Dominique Godrèche
Natasha Kanapé Fontaine, Innu, was born in 1991 and is already a celebrated poet.

Understand Our Culture, or Lose It: Innu Poet Natasha Kanapé Fontaine on Language

Dominique Godrèche

Natasha Kanapé Fontaine, a young Innu poet from Baie-Comeau, lives in Montreal as does her mentor, Josephine Bacon. The author of Do Not Enter My Soul in Your Shoes, Fontaine also was awarded the poetry prize from the Society of Francophone Writers of America in 2013. She debuted with her second poetry collection, Manifeste Assi (Mémoire d'encrier, 2014), this year at the international literary Festival of Saint Malo, Les Étonnants Voyageurs. Afterward she shared her feelings on literature, identity and literary friendship with Indian Country Today Media Network.

How did you like the festival of Saint Malo?

It was great! The sea, the old city, people from all horizons! I love to get to know different cultures. It was a nice change from Quebec, which has an underlying, unconscious kind of racism, even if it is diminshing, but still present in North America. Traveling makes me reflect on the issues of colonialism.

But Montreal, and Quebec, are very multicultural. Do you, as an Innu, feel ostracized?

The schools teach us that Natives do not exist; the last generation learned about us as “things from the past” or as part of the “background.” With my poetry I bring back the reality of our existence in society, declaring that we have a space, and we will take it. I do not call that “integration,” because it sounds like a reference to a colonialist mind-set. I am Innu, not Canadian or Quebecoise. My history is ancient. I have a heritage. And through language, I am transcending the gap between generations, to build a bridge. In school I was cast aside as an Innu. We were considered marginal because of prejudice or fear, and we experienced that discrimination as an undercurrent of racism. Thus from age 12 through 17 I felt isolated, wondering why I was marginalized, until I realized it was related to my Innu identity. I had “forgotten” that there was a difference between the Quebecois and the Innu. So I have to start from there. I was raised in a Quebec school, but am Native from an ancestral territory, where Innu have been for 10,000 years.

Twenty-something Innu poet Natasha Kanapé Fontaine's second collection was published in 2014.

Did your parents talk to you in Innu? Can you speak it?

My father did, a little, but they mostly spoke to me in French. So until I was five years old I spoke it, but when we moved to town I studied in French. And by age 16, I did not speak Innu anymore. So I decided to search for my identity, and began a process of re-appropriation of my language and culture. I did not know any history. At 18 I went back to the Pessamit reserve and stayed a year, without ever going outside of the community, not even to shop in town! In full immersion, I re-learned the language. And though I was raised in French, the Innu way of thinking is coming back. Memory is powerful! Speaking the language, I understand the Innu culture, where objects are either animate or inanimate. Innu is more sensitive to the essence of things, less materialistic.

Is that because it is related to a pre-industrialized society, when the language was referring greatly to spiritual issues?

Yes. A philosophy, life principles. The Innu is centered on human nature, and not the materiality of things; that is why it is helpful to learn it.

Given that, was French the language of colonialism for you?

In school we learned that America was born with Christopher Columbus, so when I learned the history, I understood that. They never mentioned the Natives, except for the origin of the country, as if we no longer existed, which is what most people think. I discovered at 18 years old that there were other Native nations! Then we studied French literature, and reading the French poets—Arthur Rimbaud, Charles Baudelaire—who inspired me, I began to write poetry. But in 2011 a friend gave me a book by Josephine: And the next person who inspired me is the one sitting next to me today! [Laughs, gesturing to Bacon, who was with her during this interview and appeared with her at the festival.]

RELATED: Preserving Innu Language Through Verse: A Chat With Poet Josephine Bacon

Young Innu poet Natasha Kanapé Fontaine, left, poses with her mentor, the renowned Innu poet Josephine Bacon, in Paris this spring. (Photo: Dominique Godrèche)

Is the study of Native languages a trend among young Natives?

During my research I realized I was not alone. There is a movement. Many young people feel this call for the re-appropriation of their culture. It is a big concern among those who only speak English or French, who fear that if they don’t understand their culture, they might lose it.

In what ways does the Innu mind-set differ from that of the French?

You discover another level of sensitivity; the Innu structure of phrases is the opposite of the French. It creates a different mental process.

But French does offer a whole range of emotions, feelings, etc.?

Yes, except for some issues: the consciousness of an environment that gives you everything, for example. That awareness fills every word of Innu. I wrote poetry in French, as it was easier; but today, I wish to express myself in Innu. It means an interpretation of two cultures, since racism is precisely about not understanding the other’s culture.

So is being part of a Francophone culture a form of acculturation?

No. It is an opening to other Francophone cultures. Because colonization is imposing one’s culture, a lack of respect. For Native cultures, it means asphyxiation, and ultimately death. But cultures can benefit one from another without mixing: Hybridization is possible when cultures are self-aware. That is how we can grow, create, remain open: I have to be conscious of how much I am impregnated with Innu in order to know who I am.

The French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan used to say that the unconscious is structured like a language. Did the study of Innu help you to know yourself at that level?

It changed me, because speaking Innu means cultivating a deep relationship to oneself. I discovered aspects of myself I had not understood since my adolescence. Through learning the structure of the language, the identification process takes place. And then, it is normal to identify ourselves with the language of our ancestors. So certainly, the re-appropriation of one‘s language is a way to access intimate aspects of oneself. 

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