Tuesday, July 10, 2012


Tawaw.  It means welcome in Cree, and I have picked up quite a bit of Cree out here in Saskatchewan, over the course of a nine-month residency at the Saskatoon Public Library.  (I used to feel bad that I had more te reo Māori than my own language, Anishinaabemowin, but one of my elders told me to learn the language wherever I was, it all helps).  And I did feel truly welcomed to this community of readers and writers and learners.

From September to the end of May, I had over 170 appointments with more than sixty individual writers in my office at the Library. I saw poets, fiction writers, science fiction writers, playwrights, non-fiction writers, memoirists, first time writers and published authors.  On the days I was not available to the community, I was writing. In my nine months, I wrote an adaptation of The Birds (Aristophanes, not Hitchcock) and several papers about Aboriginal theatre in Canada, which magically transform themselves into chapters in this book about Native theatre. I have spoken about Turtle Gals’ work The Only Good Indian, The Scrubbing Project, The Triple Truth – about Marie ClementsTombs of the Vanishing Indian, The Unnatural and Accidental Women – about Daniel David MosesAlmighty Voice and His Wife and Brebeuf’s Ghost, about Melanie J Murrays’ A Very Polite Genocide and Native Earth’s Death of a Chief.

I also had occasion to go into classrooms and hospitals and other community spaces to talk about the power of putting the words in the right order.  In a school library, I learned the word tawaw, from a small group of students. 
Photo of Yvette Nolan courtesy of Saskatoon Public Library

The teacher-librarian had assembled grade 6’s and 7’s to hear me talk about being the Writer in Residence, and to encourage literacy.  “A special class will be joining us,” the teacher librarian explained, “called Tawaw.”   The boys of Tawaw have, for whatever reason, not succeeded in the mainstream, and Tawaw was built to support them, to give them tools to achieve.

I had prepared a writing exercise, very simple. Introduce yourself, but in the third person. Tell us something about yourself, in the third person. Tell us something about your dreams – what are you going to be when you grow up. All in the third person.

The students wrote for ten minutes or so, and then we shared.  “Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls, please allow me to introduce Alicia!  Alicia loves Justin Bieber, and she is going to be a veterinarian when she grows up!”  Wildly thunderous applause. That kind of thing.  I kept returning to the Tawaw table to see if one of the boys would share. Uh uh. No way.

When most of the class had shared their introductions and ambitions, some fanciful, some prosaic, I was starting to wrap up the class, and one of the boys from the Tawaw group raised his hand.  “I’ll go.”

He stood up and read his words.

“Ladies and gentlemen, I would like to introduce you to Clifton. Clifton is a good friend to his sister Savannah and his best friend Clayton. Clifton is going to be a stonemason, and a hockey player, and a husband and a father. “

He read straight to me, and behind me I could feel his teachers swelling with joy and pride and hope.  I breathed to keep the tears from appearing. Clifton (the student I am calling Clifton) had imagined himself into an adult, into a trade, into healthy relationships. Into a future. He had put the words together and put the idea they expressed into the air.  From his lips to the Creator’s ear.

Tawaw. Welcome, Come in. There’s room.

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