Julie Pellissier-Lush is an actress and best-selling author of My Mi’Kmaq Mother. Born in Summerside, Julie attended the University of Winnipeg in 2000, where she graduated with a double major in Psychology and Human Resources.
After completing her studies, Julie moved back to Prince Edward Island where she worked as Managing Editor at the Mi’kmaq Confederacy for five years before putting together the award-winning theatre group Mi’kmaq Legends in 2011. The long-running production is composed of elements of storytelling, music, and dance that when combined sees authentic Mi’kmaq lore come to life onstage.
In addition to her creative work, Julie has also sat on a number of committees representing Indigenous issues and rights, and has previously served as the vice president of the Aboriginal Women’s Association where she sat for four terms.
In 2019, Julie made history when she became Prince Edward Island’s first Mi’kmaq Poet Laureate since the title was first appointed in 2002. Her most recent book, a collection of poetry titled; Epekwitk: Mi’kmaq Poetry from Prince Edward Island was released November 24th 2021.
Working as a collector of stories is kind of like working as a part-time journalist and part-time treasure hunter, would you agree?
Sometimes somebody will message me and say, “I have a story for you”, and I pretty much drop everything and go running because that’s what it’s all about. Because our culture was preserved for generations through stories that weren’t truly written. I mean, we did have written things that we would do, but mostly birch bark scrolls, or the petroglyphs at Kejimkujik. But most of our stories that got passed down were told orally, and without people passing them down, they disappear.
I heard you mention the phrase in another interview that went something like this, “They say when an elder passes away, a library burns,” how much of Mi’kmaq history and culture do you think have been lost over the years?
We didn’t live in large community groups in the winter and spring. Traditionally, it was always around June 21st that we all would gather and celebrate having survived the long cold winter. That was our time to connect and share our knowledge. Usually, it was the elder, the storyteller, who would sit by the fire every night and tell different stories to the family over and over and over again. And so when those children, those grandchildren grew up, they would know the stories and one of them would have to, or maybe all of them would become the ones responsible for teaching the generations to follow to make sure that they got passed down.
I read that as you were expecting your third child, you said you felt as though something changed inside you that prompted you to write your first book My Mi’kmaq Mother.
The first two pregnancies were in my teens. So you know, you see the doctor and they say, yes, you’re pregnant, and then you don’t see them till seven or eight months down the line and everything is good to go. When you’re over 30, and you get pregnant, you’re suddenly having to go in every three weeks, and they’re taking blood tests to make sure that the child is okay. And the world is a way different place when you’re pregnant, and you’re older. So I started getting scared, you know, I started thinking, what if I don’t make it? What if I don’t make it through this? If that happens, he won’t know anything about me, he won’t know my stories.
I wanted to make sure at least my kids would have an understanding of who I am, just in case. Then I got an amazing publisher who believes in the idea of print. Before it was just going to go into some binder from the dollar store for the kids.
It’s supposed to be a trilogy, and I just really haven’t got back to it. Because Mi’kmaq Legends and Mi’kmaq Heritage Actors all started about two years after that book came out. And then after that I just started focusing on my poetry.
In the last few years you’ve worn a lot of different hats. You became PEI’s first Mi’kmaq poet laureate, you’ve published books, you’ve acted, but before all of this you served as vice-president of the Aboriginal Women’s Association of PEI. Did that experience influence your work?
At the Aboriginal Women’s Association I was the vice president for 12 years. I was one of the board members that was sent when they were having the National Indigenous Women’s Summit. So they flew us to Newfoundland for the first year where we got to talk about some of the bigger issues facing Indigenous women. I think the last one we did here in the Atlantic had more of a focus on what the nation’s Indigenous women wanted to look at, and for us, it was the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women, which slowly became almost the root, the basis of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada. So I feel like I have some piece, some small part in the workings of that at a provincial level, because we sat on the provincial level of PEI. And then we joined the national level with all the other native women’s associations across Canada. So I feel like in some way, my voice did maybe help in some way.
You just released your first book of poetry just a few weeks ago, can you tell me a bit about that book?
I think 48 poems went into the book. I wanted to make sure these poems were long lasting, and that they had significance to different kinds of people. My hope is eventually it does end up in some of the schools because they’re like prayers from our elders. There are ghost stories, and what I call family poems that I created over time. So I wanted to make sure I had those included as well. I have a couple hundred other poems ready to go, but these ones are the ones I specifically wanted to put in my first book.
You mentioned that there would also be an art accompaniment to the book as well?
The style of art that I’m doing is called drop art. You put paints into a cup, and then you flip the cup over onto the canvas, and you wait for it all to settle. Then you lift the top up and the paint goes wherever it’s supposed to go and reveals these beautiful images. It’s like looking at the clouds when you look up at the sky and can find little pictures from them. I wanted to have something just like poetry that people could take what they wanted to from it.
When you were putting this collection of poetry together I heard you had the opportunity to work with another one of PEI’s poet laureates? How did that happen?
I was so blessed that when my book of Mi’kmaq poetry was getting ready to slip from my hands and into the hands of Acorn Press they actually passed it on to another poet from PEI by the name of Diane Morrow. She was actually the one who went and edited my book of poetry for me. So I got to spend many hours sitting with her and her laptop and talking about how to edit a poetry book. She’s an exceptional poet who was previously the poet laureate of Prince Edward Island. I got to learn so much from her and it was just an amazing experience to connect with other poets.
What does the future hold for you? Are there any projects that have been keeping you busy as of late?
And I’m thinking maybe the next one might have to be all my ghost stories that I’ve been collecting. I already have like two elders who want to share their stories, and I told them ‘I will be your conduit’. I will make it so that everybody here on PEI and hopefully beyond will have an opportunity to read these stories.
You’re really branching out.
You’re right. Eventually, if somebody ever goes to Indigo and says, I’m looking for Julie Pellissier-Lush, they’ll say, okay, she’s in the memoir section, she’s probably in the Island history, she’s in the children’s section, and maybe next she’ll be in the horror section!
You can purchase Julie’s most recent book Epekwitk: Mi’kmaq Poetry from Prince Edward Island by visiting the Acorn Press website.