“I Lost My Talk” by Rita Joe: A Complete Analysis

January 22, 2024 | by poemread.com

I Lost My Talk by Rita Joe_featured _indegenious_AI

Greetings, fellow literary enthusiasts! Today, buckle up for a literary adventure as we explore the profound verses of “I Lost My Talk by Rita Joe.” More than mere poetry, it is a powerful reflection of the struggles faced by the Mi’kmaq Nation, an Indigenous group in Canada. It shows the Mi’kmaq’s struggles to preserve their culture, language, and way of life from colonial pressures.

Furthermore, it also paints a vivid picture of resilience and holding onto who they are. Get ready to journey through these lines—a ride beyond one community’s struggles. It speaks to anyone who has fought to preserve their identity amid life’s storms.

I Lost My Talk by Rita Joe
"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."

About the author

Let’s first meet Rita Joe, the brilliant mind behind “I Lost My Talk.”. She is known to infuse her journey into the very essence of the poem. Born in 1932 in Whycocomagh, Nova Scotia, Joe’s life is intricately woven into her verses. The challenges she faced growing up resonate through her poetic expressions.

Born as a member of the Mi’kmaq Nation, Rita Joe experienced firsthand the unfortunate effects of colonization. The struggles she faced, from cultural suppression to the loss of language, became the raw materials for the emotional workpiece. Rita Joe skillfully crafted these experiences into her poetry.

In “I Lost My Talk,” one can sense not only the collective pain of her people. Moreover, the poem provides a personal portrayal of Joe’s struggle to embrace her identity despite external pressures.

As a poet, Rita Joe doesn’t just narrate; she bares her soul on the pages, inviting readers to feel the depth of her personal triumphs. The poem becomes an asset in that she speaks not only for every member of the Mi’kmaq Nation but also for herself in their journey to self-discovery.

In understanding Rita Joe’s life, we find the beating heart behind the verses. The struggles she faced, the cultural threads she sought to preserve, and the triumphs of resilience all echo in “I Lost My Talk.”It’s not merely a composition; it’s a reflection of one woman’s indomitable spirit. Moreover, it stands as a testament to the enduring power of poetry to encapsulate personal and collective histories.

Context of the poem

Colonization and the European Influence

In the 15th and 18th centuries, the Mi’kmaq Nation, like many Indigenous communities in Canada, witnessed a significant transformation as European colonization took root. The Mi’kmaq people’s long-held traditions were disrupted when outsiders arrived, bringing with them new ideas and ways of living.

During this time, the European settlers, primarily French and British, began establishing colonies in North America. The Mi’kmaq lands, situated in the maritime provinces and parts of Quebec, became a focal point for European interests. For the Mi’kmaq and other Indigenous folks, these new influences and changes ran deep.

Join Rita Joe's 'I Lost My Talk' journey, a poignant reflection on Mi'kmaq struggles, inviting empathy for cultural loss and resilience.

Impact of Residential Schools

One significant consequence was the establishment of residential schools, which gained prominence in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. These institutions, often run by religious entities and supported by the Canadian government, aim to assimilate Indigenous children into Euro-Canadian culture. Starting in the 1870s and continuing for much of the 20th century, kids like Rita Joe from Indigenous communities, including the Mi’kmaq, were forcibly separated from their families and sent to these schools.

One of the devastating aspects of the residential school system was the strict suppression of Indigenous languages. Children were forbidden to speak their native tongues, and the ways of their ancestors were frowned upon. This deliberate effort to erase Indigenous languages and traditions had profound consequences, impacting not only the immediate generation but also echoing through subsequent ones. It was a tough time, a time of losing not just words but also connections to roots and traditions.

“I Lost My Talk” by Rita Joe captures the aftermath of this historical struggle. It is not words on a page, but a heartfelt story. Rita Joe, living through these times, pours her experiences into the poem. The loss of language in her verses becomes a symbol of a much bigger struggle—a fight to keep a cultural flame alive amid a storm of change.

Theme and tone of the poem

At its core, the poem explores the themes of cultural and linguistic oppression, the loss of identity of the minority, and also their resilience and reclaiming of power. These central themes center on the loss that the Mi’kmaq people have endured—not just the obvious loss of language but also a wider cultural erosion that includes traditions, values, and a way of life.

The poem can be considered a lamentation for what was taken away from them and a reflection of their struggle to preserve a cultural heritage against external pressures. It speaks to a universal human experience of loss and the resilience required to navigate through the aftermath.

The tone of “I Lost My Talk” is a delicate interplay between lamentation, a passionate expression of grief and sorrow, and open resistance to change. Rita Joe’s verses resonate with a mournful quality as she unveils the impact of cultural suppression. The reader can feel the weight of the loss, the yearning for what once was, and the emotional toll of a silenced heritage.

However, within this lament, there is an unmistakable thread of resistance and disobedience. The poem develops into a declaration of strength and a refusal to submit completely to the historical difficulties the Mi’kmaq Nation has faced. Rita Joe’s words carry a quiet yet resilient force. They assert the importance of reclaiming her nation’s identity in the face of distressing challenges.

Form and structure of the poem

As we go through the verses, it becomes apparent that Joe’s choice of structure is intentional. The poem adopts a free verse form, a poetic structure that lacks a strict rhyme or meter. The poem has an organic and unrestrained quality because it does not adhere to any particular rhyme scheme or rhythmic structure. The themes and emotions can unfold freely and naturally because of this. It mirrors the untethered spirit seeking liberation.

The poem consists of four stanzas, each with varying lengths. The irregularity in stanza length serves a purpose, creating a visual and auditory rhythm that infers the flow of the speaker’s emotions. The use of enjambment, where a line carries over into the next without a pause, adds to the fluidity of the verses. This reinforces the continuity of the speaker’s thoughts.

The punctuation in the poem is minimal, and where used, it serves specific purposes. Commas and periods are sparingly employed, allowing the reader to move seamlessly through the verses. This lack of punctuation contributes to the poem’s contemplative and uninterrupted tone. It invites the reader to engage with the emotions without the constraints of rigid structure.

Each stanza, a snapshot frozen in time, serves as a window into the speaker’s journey—a visual representation of the struggle against cultural wipe-off.

Line-by-line analysis of the poem

Line 1: “I lost my talk.”

The opening line immediately sets the tone for the entire poem. Here, Rita Joe utilizes a simple yet powerful metaphor, equating the loss of one’s “talk” to the broader loss of cultural identity. The use of the first-person pronoun “I” personalizes the loss, making it an individual experience while simultaneously serving as a collective voice for the Mi’kmaq Nation.

The term “talk” is significant, as it doesn’t talk about a mere linguistic function. It symbolizes the entirety of her people’s narrative—their stories, traditions, and ways of expression. The stripping away of language is synonymous with the muting of an entire cultural legacy.

This opening line acts as an emotional anchor, immediately engaging the reader’s empathy and inviting them into the complexities of the Mi’kmaq experience. The simplicity of the language overrides its profound emotional impact.

Line 2:  “The talk you took away,”

Here, the poet introduces a subtle form of repetition known as anaphora to reinforce the theme. The use of the second person, “you,” introduces a sense of direct address, creating a personal and accusatory undertone. The poet directly targets the responsible force for the cultural loss through their policies and oppression.

The term “took away” conveys that it was intentional, emphasizing that the loss of talk was not a passive occurrence but a deliberate and forceful act. The line is short yet impactful, such that a complex chain of events is condensed into an emotionally powerful statement.

Through this line, Rita Joe invites readers to confront the historical injustices faced by the Mi’kmaq Nation and, by extension, Indigenous communities globally, bridging her personal experience and broader socio-historical contexts.

Line 3 and 4: “When I was a little girl? At Shubenacadie School.”

The poet introduces a shift in time and setting, using enjambment for a smooth transition between lines. The introduction of a specific location, Shubenacadie School, adds depth to the poem, anchoring it in the historical reality of the Canadian residential school system. Shubenacadie Indian Residential School, located in Nova Scotia, was one of the many institutions in Canada designed to assimilate Indigenous children into Euro-Canadian culture.

The use of the past tense, “When I was a little girl,” places the speaker’s loss in a specific period of her life, highlighting the vulnerability of childhood. The innocence associated with being a “little girl” amplifies the tragedy of cultural suppression during her early childhood.

This line, therefore, is a crucial pivot in the poem, serving as a connection between the metaphorical loss introduced in the first two lines and the concrete historical context behind the poem.

Line 5: “You snatched it away”

The choice of the word “snatched” adds a sense of violence to the act of taking away the talk. This line conveys a sense of abruptness, aggression, and violation, suggesting a violent separation from an essential aspect of the speaker’s identity. By using such a potent term, Joe captures the brutality of the cultural suppression she experienced.

Line 6–8: “I speak like you, I think like you, and I create like you”

The use of repetition in these lines is a deliberate employment of anaphora, a literary device where the same words or phrases are repeated at the beginning of successive clauses. The poet portrays the impact of cultural suppression on language, thought processes, and creativity. The repetition creates a monotonous rhythm, echoing the imposed uniformity.

The three-fold repetition of “like you” emphasizes the forceful impact these forces had on them, not only in the transformation of external appearance but also in a deeper, more internal spread of their dominance over speech, thoughts, and creativity.

In these lines, Joe therefore paints a vivid picture of the speaker’s forced adaptation to a foreign cultural framework.

Line 9: “The scrambled ballad, about my word.”

Here, Rita Joe uses metaphor to describe the consequences of the imposed ways of speaking. The “scrambled ballad” reflects the distortion and confusion that have been introduced into the speaker’s cultural narrative.

A ballad, traditionally, is a narrative poem or song and is a form often used to convey cultural stories, traditions, and history. However, the descriptor “scrambled” implies a chaotic and disrupted state, suggesting that the original coherence and authenticity of the speaker’s cultural narrative have been distorted and disrupted.

The use of “my word” emphasizes how personal and unique it was to the speaker.

Line 10-11: “Two ways I talk / Both ways I say,”

This line introduces a powerful contrast, which stands out in the poem. This duality in the speaker’s communication, “Two ways I talk,” immediately establishes a conflict, suggesting that the speaker engages in two distinct modes of communication or is bilingual.

This expression can be interpreted both linguistically, referring to speaking in the Mi’kmaq language and the language of the dominant culture, and culturally, representing the dichotomy between the speaker’s Indigenous identity and the assimilated identity shaped by external influences.

The poet introduces a contrast using juxtaposition by presenting these “two ways,” which can infer two worlds, two distinct cultural platforms.

The repetition in “Both ways I say” serves to reinforce the idea of this dual communication, emphasizing that the speaker can articulate thoughts, feelings, or expressions in both languages or cultural contexts.

The phrase “Both ways I say” could also mean that both languages are equally important to communicate, metaphorically implying that no language or culture surpasses the other. This could be a subtle way of saying the dominance of the foreign language was unethical and simply an unnecessary obligation they were forced to follow.

Line 12: “Your way is more powerful.”

The speaker asserts that “your way,” referring to the dominant culture’s way of speaking and expressing itself, is “more powerful. It conveys the imbalance of power in the system and the once-upon-a-time accepted dominance between the two ways of talking, as introduced in the previous lines.

The use of the second person, “your,” personalizes the assertion. This directly appeals to the dominant culture or those responsible for cultural suppression.

Line 13: “So gently, I offer my hand and ask.”

Rita Joe introduces a change in tone and approach, using euphemism with the phrase “so gently.”. Here, the speaker delicately extends a symbolic gesture. It initiates a plea for understanding, recognition, and the restoration of her lost cultural identity.

The line also conveys a sense of softness, vulnerability, and a desire for a peaceful resolution. The gentleness suggests that the speaker is approaching the situation with care and sensitivity. It makes the upcoming request seem even more important.

The act of offering one’s hand is a powerful symbol of reaching out and making a connection. It suggests a willingness to engage in dialogue and reconciliation. This gesture suggests that the speaker wants to bridge the two styles of speech described previously in the poem. The hand offered is not just a physical hand; it’s an olive branch, a plea for mutual understanding and acceptance.

The phrase “and ask” underscores the polite and humble nature of the speaker’s request. It implies a genuine desire to communicate, learn, and share. The act of asking implies that the speaker seeks acknowledgment and validation of her cultural identity. The use of a simple, direct verb like “ask” contrasts with the forceful language used earlier in the poem, signaling a shift from assertion to a more collaborative approach.

Line 14: “Let me find my talk”

The poet metaphorically and earnestly requests the freedom and space to rediscover and reclaim her lost cultural identity and language.

The act of finding implies a search for something that has been lost. It emphasizes the theme of the poem and the longing to reconnect with a heritage forcibly taken away.

In essence, this marks the climax of the poem, resonating with a universal theme to be recognized and understood.

Line 15: “So I can teach you about me.”

The poem concludes with a hopeful and instructive tone. The use of “So I can” establishes a cause-and-effect relationship, signaling that the act of finding the lost talk is not solely for the speaker’s benefit but is intended to serve a greater purpose.

The phrase “teach you about me” is laden with significance. It conveys the speaker’s willingness to share her cultural heritage, experiences, and perspective with those from the dominant culture. The choice of the word “teach” implies a role of authority. It positions the speaker not merely as a passive victim but as an active participant in shaping this cultural mismatch. The phrase “about me” expresses pride in her unique culture and its importance in recognition.

This final line carries a universal message. It emphasizes the power of mutual understanding and the potential for growth and enrichment from embracing cultural diversity.

Impact of the poem

The poem inspired a range of projects that celebrated and amplified the profound themes embedded in the poem. Among these, the 2016 Rita Joe National Song Project stands out as a testament to the poem’s enduring impact. This initiative invited young talents from First Nations’ communities. They channeled their artistic expressions into creating music videos for a song adaptation of the poem. By engaging the younger generation, the project pays homage to Rita Joe’s legacy.

Here are some videos of this project. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CPFo5Ute6Lc&list=PLijgGUw1NMMWYY7lM_4VKQBRAxmpI3HOL

Furthermore, in 2016, a groundbreaking production brought the poem to life in a dynamic fusion of music and visuals. Renowned composer John Estacio contributed his musical expertise to the project. The Canadian National Arts Centre orchestra provided a moving backdrop to Joe’s poignant words.

A Barbara Willis Sweete-directed movie accompanied this auditory experience, enhancing the audience’s engagement with the poem by adding a visual dimension.

These projects not only showcased the adaptability of “I Lost My Talk” across different artistic mediums but also highlighted its ability to resonate with diverse audiences. The poem’s influence has thus transcended the boundaries of traditional literature, evolving into a source of inspiration that continues to ripple through various artistic and cultural landscapes.


In “I Lost My Talk,” Rita Joe shares a heartfelt journey of reclaiming a lost cultural identity. The tone is sincere, expressing the narrator’s emotions of vulnerability and resilience. The poet aims to foster understanding and awareness, possibly reaching both those who’ve experienced cultural suppression and those unaware of its impact.

The perspective appears personal to the poet, making the reader empathize with the emotions conveyed. It leaves you with a sense of sadness for the loss but hopeful for the possibility of cultural restoration and mutual understanding.


View all

view all