Language, Analysis

piyêsiwak wâhkôhtowin/thunderbird’s kinship

moe clark

Jan 18, 2024

Songs serve an intrinsic role in ceremonies. From Sundance and Sweat Lodge to Round Dance and ancestral feasts, they assist in amplifying states of consciousness and collective cohesion through the vibrations conjured in the many layers of melody, rhythm, and breath. Through songs, spiritual visions and shape-shifting embodiments can be achieved, while opening doorways for powerful healing and messages to be received. 

As is the case with dreams, and the visiting pawâkanak or “dream spirit helpers” who come to share teachings imbued with layers of power and meaning, songs are necessary tools to assist in transmission. Cree artist and public figure Art Napoleon explains, 

Pawâtamowin is a process that can transport dreamers into another dimension of space and time. These experiences can be so vivid that detailed instructions, protocols, and even entire songs are passed on to the dreamers in such a way that this information is remembered upon awakening.

A person stands in the middle of a stage with a drum in their hand and purple and yellow lights illuminating them.

Live performance of song at First Peoples' Festival, Tio'tiake (Montreal), Aug 2023. photo by: Cory Hunlin.

As a 2S musician and vocalist, I consistently seek ways to use music as a resurgent practice for reclaiming my ancestral languages and refusing continual acts of erasure that so many Métis relatives fought to survive. Therefore, I propose the creation of a dream song as a device used to accompany the dreamer into, through, and out of dreams. And from this place, the activated teachings affirm a continuance of the most powerful, protective, shape-shifting, and non-binary futurities out there; all gifts of piyêsiwak wâhkôtowin/thunderbird’s kinship.

Inspired by 2S Métis/Nishnaabe writer Kai Pyle and their work which conceptualizes kinship across timelines of 2S ancestors, I propose the dream song as a meeting place for transtemporal kinship. According to Pyle, “transtemporal kinship” refers to the “ability of transgender and Two-Spirit Indigenous people to establish kin relations across time, with both ancestors and descendants.

Drawing from the aforementioned concept as well as the practice of acknowledging seven generations of ancestors with whom we hold both responsibilities to and inheritances from, I highlight the concept of transtemporal kinship in everything that is shared, transmitted and considered part of the creative continuum in this future world. 

As a transformational shift, I propose the concept of transdimensional kinship as an ongoing reciprocity with human relatives as well as our “beyond-human” kin. Examples of these are the vital kinships we have with plant medicines, trees, bodies of water, and animals. From a cosmological perspective, the dream song investigates transdimensional kinship with piyêsiwak (thunderbirds), and the magical gifts and spiritual powers they continually bestow upon us. These gifts are reminders that 2S people are powerful shape-shifters, belonging in many different embodiments of ourselves and that relationships with beyond human kin can support and sustain us.

A singer with their hand raised on a stage with purple lights holding a microphone.

Live performance of song at 2Spirit Opening Event, Pride Montréal, Aug 2023. photo by: Cory Hunlin.

How can nêhiyawêwin (Plains Cree language) be sung into being as a generative transmission for far into the future generations? And to further this: how can song encode timeless teachings of interrelatedness, spiritual health, and protection, while providing a refuge for connecting to transtemporal kinship and transdimensional kinship? Cree scholar Kathy Walker describes the weaving together of words as bundles, “an effective technique for furthering a holistic balance among narratives because it can connect linguistic, rhetorical, spiritual and community, kinship-based contexts.

Not only do these relational word bundles bring together multiple layers of narrative meaning that are intellectually understood, once they are sung or spoken, they offer resonant sites of safety for performer, listener, and their diverse kinships, to embody their ever-evolving interconnectedness. As cultural somatics practitioner Resmaa Menakem speaks about practices of song used for calming the nervous system in the body, he recalls his grandmother humming melodies as a means to “soothe that sense of impending disaster. Ultimately, I seek to create a song to unlock the always alive inside us memories of our unwounded ancestors in a caring and regenerative continuance.

Once they are sung or spoken, they offer resonant sites of safety for performer, listener, and their diverse kinships, to embody their ever-evolving interconnectedness.

Weaving of Nêhiyawêwin (Plains Cree language) into a dream song can highlight vital kinships with piyêsiwak, their creation story, and their relationship to 2Spirit (2S) kin. Grounded in a 2S Métis/ Nêhiyaw tâpisinowin (Métis/Cree worldview), I draw inspiration from 2S Cree Elder Mary Wilson’s oral telling of thunderbirds' ascent into skyworld. I use song to demonstrate how this story mirrors the gifts and roles that 2S people embody as shape-shifters, protectors, and guardians of doorways between realms, while refusing hetero-patriarchal violence and re-centring 2S creative continuance as sites of vibrant futurity.

Drawing from tipi pole teachings and core values in our Métis/ Nêhiyaw tâpisinowin, I distill the 2Spirit piyêsiwak creation story into three core teachings: kitamakihitowin (empathy), wâhkôhtowin (extended kinship) and kiskisiwin (remembering). These three values “function as multiple centers radiating outward in relationship to create webs of narrative. I then assemble the most complex yet essential images in a poetic synthesis to assist in the interpolation of the piyêsiwak creation story, and to bring it into a context of futurity. This process of gathering and distilling the word bundle is akin to gathering medicines and taking proper care of them before ceremony. There are intentional steps of prayer, making offerings, cleaning, sorting, wrapping, and braiding throughout.

I offer protocol to two Cree knowledge keepers and fluent nêhiyawêwin speakers, Charlotte Ross and Joseph Naytowhow, and we begin refining the itwêwina (words) to carry the meaning forward. Through a process of visiting and revisiting together with the word bundle, we adapt my proposal into song lyrics:

piyêsiwak wâhkôhtowin/thunderbird’s kinship

mah! kipehtawâwak-cî/ listen, can you hear them? 

kihci-piyêsiwak matwê-mâtow/ great thunderbirds start to cry loudly

kâ-kitamâkihitok/ always have empathy for one another

matwê-ohpahoyiwa/ they start to fly up

kimiyikonawak kimiwanêyâpi-wâwi/ they gave us all a rainbow egg

mah! kinowâpahta/ all of you look, look

ana âmow-piyêsîs/ that hummingbird over there

ê-kaskiyitât/ she is able

ta-âsêhi-pimihât/ to fly backwards

ta-kiskisîhitok/ to help us remember

wâhkôhtowin kihci ihtakwan/ kinship is sacred

The song's original title, “micimiwâci-wâhkôhtowin,” loosely translates to “timeless kinship” as a way of referencing ongoing kinship and accountability we have to supernatural entities and to the dynamic cycles of life and death (or more accurately, departure to spirit realm). While working with Naytowhow on the translation, he laughs, “is this Camp Cree?”—suggesting this is not a commonly used expression. After reiterating the ideas I want to convey, he proposes, “wâhkôhtowin kihci ihtakwan,” the way the old people use to say, “kinship is sacred. Immediately the language aligns with how the ancestors would have spoken, while being re-imagined in a context of future world making. Quoting Métis writer Cherie Dimaline, “The key doesn’t have to be old, the language already is. In this way, old words create new worlds.

A group of tipis in a wooded setting during sunset.

Tipis and night sky from 2Spirit sundance. Courtesy the author.

I often refer to song as my first language. I chose to learn and integrate nêhiyawêwin in my personal and creative life as a stepping stone toward further embodying Michif, a sophisticated blend of nêhiyawêwin and French; the language of the Métis. This journey is ongoing and involves intergenerational exchange, practices that engage my body and territories of land, and ceremonial offerings that are made to acknowledge these relationships. In my future imaginary, I dream that survival is grounded on one’s ability to sing and dream in nêhiyawêwin, and by so-doing, embody cultural knowledge and awaken one’s role as a sovereign participant in this future realm. As Dimaline describes in her book The Marrow Thieves

She sang. She sang with volume and pitch and a heartbreaking wail that echoed through her relatives’ bones, rattling them in the ground under the school itself. Wave after wave, changing her heartbeat to drum, morphing her singular voice to many, pulling every dream from her own marrow and into her song. And there were words: words in the language that the conductor couldn’t process, words the Cardinals couldn’t bear, words the wires couldn’t transfer. As it turns out, every dream Minerva had ever dreamed was in the language. It was her gift, her secret, her plan.

The creation of a future dream song is an active refusal and turning away from patriarchal, hetero-normative and colonial systems, which are all predicated on the on-going separation, ownership, and destruction of okâwîmâwaskiy (Mother Earth) and Indigenous sovereignty. As Hawaiian writer and scholar Bryan Kuwada states, “we are interested in the ways in which refusals can also be forms of futurity” and more specifically, “practices of future-making that often disrupt the linearity of Western liberal-democratic understandings of temporality. By refusing these linear and binary modes of thinking, it becomes possible to sing open sovereign sites of futurity that animate the flux and fluidity of existence. 

1

Napoleon, Art. Key terms and concepts for exploring Nîhiyaw tâpisinowin the Cree worldview. (Master’s thesis, University of Victoria. Victoria, Canada.) 2014. 92.

2

Pyle, Kai. "Naming and claiming: Recovering Ojibwe and Plains Cree two-spirit language." TSQ Transgender Studies Quarterly, 5(4). 2018. 574-588.

3

Ibid.

4

Walker, Kathy. Okâwîmâwaskiy: Regenerating a wholistic ethics. (PhD Dissertation, University of British Columbia. Vancouver, Canada). 2021, 183.

5

Menakem, Resmaa. My grandmother’s hands: Racialized trauma and the pathways to mending our hearts and bodies. Central Recovery Press (CRP). 2017, 137.

6

Walker, 183.

7

Personal communication, April 10, 2022.

8

Dimaline, Cherie. The Marrow Thieves. Cormorant Books. 2017. 227.

9

Ibid, 172-173.

10

Kuwada, Bryan. "We live in the future. Come join us." Ke Kaupu Hehi Ale. 2015.

âpihtawikosisâniskwêw (Métis/mixed-settler) multidisciplinary artist moe clark is a 2Spirit singing thunderbird. She works across disciplines of vocal improvisation, sound design, land-based oskapêwis support, and performance creation, to create work that centers embodied knowledge, 2Spirit Indigenous resurgence, and creative kinship. Originally from the prairies in Treaty 7, clark has resided as a guest in Tio'tiá:ke/Mooniyang/Montréal for more than a decade. As a composer, clark's music and voice have appeared in documentaries, films, theatre and dance performances alike. Her last solo album “Within” toured across North America and her collaborative video poem “nitahkôtân” won best Indigenous language music video at the ImagiNative film festival. www.moeclark.ca

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