Image of beaded moccasins and peaked cap.

Teaching Through Art Creation: An Interview with Francine Poitras Jones – Part 2

By Faith Wood. Middlebury College. Class of 2024
Native Presence and Performance (First Year Seminar Course)

In spring 2021, Vera Longtoe Sheehan (Elnu Abenaki) met with the students of “Native Presence and Performance: Reclaiming the Indigenous Narrative,” a first-year seminar offered by Middlebury College. After the meeting, Longtoe Sheehan recommended the students interview and write about VAAA affiliated artists. This blog post is one of a series that were created for that project, respectfully submitted by a student who self-identifies as non-Native.

Due to the length of this narrative, it is being introduced in three parts over a period of three weeks. This is the second part.

Though so much of Francine Poitras Jones’s life is centered around building the bridge between these worlds through the sharing of her time, talents, and passions, she acknowledges that there are certain traditions and items that are so important to her and her people that they cannot and should not be commodified. One such item is the eagle feather. “Eagle feathers,” she explains, “are only meant to be given, not bought. The eagles fly higher than any other bird that I know of, and because eagles fly high, the eagle is closer to Creator. By lifting the eagle feather when you are in prayer, you are asking the eagle to take your prayers to Creator.”[1]  In keeping certain traditions within the community, Indigenous communities like Francine’s pass on their living heritage. When a community has had to endure much struggle to even be here today, passing on its sacred practices becomes all the more infused with meaning and power.

Though painful, the struggle Indigenous populations have had (and still have) to overcome is not something to be forgotten. According to Tuhiwai Smith, remembering the harm done to their ancestors can be a very distressing process, but it is one that can lead to both healing and transformation.[2] Poitras Jones’ family came to Massachusetts from Canada during a time of mass genocide and forced sterilization of Indigenous peoples. She says she will “never forget” the story her mother told her of the time when she asked her aunt if she was Indian, and her aunt screamed, “Don’t you ever use the word ‘Indian’ again!”[3] Her mother’s aunt reacted like this not out of allegiance to her French ancestry, but out of fear of being found out; being openly Native American at that time would likely put them in danger of becoming victims of genocide.

When she became an adult, Francine sought out the truth of her past. Though she “knew she had Native American blood,” she knew very little about her ancestry.[4] After seeing her own name, Poitras, in an Indigenous display at the Glenbow Museum in Calgary, Alberta, Francine started on her 20-year journey of uncovering her family’s history. She scoured through library archives and examined article after article, eventually being able to piece together the story of her family. Proving her lineage “meant everything” to her. She could truly be open with who she was. She could be connected with her relatives in a way many of her ancestors could not.[5]

[1] Poitras Jones Interview.

[2] Tuhiwai Smith, 146.

[3] Poitras Jones Interview.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.