cheap memory foam cushions a cheaper mattress, under goose
down comforter and flannel I’m wrapped composing before I
open my eyes, there’s a woman whose name means to harvest, to
a crimson ribbon skirt to ground, her down coat, tanned moose
hide mitts braided with yarn rest at her sides held at her neck.
moose hide, smoked and tanned, collide with red and white beads.
those hands pluck geese chop wood snare rabbits stoke fires lay
spruce boughs for warmth, the harvest sturdies.
here, I bleach black mold lines on window frames scrub the septic
tank toilet wash re-wash bathroom counter tops, he pine sols the
floors stacks rugs on deck snow. together we dust scrub bleach to
prepare our home for visitors.
from a hand me down couch through the window, an ice-fishing
hut appears driven by a truck I can’t see, it hovers on a dirt road
to launch onto the frozen lake. this view from our 900 square-foot
home on someone else’s first nation.
surrounded by blankets hanging inside raw canvas and scraped
trees, spruce boughs on ground to insulate, she rests. a woodstove
pipe creaks toward december sun. the girls crouch on unthawed
land near a fire as she sits mantled in blankets against wintry
damp, she listens as they speak about a day when every child in
Canada feels they are worth something. I watch as she brings her
lips to each cheek and brow and I plot a line for her as these james
bay mitts rest at her neck. to harvest provide dispense, she enters
her twenty-first day.
the eve of a new year on the unmelted river.
James Bay astisak worked by women’s hands astisak. And from the life of an animal, you
say it’s a year to fix a moose hide or longer, your hands:
Your hands work hides beads fur lining. Stitches thread cloth. Both your hands work
these objects that aren’t objects: astisak warm the hands of—awasiask—napewak
iskwewak—on this land, astisak. Women who work in this way, mothers grandmothers
aunties, I’m telling you. I don’t know this work. Nimbly, James Bay iskwewak craft
astisak. Swiftly, they sew astisak. Astisak, in repetition they stitch, swift repetition, they
clothe their families.
Nohkom I call you. Ask about sewing mitts, instead you tell me you grew up in a tipi, on
the land. In the bush near Hudson Bay 95, 200 miles from Peawanuck. Your dad hunted
caribou, trapped beaver otter mink and nowadays the young men trap martens.
Years ago in my mother-in-law’s kitchen you fried caribou with onions, ruddy on a
spring afternoon in Timmins. After tea and visits in your daughter’s house I told you my
grandmother passed away, I was only seven. I can be your grandmother you said.
Now as we talk on the phone, you in Peawanuck me on Lake Nipissing, I wonder why I
never asked you more. I waited so long. Nearly 80 this May and you can’t cook in the tipi
nor teach the kids how to snare or to speak Cree. But you sew fierce and scrub the floors
from your wheelchair.
Instead with accent hues of m o s s lavender shades of r o s e
a map of syllabics
smoke of the canvas skirt you bind on
a t i k o w a y a n in the cook tipi eddies
we spark the spongy wood
for this last part you show me
over the phone, Nohkom
raising one delica bead
from the cache, I fire the caribou broom
turn it over in my mind
as I cannot see its texture
weight color, the light
You say, only three or four left
in Peawanuck and perhaps two in Fort Severn know
how to fix— the hide— of—a t i k
Nohkom, I am not with you
“The Harvest Sturdies” was written in response to Chief Theresa Spence’s hunger strike, a 44-day action that began December 11, 2012. The mitts Chief Spence (of Attawapiskat First Nation) wore in many of her press engagements are an important symbol for the people of James Bay, northern Ontario, Canada. Interviews with Agnes Hunter, Marlene Kapasheshit and Lillian Mishi Trapper during January and February 2013 regarding the process for making traditional James Bay Mitts were conducted for this poem.
On Cree translation
Agnes Hunter and Duane Linklater provided spelling and translation of Cree words in “The Harvest Sturdies.”
astisak: mitts or mittens
atikowayan: caribou hide