Review by Mary Barnes
We live in the 21st century where society seems to have progressed and reached a place of great achievements. Yet, there are still repercussions from the near annihilation of the indigenous peoples. They run deep, and the only way to release past and future generations from this aftermath, to dispel the grieving and the horrors is to tell the sad story. As well, the wrongs need to acknowledged and reconciled. Only then can the indigenous peoples know healing and harmony.
In her book, Seven Sacred Truths, the poet, Wanda John-Kehewin, writes of her encounter with colonialism, the pain she endured during her troubled childhood, and the journey she eventually took to find her way back by embracing the teachings of her ancestors. For her foundation, John-Kehewin relies on the seven sacred truths of wisdom, love, honesty, humility, courage and truth.
Many of the poet’s poems are prayers, her words pleading for help for all concerned; Mother Earth, her children and all the creatures. But the poems that strike the heart are those which relate to the poet’s childhood, to the despair of being left alone, abandoned or scorned by those closest to her.
Several of John-Kehewin’s poems display the cardinal form of O which is discomfiting for us to read but in this case, it is meant to. We realize from the reading how painful her childhood was, the O’s almost resembling open-mouthed children crying for their mothers. The O’s also remind us of the holes in her life, the absence of love and stability. One such poem is ‘MOMMY I wOuld have’ in which she writes:
‘I wOuld have lOOked all
Over the wOrld
Just tO find YOu
And I wOuld have
The result of this rendering leaves us with a poem that is both poignant and powerful. (33)‘Striking Things’ is another poem that shows us the bleakness of the poet’s childhood. She is under the temporary care of her grandmother (Kokum), and though the visits seem warm such as the image of shopping for groceries:
‘Off to town for her-
Ice cream on the list- ‘,
as is her memory of her ‘Kokum’s sweetgrass picking shells-/Berry picking hands blood red- ‘, the poem ends with the line, ‘Survival 50/50’. This last line shows the impermanency in the poet’s young life. She is only getting by.
Brought up on a poverty-stricken reservation, the poet is soon relegated to foster homes far from her mother and relations. The abandonment by her family seems unforgiveable to those who have the privilege of a parent’s care yet John-Kehewin finds a way of looking that invites us to see how established discrimination is ingrained in our society, and how this discrimination leads to hopelessness. In her poem, ‘Mama’s Moon’, John-Kehewin’s tone comes through as wistful. Her mother’s voice reads as regretful. She regrets that she cannot be with her daughter to see her grow. She says, ‘she doesn’t want the ghosts/of her past to capture her children’. Motherhood was taken from her. Matriarchy is one of the treasures of the indigenous culture and to be bereft of it is a sad commentary. The mother here tells her daughter to, ‘look at the moon’. There she hopes her daughter will find succor but then the poet ends with the line, ‘It has always been my Mama’s moon.’ And we can see there is little or no fulfillment for the daughter. (65)
Throughout the book, John-Kehewin writes of the pain of separation and disrespect for anything indigenous. By the closing of her story, the poet has reached harmony, a peace within herself and as she says in her final poem, ‘Forgiveness’, ‘…here I sit writing what’s in my head, heart, soul, and body, knowing that it is all not in vain but in my veins.’(118)
A truly appalling story of a maligned individual who rose from misery and hardship with wisdom and courage to discover she is of worth and that her people are of worth.
Seven Sacred Truths
by Wanda John-Kehewin
Talonbooks, Vancouver, BC, c2018, 126 pp, $18.95
ISBN #978-1-77201-213-2 (softcover)
Mary Barnes is a writer living in Wasaga Beach, Ontario.