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20th Century PowWow Playland, Mihku Paul

Mihku Paul

Mihku Paul (born 1958) grew up in Old Town, Maine and identifies as an enrolled member of the Kingsclear First Nation in New Brunswick, just west of Fredericton. Her first poetry chapbook, 20th Century PowWow Playland, was published by Bowman Books in 2012 as part of its Native New England Authors series. Against an orange backdrop – one strongly reminiscent of the dawn – the book’s cover weds an original medicine wheel graphic with a portrait of “Mrs. Peter Paul nee Deveau,” borrowed from the University of New Brunswick Archives. Proximate to that is a scene of French evangelical propaganda from the University of Southern Maine’s Franco-American Collection. This collision of images reflects Paul’s manifold artistic identity as a Maliseet (Wolastokiyik) writer, historian, and visual artist – and, more fundamentally, it refers to the cultural and historical intersections in which her work is rooted.

Paul’s vision of the traditional Maliseet homelands, which span much of present-day Quebec, New Brunswick, and northern Maine, is largely rooted in the cultural influence of her grandfather, Ray, with whom she picked fiddleheads, hunted, and trapped as a child. She honours the memory of her grandfather in the poem “Trapper,” which describes a man with “monstrously strong” hands and a “[crooked] forefinger” shaped by his trade:

For years and years those hands pried metal jaws. In seasons both frozen and wet,
he walked miles to the places where animals crept and hid,
where they fed and rested.
Winter, the river, long iced, snowy path to secret crossroads of creatures
he knew like kin, like cousins. (PowWow 26)

Speaking of her grandfather in an interview with Lisa Panepinto, Paul describes how he was removed from his Kingsclear home as a young boy and placed into the New Brunswick residential schooling system, a placement he vehemently resisted through repeated attempts at escape. She explains, “One of the things he had learned to do when he’d run away was not to come home to Kingsclear. He would go to where his cousins lived at another reservation . . . he learned to go where they might not find him” (Panepinto n.p.). Paul’s mother, Iris-Dawn, was later born in Houlton, Maine, and while Mihku Paul grew up primarily in Old Town, she also spent significant portions of her childhood among family on Indian Island, which is the seat of the Penobscot Nation tribal government.

While Paul benefitted greatly from her grandfather’s cultural teachings, she was consistently dissatisfied, even as a young child, with the education that she and her family members received in the Maine public school system. The poem “Jefferson Street School” – in which the speaker imagines herself as a “kindergarten captive” who is forced to memorize and recite the “invader’s language” and partisan cultural perspective (PowWow 9) – clearly captures and details this disillusionment. Both in and out of school, her experiences growing up in Old Town were coloured by the oppressive forces of poverty and discrimination, and among the four children in her family, she was the only child to complete high school. She largely attributes this success to the traditional teachings and strong influence of her family, especially her grandfather.

After high school, Paul went on to earn a BA in Human Development and Communication from the University of Southern Maine, and this degree was followed by an MFA in Creative Writing from Stonecoast. When asked in an interview to identify the people who have inspired her most in her art and in her lifelong search for justice she again first cites her grandfather and her mother, but she also acknowledges the powerful impact that other Native North American writers have had on her work and process. Leslie Marmon Silko, for example, and especially her well-known novel Ceremony, is cited as a particular influence, as is the poetry and prose of Joy Harjo and Louise Erdrich and the scholarship of Robert Warrior, Jace Weaver, and Craig Womack. Paul’s poem “House of Dawn” is likely a nod to another canonical indigenous voice, that of N. Scott Momaday, who she also cites as a significant literary influence. Like Momaday’s novel, Paul’s poem is concerned with the healing that must follow trauma:

Never run from those rez dogs, they tell you. Act like you belong to this place.
Those teeth know their work.
Bury your feet beneath the bone mounds.

You are the story now, ephemeral as the days. Born here, died here.
The fire’s song will call you kin.
The house of dawn will welcome you when that morning finally
opens its eye. (PowWow 57)

As of 2012, Paul teaches creative writing at the Maine Women Writers Collection at the University of New England in Portland. Like other contemporary Wabanaki artists, she is also passionately involved in the realm of community education. Her first public notice, as Siobhan Senier notes, was Look Twice, “a traveling exhibition of poetry and visual images” (22) that moved from the Abbe Museum in Bar Harbour, Maine to the University of Southern Maine’s Glickman Library. In addition, motivated by her own unsatisfactory experiences of primary and secondary education in Maine, and by her experiences of racism and discrimination as a mixed-blood Maliseet woman, Paul has worked for more than two decades to better equip teachers in the state system and to inform the children of the Portland school district about the complicated cultural, political, and social histories that inform the lives of indigenous peoples in the 21st century.

While Mihku Paul’s First Nations status in Canada was legally restored under the terms of Bill C-31, which provided amendments to the federal government’s infamous Indian Act, her poetry evokes another kind of indigeneity, one that speaks out powerfully against the ongoing and divisive legacy of colonial violence and Native dispossession in northeastern North America. In an article that grapples with the troubling politics of federal recognition in the context of two contemporary Wabanaki poets – Mihku Paul and Alice Azure – Siobhan Senier situates Paul as:

a traditional Maliseet, inhabiting a large – and traditionally Maliseet – territory that spans national, state, and tribal borders. Maliseet call themselves Wolastokiyik, or ‘People of the Beautiful River,’ i.e., the St. John, . . . [and] Paul’s poetry traverses this watershed to do the cultural work of reimagining and reconnecting Maliseet land and community. (21)

To this end, the opening poem of 20th Century PowWow Playland, titled “Echo of Multitudes,” asks readers to picture the St. John and its tributaries “moving endlessly” through these lands, sustaining life, transforming relations, and serving as a vital link between communities (1). In this collection of poems, Maliseet lands are imaginatively peopled with not only “the ghosts of half a millennium” but also with “those who remain” (2) – those, like Paul herself, whose perspectives oppose the ongoing legacy of settler imperialism in the northeast and proclaim the continuance of indigenous presence in this region.

Rachel Bryant, Winter 2012
University of New Brunswick

Bibliography of Primary Sources

Paul, Mihku. 20th Century PowWow Playland. New York: Bowman Books, 2012. Native New England Authors Series 9.

---. Look Twice: The Waponahki in Image and Verse. Bar Harbor, Maine: Abbe Museum, 2009. Exhibit.

Bibliography of Secondary Sources

Panepinto, Lisa. “Renewing Images: Mihku Paul Interview.” River Pine Anthology of Civic Discourse. River Pine Anthology of Civic Discourse, 14 September 2012. Web. 30 September 2012.

Senier, Siobhan. “Rethinking Recognition: Mi’kmaq and Maliseet Poets Re-Write Land and Community.” MELUS 37.1 (2012): 15-34.