Monthly Archives: January 2016

Finding the ‘I’ in Identity

In our first blog piece for 2016 we hear from Billie Kearns, a second year Engineering student at Queen’s University. In her piece, Billie explores the complex concept of identity through both written words and spoken poetry.

When people ask me where I’m from, I never know where to begin. I have a short answer and a long answer. I used to tell people that I was from Ottawa. I’d lived there six years, and the answer never elicited any questions. I soon realized that I didn’t like that answer. It didn’t feel like a lie, but it felt like I was ignoring the rest of myself by simplifying who I was. My life has been shaped by the places I’ve moved and the communities that I was a part of. When people ask me where I come from they aren’t asking for my life story, but the two are so closely intertwined that one comes falling after the other in conversation.

So my name is Billie. It’s short for William. I was born in Yellowknife, and I live there now, but it feels more like a home base. I’ve lived in Calgary, Fort Smith, Windsor, Walpole Island, Wallaceburg, and Ottawa. I’m primarily Dene but am also Metis, Cree, and Mohawk. When I moved to Ontario, I started learning Anishinaabemowin was introduced to many Anishnaabe teachings and still hold them close even though I more strongly identify as Dene.

When I came to Queen’s I was excited to become a part of the community at the Four Directions Aboriginal Student Centre. During my time in Ottawa, I became detached from my culture while I focused more heavily on school. Unfortunately, the same thing happened to me in first year. Engineering seemed to grab my hand and run me through 8 months with just enough will power to get involved in orchestra, poetry, and Queen’s Concrete Toboggan Team. I became a part of the communities both within and outside of my faculty.

Queen’s clearly strives to have inclusive communities that are well accepting of diversity. The Aboriginal Access to Engineering program has connected me to other indigenous engineering students and Four Directions has helped me feel more connected to my culture (spending time there often brings me back to the time I spent at the Friendship Centre in Windsor). Where I find difficulty at Queen’s is not a lack of resources or acceptance, but rather a lack of representation. I recently found out I was the only self-identified aboriginal student currently in Electrical Engineering. I felt a little isolated after that. There is some comfort to be had in looking around a room and knowing there are people who are like you, or seeing TA’s and Professors who you can look up to as role models.

This year I’ve gotten more involved with both Aboriginal Access to Engineering and Four Directions. Not as much as I would like to be, but a start is a start. Doing so has made me feel more at home at Queen’s. I am very grateful to have the opportunity to become more connected with a huge part of my identity after having been disconnected for so long.

The program I’m in can be exhausting, but I still love what I do. It can be frustrating not coming from a financially stable background at times, and it can be disheartening to be in an environment that often lacks diversity. Sometimes, things don’t work out, but being resilient is what got me here in the first place so I can’t stop now.

Spoken word has been both an excellent outlet and a way to express myself to others in a setting where they will listen. I’ve been performing and writing spoken word for almost four years now and it has become part of who I am. The following is a poem that I wrote with respect to coming from a mixed indigenous background and it expresses many of the issues having to do with identity and fitting in.

The video is a performance filmed at Queen’s Poetry Slam.
The text version of this video poetry slam is included below.

Howl

If I howl,
will the stray dogs scream
at the injustice of someone other than their own
using the call of their ancestors?

Not quite wolves themselves
the feeling of being the cur who cried wolf
leaves a nostalgic burn in their stomachs.
A sickly in between leaves
these strays far from domesticated,
but they fear that were they to venture
into the forest,
the wolves would call them anything
but wild.

The domestics claim that the worries of these strays
are old problems already fixed.
They claim that when it all comes down to it
“We all have canines,
we all bleed red when bitten,
and most of us are colour blind anyways.”
The wolves and the strays know that that these facts,
come from old dogs
who think they’ve learned new tricks.
That these facts are a fallacy
which keeps the domestics chasing their tails,
makes them forget that they ever cried
for a plague on the wolf in the first place.

The hyenas would laugh and the Jackals would Hide
when asked to give their two (s)cents on the matter.
The coyotes would show us what a trickster shift really looks like,
and the fox might even say something.
But let’s not get carried away.
This issue is obviously too complex
to start speaking of the hyenas, jackals,
foxes, and coyotes,
And G-O-D forbid
we be able to distinguish between wolves from different geological factions.
Some people
can’t even tell a wolf apart from their grandmother.

Amidst this chaos some stray dogs
begin to give up on digging for their name tags,
and instead, bask in the night-shade of the alleyways,
close their eyes,
sigh,
and say that the full moon
don’t shine quite like she used to.

Their feet move slowly as they sleep
not running in their dreams, but executing
a tightrope crawl over the canyon
of two identities.
Their lips quiver as they pray
to a backwards G-O-D,
that they haven’t already fallen into the cracks,
been ripped apart by the rapids below.
and they know,
in each bristle of fur in their haunches,
that they are the result of the backwards F-L-O
-W of the current that will drag them
onward when they fall, forever moving parallel
to either side of themselves.
On one cliff of this canyon stands the wolves and
On the other the domestics
and in a stray dogs dream they taunt:

“Stray one, Stray one can’t you see?
You’re a poor excuse of a D-O-G.
Stray dog, Stray dog, are you deaf?
Your howl mocks the name of
W-O-L-F,
Cry dog, Cry Wolf, Cur you are invalid!
You’re nothing but a verse in the dog catcher’s ballad.”

When stray dogs wake from this nightmare,
they dismiss all thoughts of canyons
as they stretch out their paws, roll over,
and murmur themselves back to sleep:

The faces of the moon control the tides
they say.
When curs howl they do not pray,
but strive to speak to the moon before
she turns away,
ask her
if it is possible to catch a glimpse
of beauty in the in between.

If I howl, the stray dogs may scream.