Garry Gottfriedson: Bending back his tongue no longer

The poet, educator and Secwépemc cultural advisor sits down with The Wren to discuss his powerful new book, as well as truth, language and reconciliation.

It’s a sunny but brisk autumn morning as I walk through the Thompson Rivers University (TRU) campus. I’m on my way to meet Garry Gottfriedson, the poet, educator and Secwépemc cultural advisor here at TRU. His new collection of poetry, Bent Back Tongue, is tucked under my arm. This book may seem small, but the blazing red cover hints at the powerful messages inside.

It has been almost a decade since my last campus visit and while much is the same, it is the small changes that stand out. The old library — simply the library while I was a student — has been given a new life, though one not too different from its old incarnation. Students still come here to study, but now study areas rather than books dominate the space. 

On the top floor I find the Office of Indigenous Education, and the message in Secwepemctsin on its door “Xwexweyt’en Kweselt’ken” (welcome to all our relations). On entering my ears are met with the sounds of both Secwepemctsin and English. 

This is not my first meeting with Garry Gottfriedson, but actually my second. Two decades ago, as a ninth grader with a love of writing, I attended a young authors workshop that he led. To say the experience was transformative would be an understatement. I came away with a fresh appreciation for the poetry of the English language and, for the first time, a belief that I too could be a writer some day.

Here are excerpts from our interview, lightly edited for clarity and length.

Garry Gottfriedson, Secwépemc poet and educator, poses with a pictograph he painted which represents communication with the heavens. Photo by Lyssa Martin/The Wren

Lyssa: You’re a Secwépemc poet, but you are also an educator and a rodeo man. Can you tell me a little bit about balancing those aspects of your life?

Garry: Well first of all, let me explain. I think people have many components to who they are and each of them needs to be fed. 

So, I grew up in rodeo and ranching. Horses have always been part of my life, since the first picture of me when I’m about two months old on my mom’s back, and she’s riding horseback. But in terms of that aspect of it, my writing, my career as an educator and in my capacity here as the Secwépemc cultural advisor to the university, it is a huge balancing act. 

But through it all, there is a thread of who I am. I’m able to shift from one position, one environment to the next. And I think that’s because I grew up without choice in a society where I had to straddle many worlds by birth. Being a Secwépemc person, there is my Secwépemc culture and my Secwépemc life. but then I went to residential school, to public schools, to university then to the workforce. 

Now, the difference is that many non-Indigenous Canadians — or non-Indigenous Canadians who don’t have a specific ethnic background — don’t need to do that. They have that one life. Growing up that way, it’s easy for me to do it. So, I can shift from being an educator, to a rancher, to someone on the land that’s digging roots and singing my Secwépemc songs. It’s fluid for me.

L: You dedicated this book to the murdered and missing men of this country. Could you speak to your thinking on that, and how that came to be the center of this work?

G: That was because of my journey across this country, talking to many Indigenous men from the East Coast to the West Coast and in the North. In many, many different capacities I’ve been shifting from hat to hat to hat to hat in many of my travels. I’ve spoken to many Indigenous men whose voices were never ever really heard. 

And almost every one of us in Indigenous communities are affected by murdered and missing women or murdered missing men. I have people in my own family, men that had been murdered that have never been found, or they’re missing. We’ve assumed that they’re murdered, but they’ve been missing. And nobody speaks of it. There’s attention paid to the murdered and missing women in this country, but seldom do people talk about the murdered and missing men.

And because of the many stories that are heard from across the land, I thought, they need a voice, and really that’s what this book is all about. It’s dedicated to the murdered and missing men in this land because they lie voiceless somewhere. But this book is also a reflection of the many struggles of Indigenous men from across this land, from men who are struggling with their identity in urban settings, in rural settings, with their sexuality, with every aspect of an Indigenous man’s life. And so this is how this book evolved, from the stories of Indigenous men from across this land, from downtown Toronto to Eastside Vancouver, to the reserve that I come from, to very remote reserves, from the North, as well. So it’s a combination and collection of poetry, of the many voices of Indigenous men that I’ve heard from across this land.

And there’s murdered and missing non-Indigenous men too, you know? So, it’s really the voice of men, it’s the voice of men who are struggling in society. Specifically Indigenous men, it’s true, but it represents all men’s voices in one way or another, and that struggle with identity.

A book cover shows a coyote with a tongue bent back with the words Bent Back Tongue, poems by Garry Gottfriedson.
Bent Back Tongue cover art by the talented Tania Willard. Image from Caitlyn Press

L: What is it about the medium of poetry that you think calls to you specifically?

G: Well, I had the greatest opportunity to study under some of the world’s best poets. Allen Ginsberg, for example, said a number of things that really stuck out in my brain, but when it comes to poetry he said, to paraphrase, poetry is one of the shortest forms of novel writing that there is. It includes everything that a novel and a good story should have, but it’s written so condensed that you need to rely heavily on the elements of poetry to make it come alive. Some of those elements include imagery, or metaphor, or word choice. So when we look at the structure of poetry, it speaks very easily to me because my language innately is poetic. 

In English you need a paragraph to say something we can say in one word, but what I like about English is that you have the ability to be playful. You can use the playfulness of sounds, language and textures within poetry. And so those are the kinds of things within poetry that I love. 

I write kids stories and short stories too, and those all have a place. Some of my contemporaries and my great friends are novelists, but they struggle to write poetry. For me, it’s just a natural thing. Like getting up and walking, like eating. It’s a natural form for me. Writing novels is cumbersome for me, writing kids stories is cumbersome for me. But poetry is a natural form of expression for me. 

L: You alluded to it a bit already, the contrast between Secwepemctsín and English and the ways that these languages express ideas and how you can communicate with them. Is there anything else to be said about the contrast between Secwepemctsín and English?

G: Quite ironically, we were just in a big debate between English and Secwepemctsín when you walked in a few minutes ago. I’m with five very strong speakers of Secwepemctsín, and we’re debating issues around academic content. I just finished writing the Secwépemc Nation research ethics guidelines for TRU, but also for all universities in the province and the country. It’s the first one of its kind, and now it’s a bilingual document. So the debate is, if we’re saying this in Secwepemctsín does it really match what English is expressing, and vice versa? 

I’ve been experimenting with a bilingual approach to writing poetry in English and Secwepemctsín — it’s a huge struggle. Because in Secwepemctsín and in English, there are words that are absent in both cultures.

For example, in Secwepemctsín, we don’t have a word for discrimination. That has a huge implication in terms of worldview. A huge, huge implication. 

But we also have words in Secwepemctsín like stsq’eý, which is something that really cannot be explained in English. Well, I’ll attempt to explain it. It’s a marker, okay. But it could be that B in the word ‘bent,’ the letter E could be a marker, that N could be a marker or that T could be a marker. But it’s not only that, it goes beyond that for us. Every time there’s a marker, it explains that there was existence of some form. Whereas in English, it’s not that easily explained.So those kinds of concepts we have, we understand what it means from a Secwépemc worldview, but we can’t really explain it accurately in English because words are missing.

L: Is there anything that you think the average people in Kamloops can do to promote Secwepemctsín?

G: Normalize the language. 

In my community English has been normalized, but here at the university we’re normalizing our language. To normalize something makes it easier — it’s an acceptance of culture, it’s a respect for another culture. It’s inclusive. It’s not segregation, it’s an inclusive Secwepemctsín stsq’eý (marker). So it’s an important marker, where in my culture there’s an inclusiveness that doesn’t exist in English. 

That’s why we don’t have a word for discrimination, because we include. We don’t exclude, we include. And so those are some concepts that if people begin to delve into a language or into a worldview, you begin to see things from another way, and then you begin to appreciate. Even simple words like weyt-kp, which is a way to say hello, or greetings, in my language means, “Oh, you appeared!” 

To normalize things from another culture is a supreme act of reverence for that culture, respect for that culture. So that’s one way it could happen.

L: What can the media do to advance truth and reconciliation? Do you have any advice for journalists and other people who write and talk about these ideas, but not necessarily in the best way? Do you have any advice for us all?

G: Make friends. It’s the simplest thing in the world to do. To make friends and to get to know other people. And then you get to understand and appreciate who they are. 

And my job is to try to work directly with reconciliation, the truth and reconciliation commission. You can’t have reconciliation without understanding what the truth is, and to be able to accept and honor the truth. 

This book is about looking at truth. 

And the truth is in Canada — and I’m going to talk about colonization for a second — the Canadian government deliberately under Queen Victoria’s direction, starting with John A. Macdonald and all successive prime ministers that followed, deliberately decided to keep what was really happening in Canada away from the citizens. And that’s where settler guilt comes in, and it shouldn’t be like that. So what really needs to happen is a really good education program.

It’s tough to win over people when they’re only looking at it from an English perspective, and this is what their perspective is. When we talk about truth and reconciliation, those are English words, if they were translated into my language they would have a different connotation. Somewhere in between, that’s how we come together. Really getting to know people, educating people, becoming friends with people and building allies without making anyone feel the burden of Canada’s political choices is the key here. And I think if we can succeed with that, the truth comes out, and then it becomes an act of reconciliation. 

That’s why it’s so awkward for the Canadian government, they made a big blunder here. The citizens of this country carry that burden for the government now. It’s a really unfair situation to put Canadian citizens into. But how do we change that? Through education, through building friendships, through dialogue, continued dialogue — not with government officials, not with politicians but with Canadian citizens. That’s where the movement is going to change, not with our politicians. It’s going to be the voice of the people now.

The biggest atrocity is that the government kept it away from their own citizens. That’s the atrocity we’re talking about. If people knew we wouldn’t have such a thing. If they knew the history of Canada and Canada’s policies, we wouldn’t have to deal with truth and reconciliation. We wouldn’t have to deal with the Indian Act. We wouldn’t have the many, many issues that we deal with in regards to First Nations, Métis, Inuit and everything in between. So what Canada needs to do is be really truthful to citizens and then reconciliation will happen. And it’s tough for the government to do that because they have to throw the Queen under the bus — well, the King now. But Canada has to reassess its own situation with the crown. Why should Canada be under the Commonwealth?

You can pick up your copy of Bent Back Tongue from the publisher Caitlyn Press, or at your preferred book retailer.

Editor’s Note: Secwepemctsín (the language of the Secwépemc) is a spoken language with different dialects and pronunciations. Where possible we have referenced spelling using First Peoples’ Cultural Council First Voices resource.

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