Author Tags: Aboriginal Authors, Kidlit & Young Adult, Poetry
A rancher and professional breeder of horses, Garry Gottfriedson is the son of Aboriginal parents who were both at the forefront of community activism in the era of George Manuel. “When you're born Indian,” he says, “you are born into politics.”
After living in the bush for eight years, Gottfriedson attended literary readings at the home of Jeannette Armstrong and at the En'owkin Centre in Penticton. After Armstrong submitted some of his poetry to a writing competition without his knowledge, he was awarded the Gerald Red Elk Creative Writing Scholarship by the Naropa Institute in Boulder, Colorado, where he studied under Allen Ginsberg, Anne Waldman and Marianne Faithful. “I didn't even know who Allen Ginsberg was,” he says. “When I got there I was shy. I was this bush Indian. I had hair down to my knees. I didn't speak to anyone outside my culture.”
Gottfriedson has since gained his MFA in Creative Writing from Naropa and Masters in Education from Simon Fraser University. Born and raised in Kamloops, he has taught at Cariboo College and served as a councilor and consultant for the Kamloops Indian Band.
Gottfriedson’s historical work, One Hundred Years of Contact (1990), was followed by In Honour of Our Grandmothers: Imprints of Cultural Survival (1994), a four-way collaboration that included Cree artist George Littlechild, as well as Glass Tepee (2002), a poetry collection that contains cryptic and and lyrical perspectives based on his Secwepemc heritage. Owl dance at Dukes / when the powwow season ends / wrapped in wannabe white girl clothes / labatts & between the sheets / they go all out / all the way / to the bee sting / arms slide around the shoulder/ of the smiling drunk / Mary Kay caked faces forget / that home is a mountain of people / sitting in bunch grass / puffing on Red Stone / sending pitiful words / into the air / hoping / for a Round Dance.
In addition, filmmaker Loretta Todd commissioned Gottfriedson to write “Forgotten Soldiers,” a poem about Aboriginal war veterans in Canada, that served as the basis for a documentary and was translated into Spanish. “Returning soldiers lost their treaty rights,” he says, “because there was a clause in the Indian Act. You were not to take up arms for or against Canada.” His first children’s book, Painted Pony (2005), was illustrated by William McAusland.
Along with his brother, who raises bucking horses for rodeos, Gottfriedson maintains the family tradition of breeding quarterhorses which he sells buyers throughout North America. Fluently bilingual, he has developed his own teaching method for the Shuswap language, one that requires physical responses to learning individual words.
Gottfriedson, Garry. One Hundred Years of Contact (Secwepemc Cultural Education Society 1990).
Gottfriedson, Garry & Reisa Smiley Schneider. In Honour of Our Grandmothers: Imprints of Cultural Survival (Theytus Books 1994). Illustrated by George Littlechild and others.
Gottfriedson, Garry. Glass Tepee (Thistledown 2002). 1-894345-47-9
Gottfriedson, Garry. Painted Pony (Kamloops: Partners in Publishing, 2005). Illustrated by William McAusland.
Gottfriedson, Garry. Whiskey Bullets: Cowboy and Indian Heritage Poems (Ronsdale Press, 2006). $15.95 978-1-55380-101-6
Gottfriedson, Garry. Skin Like Mine (Ronsdale Press, 2010). $15.95 978-1-55380-101-6
Chaos Inside Thunderstorms (Ronsdale 2014) $15.95 978-1-55380-326-3
Deaf Heaven (Ronsdale 2016) $15.95 978-1-55380-449-9
from Mark Forsythe
“You can’t just come here and listen.”
Jeannette Armstrong’s command was unequivocal—if Garry Gottfriedson was to participate in their poetry readings at the En’owkin Centre in Penticton, the province’s leading school for First Nations writers, he needed to contribute more.
Knowing something of Gottfriedson’s deep affinity for horses, Armstrong passed along a copy of She Had Some Horses by Joy Harjo. Twenty years later, Gottfreidson still remembers the impact of reading Harjo’s poetry. The imagery intrigued him immediately. Speaking from his ranch at Paul Lake, near Kamloops, he recites some of her lines without prompting:
“She had some horses who were bodies of sand. She had some horses who were maps drawn of blood. She had horses who were skins of water.”
Recognizing his potential, Armstrong took it upon herself to send some of Gottfriedson’s earliest writing, without his knowledge, as an application to the Naropa Institute in Boulder, Colorado. “I just started writing and didn’t know it was poetry,” he says. Much to his amazement, Gottfriedson was awarded a scholarship to work with Beat poet Allen Ginsberg, Anne Waldman and singer-songwriter Marianne Faithful.
“I went there as this very shy bush Indian, hair down to my knees and braids,” he says. “I didn’t know who Ginsberg was. But I didn’t hold them in awe. I think they liked me because I wasn’t following them around.”
The once-shy “Indian cowboy” has since read his poetry across North America, had his work performed with a symphony on CBC radio, taught at Cariboo College, served as a councilor and consultant for the Kamloops Indian Band.
Along the way Gottfriedson has published five books, the newest being Whiskey Bullets: Cowboy and Indian Heritage Poems (Ronsdale $14.95), which has an endorsement from Joy Hargo: “This is real cowboys and Indians, not just pretend, making a trail of intimate transformation, of fierce questioning.”
Whiskey Bullets mostly looks at the duality of First Nations and cowboy culture, unravelling clichés and stereotypes. “People think cowboys aren’t artistic or poetic,” Gottfriedson chuckles. “People see them as rough, rugged and unbreakable people. They just look at the spurs and cowboy hat. But lots of cowboys are songwriters and musicians.”
The poignant and frequently humorous poems in Whiskey Bullets easily dispel the notion that Indians aren’t real cowboys. “Percy Rosette was born on the Gang Ranch, was raised there, broke all their horses and became the head cow boss,” says Gottfriedson. “He could barely speak English, yet he was a cowboy and is still a cowboy. People that work at Douglas Ranch are still there, generation after generation. We are cowboys. We break and train horses, know how to work cattle. We know the ins and outs of ranching.”
Talk of stereotypes naturally moves to the motion picture Brokeback Mountain. “It was a good love story,” he says. “I’m not sure cowboys would be rough lovers like that. And they should have had cattle not sheep! I do know a couple of cowboys who are gay, not openly like, in Vancouver. They’re not in the parade, out there marching. They’re just regular guys. I guess it goes back to dismantling of stereotypes.”
Despite his increasing profile in the literary world, Gottfriedson has never read any of his work to any cowboys other than his own brothers. “Gus is still a ranch cowboy; he really thinks about my work and once in a while will come to the house and is very quiet. He’s a deep thinker, the kind of guy who will hang around you and then say, ‘You know this one line of your poem, it got me thinking about this and that.’”
In Shuswap culture, the horse is one of the animals closest to humans. “I can’t go without horses,” Gottfriedson says, “they’re so much a part of my life; if I sold them it would be like the death of part of me. I have had so many opportunities to move to the city but I just can’t leave my horses behind. I just can’t get rid of my Shuswap culture.”
While teaching at the Chief Atahm School in nearby Chase, Garry Gottfriedson raises quarter horses for rodeos and he manages his ranch. All of his brothers, and his father, were professional rodeo cowboys. His father won the Calgary Stampede Wild Horse Race in 1942.
“My brother was a world champion in 1963-64 when the U.S. was at the peak of racism,” he says. “He was a First Nations person right in there competing and a lot of times he was robbed points. There were people who would never let him win the Calgary Stampede. Whereas my Dad could get away with it because he looked white, and the last name is not a typical First Nations name.”
The surname is a tad misleading. Gottfreidson’s father was part Danish and part Okanagan; his mother was of French and Secwepemc (Shuswap) extraction. It is her heritage he identifies with most closely, speaking the language (as do his grandchildren) and honouring their ceremonies.
Mark Forsythe of CBC Radio often contributes profiles to BC BookWorld.
Skin Like Mine
Press Release (2010)
In Skin Like Mine Garry Gottfriedson offers a suite of poems that peel away the skin of contemporary first nations people to reveal an inside view of their experience. He pulls no punches as he explores their challenges.
He speaks of “minds full of anticipation” yet with “tongues pointing
arrowheads.” Telling it “like it is,” he encourages readers to examine what lies inside many of today’s native youth, who are “afraid to live / afraid to die / afraid of ourselves.” He draws attention to the rape of the natural environment, the skin of Mother Earth, when he speaks of “forests being / eaten from the inside out.” He tackles the political dysfunction within present-day band management, calling the leaders “political bullies” who “sweet-talk their way to stage management / . . . then vote for themselves” to perpetuate internalized oppression.
But as the collection continues, Gottfriedson’s love for his land begins to emerge, and he calls on the mysterious Horsechild when he says: “I will bind the drying racks once again / with hemp to make ready / the rows for drying salmon / so that beneath your skin / the mountains will be forever abundant.” Here the age-old rituals of the people and the land return, for the skin of the land provides comfort and assurance that some things will never change.
Skin Like Mine by Garry Gottfriedson (Ronsdale $15.95)
from Hannah Main-Van Der Kamp
From Plato to east Hastings, from Picasso and Puerto Vallarta to The Old Ones, Garry Gottfriedson and his work resist stereotyping, “bones born in the city (Kamloops)/ moved to the reservation to write and ride… targeting mouthy politicians/ tipping over tequila and/crying over ghosts.”
A rancher poet from the Secwepemc (Shuswap) First Nation, this is a poet who cannot be pinned down. Readers will find no idealized “Indian” in this book though there is respect for the grandmothers, the geographical location, the dancing and chant and what is left of the old native culture. He calls himself a bushman: “sacred in a drunken universe/ where the drum is still heard/ like a contemporary Koyoto story/ played out on the tv screen”
His raw words include scathing criticism of the violence and self-pity in tribal culture: “this is the result of something gone stupid/ we are stupid… afraid to live/ afraid to die/ afraid of ourselves.” He doesn’t hold back when he takes aim at politics, both that of colonial history, bureaucrats and the Department of Indian Affairs and Northern Development.
In ‘Political Dysfunction,’ he takes on the politics of the rez, where “internal pettiness is the norm.”
Don’t expect a lot of hey–ya hey–ya. In a piece about Mary Magdalene, God cries blood. In a Crow poem, the cawing red tongue is searching for road kill.
Accessible plain talk, not literary poetry, with terrific speech rhythms, these poems are most effective when they are about concrete experience.
The writing about horses is exquisitely rendered though not sentimental. A series about Horsechild evokes his love for horses, knowledge of them, their companionship. His language about his horses is like the language one uses for grandchildren.
Occasionally a little too abstract (beauty, nature, loss, tears, fulfillment), Gottfriedson’s inspired rawness is lived fear, lived grief and lived exaltation. He doesn’t draw back from harsh history, weather, indigenous language loss and the cultural confusion of the urbanized rez kids.
Gottfriedson’s honesty is engaging, “so here I am/ searching/ for recovery tools and the right prayer/ worthy/ of shaking the broken sky into repair.”
“I was born a nightmare/ in this drunken universe,” so begins an opening poem about the mutilation of land and culture, which ends, “I seek the refuge of my own kind/ sealed among the drunkards.”
He rages but does not rant. There is self-knowledge but not self-pity. The strongest section is ‘Scalps and Derma.’ Here the laments are piercing. Where grieving is great, laments must be long and deep. Yet, no matter how cutting, they are spoken with dignity and do not resort to sarcasm. Well, occasionally they do as in ‘One Tribe Canada’ where he pokes fun at “Indians” adorned in button blankets capped with war bonnets who build sweat lodges in suburbia.
Anger is most articulate when it is interspersed with tenderness. These poems describe a wide emotional arc. The rage is acute and the tenderness surprising. He is capable of writing about mystery as in ‘Night Dancers,’ a lovely, short piece about the Northern Lights.
Without undermining the strong words, Gottfriedson leaves the reader with a sense of his equanimity. On the Silent Night streets, “peace overrides misunderstanding at this moment of heartfelt song.”
Skin Like Mine is an eye opener. Readers who drive the highway east of Kamloops will never drive through that rolling Shuswap landscape with the same eyes again. 978-155380-101-6
Review by Hannah Main-Van Der Kamp, who writes from Victoria.