Mi’kmaq poet and writer Shannon Webb-Campbell was living in Halifax in 2014, the February that Loretta Saunders, a 26-year-old Inuk woman from Labrador, was murdered.
“I felt devastated and I wondered how I could help in any way. And so I started thinking maybe I could write a poetry book about this,” Webb-Campbell said. Who Took My Sister? explores the different kinds of trauma Indigenous women live through, with, and alongside.
I invited Webb-Campbell to join myself and two other women as we talked about her new book (to be released March 20).
So, in the middle of February, at an office in the St. John’s Native Friendship Centre, three women met to talk with Webb-Campbell by phone about trauma, murdered and missing Indigenous women, and love. Métis cultural support worker with the Friendship Centre, Amelia Reimer, musician and community arts organizer Kate Lahey, and myself, a Métis writer and journalist, were all there. Shannon Webb-Campbell called in from Montreal, where she is currently writing, working, and studying. Here’s how our conversation went.
Michelle: Let’s introduce ourselves and explain our connection to Shannon. Can you begin Amelia?
Amelia: I’m a proud Métis woman who’s been living in Newfoundland and Labrador for the past six years. But, I’m originally from the Pacific Northwest. I’ve known Shannon for four years now. We met at an Indigenous arts symposium that we both attended down in Nova Scotia. We instantly clicked and we became the sister cousins that we are. That about sums it up.
Shannon: All that we want to print at least.
Amelia: Yes. All we want to print!
Kate: My name is Kate Lahey. I’m a settler from St. John’s, Newfoundland. I met both Shannon and Amelia at similar times, about two years ago. Shannon and I met through a graduate poetry seminar at MUN, which is why it’s really incredible to read the poems now, two years later. Shannon invited me to collaborate for the St. John’s Native Friendship Centre Spirit Song festival two years ago. That was about collaboration between indigenous and non-indigenous artists and I had more fun making the collaboration than almost anything else. And I’ve been close to both Shannon and Amelia ever since.
Michelle: I’ve known Shannon since I asked her to be one of my poetry mentors after I won funding last year. Also, Shannon did some writing for me when I was working for another magazine previous to The Independent and she did such beautiful work and her input to the poetry was so heartfelt that it really helped me to see my poetry in new ways. Of course, Amelia I met you first when I came down to talk to you about how to get The Independent connected more deeply to Indigenous communities in Newfoundland and Labrador.
Shannon: I’m living in Montreal and I just finished leading a 6-month reading of the TRC at Atwater library, which is mostly a conversation with settlers about residential schools. I’m working on a play that will be opening at the LSPU hall mid-April. And of course, traveling around with the book and the poems. Oh, I also curated an Indigenous art show that is opening March 1 in B.C. called “Recover All that is Ours.” And it’s all First Nations female artists. It’s combining poetry by Janet Rogers and Gwen Benaway, and then work by Lindsay Dobbin, Meryl McMaster, Meagan Musseau, and others. And swimming, three times a week.
Michelle: Shannon, can you tell me how this book of poems and letters came into being?
Shannon: I remember finishing my first book, Still No Word, and it was pretty close to when Loretta Saunders was murdered. I was living in Halifax and I felt devastated and wondered how I could help in any way. And so I started thinking maybe I could write a poetry book about this.
I met Kate in a poetry class, where a lot of those poems started. Then from the women’s stories, I had to situate myself and my friends and my sisters and cousins, so then the poems grew to more personal territory. I think I was working through trauma, collective trauma, personal trauma, reconnecting with the land and ancestors. And then, the book kind of weaves through all of that into love and belonging.
Certainly moving back to Newfoundland was a powerful experience. I would never have written this book had I lived in Halifax, or stayed there. I certainly believe that going back to Newfoundland had a big part in this book. The book sort of took over my life in a big way. The relationship to the land, and to myself, and to my situation in the world became clearer.
The division in the poetry book comes out of the opening poem, a version of Aboriginal All-Girls Chorus. The line is “bring feathers, sage, roots, you acquire.” And I wanted that poem to guide the collection. It’s the choir through the entire book.
Michelle: What were your responses as a reader?
Kate: It doesn’t really feel like I’m reading poetry—it feels like I’m in conversation with Shannon. You don’t read her poems as separate from Shannon’s voice as a broader song in the world.
I can’t read the table of contents without this mantra in my mind because I composed music to it. So, I was saying those words over and over and over in different rhythms in my mind forever and over the course of a couple of years I’ve done different things with it.
And I think what’s really beautiful about being from St. John’s and collaborating and ability to sort of invite people to sing along with her is that the relationship is primary to the poems itself. It’s a really amazing experience to care about somebody’s voice and care what they’re doing and having them as a friend and kin in your life. And reading the galley copy of the poems, I just can’t separate the two. It’s like for the sage and the roots and the rocks—I had listened to that poem and there’s a copy of it right there on the wall of Amelia’s office. It seeps into our lives, has already seeped into our lives.
Amelia: Shannon, I have your handprinted copy of “Aboriginal All-Girl’s Chorus” on the wall here.
Kate: Readers who don’t have an existing relationship with Shannon will feel that the power of relationality is connecting and kinship. It’s so beautiful to hear Shannon say it led to love because I think that resonates for me. The fact that we’re even doing a conversation like this speaks volumes of Shannon’s work.
Michelle: Love, yes. I’ve just recently gone through a big transition in my life and now I’m in this playwriting class with Robert Chafe. And he does this thing where he asks everybody to think of a transformative moment in your life and asks you to think about what you learned from it. The idea is you write about that moment a lot, in different ways.
Now, I moved around so much that I felt like although I had lots of beginnings of transformative moments in my life, I didn’t necessarily have the ending to it. And so I’ve been thinking about the meanings of my transformative moments. I don’t really know. And going through this big transformation and coming to the end of it and realizing, as with Shannon’s poetry, that this commitment to loving has pulled me through. That idea comes out very very strong in this poetry. And that’s maybe the strength of not only the poetry itself but the strength of Indigenous women, the strength of Métis women, the strength of Mi’kmaq women, the strength of settler women, when we come together at the end. So I’m going to sit down with Robert Chafe and say you helped me figure out my life and see what he says about that.
Shannon: Can you also tell him he helped me figure out mine?
Michelle: His class is like therapy.
Shannon: Oh yeah, it’s playwriting therapy. If you’re not in the poetry class you’ll find yourself in therapy with Robert Chafe.
Michelle: Amelia, what were your impressions?
Amelia: Well, Shannon and I are sister cousins. And we’re chosen family with each other, so over the years our conversations, I see a lot of it reflected in the poems: our conversations, our shared experiences, our journey, our path that we’ve shared together, as we move apart, come back together, move apart, come back together. We keep having this common path and journey together. And I recognize so much of that in the book.
You know I keep the database of missing and murdered Indigenous women and children for the province here and I recognize cases from the list as well, mentioned even in a vague or abstract way. I’m very well acquainted with many of the cases she’s referring to as well and the authors that she’s writing letters to and other performers and activists that she’s writing to. So, I feel a very strong, deep connection with this book. It’s beautiful what Shannon’s put together here and it’s really honouring the lives of so many women, past, present and future.
It’s definitely an honour for the ancestors and the women who made us who we are today. All of us have these stories of pain and love and beauty and trauma in our lives. Shannon weaves so seamlessly between the beauty and the horror in our lives, it keeps coming in and out of these poems.
Michelle: Shannon, tell me about the women who are woven, as Amelia talks about. How did you bring them into your poems?
Shannon: Part of it did begin with some conversations with Amelia. I remember her trusting me with her database, which was not a small offering, and reading through the lives of murdered and missing Indigenous women in Newfoundland and Labrador. A lot of those cases are in the poem “Elegy.” In terms of individual, I believe I started writing about Loretta first. Of course I could recognize part of myself in her. From there it was Amber Tuccaro. I started reading a lot of the stories because of course were all sort of inundated by the media about what was going on and what is still going on. I was very cautious and nervous too. I certainly don’t want to cause any pain to their families and I had some trepidation about writing these poems. So I think in weaving parts of their lives and also bringing artists into it and other writers and people that I could put questions to, even if it was rhetorical.
Michelle: These letters to different activists, authors, and people: it was an intimate way to peer into somebody’s conversation with somebody else, even if imagined.
Kate: I think it speaks to this conversation, this kinship, relating to one another, and ongoing dialogue. The voices that it starts with, the all-girls chorus, just seep throughout.
I was just also thinking through what Amelia had said about her first response to Shannon’s collection and how you said yeah there’s love. There’s also trauma, and there’s also harm. I think a lot about in my work and something that I think is effective in this collection is that love is there and we are led to love, but we also don’t need to demand that of each other. I think that’s really a powerful political message and personal message, that trauma isn’t necessarily about healing in some permanent way. Wounds don’t need to be closed. Harm and care are interwoven and enchanted with each other constantly in our lives, especially when we’re dealing with things like systemic violence on top of personal violence within our family lives on the land that we’re on. I think that’s really resonant to me with things like letters and the chorus and there’s all these devices in the poetry that enable harmonies and discord to come up through those voices consistently in ways that I think really give us permission to not be okay and to be fucked up.
And I think it’s also respectful to the families to say you know, we don’t need to take this pain and make it into something productive, or legible, or palatable for people. It doesn’t need to be love at the end. It can be love at the end, but it can also be then lots and lots of other things. I agree with Amelia, I think that love is there, but it’s not in this linear way, where we need to have this view of time where something harmful happens and there’s got to be a solution. There’s this habit of pathologizing harm, and I think we know it doesn’t work that way in our lives. And that’s why we have all these conversations and relationships and kinship ties that emerge from weird combos of all sorts of emotions and experiences. I think that the letters and the voices in the poem really effectively layer so much affectively, relationally, rhetorically, politically. I think it’s effective and I love that about the letters.
Michelle: I want to know more about water. Water appeared in so many different ways. From Muskrat Falls and the impact of not being able to drink the water: “Nowadays, Elders won’t /drink from the tap. /They don’t know where /the water comes from.” There’s the water in the sweat lodge: “retribution, renewal and rebirth all rolled into one.” And: “The pipe carrier called for more water. Pray harder, he said… /we are taking pain for those who can’t find their way, he said, and threw more water /over the grandfathers.” And then there’s skinny dipping under moonlight: “and I found myself in brackish water, floating on my back /as dusk loomed.” And of course there’s that poem “Water Prayer.”
It appears as complicated. It appears as polluted. It appears as restricted. And yet as you are swimming in brackish water, it heals the self and is accepting. Was that consciously done or did that come about through your natural love of water?
Shannon: I think that anyone who knows me knows that I love water. I think we come from water, we are water. Of course living in Newfoundland, you are constantly aware of the water. Living away from Newfoundland is even worse for how aware you are that your are not near the water. I dream about the ocean every single night. Swimming for me was the poetic extension of writing this book. Certainly at times it was hard and heart-breaking and the water is a place you can let go of some things that you can’t on land.
I feel like water, much like poetry, is connecting me to a more primal self, or a more natural state of being. There’s also the healing quality of water and consciously I’m listening to you read back each little bit of water and I’m surprised there’s not water in every poem. No really I am. But I would say the water is the healer in the book. The water is the cleansing the returning, but it’s also poisonous and traumatized.
Michelle: Is water female?
Shannon: Yes, I would say water is female.
Amelia: It’s interesting because as you asked that question I realized that I didn’t even put thought into it because traditionally in Indigenous cultures water is associated with females. Not that water is female. The females are the water keepers, the water protectors. And then the men are the fire keepers, fire protectors. But, no pun intended, those roles are also very fluid. Water is the healer, especially in the sweat lodge, which is representing the womb of mother earth, that we’re crawling back into the womb for that healing and cleansing. It’s funny until you asked that I didn’t think about it, I was like, of course water is female. Maybe water transcends gender, but definitely we as the women are the ones most connected to water.
Shannon: I haven’t met many men in my life who have the same relationship to water, that they feel they have to get in the water. As a swimmer, as someone who actually keeps a swim journal of how often I swim, and where, and details too, I feel like it’s been the most healing tool of my life. That feeling when you first get in the water, that returning.
Michelle: One other thing I’d like to chat about before we end our conversation. There’s the idea of recognition, of being mixed and having multiple backgrounds and what that means for recognition. Is that something you picked up on as a reader? For example, in one poem you write: “We never talked about being Indians in art class, knowledge of our grandmothers and fathers slipped through the cracks of the system.” And in another poem you write: “I’m told by /many of you that I don’t look Indian so I hide my face.” This spoke to me and my experiences growing up in Alberta, as the pale-skinned daughter of a Red River Métis woman. There’s this sense of not being recognized for what you are, sometimes until you don’t know if you can recognize yourself. What did this mean to you as readers from different backgrounds?
Kate: Amelia spoke to this being about Shannon’s journey and I can’t speak to the details of Shannon’s journey, but I do know that so many of my friends in Newfoundland recognition is different here and histories of recognition and erasure are specific in this place. And I think Shannon does a really effective job at complicating recognition in this collection.
Nonrecognition is not necessarily erasure. In the context of a collection poetry that is about missing and murdered Indigenous women, that dynamic speaks to Shannon’s ideas of fluidity of recognition. Not being recognized can also be strategic and can be connective and can alter our paths and the way we relate to each other in powerful ways. Visibility and non visibility: I think about my own family in specific cross-hatched ways in Newfoundland. I just think about how many families have Indigenous and non-Indigenous sides that weave together in really complicated ways, like my own family does. I just think that recognition and visibility are really interesting dynamics that are 100 per cent woven throughout this collection, but again within that broader complicated questioning that Shannon invites us to listen to.
Michelle: Why is recognition complicated in this collection of poems Shannon?
Shannon: I think we have the perception of who is Indian and who is not Indian. Certainly, my own experience is I didn’t grow up knowing this about my history, it was something that was either hidden or not spoken of or even brushed off, joked about, right. But in the book a lot of the poems are situated in the experiences of Newfoundland, too.
Amelia: The poem, “On Receiving a Government Letter Rejecting our Indian Status.” I know so many people that that’s happened to here in Newfoundland and Labrador. There’s a lot of people who were extended that recognition, but then had the recognition rescinded as well, which is extra painful. To have it for a moment and then it slip right through your fingers again. It’s mentioned again and again in the book, this questioning about who fits in, who’s enough, who’s not. That struggle with being accepted as who you are in society will speak to a lot of people across Canada in so many ways. It’s one of those things that forces people into choosing who they marry, who they have children with, if they want to continue the government recognition and status, and continue the visibility of Indigeneity. And the ramifications of either direction of those decisions. It does a lot to people and controls their lives so much. And so in one way there’s the beauty and the freedom of breaking free from those societal standards and the stigmas. But at the same time there’s a price to be paid for that freedom.
Michelle: Favourite poem in the collection. Do you have one?
Amelia: I actually have a great big heart drawn on the top of the one “Deer Sherman Alexie.”
Kate: Amelia taught us all about Sherman Alexie. Amelia was a teacher in one of our courses our graduate seminars at MUN. And Shannon generously came in and we read Sherman Alexie together.
Amelia: I’m from the Northwest area of Washington State and Sherman Alexie is also from Washington State. And so much of his writing speak to my experiences and places I know, and where my mother’s from. It’s very connected to my mother’s past.
I know when I have talked to my own elder, he says you know for the most part he’s never understood or connected to poetry in his life until he starts to hear poetry like this, and then he says “that’s the first poem I’ve actually understood. It actually meant something to me.” And I think I definitely want to share this one with my elder when the book comes out. To be able to say here’s another one you are really going to be able to understand and get your teeth into, you know.
Kate: I love Aboriginal All-Girls Chorus because I feel connected to it. I really love “This Silent Generation,” which is in the last section. I spend a lot of time thinking about my own grandmother who I’m really connected to. I love so many lines in the poem. I want to be your powwow grounds, all that is worth protecting. You know all the little things I can hear Shannon saying in a facebook message. Is it ancestors, is it Shannon on facebook? Pay attention/know the rhythm of your heart. Trust wherever/ fill minds with voices. And I think that’s Shannon has this incredible way of saying really intense meaningful emotional things that are so resonant on the day to day, in a conversation.
Michelle: I’ve adored “Water Prayer.” The mix of languages. The repetitive structure that moves back and forth, like water, like ocean. We are made of ocean… we are pollution in the sea… we are sky… we are vapour. Recognizing that we are everything. We are also fragile. That’s what I hear in that one.
Kate: What’s your favourite poem, Shannon?
Shannon: Oh, it’s like asking what’s your favourite child.
Kate: Okay we won’t.
Amelia: I was thinking about that too. This book is one of your children, right? I was like, oh look, I’m an auntie again.
Shannon: You’re all aunties again. I couldn’t imagine a more lovely group of women to take care of my little babies.
Michelle: Last comments?
Amelia: I find it so very beautiful the way she connects with people she knows and people she’s never met. There’s that beauty and intimacy woven through in every piece. We’ve been talking about that relationality, making connections, creating family, acknowledging family, digging up the past that hasn’t been talked about. All those sort of things.
It reminds me of how people want to figure out who’s their first cousin, three times removed, and all the technicalities of how people are related, but then it’s always brought up that’s the way that white people measure their relationships, whereas in Indigenous society we give each other relational names that may not be be technically accurate but in practice are accurate. So like, who becomes your sister, who becomes your cousin? Who do you refer to in all of these ways? The whole community might refer to someone as grandmother when there may not be a drop of blood shared. But she takes on that role of being everyone’s grandmother. I think Shannon shows that she is sister to everyone in the book. And taking on that responsibility and that love and helping to carry the trauma and the history into the future.
Michelle: Shannon what would you like readers to take away from this book and this conversation?
Shannon: I hope that the readers come away with a sense of responsibility. You read the book, then carry this forward, so we are not continuing to murder Indigenous women, and so we take responsibility for the land and the water, so we can be here for the next seven generations.