what did i see to be except myself?

i made it up

here on this bridge between

starshine and clay

Lucille Clifton

As a professional:

Carol Shillibeer works with words and images. She does this with the intent of learning something useful. Her obsessions: the borderlands between two North American cultural nations, the Anglo and the Indian; identity as taproot and as rhizome, and absurdity generally; alchemy, tarot, geomancy, dreams, surrealism and what these practices say about the distinctions between the over- (the conscious) and under-minds (the unconscious). She has been published under a number of names and in a wide variety of journals, both as a poet and as a visual artist; there are 2 books out under 2 different heteronyms. She’s deep in the editing process of the 3rd book, researching the 4th and has just realized what the 5th one will be about. She has been nominated for best of net, for the pushcart; she has been awarded a large Canada Council grant that enabled the research for the 4th book (thank you CC), been accepted into a few competition-based artist residencies, won a 3-year studio residency through the City of Vancouver (thank you Van), and most recently received grant support from the BC Arts Council (thank you BC). All it took was decades of intense work and an obsessional kind of mind.

photo by Saskia Wolsak

As a person:

Like everyone else, biologically I am a mixed bag. I’m part Anglo, part Semitic, part other things—depends on how far back in the ancestral chain you want to go. Ethnically I am also mixed. How I know things, how I think, what I believe, what practices I use to help me over the tough times, how I acknowledge good things in my life, what things I pay attention to in the world, my sense of humour, these come mostly from a small set of Anglo traditions and from my Sp'q'ni family. When I need help, I go to the woods and sing. I circle. I participate in other ceremonies as taught to me by my Sp'q'ni family. I also go to art galleries, museums and libraries. I write poetry, draw, paint. I go out and watch for coyote or badger, leaving them gifts. I gather plants (also leaving them gifts) and use them during the year. I take care of myself in a number of ways taught to me by a number of wise people from both my past and my present. As for my socio-economic class, I learnt some survival skills by virtue of my London slum-kid father and my mother, who was a Canadian daughter of the aspiring middle class. Our society doesn’t talk much about class these days, but the strategies for living vary enormously between the slum and the summer cottage. I got all of it. The classes, ethnicities, cultures got confused, so I just made it up as I went along. I don’t know how much my biological hybridity matters, but I know my varied ethnic and class origins have patterned my life in ways that more homogeneous friends find alternatively distressing and diverting.

Deciding what to become isn’t as simple as “OK. I like this one, but not that one.” Decisions, no matter how authentic or personal they feel, are often actually accidental happenings that come from being a being in the midst of many other beings. As it happens, when I was around 7 or so, I was sitting by a lake in Ontario when—for the first time in my life—another person came by, looked at me, and saw me. Not the little pale girl, not the daughter, or the epileptic, or the potential victim, or the future woman, or some other social category possible for girls at that time. When he looked up and saw me, I felt that zing of recognition—respect. I had never felt respect before. That fleeting connection had a generative—and critical—effect on my developing self-awareness. I was a real person.


As it happens, it was a Native American man (We did not speak; I did not learn his Nation.) passing by on the water; it was he that saw me. That incident—that feeling—was a crossroad. More-or-less mindlessly, I went in the direction of respect.

You go along trying things. You go along and things happen. Some of those things are spectacular failures; some of them feed you like no material food can ever do. In my life the nurturing ones changed my direction. I wandered, experimented, then turned at the cross-road toward the ones that worked. Accidental existence.

For me, a few of the early major crossroads were witchcraft (a secular variety), science and its kick-ass methodology, and then as a young adult, the Interior Salish lifeways. At 17 I chose witchcraft because it was the least harmful of the human belief systems I knew about, since it involved a radical pan-being form of respect. At 6 I chose science (thanks to Van Nostrum's Scientific Encyclopedia) because it makes sense, and (as I later realized) secular, empirically-based evidence is the only way to build a system that will allow us share a planet. This is especially so since many belief systems encourage their believers to kill or chain the different. I’m not down with such oppressive behaviours, but I know others are and they live on earth too. Science and its powers of fact and reason are the only way we have to make feasible the co-existence of radically different beliefs on a planet too full of people to provide any distance between groups.

I should emphasize that none of these choices meant leaving behind everything I learnt. I still practice ritual respect. I still require evidence before decisions. I am not one thing, one self, anymore than anyone else. We are conglomerates of road dust: we become by living.

How I came to live in the Salishan Territory and become family—well that’s a very long story. It started in childhood, came to fruition back in the 1980s with a series of dreams, that would turn out to be prescient (or at least feel that way after I met the woman I was dreaming about). Based on the dreams, I moved to the Flathead Reservation, told the Head Woman about the dreams, whereafter she began teaching me important things—like beading, hide tanning, how to think straight and how to listen. That last one was really hard, partly at least, because to listen well I had to drop all kinds of assumptions I didn't even know I had. There was much more after that, but I won't recount it here.

The best bit of advice I got that first year on the Reservation: don’t talk for 10 years. Not that I wasn’t to open my mouth, but that I was to refrain from analysis, from offering advice, from figuring things out. I was to listen, watch, learn how to do things like cook on a wood stove, chop wood, carry water, build sweat. I didn’t realize it then, but what I was being told was that it would take me about 10 years to learn how to hear and understand. It did too, maybe more than 10 years. In fact, I can guarantee that you can go find people who will say I still don’t understand anything, and it’s true, in some things I am a really slow learner. What I do know: I will never fully understand. But I do get some things. In racial parlance, I will never be Indian, but I will also never be Anglo, nor what I was as a child, nor as a young woman. By virtue of experience, I’ve shifted. I’ve changed. I’ve become something else.

It took a long time for me to realize that I was a ghost in the heartlands of the Anglo and the Indian. It took even longer to figure out that in my true home—those still-dark borderlands between—here I am real. I have a body in this place. Here I breathe. I know the land. I have friendships with some plants and some animals. I have songs. I have family, a purpose, sumesh. As a consequence, I also have the right to tell of what I experience, and rather importantly, my Head Man concurs. The borderlands are where my work surfaces. The way I live—how I behave, how I choose to share myself—this is what permits and guides my work. As an artist and poet, I speak about being at home.