The Lenape now have a new myth told in an epic poem about how heel-turned-hero wrestler Rowdy Roddy Piper saves Pelee Island.
Chronicled in the second half of Lenape poet D.A. Lockhart’s newest collection North of Middle Island, the 16,000-word “Piper” describes in glorious wrestling terms the match between real life archfoes Piper and Goldust (Nkuli Punkw) while weaving in the Lenape legend of Deerwoman (Ahtuhxkwe).
“We have to constantly come up with these new ideas…That’s how I can state our culture is alive, because we’re building new mythologies,” said Lockhart.
“It’s a Lenape myth with Anglo-Saxon roots and it’s a swirling tapestry of cultures in a lot of ways.”
And it wasn’t a stretch to build that mythology around Piper. After all, the Saskatoon-born wrestler did spend a couple of weeks on Pelee Island in the 1990s, albeit to film a romantic comedy. And the residents of Waawiiyaatanong (the Lenape word for the southwestern region of Ontario) have an undeniable—even if it may be unexplainable—connection to wrestling.
In fact, said Lockhart, “wrestling is just massive. It’s very, very popular. It’s a mythology for the people here.”
Lockhart, who calls Pelee Island home about one month of every year, knows about that connection personally. It goes back for generations with his family.
“It is really strange. I still have problematic relationships with wrestling, but I know…rather than go to church, because (my family) didn’t agree with church, they would get together and watch the broadcasts from Detroit and Toledo of these wrestling matches,” he said.
Despite being a heel (the wrestling term for a “bad guy”), Rowdy Roddy Piper was popular among the islanders.
It took Lockhart about two or three years of research and drafts, although he says the lion’s share of “Piper” was written in seven to eight months.
Wrestling fans will certainly enjoy the way Lockhart describes the wrestling moves, which he says was both fun and stressful.
“I know I have wrestling fans and they’re reading the book and they’re like, ‘Did he get that right’?” Lockhart says he checked the moves with his wrestling buddies. He admits he’s more of a basketball fan than wrestling fan himself.
There are also wrestling moves specific to Piper and Goldust, who took each other on in the infamous Hollywood Backlot Brawl in 1996.
Lockhart even includes phrases that Piper was famous for saying.
“If I’m going to use a character like Rowdy Roddy Piper, I want him to live and breathe,” said Lockhart.
For Lockhart, who studied languages in grad school, relaying the myth through a Beowulf-style form was a natural choice because there’s an “Indigenousness to poems like Beowulf.”
Old Anglo-Saxon epics, he explains, contain history on ancestors and family, and draw on nature. They also contain a storytelling rhythm based on music and they used to be sung. Their language mostly predates heavy colonialism.
“There’s a lot we have a crossover with. There’s even the mixing of languages within the original (Anglo-Saxon poems) because they were starting to come in contact with more of the romance languages, so you can see the slippage,” said Lockhart.
“Piper” and the poems that comprise the first half of North of Middle Island also have that slippage with a strong sampling of Lenape words, primarily from the Unami dialect. The words are used repetitively and in context. There is a four-page glossary in the back of the book.
“When I use my language, I am upholding our relationship with that part of creation…By calling them chëmàmës (rabbits) I’m calling forth those original treaties, those original relationships we established before colonization,” said Lockhart.
Literature, he says, is supposed to entertain, teach and delight. In the readers’ first approach of his collection, Lockhart wants to delight. He doesn’t expect readers to flip to the glossary every time a Lenape word appears in text and he doesn’t expect them to learn his language. But what he would like is for readers to sound out the words.
“As a poet, I’m really interested in sounds. Nowadays we’re starting to see bird songs disappear and certain birds have already disappeared…These are songs that are part of creation that have disappeared over time. We are part of our relations…Those sounds, those voices are all important because every syllable and everything we say we are giving life back to our ancestors, the things that were stolen from them,” said Lockhart.
Lockhart’s poems also reference multiple rock bands and songs, mostly Canadian work.
“We’re always taught that we’re supposed to keep the two streams apart, maybe based on the Two Row Wampum, right? We had two different paths. But I still think we can hear each other’s stereos,” said Lockhart.
He points out that his linguistic studies indicate that when languages stop evolving, when they stop embracing new concepts, they die.
Lockhart believes a part of language revitalization is to place cultures beside each other.
“We don’t always need to describe a rabbit but maybe it’s a good idea to learn how to describe Geddy Lee’s baseline,” Lockhart said of the Rush frontman’s music. “So those are our modern-day experiences. We have to understand we are in a new world, like everybody else, and our languages and our stories, our artistic creations have to embrace these changes because Canadians have become our relations.”
North of Middle Island is a love letter to Pelee Island. Pictures are painted in both Lenape and English words of the island’s beauty, even in its industrialization, and the myth of Rowdy Roddy Piper underscores the island’s worth to be saved in an epic battle.
What will become of the Piper myth? Will it be repeated 10 or 15 years down the road?
“Part of me hopes so because I think that wrestling…comes from the ground up,” said Lockhart. Then he laughed and added, “I doubt that they’ll enshrine me in a hall of fame over it, but I would hope that maybe it’s talked about a little bit in schools, about how you can use this framework to build new mythologies. Not just for Lenape, but for Canada’s myriad of (Indigenous) cultures.”
North of Middle Island has its official book launch Sept. 20 at Chapter Two Brewing in Windsor, Lockhart’s home community.
North of Middle Island is published by Kegedonce Press and is also available at https://www.kegedonce.com/books/poetry/north-of-middle-island/
By Shari Narine, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Windspeaker.com, Windspeaker.com