Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Elders' stories date back to ice age

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If you have ever wished you could go back in time so as to listen just a little more carefully to the stories and advice of your grandparents or great-grandparents, you will understand why educators across Manitoba are now so warmly embracing the wisdom of First Nations elders. It's because they can finally get access to these oral stories in the form of a newly published book entitled Treaty Elders' Teachings: Untuwe Pi Kin He (Who We Are).

It's a big change in the First Nations community -- putting to print the stories that only had been told and re-told orally through many generations.

Preserving and protecting the key teachings of First Nations elders was a project that was nearly 10 years in the making. Once all five books in the series are complete later this year, this oral history project will represent the most substantial written work in over 40 years.

The complexity of the task was daunting but the partnership between the Treaty Relations Commission, Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs and the Council of Elders resulted in interviews with more than 200 elders from 62 communities and in five different languages.

Looking back, we now realize just how important this push to record and publish elder stories actually was. Why? Because over the course of the project, more than a quarter of the elders died.

Oral cultures are so different than cultures that have written texts. As an adult thinking back on the stories I was told by my elders, I continue to be struck by the skill and discipline of listening, of remembering and of re-communicating that oral traditions demand.

It was my moosum (grandfather in Cree) who first told us, as children, the stories of Wisakayjack -- stories that never varied between re-telling. It was only years later I learned he would only retell a story exactly as he had heard it and only when he could retell it word for word. Importantly, these were stories that had lasted hundreds and even thousands of years, which is why we are all so humbled to be a part of the oral history project.

If you're curious about Wisakayjack, he was a Cree trickster who was always hungry, cold and running out of food. As the story goes, a long winter had enveloped the land, so Wisakayjack walked west in search of food, all the way to the mountains where he could go no further. Winter followed him. He then walked as far south as he could, and yes, winter followed him a long way until he finally hit warmer weather.

You might imagine our elders had a good chuckle when they started hearing stories of an ice age in North America from the "newcomers." After all, they had been telling stories of young Wisakayjack for generations.

In fact, the story doesn't end here because when Wisakayjack eventually came back north as the ice retreated, some of his kin stayed behind. And that is why the Dene and the Dine (Navajo) speak a common language and why a Cree from northern Manitoba can understand the Native American dialect being spoken in southern Florida.

The lesson is that these are more than just stories. They are the history of our land and our peoples and every word is worth preserving and protecting as a gift for future generations of all the races.

As First Nations, we must continue to respect the wisdom of our elders and to willingly share our approach with other cultures that have become much more dismissive. Our inaugural edition of Treaty Elders' Teachings and the willingness of teachers and professors alike to teach from it, will open new doors and create new dialogue.

For children growing up in Manitoba today, they will now have easy access to Dakota elder Doris Pratt, Anisinabe elder Tabasonakwut Kinew or Cree elder D'Arcy Linklater and... they'll all be just a few steps away sitting on a library shelf.

It's a meaningful step forward that will ensure the lessons of our elders will live forever and be shared with a much larger audience than groups of grandchildren gathered round their moosum on a cold winter's day.


James Wilson is commissioner of the Treaty Relations Commission of Manitoba, a neutral body mandated to encourage discussion, facilitate public understanding, and enhance mutual respect between all peoples in Manitoba.


Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition February 27, 2014 A15

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