Aboriginal poetry by tappage and armstrong: the personal past, the political future

Two poems, “ Tyee—Big Chief” by Mary Augusta Tappage and “ For Tony” by Jeannette C. Armstrong, both contain the theme of that language is important because it is the foundation of what connects us to our community, and it gives us our sense of identity within, and without, that shared culture. It tells us not only who we are but also who we are not. The difference between these two poems is that “ Tyee–Big Chief” is written in the traditional Aboriginal orature style and “ For Tony” is written using a Western literary style. The way in which these differing styles affect the treatment of the theme is that the first poem is rooted, and stays firmly planted, in the personal and in the past, whereas the second poem starts in the past but finishes by taking a more political tone and looking into the future.

Tappage’s poem tells a personal story. In traditional orature style it contains information and repetition, is non-linear in its chronology, and it circles around the theme to come back to the issue of language and identity. Tappage is speaking to an audience who does not know her language and she is educating them about this subject. The first stanza starts by telling us that the word in the title “ Tyee” is “ not Shuswap…It’s Chinook, I think.”, and that “ it’s not my language”. Tappage speaks from the personal “ I” point of view creating an informal and direct way of speaking. Then these two statements of information address what is “ not”. She emphasizes this by the repetition of the word “ not”. She then goes on to tell us what “ is”. The second stanza starts with examples of Shuswap which educate the reader to the stark difference in the words between the two languages, Chinook and Shuswap. She says “ it’s a hard language, Shuswap—real hard.” Again the repetition of the word “ hard” emphasizes the seriousness and importance of what she is saying as welllending a sense of gravity to the fact that this “ hard language” was “ almost forgotten.”

The final stanza explains what happened when she “ got out of Mission school”. She had lost her ability to comprehend the language of her own people because of the government’s policy of forced assimilation and cultural genocide. She writes ” I couldn’t understand them.” The use of the word “ them” is particularly poignant because it places heras an outsider. The next line reads, “ We were only allowed to speak English at school.” This “ we” is her new group; the ones who cannot speak Shuswap, only English. The next line says what “ almost” happened. This line gives energy to the poem because it is the essence of what the poem is all about. It becomes the balance point of the tragedy which was narrowly avoided. She “ almost forgot [her] own language”. Then the last line brings the whole poem in a full circle. In this line she claims her language, her culture, and her true identity. She says “ it’s Shuswap, my language.” By using the oral style in conjunction with Aboriginal language this poem emphasizes the importance of maintaining the culture and connection to the past.

Jeannette C. Armstrong’s poem “ For Tony” contains many of the elements used in western writing. such as alliteration, figurative language, and a linear sense of time; it also has a more political tone. The opening line introduces the use of alliteration with the repetition of the “ w” sound. She writes “ Words were always” setting up a lulling drum-like rhythm. The following stanzas keep this pattern of alliteration and this sets up a sound which continues throughout the whole poem. This soft “ wuh” sound is also used to create a sharp contrast with the hard “ b” alliteration that follows in the second stanza with the words “ beast”, “ bottles” and “ battles”. The repetition also calls attention to the words themselves. In the second stanza the first word of four of the eight lines start with the letter w:” where”, “ were”, “ waiting”, “ where”. The third stanza continues the established pattern of alliteration to emphasize the words “ words”, “ war”, “ weapon”. The last stanza continues this alliteration pattern creating a flow of sound and rhythm throughout the whole poem that connects the beginning with the end.

Armstrong also connects the symbol of words as weapons through the third and fourth stanzas writing ” our people gather to choose their weapons…and we will be rich with weapons.” She creates a tipping point between the second and third stanzas by using the run on line with a cut off ending of “ now lost”. This sudden stop along with the hard sounding alliteration of the “ b” words lends a feeling of abruptness and loss. The words “ now lost” are visually emphasized by having them stand on their own. Armstrong uses figurative language in this poem writing that Tony “ played” with words “ in long chains or little piles” making them sound like a physical thing in his hands. She creates a “ beast” which inhabits the “ cold and wordless place” and tells of “ emptied bottles [which] spoke of battles”. She also employs a linear sense of time. Once Armstrong has established the symbolism of words as weapons against the battles with bottles, the following stanza moves from the past into the present. She writes in the present tense and uses the words “ now” which further emphasizes a forward movement in time. The final stanza projects into the future and how it “ will be”. When Armstrong changes from the past to the present she also changes pronouns from the “ you”, of speaking directly to Tony, to embracing the “ we” of the community. This signifies a coming together of community and culture with the power of language. Her strident tone and use of words such as “ weapons” as well as her future vision gives a political slant to her poem as opposed to a purely personal story.

Both of these poems have the theme that language creates identity, connects people, and is the life force of a culture. However, they do so using two very different styles. Tappage speaks from a personal perspective of how to avoid losing what is important and Armstrong speaks from a political perspective of how to get it back.

Works Cited

Armstrong, Jeannette C. “ For Tony”. Moses, Daniel David, Armand Garnet Ruffo, and Terry Goldie, eds. An Anthology of Canadian Native Literature in English. 4th ed. Don Mills: Oxford University Press Canada, 2013.

Tappage, Mary Augusta. “ Tyee—Big Chief”. Moses, Daniel David, Armand Garnet Ruffo, and Terry Goldie, eds. An Anthology of Canadian Native Literature in English. 4th ed. Don Mills: Oxford University Press Canada, 2013.