Renewing Images: Mihku Paul Interview

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
Interviewed by Lisa Panepinto
 

Mihku Paul is a Poet, Writer and Visual Artist. She holds a BA in Human Development and Communication and an MFA in Creative Writing from Stonecoast. Her poetry has been in various journals, both print and online.  Mihku is an enrolled member of Kingsclear First Nations, N.B. Canada. She is presently teaching creative writing at the Maine Women Writers Collection at the University of New England.

Paul’s multi-media installation, “Look Twice: The Waponahki in Image & Verse,” went on exhibit in October 2009 at the Abbe Museum in Bar Harbor, Maine.  The exhibit has since been at the Glickman Library at the University of Southern Maine.

Paul’s book of poetry 20th Century PowWow Playland was just released through Greenfield Review Press.  This is a powerful book of visionary heights, available here.

 

Her Own Kind
 
Sunset, sentinels bear witness:
pine and birch, spruce and cedar.
 
She slides, belly curled on warm granite,
uncoiling flesh along the new moon’s arc.
 
This woman slips her skin,
leaves her old shape behind.
 
Take this body, earthbound,
craving shelter, her own kind.
 
She runs, four-footed in autumn’s coat,
furred and restless, sharp of tooth.
 
This woman strokes the guard hairs,
golden softness underneath.
 
Take this song, howling melody, music for stars.
Fire leaps from her throat, ash-whispered prayer.
 
She rises, brilliant flame, arms out-stretched.
Feathers pierce her fingertips.
 
This woman spreads her wings, climbs into sky,
a thunderbird in flight.
 
Take this vessel, sun-touched, tricked by nature.
Hovering chimera, floating like red dust.
 
This woman falls to earth, changing,
changing again.
 
-Mihku Paul, from 20th Century PowWow Playland
 
 

The following interview took place on March 24, 2012 at Paul’s home in Portland, Maine.

 

Interviewer: Can you talk about where you grew up?

 

Paul: I grew up in Old Town.  My mother was born in Houlton, which is where the Houlton Band of Maliseets are, and then she moved to Old Town.  My granddad remarried and he was married to a Penobscot woman on Indian Island, so that’s where I spent a lot of my childhood.  I’ve got cousins there and several of my relatives are buried there, including Grammy Paul.  There were four of us, and I’m the only one in my family who made it through high school.

 

I was my mother’s youngest child, and I think she viewed this as the last opportunity that my grandfather might have to pass on his cultural knowledge.  He was very traditional; he was a guide and great on all types of water with any kind of watercraft, and he hunted and trapped.  He took me along with him when I was a child, and my mother would take me out of school in town for days at a time.  I would go back with my little note, and the note would say she was on the river the last few days because it’s fiddlehead season and she was fiddleheading, or what have you.  My mother would say, her grandfather is teaching her, and that was that.  I got some strange looks and a lot of attitude from the teachers at times, they were non-native teachers, but I was never busted for truancy.  My grades were always really good, so I flew through school.  I started school a year late and I finished school a year early.

 

With my short story collection, while it’s fiction, the stories are an outgrowth of my experience growing up in a small town in Maine where there’s a reservation and tensions between the Native community and the town.  Old Town also has a distinctive Franco community, because there were textile mills along the town after the logging industry moved elsewhere, and they used the waterpower.  Our town was unique in that sense, and the stories that I wrote for the Water Road are portraits of the way those three distinct communities interacted with each other, in good ways and not so good ways.  I wrote the work because I felt like I want those stories out there, because nobody ever told them.

 

Interviewer: Did you feel alienated, or did you have enough of a group of people to support you?

 

Paul: I felt alienated, absolutely.  We lived at a dead end street at the bottom of a great big hill in town.  My mom didn’t want to live on the reserve because at that time, forty or more years ago, it was tough to live on the reservation.  The programs that are in place now, the infrastructure and housing, weren’t there, much of that came after the civil rights movement of the sixties.  My mother felt it was better to be in town.  Even though we lived in town, we lived in an extremely poor neighborhood.  I spent a lot of time on the reservation, so within my own group, things were good, but it was difficult when I went outside of that, like in public school.  I didn’t fit in, and I wasn’t the only one who didn’t fit in, other Native kids had to go to school too, and we got picked on.  I even got picked on by some Native kids because I’m so light, but once they got to know me and knew who I was, everybody knew my granddad and I was there all the time, I was able to get accepted.

 

It was a different environment back then. After the 1980 lands claims, where the tribe proved that there were treaty issues and that the federal government owed the tribes a lot of money and land, it gave some of the tribes, mainly Passamaquoddys and Penobscots, some capital in order to improve conditions among the communities.  There were many people who moved back who had left years before because they were looking for jobs.  After 1980 we had an influx of people who were Native, but the kids had essentially spent the first halves of their lives elsewhere because their parents moved away for opportunities.  So that created a shift and change as well in the community.

 

There are incidents from growing up that I incorporated into stories: the reservation is an island and the Penobscot River splits and flows around it.  Across one side is Milford and that’s where it’s more shallow and rocky, but up until July, the water’s deep enough, it’s easy to canoe across.  The Native kids on Indian Island and the white kids in Milford would taunt each other from their side of the river, and sometimes the white boys would take their outboard and come across and they’d have a fight, and the Indian boys would canoe over and they’d have a fist fight and paddle back to the reserve.  Now there are laws in place where when Native communities have sovereignty, they can have their own court system dealing with most legal issues except for felonies, but back then when I was little, nobody ever came over to do anything about it because it was just a split lip and a black eye.  They were afraid, especially during the civil rights movement; you couldn’t get a cab onto the reservation.  That was during AIM and everything, somebody took a piece of plywood, it might have been 1968 or ’69, and hand-painted something, “AIM” or “white people stay out,” so the town taxi wouldn’t cross the bridge; they were afraid to go over there.  It was a very intense time, even in a small town up here.

 

I enjoyed school up to a point because it was stimulating to me, and I liked the opportunities to do art, but a lot of the times I was bored silly in school and I got hassled, and I wasn’t the only person who did.  My brother’s dad is Haitian and he was dark skinned.  He was the only black child in that school system at the time, he went through the Old Town school system all alone, and it was very tough.  I’m sure that it was hard for the other Native kids in town, because it wasn’t just a matter of people giving you a dirty look, it was a lot of friction.  Like I said, the high school boys would beat each other up, people spit on you on the school bus, all that.

 

Interviewer: The whole manuscript of 20th Century PowWow Playland feels like protest against colonization and oppression?

 

Paul: I didn’t write the poems necessarily with the goal of them being subversive or political or resistant but it came out that way very naturally, because I was writing about my own experience.  I think that to be a mixed-blood person and to be Native is to be political; you can’t get around.  I write about other things, science fiction, but the poetry is an outgrowth of my own identity and experience and because of who I am, then it’s political, because of my history and my origins.

 

Interviewer: Can you talk about your work as an educator around LD291: An Act to Require Teaching of Maine Native American History and Culture in Maine’s Schools?

 

Paul: I’ve been doing that for at least fifteen years.  What I’ve found is that when I presented in schools, the first thing teachers said is, can’t you just come and bring your baskets and talk Indian or tell a legend or something?  I’d say, please, what I need to do first is meet with the kids to break the ice, we need to become connected.  So I began with a circle discussion time where I would introduce who I was and talk about what we were going to do together.  It was also a chance for me to hear where they were at in terms of their awareness.  Even in the twenty-first century, I say to them, what do you know about Indians?  “They shoot bow and arrows, they don’t wear any clothes,” “I watched the Indian in the Cupboard movie” [laughs].  I think that’s a real problem, I think that should be an embarrassment to the state of Maine.  Bless Donna Loring and the other people who have done so much work towards getting LD291 passed.  Things have improved somewhat in the last three to five years but there’s so much work to be done.

 

This past year I was invited to be a guest artist in the Portland schools and we met first and talked about the differences between Native teaching paradigms and Western teaching paradigms.  Research nationally shows that across the country Native students begin having trouble in school.  While there are many reasons for that, the kids are getting turned off in school in large part because of the way they’re being taught.  The Native kids can’t relate, they’ve got home, they’ve got the reservation environment, the way they’re taught there, and then they go to this box and sit in a straight line in a box all day and someone talks at them and says write this down, now repeat what I just told you to write down.  That’s not how most Native cultures teach.  The Many Hands Project was a way of giving students in public schools here in Portland the experience of doing a collaborative project that they were guided through using Native teaching paradigms; the kids particular strengths as individuals were looked at.

 

I think if I can get one kid in the fifth grade to realize that there is a great deal of complexity – there’s a rich cultural history and there is also an extremely brutal political and social history, that is part of what it means to be a Native person – if I can get them to remember that, then that’s something.

 

Interviewer: Could you talk about your Look Twice exhibit of writing and art?

 

Paul: It was an opportunity to create social change, and that’s part of the reason that I did it.

 

I used Kant for some of the underpinnings of Look Twice.  One of the things that Kant says about truth, truth as in honesty, is that even when it’s painful or difficult, it’s imperative to have honesty between people, that lying is absolutely awful because when you lie to someone you’re depriving them of a response to that information or that situation or event, you’re depriving them of the opportunity to respond to it in an authentic and an accurate way.  Lying to someone robs them of their humanity and their opportunity to be their best selves, because they’re responding to an inaccuracy.  I was using that idea around the Look Twice show because people have very fixed, strange notions about what it means to be a Native person.  In effect they have been lied to for hundreds of years.  So by giving them poems that I think more clearly reflect the now for Native people in Maine, along with photographs that sometimes they’re accurate and sometimes they’re not, it creates disequilibrium.  It creates internal tensions, and that’s the opportunity for someone to change their attitude.  They can’t change their attitude simply by looking at something; the best opportunity to change someone’s interior landscape is to engage them in a multi-sensory way.

 

There was art all around like a river, because we’re a river culture people. There were circular medicine wheels that I create that are really colorful and they also have symbolism, so there’s pattern there and color and repetition and that has an effect on the brain, and also the symbolism can end up engaging people’s thought processes.  So they have the archival images, and the poetry, and then this almost purely visual experience that acts on the brain, so that’s what I was trying to do.

 

Interviewer: Your poems refer to the false education you got about your culture and US history, like the Columbus discovered America story, can you talk about when you first started challenging those lies?

 

Paul: When Dee Brown came out with Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee my mother gave it to me and I read it.  I was born in ’58, I think I was about twelve or so, and my mother was like that, she hands me this book that’s like three inches thick.  I read anyway as a child, I read everything I could get my hands on.  It was a little beyond me, but it was also very powerful and effective, so I remember that being sort of the beginning of that place where I started to get an awareness of the political landscape and what that meant.

 

I went to another school for a year, Helen Hunt, which was in a middle class community closer in town, not really on the outskirts where we had lived.  I started getting hassled by kids in sixth grade there, and I got really angry.  My mother used to make extra money by doing a lot with leather, she made these great fringed-vests and did hand sewing, and she had a beautiful deerskin dress that she had made.  There was no reason for doing this, one day I just begged her to let me wear it to school.  So I wore it to school.  It was my way of saying, how do you like me now [laughs].  In the eyes of my classmates, that was probably one of the strangest things that I had ever done.  I told everybody my mom had made it; I just felt like I wanted to do it and had to do it.

 

I was still spending a lot of time with my granddad, and I stopped being silent about our family and who I was.  I talked about it more freely.  Then as a freshmen at college, I got a little bit more outspoken about it, this was like 1977-78, so that civil rights environment was still there.  That was when I became aware that I was an object, that even though I was at a college setting and I’d share my background with people, I realized people were looking at me, they weren’t interacting with me.  Not everyone.  When I was eighteen, nineteen, I started realizing, maybe they’re not spitting at me, they’re not calling me a squaw or a nigger lover or whatever, but people are still looking at me as this thing, so that was a little bit hard.

 

Finishing my undergraduate work was when I really began to speak out more on issues.  I started doing committee work, I felt supported in a university community in speaking out about issues of diversity and about who I was.  That was about the time too that I started doing more consulting in the schools, and I started the curriculum enrichment.

 

Interviewer: Weren’t you involved with IRATE in the nineties?

 

Paul: Yes; here was the situation, we were the Native American Student Association, we were trying very hard to be seen, and we were struggling. We saw what the Native kids were up against.  I imagine college is hard for anyone, but you take a Native person – I already told you about the teaching paradigms and the racism – you pluck them out of this community in which the connectivity between people and the life-ways are so established culturally, then you’ve plucked them out of that environment and put them in this other one, it’s very alien, and it’s hard to endure.  It’s very typical of Native people to take a number of years to get an undergraduate degree.  We were seeing Native students who were having meltdowns, suicidal, couldn’t stay in school, left school, they weren’t getting the support they needed through this.  You’re thinking, there are all those people, everybody else, and then there’s me.  You feel like an outsider.  Then they’re saying, don’t you know how it works, here’s the drill, get this paper done, bring that paper over there, speak to that person, do that.  There was no one to help coordinate that, which was very daunting.

 

Esther Altvater Attean was in the Old Town area.  Her and her mother-in-law Rene Attean formed an organization called Indigenous Resistance Against Tribal Extinction, and they knew that we were having trouble down here on this campus.  We found out that the international students numbered fewer than the Native students at the campus, but the international students had their own office, they had a coordinator, they had an admin, we had nothing!  And so we said to the President of the University, we’d like to talk about this because this is something that is needed.  All we said was we want to meet, will you meet with us.  He wouldn’t respond, he ignored us!  So then we got IRATE, and we got Kathy McInnis who was an organizer and activist, she’s disabled, she did a lot around ADA and accessibility, she knew the drills.  We brought her in and she said, here’s what you have to do.  We drafted the letter, made a request for a meeting and we said if you don’t meet with us, we are going to take an action – a peaceful action – and he wouldn’t respond.  So IRATE came down, they brought us some people from the reservation to support us, Rebecca Sockbeson and Lana Dana, and we took over the President’s office on the seventh floor of the Law School, we did a sit-in.  Kathy showed us how to do the whole thing, not speaking, linking arms, and we trooped in.  They did sort of try and stop us, and you just keep walking, and if they put their hand on you, you say, please take your hand off of me.  There are ways that you do it that are non-confrontational, but still you keep moving forward with the action.  We took it over and Fox News came and interviewed us, and we said we’re staying here and we’re not leaving.  The President was off at some reception or something, and all we wanted was for him to give us in writing that he would meet with us and talk about this.  Even so he made us wait, we were there for a while, but we did it.

 

There was very little in the office, there was a wooden hanger, and Esther broke it, took it apart and we took his waste basket, which was empty, this gray plastic thing, but it was a good size, and she flipped it and [laughs] used the broken thing for a beater and we drummed.  It was awesome!  We were up there singing and drumming and Fox News comes and they’re like what do you want, and it’s like, this is what we want.

 

It was good because that was the beginning of the formation of not just a Multicultural Center, but also establishing the position of someone who is there specifically as a support and resource to guide Native students through their academic experience and help them stay in school, so we can graduate more.  Because people were coming in and people weren’t finishing; there are many reasons why you don’t finish but one of the big ones is a lack of support around navigating that whole environment.

 

So yeah, we did a sit-in; it was the longest sit-in in the history of the University [laughs].  It was funny, we couldn’t get food in so we even had a rope we lowered out the window for a basket, and they would put snacks in and we would pull the rope up [laughter].  They thought we would think, this stinks, I’m hungry – that we’d give up – and we didn’t give up.

 

Interviewer: Who are some people who inspire you to seek justice?

 

Paul: One of the first people was my granddad when I was a very small child.  I don’t know if you’re aware of this, but did you know it was the nineteen sixties before Native people, at least in Maine, could vote?

 

Interviewer: Yeah, it’s awful.

 

Paul: Isn’t that crazy?  I remember my granddad telling me that, I was just a little girl, but it blew my mind.  And of course being a child, I took it in and went, holy!  And then I was like, okay, let’s go fishing.  But I’m 53 and I still remember him telling me that, that moment.  He would let me know about things but he didn’t belabor the point.  He would give me these pieces of information that somehow became part of the whole fabric of my experience growing up, so I think that’s where it began.

 

My mom was very outspoken with her identity.  Even though she lived in town, she spent a lot of time on the reservation with my granddad.  As I told you my mom took me out of school for my education.  She gave me the Dee Brown book.  Another thing that my mom did: Old Town High had dress codes, and one of them was hair length, and my eldest brother Tibby James wanted to grow his hair.  He grew his hair and he kept getting warned by the school that he was going to get suspended, and he did.  My mother consulted a lawyer, there was a pro bono place for poor people, and she went to the high school and she argued his case.  She said he is an Indian, and we grow our hair, and the men grow their hair, and if you don’t let him grow his hair then you are – and of course this is civil rights period as well – she said then you are not letting him be who he is, and she won.  That really inspired me as well.

 

I didn’t really understand that there was a whole Native literary cannon out there.  A friend sent me Ceremony by Leslie Marmon Silko and that really made me curious about the existence of a Native literary cannon and these highly accomplished Native writers, because you have to envision the possibility before you can take a step towards something. That helped me.

 

I saw the political stuff happening all around me.  There was a thing in the early seventies called Stand Up and Be Counted, which was a movement that originated with the American Indian Movement.  They were encouraging Native communities across the entire country to do this, and on Indian Island they had these gatherings.  I remember coming home and my mom said put your sneakers on, we’re going to the Island and I said why, and she said we’re walking.  She had long dark hair and she braided it up and everything, and she said we’re going to stand up and be counted!  It was in the spring and everybody was gathering, there was this community hall just a little ways across the bridge on the reservation, and my granddad was one of the people who spoke.  It was a community meeting to inspire people to be more involved about their rights.  I was quite young, but I remember that very clearly, everybody gathered.  They took turns, there was somebody from Vietnam, and they picked different people from the community to get up to the podium and address the community about this sort of newfound social awareness and the necessity to organize for change.

 

Interviewer: Your poems are real rhythmic and sound like they’re meant for being read aloud, can you talk about the music?

 

Paul: I tend toward lyricism, so with the poems, I really like sounds, and I’m very interested in language and sound.

 

Every Sunday my granddad and I used to sit in the kitchen and have tea and he would tell stories of his life, and they were always interesting.  Sometimes he’d repeat what I’d heard before or some poor tired joke, but it didn’t matter.  I think that I brought to the work I’m producing a lot of that storytelling aspect, and the love for the way language sounds.   Granddad taught me certain things in dialect; if he says to you, gazelmo, then you know he’s saying I love you, whether or not you’re fluent you learn, so I was exposed a little bit to the language.  He always said to me the way it sounded is like birdsong, the sound was a really important piece for him, and he imparted that to me as a child.

 

I started college as a theater major.  I did theater in high school and it was very liberating for me, so I already had some experiences around the spoken presentation of creative work.  Then when I started reading the poems and interpreting them, people said wow.  I just sort of acted it out or interpreted it, I didn’t know anything about slam poetry or anything, all of that I learned just in the last few years.  When I started, my intent had more to do with storytelling and love of language and love of sounds and flow and rhythm.

 

Interviewer: Place is obviously a huge part of your art, the sense of New England?

 

Paul: It is, especially as a contemporary Native artist in New England.  A lot of times I talk with folks at different organizations, you tell them you’re Native, and they’re like, great, do you make baskets?  That’s the first thing they ask, and I’m like, no I don’t make baskets. Yeah, I know how to make a basket, my mother beaded a lot, I do bead.  I try to explain to them that the traditional arts are great but don’t pigeonhole me.  So I’m trying to bring my Native identity, which is deeply embedded in an ancient culture, forward into the contemporary moment, and I’m trying to use my art as a way to bridge that into the twenty-first century.

 

When I became a sun dancer I went out west to North Dakota.  I met all these people who were wonderful, Sioux people, Lakota people, Mandan people, Ojibwa people.  It was great for me, but it was also very hard, because they looked at me, especially my first year or two, and they said, there aren’t any Indians back in Maine, there’s no Indians back there, we’re the Indians out here.  I bring that up because we in this region of the country had some of the earliest contact.  We had contact, and the oppression, and the whole assimilation cycle for longer than many of the tribes west of the Mississippi.  So we’re not just dealing with distortions around identity and culture with non-Native people, we’re also dealing with it with other Native people, with the western tribes who have some kind of sense that we are so dissipated and so assimilated that maybe we barely even exist.

 

One of the ways that I proved my worth to them is one year, an elder came around to the various encampments looking for someone who could dress out a deer.  It was 102 degrees on the plains of North Dakota and he’d taken his nephew to shoot his first deer to feed the people.  We had 80 to 100 people out there for ceremony.  I didn’t want to do it, it’s so hot out there and the work you have to do to prepare for ceremony, everyone’s just miserable for certain hours of the day.  The sun doesn’t go down until after 10 at night and there’s a certain chunk of the day where it’s just too hot to do anything but sit, all work comes to a standstill.  So here he comes and my friend, who’s the head female dancer, a dear friend of mine, is asking everyone, because she’s kind of the diplomat person among the women, the coordinator – she felt obligated to say, I’ll try and help you.  I waited and waited and nobody said a word, and up goes my hand, why, because I know how to do it, because I grew up in a hunting family.  My mother used to make extra money skinning out animals and dressing them for the hunters from southern New England who came up to Maine.  They never wanted anything but the flanks anyway, the steak, and so they’d throw her twenty bucks to skin out a bear, and we’d get some meat, which was great because we were terribly poor.  I learned all this from an early age.  After that, I was in like Flynn.  I got a crew together, I said find the salt, get some tubs, get everybody’s salt they’ve got, get a stone, the best knives you’ve got, somebody’s got to stand by and constantly be sharpening the knives.  And we dressed out a deer on the planes of North Dakota – it’s July, it’s so hot, no shade.  I found some boards in the fields and we were kneeling on boards with a blue tarp over it and these chunks of deer body [laughs], but we did it.  We dressed it out, I told them what to do, there’s no refrigeration out there, and you also have water discipline because there’s no drinking water near by so you have to be very careful, there’s a water buffalo we used.  Anyway, I did it, I showed them how to cut it up.  We sent the best cuts off to the elders because the old people get the best cuts of meat.  After that, they never gave me a problem; but I had to prove it to them.

 

Interviewer: Your poem “Mother Tongue” is one of the most powerful poems I’ve ever read about Native Americans being taken from their families and brought to the Carlisle School; what are your thoughts on the Maine Truth and Reconciliation Project?

 

Paul: If you go to the Maine Truth and Reconciliation Project website, there’s actually a piece of my poetry on the flash page there.

 

I grew up in Maine, but my family is from Kingsclear, New Brunswick.  I have C31 status, I have dual-citizenship with Canada, but Maine is my home.  In Canada they have been working on that for a while, the Truth and Reconciliation, because Carlisle wasn’t the only school.  Some of these residential schools were in place all the way up until possibly the 1960s and early ‘70s in the western part of the US.

 

I think the Truth and Reconciliation is really important, I’m amazed and thrilled that the Governor signed the mandate.  It troubles me that in comparison to what Canada is doing, so little is being done around talking about that issue and recognizing the incredible impact that it had on a society of people, just one of the terrible things that happened.  There really needs to be a lot more discourse around that.  For my own part I can tell you that one of the reasons that I don’t speak my language fluently is because of the schools.  “History 101,” which was in my Look Twice exhibit, is a poem that I wrote about that.  My granddad was taken, he wasn’t sent to Carlisle, which is the most famous one here, but he was sent to one, it might have been Shubenacadie, and he would never talk about it.  When my mother was young, and especially when we were young, it was like, don’t speak dialect in the house, it was looked at like, don’t do it.  You’ve got to talk English, you have to be this way, you must assimilate or you’re screwed.  I mean they didn’t say it like that, but that was the whole hit of what we were taught.  Even so, there were the phrases like, I’ve got to siggiazi, needing to go to the bathroom and needing this or that, those useful kinds of things.

 

Grampy would never talk about it very much.  Once in a while he’d say something and then he wouldn’t talk about it again.  This is what he told me though, he said they took him, he was eight or nine, when he was taken from Kingsclear.  He was a smart guy, he didn’t finish high school but he served two tours in World War II and he spoke English, French, Maliseet, and one other dialect, I don’t know if it was Micmac, or not; he also wouldn’t talk very much about his experiences in World War II.  But he said I kept running away, all he could say, and I could tell it bothered him.  He just said he kept running away, and they’d bring him back, and then when he was about fifteen he said they stopped coming after him.  One of the things he had learned to do when he’d run away was not to come home to Kingsclear.  He would go to where his cousins lived at another reservation, it might have been Tobique; he learned to go where they might not find him.  Then at fifteen they gave up and didn’t come after him anymore.  I think it was very hard on him.  He always spoke dialect with me but it wasn’t a thing that he did all the time amongst other people, it was something that he kept inside himself.  The nuns beat them.  I’m sure other things happened, he got locked up, and they’d lock them in a closet for hours he said.  That’s what they got for speaking dialect.

 

A lot of Native kids died of diseases, TB especially.  My grandfather always tested positive for TB, I guess he carried it, he didn’t have an active case, but he carried it, and that was from those years at the residential schools.  But he made it quite a ways; he made it until almost 81, which is amazing for us, it really is.  My mother only made it to 45, my brother only made it to 48.  We die sooner.  There are a lot of reasons why, like stress, poor healthcare access, substance abuse, depression, it’s higher among Native populations compared to general populations.

 

Interviewer: Could you talk about your literary influences?

 

Paul: I didn’t know much about literature per se in school.  I read what we had at home, which wasn’t a lot of stuff.  I remember my mother giving me the Seeds of Contemplation by Thomas Merton when I was pretty young.  She was always doing that, giving me books that were three steps over my head, but I’d try to understand it anyway.

 

For my own work I’d say in the last ten years one of the things that just blew my psyche wide open was when I began to read other Native writers, reading Leslie Marmon Silko, reading Joy Harjo and reading Louise Erdrich.  Then I started getting more interested in the socio-political aspects of it and reading stuff like by Robert Warrior, Jace Weaver, Craig Womack, and M Scott Momaday.  When I was working with Richard Hoffman he introduced me to writers from this region that I didn’t even know about, so it was a huge thrill for me to finally meet Cheryl Savageau and Melissa Tantiquidgeon and work with Joseph Bruchac.  I’d been aware of the books that Joe Brushac made and the work he does with kids and schools, and I thought wow what a cool guy, and now he is publishing my first book of poetry, so this is very cool for me.

 

Interviewer: What are some ways that you keep your spirits up and maintain resolve?

 

Paul: I own a dog [laughs].  I have to have an animal presence around, it’s important to me.  I think that we can often become our best selves when we are responsible for other creatures, including kids.  I would have children if I could have but I grew up eating fish from a very polluted river and I was born to an alcoholic mother and I didn’t know until many years later, after I was married and we weren’t getting pregnant, that my ova are no good, they’re fragile.  That was another thing I had to deal with.

 

I seek out things that not only give me pleasure, but also help me to feel alive in the moment.  One of them is my art.  Creating is when I’m at my most content; it’s a place where I get quiet inside.  Spending time outside is very important to me.  As a child I didn’t even wear shoes unless I was required, so having that connection with the natural environment is really important.

 

Having a spiritual practice has helped me tremendously.  I go as often as I can to ceremony and it’s been really good for me, I have a whole other family out there and we are connected in ways that are different than my family connections here or my professional connections.  Engaging in ceremony has definitely been good.

 

Interviewer: Could you share a vision for the future?

 

Paul: One of the things I realized in this journey that I am on is that I had so much to learn about the body of literature by Native writers, so I want to explore that more.  I want to educate myself and get a nice foundation and awareness of those bodies of works, particularly with writers in this region, and try and promote that more. The other part of it is trying to find ways to foster the development of new Native writers from this region.  The Wabanaki Writers Project is one of the things that might be able to support the continuation of that.  I’ve done workshops with them for that project and I’m hoping to do more with them in the future.

 

As I tell people, before you can do any of these things, you have to be able to imagine it as a possibility.  You can’t take a step towards a goal if you think that that’s just not a possibility for you.  For a lot of Native people, the idea that that could happen for them has been taken away for various reasons and by various means.  So I want to support other Native writers, I want to raise awareness and I want to educate myself further.

 

To learn more about Mihku Paul, please visit her website at: http://mihkupaul.com/

3 Comments

Filed under interviews, literature review, maine citizens engaged in resistance, poems, truth speakers

3 responses to “Renewing Images: Mihku Paul Interview

  1. Wonderful interview– a place, circumstances and time of which most Americans are unaware. Kudos fro Mihku Paul!

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