In the Dog House by Wanda John Kehewin (Review by Trevor Spilchen)
In the Dog House is a book of poetry written by Kehewin Cree First Nation poet Wanda John-Kehewin. This book is published by Talon books, a Vancouver publisher that can be found at www.talonbooks.com. The book was first printed in 2013 with the ISBN 978-0-88922-749-1. In the Dog House contains very personal stories which in the authors words, “touches on everything in my being as a First Nations woman searching for the truth and for a way to be set free from the past” (p ix). This book provides a powerful account of one person’s struggle to reclaim their Aboriginal roots while still living in a modern urban environment. I chose this title because I feel that by reading and analyzing it we can begin to see First Nations people not as historical beings from the past but rather as people of the present trying to reclaim their heritage in a post-modern context.
One of the great features of this work is the way it is structured to echo the four dimensions of the Medicine Wheel – a very important aspect of Cree culture. John-Kehewin tells the story of her father travelling to the west coast from Alberta to visit her and impart the teachings of the Medicine Wheel and how the circle contains all of life, which must be kept in balance. The east contains the physical aspect of human nature, the birth and childhood stages of life, the sunrise, the Spring, the Asian race and the element of air. In the south we find the summer, the mental aspect of human nature, the youth stage of life, continuous movement, the Red Nation and the element earth. The Black race, the emotional aspect of human nature, the adulthood stage of life, responsibility, connecting with children, the Autumn, and the element of fire reside in the west while in the north we find the winter, the White race, the old age stage of life, introspection, the element of water, and the spiritual aspect of human nature. As we read through the poems in this collection it is easy to see how they echo the ideas of the medicine wheel and so the connection to Indigenous knowledge is obvious and strong.
One clear benefit of using this resource is precisely that it connects so clearly to the teachings of the Medicine Wheel. After a discussion of the principles of the Medicine Wheel, students could be invited to read the poetry in each section analyzing its connections to the teachings of that part of the wheel. This would provide a much deeper way of understanding this particular Indigenous epistemology than is possible from simply learning about the aspects of the four parts of the wheel without something to give each part some context. As they read, students may agree or disagree or be confused by the authors inclusion of a particular poem in a particular section but by working through this cognitive dissonance students engage in a more authentic way with the concepts.
A second, and I feel most important, benefit of this book is its connection to present. While the poems are deeply personal and reflect the experience of an Indigenous woman who has dealt with many problems that are unmistakably part of the past and present Canadian colonial reality, they also are written in language and forms that relate a post-modern coming to terms with modernity that is something that is easy to relate to no matter your positionality. I feel that students would most certainly be able to relate to these poems and in so doing begin to hopefully see indigenous people as not completely different from themselves. In this way the poetry contained can be a start toward a greater cultural understanding and bridging of cultural gaps.
I can see a myriad of ways of using this book in my teaching practice. The most obvious being in a poetry unit in English class, particularly at the Senior levels. John-Kehewin makes excellent use of various poetic forms throughout the book and thus these pieces could be used to introduce these forms to an English class. One clear example of this is her use of the concrete poetry form. This is a form where the words, letters, syllables of the poems are used to create a literal “concrete” picture on the page. Two great examples of this are the poem “Alcohol” which creates the shape of a wine bottle on one page and the image of a wine glass on the other and “Collective Tears of Unity” which is written in the shape of a teardrop. These poems provide a way to synthesize the ideas of form and content and the way one aspect strengthens the other. Specifically speaking of “Alcohol”, if given the positionality of the author, students could be invited to engage with ways the introduction of alcohol to North America affected Indigenous cultures, thus giving the lesson a social justice context as well. Another great example of the author’s use of form and content is “Psalm Bill C-31”. Here, the form brings about many religious connotations also linked to colonialism which are contrasted with the content, a lamenting of the presence of colonial settlers and their continued control of Canadian culture.
In the English classroom as a part of a poetry unit this resource would be useful in many other areas. First, in my Creative Writing class it would be useful as an example of unifying a larger work through thematic elements. I give my students a major year-long project, which must be a large work (novella, screen play, etc.), or a collection of shorter works (poems, short stories, songs) linked together through a common theme. The organization of this book would be a perfect example of such a theme. Second, in my Social Justice 12 class next year I plan to use parts of this book to introduce the concepts of art as a tool for social justice, and the need for justice for Indigenous peoples. Here the theme of finding and reclaiming an Indigenous identity in a modern context could provide much fuel for discussion. In this way I feel these poems could also be presented in any Social Studies class as a way to open up a discussion of modern Indigenous issues, particularly those around modern Indigenous identity.
In closing, I feel that Wanda John-Kehewin’s book In The Dog House is a powerful tool that could be used in many educational contexts. Because it is a collection of poetry, its contents can be integrated into various curricula without the need to create wholesale curricular change. It is
a great way to integrate Indigenous ways of knowing and thinking about the modern world into our educational praxis. Not to mention that it is just really great poetry in its own right that is worthy of study and inclusion in our high school classrooms. By Trevor Spilchen.