Presence: The Heartspeak of Indigenous Poets: Billy-Ray Belcourt


As a poet, I struggle with language—the English that America force-fed down my ancestors’ throats during assimilation and the Boarding School Era. My mouth struggles to reclaim the language of my ancestors as I try to learn words in my mother tongues.

I write these words while sitting on Ute, Cheyenne, and Arapaho lands. I type, We are still here, fingers on keys, and think about what it means to live as an Indigenous person in the United States, on Turtle Island today. I see no borders; I wish everyone could see through these eyes.

I think about my First Nations relatives to the north and our relatives from south of these manmade borders in what is known as México. I think about the caravan of relatives traveling north, the voter suppression of Indigenous people in North Dakota and of our Black relatives in Georgia, and the heavy history of a country that has weaponized words in so many unspeakable ways.

These times where my heart struggles to speak are when I need poetry the most.

November is Native American Heritage Month and in celebration I would like to fill the white space of the page with the words of Indigenous poets whose work nourishes my soul. The presence of these poets’ pulses through the literary landscape to help us survive our loneliness and silences, to bless us with light, and to bear witness to our presence in all forms.

– Tanaya Winder




Loneliness is a kind of dysphoria with the world.


Loneliness finds me drunk in an old Billy-Ray Belcourt poem.


What is important is that wherever I am my brother is perched on my cheekbones.


We are 23 and already too old for our own good.


Last night felt like our last night. They always do.


That is what makes night nightly in our amnestic village of two fugitives.


In a car without headlights, the night is a lukewarm mouth to sing into.


We, my brother and I, are wedged between personhood and all that is earthly.


Our speech loop-de-loops and zigzags and grows wings but is not an insect.

(Our speech is headless).


The Ministry of Historical Ignorance turned our ontological pangs into a bed of nails.


The Ministry brings us to our knees.


We lick the walls dirty in a house of spoiled subjectivity.


Silly us.


We thought a fever was light breaking apart inside our skulls.

Billy-Ray Belcourt is from the Driftpile Cree Nation. His first book, This Wound Is a World (Frontenac 2017), won the 2018 Canadian Griffin Poetry Prize. His next book, NDN Coping Mechanisms: Notes from the Field, is due out in the fall of 2019 with House of Anansi Press. More from this author →