A Neyhihaw artist and author is promoting a book he released in September about his childhood memories as an Indigenous man growing up in Prince Albert and rural Saskatchewan.
Childhood Thoughts and Water is a collection of freelance and beat poetry, spoken word, as well as free verse and lyrical poetry, by John McDonald.
McDonald was born and raised in the West Flat for the first 14 years of his life. He is also a member of Muskeg Lake Cree Nation. His parents were residential school survivors, and McDonald grew up in the Prince Albert Indian Student Residence from 1984 to 1989.
“There was no real connection to my culture, my language, nothing. It wasn’t until I was in my teens where I first had an opportunity to start learning to speak Cree again, start learning what the significance of sweetgrass is, what the significance of going to an elder is,” McDonald said.
McDonald addresses the experience of reconnecting with his culture in the book. In one poem, he speaks about his experience returning to the red road, a spiritual journey of reconnecting with the traditional way of life for Indigenous people, McDonald said. In his own personal journey he had many elders along the way who he sought counsel with, and who taught him how and where to pick sweetgrass.
McDonald said his time as a student at Won Ska Cultural School and with Cree teacher Victor Thunderchild at Carlton Comprehensive High School played a part in him relearning his language.
“That really brought everything to forefront and it started me on the path of sobriety, it started me on the path of clean living, of reconnecting with my culture and healing the wounds of colonization of being forced into Christianity, being forced into a way of life that was not our traditional way and so it was those experiences that started me on that path,” McDonald said.
The title of the book comes from a song lyric by the band Breach of Trust. McDonald is close friends with the lead singer, Marty Ballentyne, who allowed him to use the lyric as his book title.
“It was something that always resonated with me, the line ‘childhood thoughts and water,’ because from the book talking about my memories of childhood, connected with these images of rain, of lakes, of my happy place being Waskesiu and Prince Albert National Park.”
The subjects of McDonald’s poetry are also about his memories as a child.
“When you grow up in an apartment you don’t realize what the sound of rain on a roof does, what it’s like to hear coyotes howling in the middle of the night.”
He also addresses what it’s like to live as Indigenous man in rural Saskatchewan.
“Where in Saskatchewan where we’re still forever living with what happened to Colten Boushie and the racism that still exists in this province and in this country and me being an Indigenous person in rural Saskatchewan surrounded by the ripples of that,” McDonald said.
McDonald would like to see the book included in school curriculum. He said his first book, The Glass Lodge, included dark subject matter and it was something he kept in mind while editing Childhood Thoughts and Water. He believes in particular high school students might resonate with his writing so it would be important to him if young people could learn from his work. He says he doesn’t want to be known as a role model, a term he isn’t a fan of, but rather a catalyst of change.
“I mention this in the book – that it has this connotation of these little cookie cutter versions of a person running around, I say in the book I’d rather be thought of as the catalyst for change more than somebody’s ideal to be held up to.”
With the COVID-19 pandemic going on, McDonald is looking at creative ways of promoting his new book such as producing a video. He estimates he received 200 rejection letters before BookLand Press in Markham, Ont. picked it up.
Childhood Thoughts and Water can be purchased at McNally Robinson, Indigo, or on Amazon.