18 pages 36 minutes read

Rita Joe

I Lost My Talk

Fiction | Poem | Adult | Published in 2007

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Summary and Study Guide


“I Lost My Talk” is a lyric poem by Mi’kmaq poet and songwriter Rita Joe, from her second collection of poetry, Song of Eskasoni: More Poems of Rita Joe (1988). This poem is based on her experiences at the Shubenacadie Residential School, part of the Canadian program for deracinating and often forcibly assimilating First Nations children. The poem deals with themes of linguistic and cultural oppression, as well as reclaiming power and identity for minority voices.

The poem inspired a variety of projects, including the 2016 Rita Joe National Song Project, in which young people from First Nations’ communities were asked to create and submit a music video for a song version of the poem. Additionally, a multimedia performance of Joe’s poem also premiered in 2016, with music composed by John Estacio performed by the Canadian National Arts Centre orchestra, and a film by Barbara Willis Sweete.

Four lines of Joe’s poem are a part of the 2008 Truth and Reconciliation Commission report on reservation schools in Canada.

Poet Biography

Rita Bernard Joe was born on March 15, 1932, at the Mi’kmaq Nation’s Whycocomagh Reserve in Nova Scotia, Canada. When Joe was five, her mother died; consequently, she spent time in foster care for several years before reuniting with her father and four siblings. At 10 years old, she lost her father and was enrolled in the Shubenacadie Residential School, a reservation school in Nova Scotia funded by the Federal Department of Indian Affairs. There, she was forbidden to speak her native Mi’kmaq language or practice her cultural traditions, the subject of the poem “I Lost My Talk.”

Several years after graduating, Joe moved to Boston, Massachusetts, in the United States. In 1954, she met and married Frank Joe, also of the Mi’kmaq Nation. Eventually, they moved to the Eskasoni Reserve in Nova Scotia, where Frank was raised. Together, they raised ten children with her husband, including two foster sons.

Joe began writing in the 1960s both in Mi’kmaq and English. In 1978, she published her first collection, The Poems of Rita Joe. In 1996, she wrote her autobiography, Song of Rita Joe. She continued to publish until her death in 2007; she received many accolades for her work, such as the Order of Canada in 1989 and the National Aboriginal Achievement Award in 1997. During her career, Joe also finished her high school education. She is often referred to as the Poet Laurette of the Mi’kmaq people, as she acted as a spokesperson for Indigenous peoples in Canada and the United States.

Poem Text

I lost my talk

The talk you took away.

When I was a little girl

At Shubenacadie school.

You snatched it away:

I speak like you

I think like you

I create like you

The scrambled ballad, about my word.

Two ways I talk

Both ways I say,

Your way is more powerful.

So gently I offer my hand and ask,

Let me find my talk

So I can teach you about me.

Joe, Rita. “I Lost My Talk.” 2007. Mi’kmawey Debert Cultural Centre.


In the first stanza of “I Lost My Talk,” the speaker explains that her first language was taken away when she was a little girl at school by an unspecified, generalized “you”—the implication, since readers know that that Joe spent time in Canada’s Residential School system, is that the “you” are her white teachers, and the majority white society that created this oppressive system.

In the second stanza, the speaker describes the effects of having her first way of speaking forbidden: She has taken on the oppressor group’s way of speaking and thinking. Her words are no longer her own, but a mixture of her original culture and the white culture imposed on her: a “scrambled ballad” (Line 9).

In the third stanza, the narrator acknowledges that although she can now speak two different ways, in both of them, she can only come to the same conclusion: The language of the white “you” is more “powerful” (Line 12). In other words, although she can reclaim her birth language, this small piece of empowerment is not enough to break down the sociopolitical structures that marginalize First Nations peoples.

In the fourth and final stanza of the poem, the narrator extends a “hand” (Line 13) to the “you” and offers her white audience the opportunity to learn about her of speaking. Unlike what was done to her—forcible assimilation—she is not demanding that her white readers submit to deracination; rather, she is gently suggesting a communion of equals.