Whiskey Bullets: a Quest for Wholeness
Written by Admin in English -
Garry Gottfriedson has published four books previously: 100 Years of Contact (Secwepemc Cultural Education Society, 1990), In Honour of our Grandmothers: Imprints of Cultural Survival (Theytus Books, 1994), Glass Teepee (Thistledown Press, 2002), and Painted Pony (Partners in Publishing, 2005), a children’s book. His latest book is Whiskey Bullets: Cowboy and Indian heritage poems (Ronsdale Press, 2006). Five books by five different publishers may suggest indeed that the author has merit, for five different publishers thought it worthwhile to publish his writing. Or it may suggest that Gottfriedson is a bit of a publishers’ hot potato: that his writing may be controversial.
Whiskey Bullets does nothing to dispel either supposition. The writing is certainly excellent – even great, and the book touches on numerous sensitive topics to say the least: political ones like Indian land claims as well as historic and current grievances of native peoples and the treatment of minorities, social ones like drug addiction and suicide, and personal ones like anger, even hate. Although all of these issues are real and are all there, the book is life affirming, as Gottfriedson is grappling with these self-destructing forces in search of inner peace. We also sense a compromising reconciliation of the self to the world, as this book of sublime poetry is the work of a mature poet: an artist and an incisive intellect capable of doing justice to all the converging and diverging issues raised in this most complex and subtle book. An older and wiser word warrior is searching for inner peace and wholeness, yet without turning his back on the truth of his cause. The task is daunting; the odds are against him: the quest is heroic.
The task of a poet – if he is any good – is to lay bare his soul, to willingly expose his vulnerable self to others. This task is difficult enough for a supremely confident, outgoing individual well entrenched in the dominant culture. But for one of an uncertain minority, one potentially exposed to rejection and even ridicule on both sides – by both cowboys and Indians – is much more difficult still. Such a person is always the outsider. In bitter self irony Gottfriedson says in Art (54): “I am the cowboy artist / who gazes at Indian art.” He even feels alone in a crowd. He reads his poetry to audiences he feels no connection to, concluding in No names, blank faces (48): “surreal is poetry that lives / waiting for no names and blank faces.” In fact Gottfriedson not only feels odd among Indians because he is part white or odd among white people because he is part Indian, he also feels odd among working cowboys because he is an intellectual, and odd among intellectuals because he is a cowboy. These are the four worlds he moves in as he touchingly concludes:
Exposed skeletons I carry
& drag myself bent
into four worlds that love me
& hate me for who I am
Yet all I wanted was the same as what I gave (Dead loves, 65)
Indeed Whiskey Bullets (53), the title poem, is a metaphor for rejection:
Wilted flowers and whiskey bullets
are weapons and ugly realizations
that I will never
be good enough for you.
Nor does it help the cause of baring one’s soul when one feels lost oneself. In Surrender (86) the poet confesses:
I am the one
I write about
in the ice words
within my stone poems…
I am the one
too lost within myself
to be found in poetry
But nothing is as difficult as coming out when and where one feels one has no control. Gottfriedson has spent most of his life in situations where he was not in control, but the realization came home to him most keenly when he lost his eyesight for a week. In Week of Blindness (40) he concludes:
I know now that
panic is god’s verdict
and I have no control.
Perhaps it is a miracle that he expresses himself at all, for even his upbringing militates against it. In Cowboy Up (60) Gottfriedson writes:
The “cowboy’s code” is
mind your own business
never show pain
never allow the soul to scream
“I can’t take it”
I’ve never used
voice to utter
what lives within.
Indeed, Gottfriedson presents himself in person as shy, a guarded if not a withdrawn individual; he is not one to brag, to put himself in front of others if he can help it. His posture, his manners, his body language all says the same. He is probably correct: he “never used voice to utter what lives within.” Only his written work reveals his inner self. Even there, he hides behind several personas. Now a cowboy, now an Indian, now even the blind man – but most often as “Koyoti,” the legendary trickster prevalent in several first nations mythologies.
The book begins in the “Koyoti voice.” That Gottfriedson himself is Koyoti is not revealed in the book until some 22 pages later, when in typically subtle Gottfriedson fashion he suggests himself to be the embodiment of Koyoti, a present-day, living reincarnation of the legend. Witness the closing lines of Koyoti Moon Story (35):
Inside the Moon’s distance
Old Koyoti crooned for a young
man’s magical form to awaken
hairline cracks in dreams visible
but on the other side remember
Koyoti can turn himself into anything
The words of the poet are the words of Koyoti. The statement is delayed, perhaps to establish its credibility. For in the intervening 22 pages we hear “Koyoti” speak convincingly on behalf of his people enough times to know that the claim has merit. But already the opening poem leaves no question that Gottfriedson, like Koyoti, is wily.
Indeed – within its first eight lines – the stage is set for the fight. Koyoti Indian (13), the opening poem reveals the cat and mouse game the poet plays with authority. Gottfriedson begins in medias res:
in perfect English, Koyoti commentaries stalk
TV cameras, recycled newspapers & the National Inquirer
during prime time news hour me and Koyoti
crack open lies over Labrador tea you know
The poet speaks from behind a triple mask, hiding behind Coyoti, the third person narrative, and the façade of white civilization with his “perfect English” and “Labrador tea you know,” but “stalks” the cameras like Koyoti, and belittles the dominant newspapers as “recycled” – a subtle reference to syndicated newspapers. The National Inquirer being present further undercuts the press as sensation seeking, and hints that while the interview takes place in prime time, the press considers it an event of curiosity, rather than of substance. Yet the subject should be taken seriously. Koyoti certainly means business. From behind the screens a deadly strike is delivered: “me and Koyoti crack open lies.” (Another subtlety: Gottfriedson shares the credit while tying himself and Koyoti in the cause.) The lines continue:
old language does not die young
just me and Koyoti are Indians from far back
we speak the same subtle dialect
spiritless tongues wagging in air
The obvious contempt for the lying enemy, presumably “white civilization,” is balanced by self-irony, the feelings of powerlessness and futility: “spiritless tongues wagging in air.” Although the blow had been delivered during prime time news hour, exposing lies is not enough to end the lying.
In-between these pretenses stand the fulcrum of Gottfriedson’s claim of truth: “just me and Coyoti are Indians from far back.” If this is meant to say that only he and Koyoti have the right to be here, the claim is tenuous at best. History is full of invasions and dislocations of peoples, historic right be damned, and at least part of Gottfriedson himself is a recent arrival. So to bear weight, the fulcrum has to be bolstered front and back by supporting truths: the old language “does not die young:” it retains its accumulated history, and the poet speaks “the same subtle dialect” as Koyoti. This is a remarkable structure, suggesting a balanced presentation, thus subliminally supporting the verity claim of Gottfriedson’s forthcoming messages. The presentation promises to be fair. Whiskey Bullets is filled with such subtleties. Two lines later we are led to the depths of darkness of a tormented soul. By night the darkness returns and, away from the cameras, the poet is left to face the dark, depressing life of an individual belonging to a conquered, devastated nation, alone with its
deep dark places & dirty sounds breaking
loose from the bed long past supper.
The “bed” Gottfriedson has to lie in is his racially mixed self. Although his mother’s influence has nurtured in him a deep and true affinity with his native self, the cowboy influence is also strong. This dual heritage is an asset in that the poet can think like “a white man” (and hold his own in the white man’s world), and feel “like an Indian” (able to empathize and understand), and be a genuine part of both. Potentially, he is a bridge between the two, but has to be careful as he can become a lightning rod as well, and get burnt when the two are in conflict.
Gottfriedson’s life-long quest is to reconcile these two, too often warring, interests within himself peacefully. Brilliantly, the book itself is structured on the paradigm of cowboys and Indians getting together in the symbol of the only real interface between the two, the metaphorical rodeo. The rodeo is the fulcrum on which cowboys and Indians become fairly balanced, where the poet’s own sense of racially mixed self may be grounded unconditionally, perhaps the only place he may feel safely at home.
Gottfriedson himself defines the racial perspective and postulates the paradigm clearly in a prose poem Caucasian Young Men Cattle Rounder-uppers (Cowboys) and First Nations (Indians) (22):
“I really am a polite politically corrected mixed-race citizen of this great nation and mosaic of Canada…” Although it is said sarcastically, this is true. He is Canadian born and well educated, with an M. Ed. Degree from SFU, a man with opportunities to succeed academically both at home and abroad (indeed, he has taught at the university of Bologne in Italy), and “speaks perfect English.” So what’s his problem? The prose poem, in which he plays a history teacher as himself continues:
Halfbreeds… I really did mean those born of multicultural non-discriminating parents. I, myself am of mixed race descendants… so you see I have no ill bones whatsoever…The integration of both societies (one civilized the other savage) created the world of rodeo, these two dynamic and fascinating paradigms have for the past two hundred years co-inhabited charmingly.
The irony is hard to miss. This, not politically correct but politically “corrected” teacher has life experience as a “halfbreed” and presumably no charming nicety is going to cover the hurt society (likely both “white” and “native”) inflicts on members that are somehow different from the others. New immigrants have a similar experience: leaving their native lands they find themselves “between two seats sitting on the floor.” They do not yet belong to one nation and they no longer belong to the other. Even immigrants who have returned to their home countries complain of how their country has changed, how they can’t feel at home there any more. The crux of the matter is that like all creatures, man too is a territorial animal, and without a sense of firm attachment to his place he feels adrift, weakened, not in control. Being born “of multicultural, nondiscriminating parents” is a recipe for confused identity in their offspring. Yet this is only part of this poet’s problem.
A more hurtful problem for Gottfriedson is that at heart he is an Indian wannabe. His identification with Coyote speaks to that. So he appears to feel “soiled” by his unwelcome white blood, as it makes him a “dirty” Indian. Ironically, this is because he appears to have (had?) a wonderful native mother, who raised him as an Indian, instilling in him a love for the land, his native people, their culture and history. She would have wanted to have her son feel he had roots. On his website as on the cover of his Glass Teepee there is a wonderful picture of young Gottfriedson in complete Secwepemc regalia. Again, this has a positive side, and has no doubt widened Gottriedson’s world, ultimately providing him with insights into humanity and honing his own as few people can. But intellect and understanding is one thing; emotions run deeper. And there the poet finds the “deep dark places & dirty sounds breaking.” In a poem aptly titled An Identity Crisis (14), he allows to be called a host of derogatory names, yet he writes:
But never call me Indian
I call myself that!
& if you feel guilty when I say so
this is not about postcolonial rhetoric
it is about an identity crisis.
The identity crisis is emotional only; intellectually Gottfriedson is a poet of his first nation, with its attendant expectations and responsibilities. Speaking of himself in Fine Print (88), he spells these out clearly:
I keep you hidden
in cowboy and Indian poetry
between & beneath lines
in fine print
I am the keeper
of holy songs & awkward questions
like Koyoti, I shape words into things
The references to holy songs and awkward questions leave little doubt as for whom his poems are “beaded:” for his indigenous people. Translucency and subtlety are the ways of native cultures. Gottfriedson’s “Koyoti voice” keeps these native traditions alive. This is also the voice of maturity: things are forever “translucent,” not black and white. In any case, the preponderance of the Koyoti voice in W.B. versus the cowboy voice cannot be missed. Nor the pro-Indian stance Gottfriedson is taking.
But the stance is not static. To his everlasting credit, Gottfriedson comes down like an Old Testament prophet, castigating sin where he sees it. The poems trace an evolution in his position from semi-distant observations (Bars (15)), through activism (Sun Peaks Lies
(34)), to disillusionment (Joan’s poem (82)). In Bars (15) we read:
In the old days Indians stood outside
cowboy bars talking to themselves
then or now
because lies are louder
than the measurement of sound
What Gottfriedson calls lies are the white man’s history books and pretenses of superiority. Speaking to white authority in Victims (35) he spells these out:
The theology of self-acclaimed power…
is the perception of absolute identity…
beneath that scalp of yours
It is the pretense
that you are all that could be
lower than the sun
but higher than everyone else
As he points out:
the above has nothing
to do with belief systems
and everything to do with control
in the same way a rapist
conquers his/her victims
The source of Gottfriedson’s anger is revealed: because his identification with his native side is so strong, he feels raped himself, as his people’s land has been raped by the white man. To Gottfriedson this is not a historical problem, but an ongoing one. Identifying with his native side means accepting responsibility for them wherever they may be, and his sympathies extend south of the border. Witness his account of events there in Anna Mae Aquash (30) that happened in the seventies:
MicMac woman warrior 5’6″ black hair, black eyes
Bullet in back of head, hands sliced off at wrists
There is more
The brutality of the deed is matched by the brutality of the words meant to unsettle indifference:
Custer fucked his way into the 80-s.
Rose from the grave,
disguised himself as FBI and CIA
raping Indian women
hacking off hands,
filling Indian bodies with
lead sleeping in a man’s dream
a finger print in the mind,
and blood payment
There can be little doubt that Gottfriedson tries to live up to his responsibilities as a poet of his native peoples, wherever they are. He cannot change events, he has no control. But he can speak and record, and counter “the lies” and the liars with the only weapon he has: his words.
Nor are things much better north of the border. In Strep throat (33) he vexes:
promised good-faith makers
hand cramped by starvation sworn
a sack of flour, a cow, a treaty suit
exchange woodlands, prairie & mountains
for steep antagonism and acid love
The words burn.
As we have seen, the poems record Gottfriedson the observer, the recorder, then the involved activist as his position evolves. He even tries black humor. In Fly spray (20)
He describes an Indian, observing a fly land on his drying meat rack “turning brown labor of carcass talk into / decomposition.”
Damn! Not again! He thinks
skyscrapers of maggots
taking over Indian possessions
But Koyoti warns:
Call it the law of nature
if you must
the cupboard is full of
The evolution of Gottfriedson’s views continues, as his activism seems to bring about disillusionment with militant activism and native leadership alike. In Sun Peaks Lies (34), a local protest centered about natives trying to block an extension of the development of the Sun Peaks Ski Resort where Gottfriedson took part as a negotiator,
attempts to straighten out
coiling and smoldering
in lands claims questions
fail, as Koyoti loses support.
“Just another cover-up,”
Secwepemc women sneer
vowing to sing
the buffalo back to life.
The women are supported by an itinerant militant group, lead by a native known as Wolverine. Continues Gottfriedsen:
Then buffalo came
running to the rescue
and so did Wolverine
a red-neck ball cap
And now you know the rest of the story…
The rest of the story was that a large hotel being built was mysteriously burned to the ground but the expansion carried on. Wolverine, although an Indian, played the role of the cap he wore. Koyoti was betrayed. Gottfriedson is critical of litigation as well, where
across the table sit
a mob of metrosexual Indian lawyers
promising the fight and retrieval
of the give-away lands Trutch
gluttonous white settlers…
and he waited for the starvation of my sisters, like Joan.
Joan’s poem (81)
Gottfriedson speaks as a knowledgeable historian, telling the story in detail, countering “the lies of the history books.” His moral indignation is evident, yet he saves his worst wrath for the locals. Gottfriedson’s criticism of the local leadership is scathing. In Rocking Chair (28), the “asshole” in the chief’s chair wants to put off dealing with issues to future generations, but issues must be dealt with now, says the poet, for
by then, no one will remember
what it means to be Secwepemc.
Another native leader is described in Backstabbing (32) as covering up “her eternal stupidity like a habit.”
The political situation is hurtful, maddening, exhausting. To be closely involved is to become disillusioned, angered and burnt out in the end. Remarkably, Gottfriedson keeps the faith and synthesizes at least a theoretical way to the solution. We have to find a way to our common humanity. Speaking to himself in Cowboys and Indians (66) he acknowledges:
what you did not know
was that cowboys and Indians
are the same.
Gottfriedson is not Solomon. He does not go as far as to say that the victimizer is also a victim. But he has now clarified the problem, and does offer some insights Solomon himself may envy. In the already quoted Victims, speaking to the white man, he explains how the problem is perpetuated and postulates his vision:
The indoctrination is the buy-in
for your theories are your truth
when in fact truth is a communal concept
both tribal and ranchland alike
that offers peace and liberation
The poem concludes with a coup de grace that is at once brilliant, beautiful, and rings true like a bell:
if you should lose your forsaken authority,
or not have it to begin with,
influence or individuality
might mean – freedom.
Alas, we are not there yet. Gottfriedson himself does not seem to notice that even as he reconciles cowboys and Indians in his world, he himself excludes others that may be included, that when he blames “the white man,” for instance, he may be over-generalizing. We cannot blame him. He has to live the life of a disenfranchised minority, and run daily into the devastation caused by those “others” whose every cultural attribute seems suspect to him. For Gottfriedson sees white society as governed by questionable values. For instance, consider his stance on feminists who sport “a whip pouting femininity but lashing from a fake Adam’s apple” (Bully, 25) and on feminism in Feminist thought (27)
I am man, through and through,
In love with my practical self,
Analytical and koyoti-conniving,
I can never surrender
To lipstick & pantyhose & feminist thought.
Or consider his observations on religion expressed in Saturday Night in Church (17)
Where people of the congregation are singing Amazing grace accompanied by a guitar,
where eager sinners waited
to confess churchgoer lies.
They believed in the song
dropping hats to the floor
& no one questioning it.
Even Science is suspect. “Scientific methodology does / not necessarily mean / saving the environment,” he writes in Moral Principles (24) and concludes:
Indian and cowboy
honor their Mother
now where does science
fit into that?
The historic problems of native peoples continue as current problems. The horrible statistics on native people on the reservations is well known: overcrowded housing and domestic violence, low life expectancy, high rates of alcohol and drug abuse, of suicide – the list goes on. But to Gottfriedson this is more than a statistic: this is life. One of his own children is suicidal, and one of the poems, Icy Death (59) describes Gottfriedson’s desperate rescue of him from the frozen river. Yet one cannot read his numerous poems addressed to son Horsechild and not know that he is a loving father. Understandably, he feels helpless, disenfranchised and angry. He carries his anger as a burden. And he carries the bodies of the dead decimated by aids to the grave, knowing he could be next: In Stone Prayer (79) he writes:
I climb the jagged mountains
weighed down with a black burden
spewing bitter curses
at the tyrant falling
in love with my brothers and sisters
I will carry your brittle, wilted wreath of skin
clinging racked bones
singing heaven’s Good-Bye Song
to the waiting grave once more
then I will look death in the eye
& wait my turn.
In Trapped (26), the accumulated anger and hatred boils over. He writes of “eyes that melt hate,” of “hatred petrified,” of
at the edge of the skin redness trapped
in the turmoil earthquake trembling
from the crown to the roots and back again
blocking every sound of reason, compassion & justice
In this emotional state peace is brought on only by exhaustion. The poem ends with the devastating lines:
in the aftermath of contempt
charged with thousands of volts
of electrical rage waiting to give birth
Statistics may tell a horrible story, but it is poetry that burns the words on the mind.
In this situation how does love survive? Often, it does not. Witness some lines from Broken glass (71):
words & edges
Warm & salty
passes twisted lips
to kiss historic wounds
reopened to air
& love dies
Destructive anger directed at the self results in suicide; directed at others, it results in violence. Even if the violence is only verbal, the result is that goodness itself falls victim. Here is Gottfriedson’s vivid and all too credible description of what may be a typical scene from A Cowgirl’s wrath of words (72).
out of that head smashed-in
toothless cowgirl mouth
is volcanic mass
and fiery energy
… erupting a wrath
of words meant
to burn to ash
In this world survival is a major accomplishment, and Maslow’s self-actualization means putting together the shattered pieces of the self in a puzzle where most pieces do not fit, some have been lost, and others were never there. It seems to have taken a very bright and very talented individual most of his life to accomplish this – and then he needed help.
Love and humanity along with a sense of normalcy emanate from the first real love poem of the book in Hope (84)
Somewhere in my drive past Hope
my mind travels back to you and I am moved
I imagine clean ocean scents
surrounding you, soft voice whispering
night song to tame this
Peacefully I am assured
that those travels to distant planets
are in dreams of Hope
for you – for me.
The identity of the woman is never revealed, but we know that she is for real from another poem, Surface (90). It consists of five stanzas, each of which begins with “I had never known, that…” We know we are close to Gottfriedson’s heart as the fabric of the poem is woven through with magical native imagery similar to those written to Horsechild. He speaks of the loved one’s “forests of eyes,” of being turned by her love touch into “shimmering moonlit waves grass dancing,” of “the last starlight at daybreak / as if the act were a Red Stone Prayer,” the last stanza being the most touching:
I had never known
that another’s act of benevolence
was pure and sincere & that you
could draw my soul
to the surface of daylight.
True love cures all? Maybe not, but if the last poem of the book is any indication, it certainly helps a lot. The poet of Cowboy fire (64) is on fire. Cowboy and Indian unite as one. The paradigm Rodeo is on. “Kicking air / under the skin the mind carves / courage when the chute gate pops.” Bitterness and loneliness are gone; disappointments are a thing of the past: the self is whole, ready to take on the world once more. That last poem of the book, called Shape-shift (93), shifts the shape of everything. The poem is sheer euphoria, “undergoing / white and red rhythm:”
wet love on silk sheets
cowboy grassland’s song
with delight at dawn’s
ochre clouds on sky
bliss on beautiful black rez
detonation of cowboy & Indian love
once & for all
Oh cowboy! Oh Indian! And yes – oh if only life were like love!
Kamloops, May 15, 2007