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Review

Whiskey Bullets: Cowboy and Indian Heritage Poems

By Garry Gottfriedson

November 4, 2013

Review By Connie Brim

The cover of Garry Gottfriedson’s book promises us a collection of traditional cowboy poetry. Exposed on a wood-grained surface are a pair of silver spurs, feathers, leather collar, and two bullets, one of which is submerged in a shot glass filled with golden whisky. Because illustrator William McAusland’s images are reminiscent of those found in so many twentieth century westerns, we anticipate poems about riding the range, drinking whisky and playing five-card stud at the dusty saloon, and a rousing shoot-em-up between “cowboys and Indians” – all in the standard language and metre favoured by cowboy poets such as Sid Marty, Harvey Mawson, Thelma Poirier, and Mike Puhallo.

The cover art, however, could not be more deceptive. Gottfriedson certainly incorporates into his second collection of poetry images such as cowboy hats, weather-beaten saddles, and cracked halters so central to western Canadian life on the range. He also refers to legendary Hollywood cowboys such as the Lone Ranger. But, in “Tonto and the Lone Ranger,” Gottfriedson unmasks the Lone Ranger as a figure of fantasy from “hallucinating reality tv” (46), and in “Feminist’s Thought” the narrator explores the code of masculinity that compels cowboys to participate in rodeo/ranching activities that include “ride’n wild bareback slide’n / spurs shoulder long until the knees / jerk delight” (27). Whiskey Bullets pays tribute to traditional cowboy poetry in its broad borrowing of the genre’s standard images, but it dramatically revises it: replacing the lone, silent, white cowboy are Aboriginal cowboys who crack the whip, observe council politics, lecture on alternative histories, participate in rodeos, speak of love, and write poetry.

Whiskey Bullets consists of seventy two poems divided into four sections: “Koyoti Indian,” “Copenhagen Cave,” “Whiskey Bul lets,” and “Shadow Walk.” Scattered throughout the latter two sections are brief lyrics of love, several of which explore the nature of the narrator’s relationship with the mythic Horsechild. Another recurrent and central figure, this one loosely uniting all four sections, is Koyoti, the ubiquitous shapeshifter, who, according to “Koyoti Moon Story,” “can turn himself into anything / including words” (35). Most of the poems, however, offer insight into the world of the working Aboriginal cowboy/poet, and here Gottfriedson’s commitment to ranching and writing prevails.

A member of the Secwepemc First Nation, Gottfriedson is a Kamloops based rancher, arts educator, and pol it ica l act iv ist , and Whiskey Bullets attests to both his heritage and his passionate political interests. Gottfriedson’s father was of Danish/ Okanagan descent, a professional rodeo cowboy, and he taught the cowboy code to his son – a crucial lesson Gottfriedson acknowledges in “Cowboy Up,” when he recalls that he has “never forgotten / dad showed me / all the secrets to / being a cowboy” (60). His mother was French/ Secwepemc, and from her Gottfriedson acquired the language of this Shusway tribe. Secwepemc is used sparingly in several poems, but the presence of both Secwepemc and English in these poems reminds us that hybridity may be not only racial and professional but also linguistic.

Most provocative in Whiskey Bullets are the poems with a political, even polemical, sensibility. From these poems emerges the voice of Gottfriedson the political activist and Gottfriedson the educator who wishes to inform the audience about a marginalized people – and the political and social issues still facing Aboriginal peoples today. Poems such as “Strep Throat,” with its exposure of the faith-breaking, “badmouthed Canadians” (33) who forced Aboriginals onto “land cramped by starvation,”(33) insist that we learn alternative histories – an idea playfully revisited in the collection’s only prose poem, “Caucasian Young Men Cattle Rounder-uppers (Cowboys) and First Nations (Indians),” in which the teaching narrator mockingly advises his audience to “resort to your dominant culture interpretive history texts” after he is overwhelmed by the demands of politically correct speech (23). If the dominant culture chooses not to learn, if it fails to effect change, Gottfriedson suggests there will be consequences. And so, in “Fly Spray,” the image of an Aboriginal observing a fly’s landing cryptically transforms into the appropriation of “Indian possessions” (20), only to end with the warning: “but remember / the cupboard is full of / Raid” (20).

Whiskey Bullets requires readers to engage with contemporary political issues, whether the poem’s subject is appropriation of Native lands, feminist bullies, disquieting band politics, postcolonial rhetoric, or the handless and murdered Anna Mae Aquash. And Gottfriedson demands that readers – all of us – engage with these issues, not intellectually, but emotionally, viscerally.