Settler Education by Laurie D. Graham
Laurie D. Graham is the author of Settler Education, published by McClelland and Stewart. The poem “Battleford Gravesite” was selected by Margaret Atwood as the poetry winner of The Thomas Morton Memorial Prize in 2014.
Amy Oldfield: This book really is an education; the endnotes are necessary, and you end up Googling things along the way and getting sucked into Wikipedia spirals. There’s so much information, you must have researched extensively. Who did you learn most from while writing and researching Settler Education? What was your research process like?
Laure D. Graham: My research process followed similar spirals. I was reading from everything: tourist brochures, archived diaries, soldiers’ chronicles, oral histories, pamphlets found in health food stores, defaced roadside plaques, history books through the years, the blogs and Twitter feeds of Indigenous activists, old newspaper columns, documentaries, and poetry and prose that cover similar ground as my book. I talked with artists, local historians, writers, summer students working at historical sites, those who live near the gravesites and monuments. I learned from more people than I can mention here, but if you read the references section at the end of the book, you get a picture of where I turned. Right now the writing that comes to mind includes Myrna Kostash’s The Frog Lake Reader, W.B. Cameron’s Blood Red the Sun, Marilyn Dumont’s The Pemmican Eaters—she’s descended from Gabriel Dumont, a Metis hero, well worth Googling—and a poem by Sandie Johnson, descendant of mistahimaskwa, called “The Frog Lake Massacre: The Story of Chief Big Bear.”
AO: The book follows a physical path west from Ontario to Saskatchewan. Many of the poems follow the speaker into different historical sites like Fort Edmonton and the Frenchman Butte Museum, and you include your own photos. Can you tell me what it was like to make that journey?
LDG: Those trips made the poems. I realized afterward that what I was doing in those places was transcribing. I thought I was just taking rough notes of what I saw and sensed, but whole lines and stanzas came out there, nearly complete. The poems wrote themselves to me in those places, and the photos were part of the transcription.
And it’s funny that you mention Fort Edmonton Park and the museum at Frenchman Butte: those were places that contained history but weren’t themselves sites where “history” took place. And, conversely, the sites where skirmishes or meetings happened in that nationally crucial spring of 1885 are now deserted to the point of being nearly erased. They contain no outward signs of their history. Just a plaque or a sign and all of nature, which someone comes and mows down every now and again.
AO: There are several instances in Settler Education where you replace a word but leave the old one visible, like “North West Rebellion Resistance”. This seems poignant; can you talk about that choice?
LDG: I transcribed those crossed-out words: they exist out in the world. In the case of the example above, these were the final words on a plaque in Chamberlain, Saskatchewan. Someone had taken a knife to “Rebellion” and carved the word “Resistance” into the plaque, correcting and updating the lingo. In another poem, “Henry Kelsey,” I’m transcribing from the verse lines he wrote to his employers in England to acquaint them with all he was seeing—and all there was to claim—on his trip west from York Factory to the prairies in the 1690s. He was the “first” English dude to make that trip, or so we tell ourselves. And he’d screw up and cross things out and rephrase, so I included that in my poem. Having that fundamental incorrectness as a starting point for English life in the West felt pretty significant to include.
I’m still not sure if I’m paying enough respect. It feels like just the beginning of paying adequate respect. I think there’s much more I can do.
AO: This is from “In Praise of Omar Khadr”: “I’ve learned a few things, from you and from my home: / where I come from, I should know at least five languages, / but I only know one”. What five languages should you speak?
LDG: The ones that my families spoke—Ukrainian, English, a bit of Polish, probably some Gaelic—the ones indigenous to where I come from—Cree, Michif—and French as well, because central Alberta is also a francophone place. So that’s a full seven. And then there are the languages that exist where I live now: Anishinaabemowin, German …
AO: In this book, you’ve accomplished something really difficult: writing respectfully, as a settler, about Aboriginal and Métis culture. After the Hal Niedzviecki/Jonathan Kay “appropriation prize” debacle this summer, how would you advise other white/settler writers to proceed with their own work, while trying to make space for the voices of Aboriginal writers?
LDG: My book is about the settler end of the bargain and the ways we’ve failed to live up to our end and about how we haven’t and still are not being taught the respect necessary to start meaningfully taking up our end, and how I had to cobble and define that respect largely for myself, and how tenuous and inadequate and even harmful that can be (which returns us to Henry Kelsey fucking things up and crossing things out). And to write about this, I had to get the historical events straight, and recognize and point to errors and falsehoods in the record. And I still don’t think I’m getting it all right. I’m still not sure if I’m paying enough respect. It feels like just the beginning of paying adequate respect. I think there’s much more I can do.
My advice would be to attend to your blind spots. Learn them. Learn to see them. Start shrinking them. Learn everything you can about the place you live. Be exhaustive and slow about it. There’s so much settlers haven’t learned, that we haven’t been told, that we’ve been encouraged to ignore.
AO: Kind of a follow up question: you talk in the book (and in your Town Crier author note) about how historical events like this rarely make it into the school curriculum: “There are four things you will not learn in school. / The name of the people. The name of the treaty. / The name of the nearest reserve. The name of the closest school.” What advice can you give somebody who is just beginning to educate themselves about the history of the land they call home?
Learn everything you can about the place you live. Be exhaustive and slow about it. There’s so much settlers haven’t learned, that we haven’t been told, that we’ve been encouraged to ignore.
LDG: There is a wealth of information already in existence. There are extensive archives, books in the library, and a whole Internet to read. There’s art, theatre, music, dance, video, and books being made by Indigenous people that tell these stories. It’s crucial to see what’s already there, what has always been there. One can start by figuring out (and remembering!) the answers to the four questions above. Then go find out what those four answers actually are, who they are, what they mean, what they’re doing.
AO: Settler Education reminded me of Barkskins by Annie Proulx. It has similar themes of colonial invasion and Aboriginal/Métis erasure. Have you read it?
LDG: I’ve read the first bit of it—Brick magazine ran the beginning of Barkskins in a past issue—and I recently bought it to read in full and to keep, because I’m a fan of her writing. As you can see, I’m not that timely a reader. I’m slow.
AO: Are you writing anything right now? Are you researching anything right now?
LDG: I am. I don’t quite know the full scope of the poems yet, but they’re interested in ecology, in non-human life. They’re still raging at colonialism, and they might be trying to trace the line connecting colonialism and grand-scale habitat annihilation for the sake of another Home Depot or whatever, that knee-jerk will to destroy that doubles as patriotism. It all feels a bit fuzzy at this point though. I’m still feeling my way around.
AO: You won the Morton Prize for your poem “Battleford Gravesite” in 2014, and you were recently on the shortlist for the $10,000 Trillium Book Award for Poetry. Clearly you’re doing something right. Do you have any advice for writers looking to submit to the Morton Prize this fall?
LDG: Oh, I have no idea, really. You may think you have a good feeling about the judge or the piece you’re submitting, but so much of it is out of your hands with a contest, or a grant, or a submission to a journal or a publisher, or a reader. Just try to grab some time to yourself to do the best work you can. Follow your nose. Obliterate those blind spots. Try not to worry too much about outcomes, both negative and positive. Just keep going. The poems in Settler Education knocked on many doors prior to finding homes in a few journals and winning the Morton Prize. Then at some point something changed.
AO: Margaret Atwood, judge of the 2014 Thomas Morton Prize, called your winning poem “A tone-perfect elegiac meditation on the impossibility of engaging with painful history and the necessity of doing so.” What changed after you won the Morton Prize? What stayed the same?
LDG: I suspect that prize helped me get the book published. It might have also put more attention on the other poems I was writing. And it was confirmation that the piece had been heard. That was nice. It’s nice to feel heard. But then you gotta write the next one.