Elder’s Waltz by Louise Halfe

Halfe is a Cree writer and social worker whose heritage is particular important in her poetic works. ‘Elder’s Waltz’ is no exception. It was published in her collection Bear Bones & Feathers in 1994.

 

Summary of Elder’s Waltz 

‘Elder’s Waltz’ by Louise Halfe is a rhythmic depiction of an important ceremony in the Cree Nation that includes campfires, food and dancing. 

The poem begins with the speaker telling the reader that grandmother and grandfather are going to dance. Halfe’s care for her Cree heritage is seen through the caring and respectful tone of the text.

 She goes into detail about the atmosphere, mood and complex pieces of clothing the two dancing partners are going to wear. There are campfires burning, muskeg tea boiling and a variety of references to other indigenous practices that help a reader imagine the scene fully and completely. 

You can read the full poem here.

 

Poetic Techniques in Elder’s Waltz 

‘Elder’s Waltz’ by Louise Halfe is a sixty-two line poem divided into uneven sets of lines. These range from stanzas of two lines up to ten lines. There is no single pattern of rhyme but there are instances of half and full rhyme throughout the text. In regards to the latter, full rhyme can be seen through the perfectly rhymed endings of lines three and twelve (as well as others). 

Half rhyme, also known as slant or partial rhyme, can be found at the ends of, and inside, multiple verses. It is seen through the repetition of assonance or consonance. This means that either a vowel or consonant sound is reused within one line, or multiple lines of verse. For example “deer-skin” and “moccasins” or in line six of the sixth stanza, “leathered” and “legs”. 

One of the most prominent techniques in Elder’s Waltz is code-switching. This is a combination, variation and alteration between one way of speaking and another. In the case of ‘Elder’s Waltz’ Halfe moves back and forth between Cree and English, using the Cree words for grandma and grandpa, “Nōhkom” and “Nimosōm.” 

 

Audience and Purpose of Elder’s Waltz

While it is impossible to say for sure without hearing from the poet herself what the purpose of this piece is, or for whom it was written, a reader can hazard a guess through context clues. It is likely Halfe wrote this poem in an attempt to depict and share the ceremony depicted in the text, as well as all the associated sights and sounds. Perhaps, she wrote it with a wide audience in mind, any who might have an interest, or a slimmer audience, other members of the Cree Nation. 

 

Analysis of Elder’s Waltz 

Lines 1-6 

In the first stanza of ‘Elder’s Waltz,’ the speaker begins by telling the reader that “Nōhkom and Nimosōm” are going dancing. This very simple statement outlines the rest of the poem and is returned to multiple times. The “waltz” the two are going to participate in is complicated. There is a lot to prepare. In the next set of lines, the speaker describes how “Elder’s Murmuring / prayer songs” is necessary for the occasion, as is “ribbon cloths” and “Tobacco offerings”. 

 

Lines 7-14 

The speaker tells the reader in the next lines that the grandmother is wearing large “pony beads” and, using alliteration, a “flowing flowered dress / a wide beaded belt”. The very simple diction used by Halfe makes the images clear. It’s easy to imagine these accessories. She uses the word “trinkets” in line ten. This word is usually associated with things of little worth or small collectables. Therefore it’s an interesting contrast in the midst of these ceremonial items. 

In lines eleven through fourteen, the scene is expanded and via a few sense-based descriptions Halfe allows the reader a better understanding of what its like to be there. For example, one would see “muskeg tea” boiling. The leaves that make this particular tea are known as “forever leaves” in Cree and are usually used to cure stomach pains and associated complications. There are also campfires and “smoke” in the air.

 

Lines 15-26 

In lines fifteen and sixteen the first two lines of the poem are repeated. When a poet makes this choice, the lines are known as a refrain. They will reappear again later in the poem. It increases the musicality and rhythm of the text. In these lines the poet describes how Nōhkom, grandmother, has been working “for hours / on her deer-skin moccasins”. She’s been manipulating them with her hands, stretching and kneading them. She also works on pant legs and “thongs” made of “rawhide”. All these items are also necessary for the dance/ceremony to take place. 

 

Lines 27-34

The next lines of ‘Elder’s Waltz’ are filled with references to specific plants. In the first two lines, the speaker mentions “pemmican,” “chokecherry” and “kinnikinnick”. The first, pemmican, is a mixture of fat and protein used historically in indigenous cuisine. The word is derived from a Cree word, pimîhkân. 

Additionally there’s a reference to “Chokecherry”. This is also known as bitter-berry and is a species of cherry found in North American. The last, “kinnikinnick” is a Native American and First Nations herbal smoking mixture. It’s made from leaves or bark. There are a variety of uses for it, from medicinal to spiritual. 

 

Lines 35-44

Grandfather, or Nimosōm, also has “blond-white hair” and is preparing his own ceremonial clothing to wear. This includes a “quilted jacket” and “tanned leggings”. There are numerous beads, as seen through repetition, hanging on his clothes, all the way down to his “moccasin feet”. 

The atmosphere at the dance in ‘Elder’s Waltz’ is joyous. Everything is “laughing” under the sky and the campfire is burning. The overall mood is peaceful, respectful and joyous. 

 

Lines 45-52

As the scene goes on, grandfather goes to look for the “White-skinned drum” and dances as he moves to music only in his head. The poet uses repetition again in line forty-eight. “Tonight, tonight” the speaker declares, as if echoing the thoughts and feelings of the participants, “the departed spirits will feast on the bone’s marrow”. They will come into contact with their ancestors and honour them. The refrain repeated in lines fifty-one and fifty-two. 

 

Lines 53-62 

In the final lines of ‘Elder’s Waltz’ the speaker describes other actions people take at the dance. They are squatting in a circle, touching hands. The atmosphere is expanded with references to the drum, the smells in the air and offerings to the ancestors. In the last two lines the poet repeats the refrain for the last time. 

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