- Bending, Turning, and GrowingCree Language, Laws, and Ceremony in Louise B. Halfe / Sky Dancer's The Crooked Good
The Crooked Good, nêhiyaw poet Louise B. Halfe / Sky Dancer's third book of poetry, is an epic poem that narrates ê- kwêskît's journey toward healing.1 This story is complex and multilayered, because her journey is neither singular nor straightforward. Instead, her journey is curved, circular, and deeply connected to the stories of her relatives: her ancestors, her children, her siblings, and her parents. Her path is also intimately tied to ceremony, language, land, and sacred stories. Indeed, the book can be understood as a journey home, where, as nêhiyaw scholar and poet Neal McLeod explains, "'Being home' means to be a nation. … It involves having a collective sense of dignity. A collective memory emerges from a specific location, spatially and temporally, and includes such things as relationship with the land, songs, ceremonies, language, and stories" (Cree Narrative Memory 54).2 I do not intend to explore all of the complex aspects of peoplehood and nêhiyaw sovereignty in The Crooked Good in this article, but I do maintain that in order to understand this book on a deeper level, readers must pay close attention to the nêhiyaw itwêwina (the Cree words) that Louise Halfe uses in her poetry, because these words are deeply rooted in nêhiyaw laws, histories, sacred stories, and ceremonies; these words guide readers home, where home is nêhiyânâhk (Cree territory).
In many instances, these words are what Métis writer Maria Campbell and others have termed word bundles.3 In a 2004 interview Campbell explained how she cautions her students "not to just settle for the word, but imagine that the word is carrying this big huge bundle. What's inside? What are the roots of that word? What is the story? Is there a song in the bundle, a ceremony, a protocol? Where did it come from? The word bundle is full of treasure" (200). This concept of a word bundle [End Page 71] is especially productive given the polysynthetic nature of nêhiyawêwin, as well as the nested meanings that reside in itwêwina. When describing Anishinaabemowin, an Algonquian language that is closely related to nêhiyawêwin, Basil H. Johnston tells us that "in my tribal language, all words have three levels of meaning: There is the surface meaning that everyone instantly understands. Beneath this meaning is a more fundamental meaning derived from the prefixes and their combinations with other terms. Underlying both is the philosophical meaning" (6). nêhiyawêwin is structured similarly, and each Cree word, therefore, has nested layers of meaning. In paying close attention to just a few of the nêhiyaw itwêwina in The Crooked Good, I demonstrate how one word can function as a "big huge bundle" because of the layers of meaning it has, as well as the connections it has to other words, ceremonies, and laws. By performing this sort of reading, I am purposefully not settling for the surface layer of the words or for the glossed English translations (provided at the back of the book). Instead, I demonstrate that by approaching these words with care, curiosity, and respect—and in relationship with nêhiyawak (Plains Cree people)—these words begin to open up the text in ways that connect our understanding of the narrative to the rich Cree intellectual traditions that underpin Halfe's work.
This approach to the text was initially guided by an Indigenous literary nationalist approach, with the movement's foundational scholars, such as Robert Warrior, calling for critics to see Indigenous studies as growing out of a longer intellectual history, suggesting that Indigenous literatures should be read in their particular historical and tribal contexts. In his article "Rhetorical Sovereignty: What Do American Indians Want from Writing?" Scott Richard Lyons reminds educators and scholars that teaching and studying Indigenous literature is always political and that this work should ideally "focus on local and community levels in hopes of lending support to the work already being done there" (465). He goes on to point out...