Nationality: Canadian (Mi'kmaq). Born: Whycocomagh, Cape Breton, Nova Scotia, 15 March 1932. Education: Shubenacadie Indian Residential School, Shubenacadie, Nova Scotia, 1944–48. Family: Married Frank Joe in 1954 (died 1989); ten children. Awards: Nova Scotia Writers' Federation Competition, 1974. Member, Order of Canada, 1989.
Poems of Rita Joe. Halifax, Nova Scotia, Abanaki Press, 1978.
Song of Eskasoni: More Poems of Rita Joe. Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island, Ragweed Press, 1988.
Lnu and Indians We're Called. Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island, Ragweed Press, 1991.
We Are the Dreamers: Recent and Early Poetry. Wreck Cove, Nova Scotia, Breton Books, 1999.
Song of Rita Joe: Autobiography of a Mi'kmaq Poet. Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island, Ragweed Press, and Lincoln, University of Nebraska Press, 1996.
Editor, with Lesley Choyce, The Mi'kmaq Anthology. Lawrencetown Beach, Nova Scotia, Pottersfield Press, 1997.* * *
Rita Joe was born in 1931 on the Whycocomagh reserve on Cape Breton Island in Nova Scotia. Orphaned at the age of six, she was shunted from home to home and from reservation to reservation. Joe attended school in Shubenacadie and subsequently made her home on the Eskasoni reserve. The mother of eight children, she adopted two more children and has cared for two grandchildren.
Joe began to write poems about her Micmac heritage in the late 1960s. At first her work attracted only local interest. National interest came in 1990, when she was made a member of the prestigious Order of Canada. Her collections of loosely written poems are, in their own way, as eloquent as the oratory of the late Chief Dan George, author of My Heart Soars.
Poems of Rita Joe (1978) has as its epigraph the following lines: "I am the Indian, /And the burden /Lies yet with me." All of the poems are untitled and, indeed, can be seen as one long poem. There is observation ("While skyscrapers hide the heavens, /They can fall"), and there is statement ("The lore and legends /Are not to be lost. /To say they are vanishing is /Not true.").
Song of Eskasoni: More Poems of Rita Joe (1988) is a collection that explores many moods. Joe asserts native pride in "Legacy": "Abandon my country? /For sale my heritage? /I do not see the need. /My birthright began /This country's history." She keeps a watchful eye for transgressions in "The Art of Communication": "I was only a child yesterday /But I am expected to be mature and brave /On the battlefield of assimilation. /Please help me." In the same poem she is quite lyrical: "Eskasoni is my home, a place of peace and harmony /Where bannock and tea are served /To anyone who is kind enough to visit." The sole false note sounded in the collection is the ascription to her of the authorship of "The Song of the Stars," a traditional Passamaquoddy lyric that predates Joe's book by a century.
Lnu and Indians We're Called (1991) offers numerous subjects for poems: a reflection on receiving the Order of Canada, a description of a royal visit, attendance at aboriginal conferences, a consideration of the trickster hero Klu'skap, thoughts on prejudice, and the poet's surprising identification with the Beothuk Indians, long thought to be extinct. Whether she calls herself a Beothuk or a Micmac, Joe has received a wide readership.
—John Robert Colombo