The heart of a poet

Animation still of Indigenous woman crying.
A still from Heart Like a Pow Wow. Courtesy of Chief Lady Bird

Poet, musician and Indigenous law researcher Tara Williamson (JD ’10, MA ’10) has her words brought to the screen with the animated film Heart Like a Pow Pow.

Tara Williamson (she/her/they/them) is a singer and songwriter. Williamson (JD ’10, MA ’10) is a self-described “poet and provocateur, the spark that ignites the flame, from Winnipeg, by way of Peterborough and Victoria.” She is a member of Opaskwayak Cree Nation and was raised in Gaabishkigamaag (Swan Lake, Manitoba). Williamson also has close family ties to Beardy’s-Okemasis in Saskatchewan and is a newly adopted member in the House of Dhadhiyasila of the Haíɫzaqv Nation. She holds a law degree and a Master of Arts in Indigenous Governance from the University of Victoria and a social-work degree from the University of Manitoba.

Her poetry was recently brought to film in the animated series of Indigenous stories How to Lose Everything inspired by Christa Couture’s memoir of the same name. Heart Like a Pow Wow, directed by Chief Lady Bird, explores the depths of grief from an Anishinaabe perspective of love and family. The short can be viewed now on the free streaming service CBC Gem.

Find it here:

My art is influenced by every part of my life. I think my education has helped me be confident in centring Indigenous identity, politics, and culture in my work."
—Tara Williamson

Was Heart Like a Pow Wow your first venture into film? How did it feel to see your words brought to life on the screen?

I have participated in film projects in different ways over the years. As an activist and commentator, I was interviewed for the APTN documentary The Power Was With Us: Idle No More that is currently screening in different cities. I appeared as the songwriter/musician in Leanne Simpson’s music video, “Leaks,” directed by Cara Mumford. I was also featured in an episode of APTN’s series, Amplify, which was a short documentary that included a music video for my song, “Enfolding,” directed by Madison Thomas.

However, this is the first time I’m ever done an animated project that was based on my poetry. It has been a tremendous honour to witness the amount of work and heart that went into bringing these pieces to life. It feels overwhelming and a little surreal. Chief Lady Bird, in particular, captured so much of the emotion and messaging I was trying to convey. Working with her has been a gift.

Heart Like a Pow Wow memory still
Courtesy of Chief Lady Bird 

You composed, produced and performed the music as well. How did that process work?

I very loosely based the melodies of the music on some themes from traditional Anishinaabe songs. I want to really emphasize “loosely.” From there, Aidan Knight, the engineer and producer (and also an amazing Victoria-based singer-songwriter in his own right) recorded them with me on a grand piano at Michael and Margaret Asch’s residence. Aidan worked hard to fit the sections together so that they would fit each stanza for all the language translations/versions of the film—which was more challenging than we anticipated. He did such a great job. Additional sound design was done by the post-production company and those additions really brought the film to life.

Heart like a Pow Wow thunderbird still
Courtesy of Chief Lady Bird

You have a background in law and Indigenous governance from UVic. How does this inform your art?

My art is influenced by every part of my life. I think my education has helped me be confident in centering Indigenous identity, politics, and culture in my work. While it might not always be explicit or clearly evident, especially to non-Indigenous people, it is the fountainhead of all the things I create. I honed some of that confidence at UVic through the influence and support of peers and mentors in the Faculty of Law and Indigenous Governance.

Tara Williamson
Tara Williamson. Photo courtesy of Summer Faith Garcia at RezKat Studios

Where is home these days?

I live in Victoria on the traditional territory of the lək̓ʷəŋən people and SENĆOŦEN speaking peoples. I moved back in May of 2019 to take a job at the Indigenous Law Research Unit (ILRU) at UVic. I am currently the co-Research Director of ILRU (a position I share with Jessica Asch).

What are you working on now? 

ILRU takes up a lot of my time, but I’m not complaining. I love my work. Music wise, I am working on releasing a new single in the next couple of months and will be announcing a Victoria show in the near future. 

What is your daily writing life like?

I mostly write emails, lol. And, Indigenous law reports. But, I journal often and try to songwrite at least once a week. But, as I’ve been focusing on my work with ILRU, I have been less consistent with a daily creative-writing practice. But, I know that things come in cycles, so that will change again.

What do you like to do when you’re not writing or performing?

I am a very social creature. So, visiting with friends and family is my favourite pastime. And napping. I love napping.

Where can UVic alumni catch up with you and your work this year?

My website is—I’ll be updating it shortly with all of the new things. I’m on Instagram @epingishmook_nenookaasi and on Twitter

—Jenny Manzer, BA '97