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Defining the 500-year-old relationship between Indigenous nations and the corporation of Canada, Indigenous artist Janet Rogers has released her fifth poetry collection, “Totem Poles and Railroads.”

Fantastic and Worthwhile Reading: ‘Totem Poles and Railroads’ by Janet Rogers

Alex Jacobs

Defining the 500-year-old relationship between Indigenous nations and the corporation of Canada, Indigenous artist Janet Rogers has released her fifth poetry collection, “Totem Poles and Railroads.”

Sacajawea, Pocahontas, Laura Secord, Pauline Johnson and Nina Simone are some of Rogers’ heroes, touchstones and historical narratives in the collection by the Mohawk/Tuscarora spoken word artist and poet. Sky Woman, clan mothers and other women on the frontlines get their due along with the missing and murdered whose faces appear to Ms. Rogers as she drives along both real and imagined “highways of tears.” Sacajawea and Pocahontas recite their stories from beginning to end as spoken word poets working a stage or narrating a film.

Recommendations and reconciliations, racism and respect, resistance and reclamation are also covered when the issue becomes the whole sordid history of abused residential school children, as generations of traumatized children become adults still seeking healing. There are Dakota Dreamers along the river, praying, singing and dancing, the Great Law is told and re-told over the spirit of indigenous radio. Rogers keeps checking in with the reader, Were you there? Where are you now? Did you see? Did you hear? What are you going to do about it?

“These new poems by Janet Rogers are a straight shot metaphysical call to action in the wake of historical trauma, police violence, and shameful treatment of our body Earth. They stand as urgent witness, clear talk in the face of colonized law built on lies. Rogers reminds us to pay attention, to listen. These words can heal.” Joy Harjo, Mvoske Nation, poet and musician.

The title poem, Totem Poles and Railroads, puts us directly in the present on that Highway of Tears, and other highways, railroads, passages, ships and vehicles that delivered war, death, pain and suffering in terms we know better as civilization and colonization.

totem poles and railroads / canada post diesel and drugs

uncomfortable with discomfort / everything is human error

pointing to police

cops cars passing / opposite directions

I look to them like / I know something

like they know something / and not saying

we are not sure / what’s been saved

or deleted

And then she sees a Native girl walking, probably hitch-hiking on the highway, and it’s not history, it is real. Extraction culture will take whatever it feels like, mountains, rivers, people, women.

Red Earth, White Lies deconstructs history at the source by debunking the Bering Straits Theory.

new world born from myth / scientific rejected creation stories

christian notation and bible fiction / inflexible spiritual doctrines / of discovery…

original oral indigenous – inferior / missionary religious slogans superior /

the discomfort / so intolerable / to cultivate a land bridge theory – so / impossible

to justify / factual atrocities built – here / from a foundation of theories

bering strait equates to B.S. / red earth white lies / caucasoid / asia to alaska /

army corps of america / holding and controlling / DNA from 9 thousand years ago.

It’s not all the white knuckled grip of resistance and confrontation, as Rogers does some slam dancing, some ululation, some bear loving, and tells us how to properly get arrested or how to talk to Bigfoot. Rogers background as a spoken word artist shows in the book’s design with various types that boom out like a drum or whisper in your ear.

The publisher, ARP Books, Winnipeg, Manitoba says, “Totem Poles and Railroads” succinctly defines the 500-year-old relationship between Indigenous nations and the corporation of Canada. In this, her fifth poetry collection, Janet Rogers’ expands on that definition with a playful, culturally powerful and, at times, experimental voice. Placing poetry at the centre of our current post-residential school /present-day reconciliation reality, Rogers’ poems are expansive and intimate, challenging, thought-provoking and always personal.”

Leroy Little Bear, Professor Emeritus of the University of Lethbridge, Alberta, gives us this background, “In the late 1870’s the Prime Minister of Canada… implemented a national program. One of the main aspects… was the building of a transcontinental railroad to bring the what is now the province of British Columbia into the national fold. The building of the railroad had a tremendous impact on the First Nations across the country. It brought a flood of people from the East to the West and along with them land grabs and disease. Totem Poles and Railroads is a powerful poetic story of that part of a too-often forgotten Canadian history.”

The book is an impressive actual work-of-art-book from ARP Books as the publisher, and given a proper and righteous launch at Type Bookstore in Toronto on October 29. Everybody involved, author, publisher and bookstore, shows that they respect and honor the written word. At the Type Books launch event, Janet performed with one of her heroes, Lillian Allen, a grassroots artist, cultural activist and university professor considered a godmother of rap, hip-hop, dub and spoken word, in the company of Linton Kwesi Johnson and Gil Scott Heron. I have said before from reading with Ms. Rogers 5 years ago and 2 books previous, “Janet Rogers is a force of nature. Get ready, hold on or get out of the way.”

Totem Poles and Railroads is Janet Marie Rogers fifth poetry collection developed during her term as University of Northern British Columbia’s 2015/2016 Writer in Residence and Ontario College of Art & Design’s NIGIG Visiting Artist Residency in 2016. Janet’s spoken word talents and guest poets can be found on her radio program Native Waves Radio on CFUV-FM and a new six-part radio documentary NDNs on the Airwaves, which she also produced. Rogers is also planning a west coast book launch, Sunday, November 27 at Emily Carr House in Victoria, BC.


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