by Margery Fee
Marilyn Dumont, born in Olds, Alberta, is of Cree-Métis descent. She holds a BA (University of Alberta) and an MFA (University of British Columbia) and is currently an instructor at Athabasca University. Her work has been widely anthologized and broadcast on radio and television. Dumont has taught at Simon Fraser University and Kwantlen University College in Vancouver and at the University of Alberta in Edmonton, and has been writer-in-residence at the universities of Alberta, Brandon, Toronto (Massey College), and Windsor, as well as Grant MacEwan College in Edmonton and the Edmonton Public Library. She has also taught at the Banff Centre and the Sage Hill Writing Experience and worked in video production as an intern with the National Film Board. Dumont has read internationally in Belgium, Scotland, and most recently in New Zealand/Aotearoa as part of the Honouring Words Celebration of Indigenous writing by Aboriginal writers and storytellers from Canada, Aotearoa, and Australia. She is working on a project about her family’s connection to Gabriel Dumont, Louis Riel’s general.
Margery Fee (MF): The photograph of you and your mother in your first book is an amazingly powerful one. And she really has a strong role in your poetry. In your poem
cramped handwriting (product of residential school?) provides
kindling / for me (green girl dreams mountains 21)—are you using the contrast between your lives to (among other things, obviously) examine how Métis lives and women’s lives have changed over time?
Marilyn Dumont (MD): When I wrote
kindling, my intent was to draw focus to the contrast between my mother’s life where she didn’t have the access to education and the social programs that would have allowed her to receive formal education and a career outside the home. She attended day school on the Onion Lake Reserve and liked being taught by the nuns. If she was mistreated at day school, she never spoke about it. Her father and grandfather were interpreters for the Department of Indian Affairs on the reserve where my mother was raised. Her family, as clerk class, enjoyed some of the benefits my father’s family did not during the first half of the 1900s. My mother’s life was pretty much prescribed by social norms that repressed women, and I grew up benefiting from the feminist and civil rights movements in North America.
MF: I find it interesting that Vancouver and Edmonton seem to work as symbolic landscapes for you. For example, the section
City View in green girl dreams mountains fixates on the thin distance between security and begging on the street,
a cardboard’s thickness away from icy cement (
the drive, green girl 41). The irony of these people’s
homeless, not on welfare, willing to work for money—is powerfully reflective of your different path.
MD: When writing
City View, I positioned myself as an uncomfortable voyeur of those living on the street. I am aware that I am extremely fortunate that I was born to parents who had the personal resources to raise me in a relatively safe environment and that I have some social supports that keep me from the streets. I’m aware that I could easily be in their stead, but there by the grace of luck go I.
MF: Some academics distinguish between
shame cultures and
guilt cultures. According to them, shame is about failing to meet social expectations. When we fail at that, the usual option is to punish ourselves—even to the extent of committing suicide. The only way shame can be relieved is by conforming to social expectations. However, guilt can be erased by confession and atonement. You convey the ways in which shame functions extremely powerfully. Given that your family and community were Roman Catholic (which supposedly inculcates a
guilt culture), how would you explain the power of shame for you? I know this is horribly academic of me, but does the shame/guilt contrast have any purchase for you? I’m not sure it does for me, actually, so if you don’t find it compelling, no need to comment on the theory at all.
MD: I’m not sure if the shame/guilt distinction resonates for me. I just know that shame is a debilitating emotion that is perpetuated by Church and State. The Church through undermining, vilifying, and suppressing Indigenous beliefs; the State by not educating its citizens on the integrity of Indigenous Nations in Canada. There is a cloak of shame all Indigenous Peoples have to struggle with and overcome if they want to move forward with individual and community fulfillment.
MF: You write evocative poems about old ladies whose purses and bags are amazing museums of life. I suspect that these come from your family connections, but you take it further in a comparison of a poet and her
scraps with a bag lady. One of these purses even has the Pope inside it (
she carries the pope in her purse, tongued belonging 14). Can you comment more on this set of images?
MD: I love dispelling the common perception that elderly Indigenous women are sweet, wise, and kind. Some of them are some of the time, but my experience is that they are the fierce protectors of language, culture, and their families. And when they are involved in defending any of these aspects, they are formidable opponents that have learned from centuries of resistance how to survive.
MF: Cree appears in several of your poems, and clearly has had huge symbolic and personal impact. In the title poem of That Tongued Belonging, you call Cree speakers
illegitimate children in a single-language hostel (1). I know for many people whose language has been destroyed by colonization, this experience ties them in knots and actually makes it hard to learn the language. Have you personally worked at learning Cree? Is it frustrating, enjoyable, powerful?
MD: I have had difficulty finding resources of time and money to study the language. I struggle as a poet to maintain a living, let alone professional or personal development. I had planned to take a course this summer, but my financial resources will not allow it.
MF: The dream recounted in
oh I wanted to show them how I could jig (green girl27) and the Cree poems seem to show a real feeling of desiring authentic Métisness, but not being able to produce it. In my view, the notion of authenticity is problematic, although clearly some people feel more comfortable with asserting it or policing it, something your poem
Leather and Naugahyde conveys really well (A Really Good Brown Girl 68). Now a lot of theorists are trying to get beyond essentialist notions of identity because they seem to lead to divisiveness and infighting rather than any kind of solidarity. The desire for a kind of wholeness is very powerful, though, so powerful that the dream really resonates with me.
MD: I grew up in the fifties in small, redneck town Alberta where there were few
real Indians, meaning the Indians that were in the Calgary Stampede Parade or in John Wayne movies. Even though both my parents were Métis—from a long line of Métis who spoke Cree, who hunted and trapped—who maintained ties with Métis culture, I never knew where I fit in the stratification of the Aboriginal community. What I realized when I went to Mount Royal College or the University of Calgary, as I began to make friends with other Indigenous students from reserves, was that the lifestyle I grew up in was more traditional than many and this was in part because we were not living on a reserve or settlement. Unfortunately, my parents wanted us to learn English better than Cree. We did and lost our language.
MF: You also do an excellent job on women’s work, for example your mother’s work in the cook shack, kneading
dough the size of toddlers—her
cast-iron days, the frying pan hitting the woodstove every morning (
Camp Cook, tongued belonging 9)—the unbelievable hard work and efficiency required, and so poorly rewarded. And in the same collection,
what older sisters are good at begins with them
hauling in stacks of frozen jeans and shirts from the clothesline (22). Are you still interested in women’s work now, as it has changed over time?
MD: I’m still very interested in women’s work and in the present economy of fiscal restraint; the arts and the value of women’s work in the home are considered similarly. As a single, female Aboriginal artist of poetry, it is becoming more and more difficult to make a living. Now if I could cut or weld pipe in a plant or on a pipeline, I’d be paid royally.
MF: You describe yourself variously as
really good and
green—have you wished you had been tougher and more rebellious? Where did these descriptions come from?
MD: I’m glad I woke up when I did, for I could have lived my entire life asleep to my power as an Aboriginal female and as an artist. I don’t regret having experienced this, because it motivated change for me.
MF: Some of your poems undercut white settler expectations (
The Question,That Tongued Belonging;
Circle the Wagons, A Really Good Brown Girl), which is a little like shooting fish in a barrel, but I love
The Question, I must say. What emotions do these poems come out of? In another interview, I read you describe your mother as having a
wicked tongue—does that connect to your writing ability?
MD: My mother’s
wicked tongue modelled a propensity to undercut through sarcasm. It’s a powerful means of self-expression and relief from the oppression of settler expectations.
MF: I was surprised to discover that your family didn’t really know about the connection with Gabriel Dumont until a sister-in-law pointed it out (I hope I have that right). How has that knowledge affected you? What do you think of Michael Barnholden’s Gabriel Dumont Speaks? Have you read George Woodcock’sGabriel Dumont? (I haven’t, so this isn’t a trick question!)
MD: I have read all the biographies of Dumont available. I love learning what I can about this familial connection. This knowledge has, of course, changed my family and me into taking our identities and responsibilities to our Métis community much more seriously. Family members are now directly involved in Métis politics.
MF: How has the Powley decision affected you or your family (if at all)? How do you feel about legislated identities? We had a performance of the opera Louis Rielhere a couple of years ago and Jean Teillet spoke—it was quite interesting because she said that it was the Ontario government’s appeals that got the case to the Supreme Court.
MD: The Powley decision has affected my family more symbolically than anything. I was heartened when the Powley decision was made law because I survived because of the wild meat that my father hunted in or out of season because he had no other means to feed his family. My sister also acted as witness in the Alberta Métis Harvesting trials because she too wanted to support this acknowledgement of our survival. However, Alberta Métis are still in the courts over this.
MF: You managed to bring back amazing smells (Jergens, Noxema, Juicy Fruit) that connect powerfully with the past. A recent article in Canadian Literature sees smell as a kind of subversive sense (Stephanie Oliver,
Diffuse Connections: Smell and Diasporic Subjectivity in Larissa Lai’s Salt Fish Girl). Neal McLeod talks about sound in similar ways in his book, Cree Narrative Memory. How does smell work for you?
MD: I don’t consciously favour evoking one sense over the other in my writing. I just know that visual imagery so predominates our creative impulse that writers need to mindful of this and evoke other senses in the reader to have impact. So much of our aesthetic and tolerance for smells and tastes are culturally prescribed that evoking smell, taste, or sound does convey cultural differences effectively.
MF: I also like your
love poems, which make clear, I think, the contingency of relationships and how they can take us off on a completely new path. Two lines that resonate are
our lives preventing us / from each other (
our lives preventing us, tongued belonging 27) and
I was willing to believe a woman could be cut in half / and still walk off stage (
blind spot, tongued belonging 31). Relationships like those of our parents (long-term heterosexual marriages with kids) seemed like prison camps at the time, at some levels, but now such relationships seem unlikely or unusual. Does that seem like an accurate picture to you?
MD: Relationships seem unlikely and unusual to me. My reluctance to enter any relationship with men has been affected by the fact that many Aboriginal men are very wounded and are not able to be in a healthy relationship due to historical damage and with non-Native men because I no longer want to educate them about Indigenous Issues. I’m tired of being the educator or nurse.
MF: What was it like editing Initiations: A Selection of Young Native Writings(2007) for Theytus Books? Apart from your teaching, do you continue to work on anthologies? Are you now shifting to the Internet to showcase young writers?
MD: I would like to continue to work in all aspects of Indigenous literature whether it be writing, editing, teaching, or anthologizing. All contribute to a fuller understanding of the discipline and art.
- Dumont, Marilyn. green girl dreams mountains: poems. Ladysmith: Oolichan, 2001. Print.
- —. A Really Good Brown Girl: Poems. London: Brick, 1996. Print.
- —. that tongued belonging: poems. Wiarton: Kegedonce, 2007. Print.
- green girl dreams mountains: Alberta Book Award for Poetry and Writers’ Guild of Alberta Stephan G. Stephansson Award for Poetry, 2001.
- A Really Good Brown Girl: Gerald Lampert Award, presented by the League of Canadian Poets, 1997. Now in its eleventh printing.
- that tongued belonging: McNally Robinson Aboriginal Book of the Year Award and the Aboriginal Poetry Book of the Year, presented by the Anskohk Aboriginal Literature Festival, 2007.
Critical Work on Dumont
- Andrews, Jennifer.
Irony, Métis Style: Reading the Poetry of Marilyn Dumont and Gregory Scofield.Canadian Poetry 50 (2002): 6-31. Print.
- Barkwell, Lawrence J. and Leah Dorion.
Marilyn Dumont.Women of the Métis Nation. 2nd ed. Winnipeg: Louis Riel Institute, 2011. 82. Print.
- Brill de Ramirez, Susan Berry.
The Power and Presence of Native Oral Storytelling Traditions in the Poetry of Marilou Awiakta, Kimberly Blaeser, and Marilyn Dumont.Speak To Me Words: Essays on Contemporary Indian Poetry. Ed. Dean Rader and Janice Gould. Tucson: U of Arizona P, 2003. 82-102. Print.
- Dumont, Marilyn. Interview by Jennifer Andrews.
‘Among the Word Animals’: A Conversation with Marilyn Dumont.Studies in Canadian Literature 29.1 (2004): 146-60. Print.
- Gingell, Susan.
When X Equals Zero: The Politics of Voice in First Peoples Poetry by Women.English Studies in Canada 24.4 (1998): 447-66. Print.
- Hulan, Renée.
Cultural Contexts for the Reception of Marilyn Dumont’s A Really Good Brown Girl.Journal of Canadian Studies 35.3 (2000): 73-96. Print.
- Payne, Brenda.
A Really Good Brown Girl: Marilyn Dumont’s Poems of Grief and Celebration.(Ad)dressing Our Words: Aboriginal Perspectives on Aboriginal Literatures. Ed. Armand Garnet Ruffo. Penticton: Theytus, 2001. 135-42. Print.
- Relke, Diana M. A.
Recovering the Body, Reclaiming the Land: Marilyn Dumont’s Halfbreed Poetic.Greenwor(l)ds: Ecocritical Readings of Canadian WomenÔs Poetry. Calgary: U of Calgary P, 1999. 285-314. Print.