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"Giving Up: A Sumo-wrestling Wild Horse Speaks of Marathons" by Anna Marie Sewell

March 14, 2024

Photo of the Anna Marie Sewell in Mill Creek, semi-recreating a scene from "Urbane" for a Read Alberta promotion. Photo credit: N Johnson.

This article was written as part of a blog series at the Edmonton Arts Council inviting local Indigenous writers to reflect on Indigenous art and artists in Edmonton through guest articles on the EAC blog. Anna Marie Sewell is the author of novels including
Humane (2020) and Urbane (2023). Sewell was raised pre-TRC in a culturally mixed family — Polish/Mi’gmaq/Anishinaabe — a member of Listuguj Mi’gmaq First Nation, Sewell lives in Amiskwaciy/​Edmonton and works globally.

Giving Up: A Sumo-wrestling Wild Horse Speaks of Marathons by Anna Marie Sewell

Sam and Cliff – Pacing” is visual artist Jennie Vegt’s painted version of a photograph depicting Sam Sinclair and Cliff Gladue in a foot race. Sewell and Vegt participated in Reconciling Edmonton in 2015. Sewell’s poem excerpt below was inspired by the same image. 

The last time I saw him
Sam* asked, Who are you
working for now?’ I knew
just what he meant.

How do you serve the people?
It was given that I would. This
Is what his generation
Raised our generation to do. [1]

Sam knew me as Stan Sewell’s daughter, my dad his colleague in Métis rights work until dad’s sudden death in 1985

The last time I’d seen my dad, he was waiting for surgery. It was small comfort that he died knowing I was fulfilling his dream, and would start university in the fall. Other small comforts came from a network of dad’s colleagues who, even decades later, speak of my dad, and like Sam Sinclair, nudge me in the soul. Work must serve.

So, what am I doing to serve people? It’s a question that may go unspoken, but it’s there; if you’re an Indigenous artist, along with its even thornier partner, Which people?

I’ve wrestled with those questions for decades now. As an artist, I’m responsible to The Divine, and to the inborn particular voice of my soul — call it a wild horse who must run free or die. 

Work must serve. Art is work. Art must serve. The wild horse may run, but must carry a load.

I grew up sticking up for being Indigenous, never lying or hiding that heritage. Then as an adult, I found myself among Indigenous artists, compelled to stand just as fiercely for my Polish heritage, and the reality that Indigenous people have as much right as anyone to marry who we please. 

Mothers know. I thought I was holding my own counsel, carrying the weight like an adult grown, but I was struggling to make truthful art, to serve people honourably. The night before a big performance, my mother phoned and said, You’re not the Maker, you’re the tool. You don’t get to know who your work is for, but if you let go and trust God, your work will serve who and how it’s meant to.’ 

That show proved her spectacularly right, and that’s a whole story in itself, one about the 1990s in BC, a time of overt and covert wars, a serial killer the mainstream couldn’t yet admit was operating, the Delgamuukw decision [2], and a beautiful but perilous tide of Aboriginal (as was then current) pride. Suffice to say it honed me. Yes I am Indigenous, a member of Listuguj Mi’gmaq First Nation; my father’s daughter, raised off-reserve with his mother’s Anishinaabe culture. And my mother’s daughter, part of the Polish diaspora. The sum of my heritages, not a subtraction. A piece of Canadian reality. 

Mom passed in 2017. In 2018, I almost left arts work. When our parents pass and we become senior in our family lineage, we must assess our priorities anew. 

Who had I served in thirty years? I’d run a three-year Indigenous theatre project, been Poet Laureate, gotten two poetry books published by reputable presses, done scads of multi-disciplinary community art projects — all ephemera.

So, I almost quit; but I had a small contract pending, to share poetry, song and culture with Edmonton’s Waldorf School, for Orange Shirt Day. I felt a deep clarity, surrendered to the humble scope of my career, accepting that this small thing might be all I am good for. I surrendered to the ephemeral and let the horse run, singing and chanting and chasing the wind in company with others. Expecting nothing, I gave it up and sang.

After a good performance, one can enter a state of euphoria, a perilous state of luminosity while the wild horse holds sway, while one is surrendered in service to art.

In that euphoric state, while exchanging pleasantries with various staff and parents whose names I did not expect to remember for long, I met Netta Johnson. 

Thin, intense as a hunting bird, a fellow introvert, she introduced herself as the CEO of Stonehouse Publishing. 

I know your work as a poet,’ she said, but is there any chance you’ve got any fiction I might look at?’ 

The wild horse answered swiftly, As a matter of fact, I do.’

I went home breathless at that foolish statement. I do?

You do, whispered that horse, fiercely. 

So, I rummaged through my files. I had a scene that had come to me in 2014, after a news story of a home-owning, post-graduate white-passing’ woman joining the ranks of the Missing and Murdered. 

What if a middle-aged, mixed-race, educated Indigenous woman read that story and succumbed to rage? What if she prayed for the means to exact vengeance on anyone and everyone for whom Indigenous Woman’ equals Victim? What if she were given the means? I typed out that first scene in a flash, teeth bared in a silent snarl. 

In fact, I had 30 pages of related scenes, sketches of the people, human and otherwise, who would live in that story. I sent them off, and Netta acquired the book on the spot, and so I had to sit down and write my first novel, Humane. Published in 2020, Humane is still making waves, selling well, and opening doors. Urbane, the sequel, debuted at #1 in Edmonton, in 2023. I’m currently working on book three, in which a Sasquatch seeks her missing mother, while a human married to a werewolf fears puppies, and events in Amiskwaciy move along lines perilously parallel to our own.

So what was it like, shifting from poetry and performance-based work to long form fiction? Exhilarating. To describe it further, imagine poetry as equivalent to sumo — a matter of shifting the heaviest ideas as swiftly and powerfully as possible. Now picture a sumo wrestler running a marathon. It was like that. 

So, I became a sumo wrestling wild horse wrangling a cast of characters both human and otherwise down a long road. Still a daughter, now a mother, still an Indigenous artist. Writing tales of unlicensed (some say incompetent) detective Hazel LeSage and her complicated circle of shapeshifting friends and family, now who am I working for? 

Hazel Lesage, despite the suspicions of various readers, is not me. 

She is like me in many ways. We’re both first generation ethnic mix of Anishinaabe, Mi’gmaq and Polish, rural raised, university educated and a bit pointy. Her circle of family and friends, like mine, is global. 

And we’d both be a bit pointy with you if you were to demand that we quantify our pedigree, our right to speak from our lived experience, or our sovereign duty to take on the world as best we can, by the light given, with all our might and in rampant imperfection. Only Hazel swears more than I do. Really.

If old Sam Sinclair, or my dad, or anyone working in that long long work to bring prosperity and wellness to Indigenous people were to ask me, am I working for The People? I’d have to answer, If it serves that I’m peddling stories that might make folks laugh, and cry, and remember that Life is Mystery, then maybe so.

If my mom looked in on my progress? I’d like to hope she sees that I continue to strive to surrender, to do my utmost to serve the Divine through the singular voice and vision given to me, in trust that my work will serve who and how it is meant to serve. 


[1] From the Poem Pacing/​Fun Run,’ in Reconciling Edmonton, 2015. https://​city​mu​se​umed​mon​ton​.ca/​2016​/​01​/​04​/​r​e​c​o​n​c​i​l​i​n​g​-​e​d​m​o​nton/


About the author

Anna Marie Sewell is the author of novels Humane (2020) and Urbane (2023), both from Stonehouse Publishing; For the Changing Moon: Poems & Songs (Thistledown Press, 2018) and Fifth World Drum (poetry) Frontenac House, 2009).

Notable collaborations include: LitFest (2023), At First Light (2022), Journey Song (2020), By Heart (2019), Ancestors&Elders (2018), Reconciling Edmonton (2015) and her work as Edmonton’s 4th Poet Laureate. Raised pre-TRC in a culturally mixed family — Polish/Mi’gmaq/Anishinaabe — a member of Listuguj Mi’gmaq First Nation, Sewell lives in Amiskwaciy/​Edmonton and works globally. Learn more at prairiepomes​.com.