Halee Kirkwood: A Sense of Belonging

Place is defined by the stories we tell, and each place has a story that must be told.
Halee Kirkwood

I grew up in a series of homes, shelters, hotel rooms, and Section 8 apartments between Superior, Wisconsin, and Duluth. I am a second-generation descendant of the Fond du Lac Band. My family experienced house fires, evictions, domestic violence, addiction, and homelessness. We felt a sense of displacement reflected in the larger story of colonization.

In my youth, I could have easily grown bitter toward the idea of home and place. Knowing place through story and ecology, however, has helped me come to love the western Lake Superior region, and learn how to love myself.

The poetry collection “When My Brother Was an Aztec,” by Mohave writer Natalie Diaz, helped me see that the way I wanted to write about place was possible. Diaz presents the realities of addiction, intergenerational trauma, and cultural commodification intertwined with her desert landscape’s resilient beauty.

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Recognizing and greeting the animals, plants, and geologies of an environment is crucial when developing a meaningful relationship to place. In dg nanouk okpik’s poetry collection “Corpse Whale,” the poet extensively catalogs her arctic home — her whale bones and lichens are my white pines and sturgeons. The ecologies we fall in love with teach us how to step respectfully through another’s home.

Place is also known through story. I found a sense of belonging in Louise Erdrich’s first novel, “Love Medicine,” a collection of stories and voices that compose a community’s lyric history. I believe place retains reverberations of what has happened before, in interpersonal relationships and political movements, and on a grand scale of love and hate. Place is defined by the stories we tell, and each place has a story that must be told.

Unfortunately, home is also a site of danger for me and many Indigenous women and two-spirit folks across the world. Interpersonal violence accumulates into larger social patterns, as evidenced by alarming gender-based domestic and sexual violence statistics.

Haudenosaunee writer Alicia Elliot’s essay collection, “A Mind Spread Out on the Ground,” deftly presents how the personal is political by examining how social conditions — such as malnutrition experiments done on Indigenous children and mental illness — played out in her family story.

Reading Indigenous women and two-spirit authors, I have noticed that much of our literature exists in hybrid modes. As people with complex relationships to land and home, the tendency to lean into hybridity seems almost necessary.

The linear, plot-focused storytelling in the Western canon is not always suitable for expressing our relationships to place.

Leanne Betasamosake Simpson’s book, “Islands of Decolonial Love,” gathers short story, poetry, and song to create a collaged sense of home in the wake of colonialism. In Danielle Geller’s “Dog Flowers,” the writer weaves family photographs with memoir to complement the emotional impact of returning to the Navajo reservation after her mother’s death.

Although trauma is evident across this continent — in emotional and physical scars, of the human and the land — we can recognize home as multivalent, capable of both wound and transformation. In this, we can understand ourselves as similarly capable of song and reconciliation.


Halee Kirkwood (they/them) is a poet and teaching artist in Minneapolis. They are a direct descendant of the Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Ojibwe, and a bookseller at Birchbark Books and Native Arts.