Quill and Quire

Willie Poll

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Willie Poll’s My Little Ogichidaa is a celebration of matriarchs past, present, and future.

When Willie Poll decided to make the transition from a full-time teacher to the director of education at the Moose Hide Campaign, a grassroots Indigenous organization aimed at ending gender-based violence, she had no idea it would inspire her latest picture book.

At the organization’s annual campaign day, seeing co-founder Raven Lacerte speak in front of thousands moved Poll deeply. Lacerte was pregnant with her second daughter, and was joined on stage by her eldest child. “I could see the strength of the matriarch that Raven is, and I could see that strength in her daughter and in her future daughter,” Poll says. “I went home and wrote this story that was fully inspired by watching Raven show me what it is to be an Indigenous mom, and what it is to pass down Indigenous love.”

My Little Ogichidaa: An Indigenous Lullaby (Medicine Wheel Publishing, April 16), follows a soon-to-be mother as she sings to her unborn child of her hopes and dreams. It is a celebration of matriarchs past, present, and future. For Poll, the matriarchs are the strongest people in her family. “There’s so much intergenerational trauma interwoven throughout my family that the love and the power they have passed down to my generation and the next generation is really almost a miracle when you look at it,” she says. “I don’t know how they had the strength. My mom and my grandma are everything I want to be.”

The book is a tribute to Indigenous parenting, honouring it for the children who were stripped of the intimate and special experience when forced into the residential school system. The children who grew up knowing only trauma, racism, and pain are now giving birth to a new generation. “I really wanted to embody how remarkable Indigenous parents are, how they’re bringing back these gentle parenting techniques that are really just traditional Indigenous parenting techniques that we saw pre-colonization,” Poll says. “We’re seeing Indigenous parents bring back the moss bag, Indigenous baby swings, and Indigenous birthing practices. I really wanted to showcase how much I admire these parents.”  

Illustration: Hawlii Pichette

The connection to one’s ancestors was a natural progression in the book’s narrative, and something Poll would like to instill in the younger generation. “I really want youth to know that if they don’t feel connected to their culture or connected to their language, even the small things they retain or the small things they learn are vital,” she says. “It may take years to reclaim everything that was lost through genocide and cultural genocide in the residential school system. But the younger generation is so accepting and so knowledgeable and making spaces for BIPOC people, they’re making spaces for two-spirit people. I want them to see the power they hold.”

Though Poll’s previous picture books were specifically for children, My Little Ogichidaa is as much for parents as it is for kids. “I really want Indigenous parents to read it, and feel secure in everything they’re doing. And I really want Indigenous kids to see it and be like, ‘Yes, I’m powerful, and I was powerful before I even came Earth-side, before I even got to this place I was powerful, and I’m bringing the power of thousands with me,’” she says. “I really want non-Indigenous kids to see it and feel everyone has ancestors, everyone has gifts. Everyone has something to bring. I want them to look at their Indigenous peers and be like, ‘Wow, they’re bringing so many gifts,’ and I want them to be able to think about what gifts they are bringing.”

Ogichidaa, which means warrior in Anishinaabemowin, was an intentional choice on Poll’s part, as she wanted to reframe the old Western stereotype of the word. “I really wanted to show that being a warrior is about knowing when to love and knowing when to bring love into the world,” she says. “When I looked at what I thought a warrior was, it actually had nothing to do with being a fighter. It had more to do with being a champion of your community, of helping to advance your community.”