land,
And live immortal in their country’s song?
Perhaps if the Métis had been British-Indian, rather than French-Indian, their rights would have been respected and there would have been no war, but such was not the case, and they seem to have more than ample cause for rebellion.
I must admit, though, that the more I read about Riel the more ambivalent I became. Perhaps one of the major reasons for that ambivalence is captured by Raymond Souster:
Riel, 16 novembre, 1885
“Rome is fallen”: Riel,
rousing the Métis for the last time.
He walked at Batoche
among the rifle pits
carrying a crucifix,
hoping for a miracle.
But never a gun.
“I do not like war.”
Always beware the leader
who talks with God
and leaves you to do the dirty work.
It’s hard to tell if my feelings toward this poem stem from long-held beliefs or from my disgust with Muslim terrorists and neo-conservatives who want to impose their bigoted beliefs on the rest of us. Of course, as I mentioned quite awhile ago, one of my favorite songs after I returned from Vietnam was Eric Burdon’s “Sky Pilot.”