DUKE REDBIRD, POET
Did I see a leaf fall from that tree?
Little leaf, I do not know your name yet I have seen you fall.
You did not fall like a stone from the sky
You did not swoop like a great hawk
You drifted and you sang a song
Your song is in my heart.
- Duke Redbird ©
My poetry comes from visions and knowledge gleaned from a lifetime toiling in fields between the sacred and the profane. We as an Indigenous People have been schooled in Roman-Greco tradition and Judeo-Christian values. Residential schools and government policy denied us the splendor of our own culture. I hope that through poetry I have helped to dispel a few of the myths created by the dominant culture that have contaminated our traditions over the years. I continue to season my poetry with some of the wisdom that the creator has seen fit to sprinkle on my life.
- Duke Redbird
Performing Spoken Word poetry in coffee houses and folk festivals during the 1960s I found that one of my most popular poems was called Old Woman. I performed this poem on a popular Country Music show called The Tommy Hunter Show in October 1970 and Anne Murray appeared on the same program. It was the first time an Indigenous Poet was featured on a Country Music program.
Of all the mentors and elders that I was fortunate enough to meet in my lifetime, the one person who had the most impact on my life and career was Chief Dan George.
Although he was a celebrated and famous actor who was nominated for an Academy Award and Golden Globe for his role in Little Big Man, he nevertheless took me under his wing. He was my mentor and elder and honoured me by reciting my poetry in a film produced by TVO called I Am The Redman.
The poet and polymath Duke Redbird, who recorded 1975’s mesmerising Silver River with singer-songwriter Shingoose, says mainstream Canadian culture denied indigenous people power and rights while appropriating and romanticising their heritage. “It was a curious anomaly,” he says pointedly. “The dominant culture wanted to embrace the things that we represented but they didn’t want to engage with us. I wanted to represent the First Nations view to the world because we had come out of very difficult times. I had gone through quite a brutal childhood at the hands of western European culture and I wanted to speak to that.” Redbird, who now works with schools to “decolonise” the curriculum, performed on the coffeehouse folk circuit and once lived in the same Toronto apartment building as Joni Mitchell. “I knew she was a very special person because she had that creative aura around her,” he says. “I met her before her career took off and we remained friends for all these years.”
Duke Redbird also features on Native North America. One of the compilation’s better-known names, he has had a remarkable career as a poet, painter, journalist, activist and actor. He believes the roots of rock lie in indigenous culture. “It’s American music. It was an indigenous music that was being sung for 30,000 years in North America. Then the settlers came and brought slaves. The slaves took African rhythms and put them together with North American Indian rhythms and those two created rock and roll.” Born in 1939 on the Saugeen First Nation reserve in Ontario, Redbird was raised in a residential school run by church missionaries. Their project, as one of his poems puts it, was “to kill the Indian in the child without regret.
Things have changed. But deeper problems remain. “It [Native American culture] is in the mainstream in certain areas, like art and music, but when it comes to access to real power or money, we are still trying to open those doors,” Redbird says. He argues that Native Americans have been airbrushed from history. “The Irish would never have got a potato if it wasn’t for native North Americans cultivating it. But do we get any press for that?” he says. “Not a bit! All we are saying is, ‘Hey guys give us some credit!’”