Sentinel Poetry (Online) #48, November 2006. Frontpage l Contents
Predicting the Past
Amatoritsero Ede: Naming in certain cultures – especially traditional cultures are important and significant. Can you tell us about your name? It is interesting that you have not anglicised your name as many first nation people do.
Armand Garnet Ruffo: The name I use publicly is from my father’s European side of the family. It’s the name that I grew up with at school. I also have an Ojibway name that was given to me by my grandmother when I was quite young. Roughly translated it means Turning Sky, which is a family tradition as my great, great grandfather’s name was Sahquakegick which means Opening In the Sky. I don’t use my Ojibway name publicly because I don’t write in Ojibway, and I think it would appear somewhat pretentious unless I were using Anishinabemowin.
A.E.: Geronimo’s Grave is a series of long inter-connected poems on the historical figure of Geronimo. What inspired you to write this long memorial Ode?
A.G. R.: I was attending a writer’s conference in Oklahoma in the early nineties, and I rented a car to do some sightseeing. I drove to Muskogee to see the museum of “The Five Civilized Tribes – a name I’ve always though odd – and then went over to see the great salt flats. Somehow I ended up at Fort Sill where Geronimo was held prisoner for life. I didn’t specifically intend to visit the fort, but since I was there I decided to take it in. It’s now a museum. I was immediately entranced. Later I went over to his gravesite and that’s when I saw the fresh cut roses that someone had recently left him. I was very moved. It occurred to me that everything he stood for was still very much alive some one hundred years later. He hadn’t been forgotten. Back in Canada I thought that I would write a poem in his honour. One poem led to another and as I got deeper into his life I realized that I was also writing about my own. Hence the reason the book moves in both historical to the contemporary landscapes.
A.E.: Could you tell us a bit of the history behind the person of Geronimo?
A.G.R.: Interestingly, when I read from the book in the States somebody always seems to have a story to tell me. The last time was in Arkansas of all places. An older woman came up after the reading and complimented the book and then told me that she was a relative of Geronimo. She then proceeded to tell me a story that I wished I had known. There are many, many stories about him. So who was he? Man or myth or both. A leader, a warrior, a husband, a father, a young man, an old man, a free man, a prisoner for life. Like the books says: “it is the land that will have the last word.”
A.E.: In African America of the 1920s, W.E.B. Du Bois, African American intellectual figure of the Harlem renaissance referred to the African American elite – usually artists, poets and writers as the “Talented Tenth”, who would lift up the group by example of their achievements and excellence. Do you feel this kind of obligation within your first nation community?
A.G.R.: It’s a doubled edged blade, isn’t it? On one hand you want to do well for your people and on the other you have a commitment to your craft. Thinking about Aboriginal people and the history of colonialism it’s easy to fall into being didactic and ending up shouting to the converted. You realize this more and more as you get older. So I think one has to strive to find excellence in the writing and hope that it will move someone emotionally, empathically – like that woman in Arkansas. If it does, then you know that you’ve done your job. Still, I also think the idea of excellence is problematic in itself. Who decides what’s excellent? For me as a member of the Ojibway nation it means finding a moral centre in the work, an expression of culture, and doing the best I can with the writing no matter what form it may take. If the writing comes too easily I get worried, if it becomes too difficult, I also worry. Maybe I worry too much?
How, do you think the first nation youth can be inspired to go the complete
extent of their possibilities as human beings?
A.G.R.: First Nations youth, like youth from other communities, have it tough. Despite what the media tells us, being a youth these days is no picnic. I guess it never was. Perhaps First Nations kids have it tougher than most, though I don’t want to generalize because there are Aboriginal kids who have every convenience but then again there are those who have nothing. I was fortunate growing up because I had a couple of older people who became role models for me. I think this is important because youth have to see themselves reflected in others to see their own potential, to see the possibilities. What I didn’t see growing up were Aboriginal people in the professions. We definitely need more of our people in the professions. In fact, I think youth need positive role models in all walks of life. What do I mean by positive? I mean people who understand their traditions, where they come from, and where they are going.
A.E.: You teach creative writing at the university. Do you think poetry can be taught someone at all? And does the activity of teaching it influence your own creative work?
A.G.R.: That’s the age old question, isn’t it? Briefly, I think writing is a craft. You can teach the tools needed to write, which every student of writing has to know inside out and backwards, but you can’t teach creativity. Ultimately to be successful one needs a combination of drive, a willingness to put in the long solitary hours, and talent. You can have 90% drive, but you also need the 10% talent. And of course vice versa. I think the best writers are those who have it down to 100%. What is interesting about teaching writing is that you just never know who will lead in the end. Is it the student who comes galloping out of the gate or the one who lags behind? And, yes, I like being around the energy of younger writers. I find it very stimulating, but for me teaching is very demanding, and when I’m ensconced in it, I find very little time to work on my own material.
A.E.: South Africa and Australia were settler colonies. In those places the indigenous people do not seem to have overcome the psychological trauma of the past. What is the case like in the Canadian situation? I know the Canadian Government provides a lot of programs towards self-determination in the First Nation community. But what is your own view of things.
A.G.R.: I can’t speak much about the situation in South Africa, but I do think it’s quite different from Canada and Australia because of the large population of Indigenous Africans and the history of slavery. That said, there are some similarities because the British used many of the same tactics to suppress the Indigenous populations everywhere in the British Empire and with many of the same consequences. As for the colonial-post-colonial governments that followed, they basically continued similar policies of suppression learned at the hand of the original colonizer. I did have the good fortune to visit Australia a couple of years ago and met a number of Aboriginal writers and others, and they told me of the blatant racism that still exists in the country, and the government’s refusal to apologize for its brutal subjugation and provide compensation. (Has anything changed?) In Canada, we have made some progress in that the government has set up initiatives like the Aboriginal Healing Foundation, but personally I think it is going to take generations to overcome the legacy of the Residential Schools and The Sixties Scoop – where Native children were taken and adopted out. The trauma has moved into the collective psyche of a people and the intergenerational impact is profound. In regard to self -government, I think it’s necessary, but I’m leery about the form it may take. The Federal Government has tried to push the municipal government model whereby Aboriginal people will loose their “Indian Status” and become –
to use a euphemism – “equal” to all setter Canadians. Whatever form it may take, I firmly believe self-government has to go hand in hand with cultural renewal and respond to the realities of contemporary Aboriginal life. (Soon there will be more Aboriginal people in urban centres than those living on Reserves and in rural communities.) It is imperative that our governments be based on Aboriginal worldview or else we will simply end up a mirror image of the dominant western culture and political structure. For example, in Winnipeg we have APTN, the only Aboriginal television network in the world, and they currently broadcast mainstream Hollywood movies? Is this what we want? Is this what we need?I think not.
A.E.: What are your other poetry collections? And what are you working on right now. Apart from the movie that
A.G.R.: My first book of poetry came out in 1994, and it’s called Opening In The Sky, named after my great, great grandfather, who met and negotiated treaty with Duncan Campbell Scott at the turn of the last century. The book is basically about being of First Nations heritage in a multicultural society and what that entails. My second book Grey Owl: the Mystery of Archie Belaney came out in 1997. It explores the life of Archibald Belaney, the famous Indian imposture, who lived with my great grandparents in Biscotasing, northern Ontario. I came across one of his books where he calls my great-grandfather, “Dad”; so I thought that I should write his story from an Aboriginal perspective. Then in 2001 At Geronimo’s Grave came out and won the Archibald Lampman Poetry Award. Since then I wrote a couple of plays and a screenplay. I’m now finishing up a manuscript called Norval Morrisseau: Man Changing Into Thunderbird. An excerpt was recently published in the National Gallery of Canada’s catalogue of the Morrisseau retrospective.
A.E.: What is your movie about; is it a documentary? Is it this new-fangled creature they call Poetry film?
A.G.R.: Actually I made two of those new-fangled poetry films in the late nineties. The first one was made at the Banff Centre for the Arts; it’s called “A Wolf I Consider Myself,” and it features my grandmother’s Ojibway narration of a traditional oral poem that I reworked. The second I made for Roger’s Cable, and it’s a visual adaptation of an unpublished poem called “Car Park.” The new film is shot on HD, and it’s a feature length drama based on a play of mine called “A Windigo Tale,” which won the CBC Arts Performance Showcase in 2002. We are just over half finished the shoot (I’m also directing it and we are now in the process of raising the rest of the money. So if there are any well-heeled readers out there… My fingers are crossed.
A.E.: Thank you very much, Armand.
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