By Guest Contributor Jorge Antonio Vallejos, cross-posted from Black Coffee Poet
Joanna Shawana is Anishnawbe from Wikwemikong Unceded Indian Reserve. Author of Voice of an Eagle, Shawana makes and sells Aboriginal crafts and works at a women’s shelter. Her poetry shows us all that there is beauty beyond abuse. Voice of an Eagle is a collection of poems and aboriginal teachings that walk us through her struggle of abuse and show us that no matter how dark the situation looks that we can break free and be with the “eagle’ to find our voice and say NO MORE! Joanna plans on writing another book explaining the signs of abuse and how both men and women can break free from the chains holding them.
BCP: Why poetry?
JS: Poetry is the only way I can express my feelings, my thoughts, what I see, and what I hear. And when I write, it is another form of releasing; this is the only way that I can express. The more I write and I have never really re-read what I have written till months later, this is when I started putting my writing in a form of poetry.
BCP: What is your process?
JS: Process…just sit and write. No, really, at times it just comes to me and I just start writing till all the thoughts and feelings are gone. Other times, the city is so busy, I’m unable to think, unable to write when something comes to me and at those times, I need to be around the water, around nature, so that I can concentrate on what I need to write.
BCP: How long have you been writing poetry?
JS: The first time I started writing was in the late 80’s and back then I never kept anything that I had written. I would tear up my writings, burn them and the reason for this because I did not want anyone know how I was feeling, what my thoughts were. I kept all these feeling deep within. But, the poetry writing did not start coming to me till the mid 1990’s.
BCP: Who are your influences?
JS: My influences? I would say my father (who passed away in 1993) and my children. My father was a believer in the church and by that time, I had started to learn my culture and for myself I was not much of church person.
One day, a gift was given to my father for donating game meat (moose, deer and fish) to Anishnawbe Health Toronto to help feed the homeless that were living on the streets but, also for the memories that took place. He never asked for money for this game meat, so in return he received a gift, this was given to me to hand to him. This gift was a book, a book which was called Wisdom of the Elders; man I kept this book for a few months, too afraid, too scared to give him the book, knowing how he felt in the life I have chosen to follow and which he did not believe in. But, I knew I had to give him this book, it took a lot of courage to hand him this book.
A month later, I went back home to the rez to visit him. As I walked in he had two books with him, one was the black bible and the other Wisdom of the Elders. I sat quietly waiting for the lecture from him, but the words that I heard that day was, “This is what I have been trying to say” (putting his hand on the book of the Wisdom of the Elders) but I had been following this one (hand on the other book, the Bible) When I heard those words, I felt some relief coming over me. When I heard those words, I knew he was fine in what life I had decided to follow. Through our visit, he showed me what he had written based on his own teachings he had learned throughout his life, based on what he had read. He wrote, “These Are Our Responsibilities”, and this is what he believed in and tried to teach his children and grandchildren.
A month later after I had the visit with him, he passed away. For me this meant, he had come to terms within himself, what he believed in. And this is when I started writing.
Other influences are my children; they have always encouraged me to start putting a book of poetry together. Till this day, they still give me that support and encouragement.
BCP: Why did you title your book Voice of an Eagle?
JS: Coming up with a title for this book was hard, a lot of thinking things through. In my early years of writing, putting all my poems together sharing them with people in my life. I called it Heart of Gold. The Heart of Gold was based on the person whom I have become. A woman that shares what comes from her heart. After sharing the writings with the publisher, and as we went through all the poems, she asked me to find another title for the book based on a voice of a First Nations woman, and me being from the Eagle Clan. With those two combined together, I decided on Voice of an Eagle.
BCP: Your poetry is emotional, honest, and stimulating. What do you try to convey to your readers?
JS: I guess, what I am trying to say is, “Don’t be afraid to speak up, don’t be afraid to share your experiences in what you have been through, only by sharing, it’s one way of letting go the negativity that one is feeling”. There as too many women, men and children that keep holding on to their negativity and this negativity only destroys who we are. But, we need to keep in mind by letting the negativity go, we replace it with the positive things that we experience in life.
BCP: Your spirituality plays a large part in your writing. Is that intentional or does it just happen that way?
JS: Native Spirituality is not what I grew up with. I remember the first time when I heard spirituality, cultural teachings, I was so against it, I did not want to learn. As time passed learning the culture, the teachings, it grew in me and now it will always be with me.
When I start writing (poems) the spirituality just comes out, there is no intention, the poems just come the way they do.
BCP: Do you see poetry as a form of prayer?
JS: There are a couple of poems, I can say “yes” too. The one that I can share is the one that I wrote when I went on a hunting trip with my brothers and my father. This is the same year that my father passed away. On this hunting trip, I was too sick to travel with them throughout the weekend. I stayed in a tent while the others went out. As I was going through my sickness, I prayed to Creator to give strength, and as I was going through this, I heard nature around me, heard water rippling, the birds sing and I gave thanks to Creator for what I heard and experienced. This poem is called I Offer. This poem was also used in a documentary back in 2008 and this documentary is called Living through Dying.
BCP: Is poetry a form of healing for you?
JS: All my writings are healing for me. As I mentioned earlier, I did not have anyone to talk to about my thoughts and feelings, the struggles that I had encountered throughout my life. The other part of me is, I am a very shy individual, I get nervous when I start sharing with people that I meet. So, when I am writing I don’t have that shyness within myself, I don’t get nervous because there is no one there to judge me in what I am writing about. The only person that would judge me is “myself”. So, I am free to express myself the way I want to in my writings.
BCP: Do you share your poetry with your clients at the shelter you work at?
JS: I like to share a bit of this work. I remember the first time I did my placement work with Nellie’s, I felt I was out of place and being a First Nation’s woman, I really felt odd. The women that I worked with had more experience in this field of work and it did not help much being “shy” and not outspoken. Years went by and each month I was getting comfortable working in this field, the women were very encouraging, gave me confidence within myself that I can do the work.
The first time I shared my poems and writing was in a group that a co-worker and myself started. This support group (Violence Against Women) would help the women to have a better understanding, gain knowledge, feel confident within themselves to have a voice. Each week we would have different topics and women would share their stories and this is when I would share one of the poems that would help the women. Each time I did this, it helped them to be a bit stronger within themselves.
So, yes I do share my poems with the women that I work with. When I work with women, I need to keep reminding myself to be compassionate, to be understanding, to be respectful and listen to the women when they share their stories of abuse. I work with them at their level, I don’t talk to them, I don’t feel superior or have that authoritarian way of speaking to them. I bring myself to where they are because I have been in their shoes before. Working with the women in the past 10 years has been challenging. I learn from my co-workers and the women that come through the doors.
I would like to share this poem which came to me as I was sitting in a workshop:
All I Ask
My fellow woman
I am weak
I am hurt
All I ask of you is
Hear what I have to say
Hear what I have to share
I am not here
To be looked down
I am not here
To be judged
For what had happen to me
All I ask of you is
Hear what I have to share
My fellow women
Listen to my words
See the pain in my eyes
All I ask of you is
Hear what I have to say
Hear what I have to share
To get through my pain
To understand what is happening
To be a better person
Hear what I have to say
Hear what I have to share
©Joanna Shawana 2005
BCP: A lot of your poems are personal. Was it a hard decision to have them published where everyone can read them?
JS: One never thinks of sharing their personal work with the world and that was on my mind when I started writing poems; I only shared with people who were close to me like my children and my family. And yes, it was a hard decision to get them published. Even at the end of it all, it was still hard receiving the book after it was published. All I thought to myself was, “Oh God, now everyone is going to find out what I have been through in life. They are going to judge me for the wrong doings, the struggles, the obstacles and the abuse I had encountered later in life.” But, through my own healing in ceremonies, counseling, the teachings from the Elders/Healers, I have learned that part of healing oneself is to be able to share stories (poems) through any form. As my father use to say “Don’t judge me for who I was, judge me for who I am today.” This saying will always stays with me. Now, I feel comfortable sharing this with people.
BCP: Many of the poems in your book are dedicated to family members. What did your family think of the book?
JS: My family is my children, my grandchildren, brothers and sisters most of all my parents and grandparents. Family is very important to me, they will always be. It does not matter what we go through in life, whether we have misunderstandings, disagreements, we will always be a family and learn to take things in value in what we share in each others life, and not to look things as a lecture.
Each poem is dedicated to my children, grandson’s, brothers, sisters and my parents. They were excited after all the encouragement they have given me to start sharing my poems. The only regret I have is that my father did not have a chance to see this happening, but I know deep within he is watching.
BCP: What are you working on now?
JS: Right now, I have “writers block” as they call it. All my writings, I have put aside waiting for the momentum to start writing again. I do have enough to put a second book together. One other wish I have is to be able to reprint Voice of an Eagle and this will eventually happen; maybe when I win a lotto.
I would like to share this for the ones that know me: my second book is based on a little girl growing up in her community living with her family. The little girl writes about what she had witnessed, what she had heard while growing up, and wonders what will the people think. So for now, my writing is on hold.
At the moment, I do have a project happening. For me another form of healing is to be creative, so I do a lot of custom jewelry, one of kind, unique work with porcupine quills. When I do this work, it helps me to release any stress that I have encountered, to let go of any negativity that I feel, and I put a lot of positive work into my jewelry and I’m proud what I have accomplished.
Right now, my daughter Joni is developing a website for my work, where people can view the work that I do and they can also place an order. Joni helps me a lot in the work that I do, there are many nights and days that she will sit by the computer make business cards, bookmarks, and many other things. And I am totally grateful for all her work.
BCP: When do you expect to have your second collection of poetry published?
JS: Second book? I am hoping in the next few years. In this book, I will be sharing poetry that my family members have written which they have already sent to me years ago.
Again, this is going to be another hard decision to make, to be able to share my stories through poetry.
BCP: What do you want the Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal communities to get from reading your poems?
JS: Honestly, I have not really thought about that. I guess what I can say is, “To all the ones who are afraid to speak, who don’t have a voice, don’t be afraid to speak. You are not only helping yourself, you are helping others to feel confident within themselves to speak. We have been silenced from people that we love, from the people in our society, people we have trusted in our lives, let us not hide anymore, let us speak up and say that is enough.”
BCP: It’s Aboriginal History Month now. What does that mean to you?
JS: What it means to me is to be proud of who we are as First Nations Peoples. It’s a time to celebrate and to honour our heritage. June 21 was declared National Aboriginal Day, but we as First Nations, I believe we celebrate our heritage every day.
BCP: What advice do you have for other Aboriginal writers out there who are having difficulties with their writing, or who have yet to see their work in print, or who are afraid to perform their poetry?
JS: The only thing that I can say is, don’t give up, even though we have come up with a “writer’s block” just keep on trying. When we try to make a mark in the world we live in, it’s the hardest thing to do, it takes patience and commitment. Writing is a voice, a voice that calls us from our dreams, telling us to open our eyes, to open our hearts and let our voice be heard.
Most of all, the gift that we were given by Creator is a beautiful gift, a gift of writing and through these writings, we encourage ourselves to continue to do the work that we need to do, and by doing this we are encourage others too.
The ones who afraid to speak, to voice themselves, or afraid to perform their poetry, we are afraid that our words will not be heard or accepted. So we feel its best that we live in silence rather than voicing out. We should never be afraid to sit and think and write our thoughts down, we should not be afraid to put our work out there for the people to read and see. The best solution or advice is, don’t be afraid of life, believe that life is worth living, and that we can share our own experiences in life so that others can gain the strength to let go of fear. So it is better to speak.
On this note, I will need to remind myself not to be afraid.
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