The first time you hear Rebecca Thomas perform her spoken word poetry, something will happen to you. Your mind will calm as the tide of her voice takes over, the conviction of her words buoying you up until she reaches the ultimate, perfectly crafted finale and her perspective crashes down, challenging you in one hand and offering you a leg up in the other.
Her work is truly cathartic, so it's no wonder Thomas is making such a splash on the local literary scene—only surprising that in the three or so years she's been writing, how rapidly her work has gained recognition.
Poetry isn't something 30-year-old Thomas—the recently named slam master, captain of the Halifax slam poetry team and Halifax's newest poet laureate—spent her life practicing, but once she found it, it came naturally. "I think I first started back in 2012 or 2013," she says. "When I talk about spoken word I always joke that I'm child number five of eight, so anything to get attention."
Thomas probably had no idea when she first set down to write exactly how much attention she would end up getting. Encouraged by a colleague at NSCC, where she works as coordinator for aboriginal student services, Thomas was introduced to the poetry of outgoing laureate El Jones, whose command of language and commitment to her community really spoke to her.
"El Jones is incredibly inspiring," says Thomas. "She was one of the first poets I heard that really spoke with a strong voice and with such conviction for the African Nova Scotian and black population...[she's] an incredibly strong poet who speaks unabashedly." Jones' work inspired Thomas to attempt the same: "I looked at her stuff and thought, 'Maybe I can do that.'"
So she wrote a piece that was well-received, which led to another and another. Before she knew it, the stage was calling her name, and performing gave her a new confidence, spark and platform to be heard. "It certainly makes me feel powerful, strong, listening to an Indigenous voice, my voice, asking questions and entering conversations, that's pretty spectacular," she says. "It's a lot of fun. I really like performing. I get an energy from the crowd—different audiences you perform to give you different reactions, so in the slam scene people are snapping, hollering, stomping, and there's an 'Oooh' from the crowd when you deliver a good line. I feed off the energy, it's really wonderful when I'm trying to be poignant or say something important—to hear the absolute silence in the room—people paying attention is a pretty incredible feeling."
As Halifax's first Indigenous poet laureate—Thomas is M'ikmaq, originally from New Brunswick—elevating aboriginal voices is paramount to what she hopes to accomplish in both her poetry and in her term.
"Indigenous voices are often silenced or spoken over," says Thomas. "There are perspectives that are interpretations of our experiences but not necessarily from us. I hope [the audience] goes 'Wow I never thought of it like that' and want to hear more."
In the four poems Thomas took to competition and won this year—"Reconcile Your State of Mind"; "What Am I Supposed to Think?"; "Matoax" and "I Am Honoured" (see sidebar)—the political climate of indigeneity is the thread that weaves them all together. Whether it's the musings on reconciliation and all that it leaves out in "Reconcile Your State of Mind," the common misconceptions of First Nations perks and online hate in "What Am I Supposed to Think?," the true story behind Disney's Pocahontas in "Matoax," or the examination of the ridiculous and yet much-argued stance that native mascots intend to be honouring, not mocking, in "I Am Honoured." Her poems don't shy away from the answers people don't necessarily want to hear.
"Again, why can't you see you're not honouring us?" says Thomas of "I Am Honoured." "We're not in the conversation and when we speak up you say, 'Oh that's not bad' and it drives me crazy—don't ask a question if you don't like the answer and have no intention of doing anything with that answer, this poem was my response to that atmosphere and lack of conversation."
Thomas' poetry is as melodic and witty as it is damning, and it would seem that the three in hand are able to convey meaning and draw her audience in to stand with not against her. This is a special feat when most of the issues she talks about have a way of putting First Nations opinions on the defensive, while dredging up so much ignorant and racially fuelled reactive hate that news outlets like CBC Aboriginal chose to close its online public comments on its Indigenous-related stories last year due to the severity of the problem. It's a difficult and frustrating truth that minority voices—especially angry ones—are not something that are easily heard, let alone acknowledged and listened to.
That poetry can sometimes do what news, activism, essays or academia can't is something that Thomas, who has a master's in social anthropology from Dalhousie, takes to heart. "I think it's entertaining, that's part of it," she says. "People want to listen to it. I have a master's thesis on Indigenous Identity and Conflict and it's boring—no one wants to read that—so even if it has some important information in it, at least with poetry people want to listen. Poetry can be very beautiful and thoughtful in how it's done. I would definitely label myself as an activist—some of my poems can be very aggressive in that I call out how people treat Canada's Indigenous people, and there are some very aggressive call-outs, but other poems I have are 'Have you ever thought of our perspective?' they're easier to digest."
Thomas believes that the time is right for an Indigenous poet laureate and that it speaks to a growing national interest in Indigenous affairs.
"I think the environment and atmosphere for Indigenous people in Canada is really interesting now," she says. "It's up and coming. You hear the voices, successes more often, but you also see the tragedy too. But, I hope people like me might help with that in some way."
It's her hope that her voice will help spur change, on both local and national levels, with lofty goals to see Cornwallis Street renamed and to help grow the burgeoning Halifax spoken word scene through continued workshops and youth outreach. But above all, she will continue to write and she will continue to be heard.
"You know, when I was growing up we got taught different facets of history. One was that Canada was a wild and empty land where the Indigenous perspective is left out altogether except for that exercise at Thanksgiving. Or we're taught native people were simple and needed help and colonizers brought modernity to them. Or there's an area taught that we were savages and needed to get civilized, you get taught these things, but not taught our perspective—we had complex civilizations, rich languages, histories and culture, there's lots of traditional knowledge and medicine used today but not credited, there's a whole untold story that never gets spoken about. You look at how damaged we are today from being told only that one side of colonial influence. To speak up and be heard and be validated that's so important to show we are still here we are still driving this—history didn't start in 1492—we have been here 12,000 years and that's incredible."
Rebecca Thomas is a poet on the brink—with only a few years' experience under her belt, she has already surpassed her own expectations, and is now looking to the future with an eagerness to travel, compete internationally and, someday hopefully, publish two series of poems simultaneously—a booklet of poetry inspired by M'ikmaw creation myths and a booklet of her politically charged poems. "To have both contemporary and traditional voices side by side," she says, "it can show that we can be both—both modern and historical at the same time."
If the next three years are anything like the last, our bet is Thomas in her tenacity will accomplish it all and more—hers is a voice that once carried, only grows stronger. Let's hope for now, everyone is listening.
Lindsay Gloade-Raining Bird is a Cree writer, storyteller and passionate advocate for positive Indigenous representation. She has been published in The Coast, CBC, Atlantic Books Today and Broken Pencil.
I Am Honoured
by Rebecca Thomas
My name is Swift Fox. Proud member of the Mi'kmaq Nation of Mi'kma'ki.
The Wabanaki, people of the dawn with a legacy twelve thousand years long.
And I am honoured.
I am honoured with overpriced beer and shitty hotdogs.
by juiced up ball players and abusive running backs.
By packs of fans, packed into stands doing the tomahawk chop.
In 2013 a Philadelphia Eagles fan was photographed. Impaled on his staff, crass and crude was a mocked head of an Indigenous man
and I was honoured. In his grasp, a perfect pictorial of post-modern cultural appropriation and genocide. The public perception made perfectly clear.
The head of a dead Indian in one hand and in the other a beer.
Daughter of a survivor and keeper of my family's culture.
I listen to my elders and I know my teachings, my beliefs,
I stand tall against the culture thiefs, and time and time again I am told our leadership is not being disrespected by the KC chiefs because I am honoured.
We are just caricatures.
Mascots to amuse you,
Ridiculous parallels to draw to,
Like the realest Indian on the block Chief Wahoo,
Ancient mythical creatures entombed in lieu of respect, our confidence wrecked,
By bisected public scrutiny between judgement of too much sensitivity and contempt for perceived easy corruptibility and so I am honoured.
I'm saving my favourite for last.
The epitome of my righteous Indigenous wrath.
The Washington Professional Football team.
Whose name is the IV morphine to the politically correct beaten and battered ignorant majority;
A team name that is such an obvious racial slur.
A team name, that you'll have to concur, is literally colour blind.
Because when it's all done and said, I'm really more brown than I've ever been red.
A team name that alienates, isolates, racial perpetuates our inferior state-tus.
Whose trademark is no longer has basis,
because even American copyright officers know that it's racist.
A team name that views us with all with a narrowed minded sameness.
A team name that will never pass these lips
or cross my cutting tongue
Unless it is going to cut its supporters down by several rungs
because I am honoured
In reality, I am honoured by eagle feathers that were given to me upon the completion of my master's degree.
I am honoured by the hysterical laughter of my nephew sitting on my knee.
I am honoured by my father's 15 years of sobriety.
For a national inquiry and the right to marry a non-Native man without the world questioning my indigeneity.
But I am just one person, so:
Take me out to the ball game
Take me out to the crowd
I want my cultural pride back
But the world won't cut me some slack
And it's rigged rigged rigged for the home team
And know we're always to blame
Because it's privilege that makes all the rules
In the honour game.