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What the elders say

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If you've ever sat around the living room on a long winter night and had the opportunity to listen to stories from the older people in your family, you are partaking in a ceremony that has existed in First Nations families for thousands of years. But there's a big difference.

First Nations gatherings aren't just casual affairs where entertaining tales are shared from back in the day. They are the primary method of ensuring important life lessons are carried forward from one generation to the next in a society that is based on oral traditions.

In a modern world where society relies so heavily on the written word, First Nations elders carry with them the keys to unlocking so many lessons that are relevant to all of us as Canadians -- lessons of the land, people, history, and life.

Of great concern to First Nations communities is that, with the passing of each Cree, Ojibwa, Dakota and Dene elder, these lessons are slowly vanishing with them.

Sadly, for too many years, oral traditions were given little to no respect. Academia, court systems and school curricula relegated oral histories to a non-existent back shelf.

In all the time I went through school, I never once heard the perspective of a First Nations elder in any of my classrooms, yet the Supreme Court of Canada has told us, as a country, that their oral histories are as important as any primary source document to the understanding of our country.

Fortunately, in the interpretation of treaties, oral histories, through a series of court cases, now have been established as equally important as journals, notes and records of the day.

To honour our elders and their oral histories, the Treaty Relations Commission of Manitoba began a process in 2006 to begin to make amends for some of these discrepancies.

Though a very small effort in relation to all of the knowledge carried by elders, we interviewed over 220 elders from across the province and transcribed their thoughts, lessons and teachings into a four-volume series.

The first volume, Untuwe Pi Kin He -- Who We Are: Treaty Elders Teachings, will be released this spring and will feature a mix of Ininew (Cree), Anishnabe, Dene, Oji-Cree and Dakota voices that have been transcribed in both their languages and in English.

Other volumes are works in progress but, once completed, Vol. 2 will focus on Our Relationship with the Land while Vol. 3 will focus on Our Relationship to the Newcomers.

"People have been speaking for us for the last few hundreds of years but now we want to speak and tell our story using our own languages," said Nisichawayasihk elder D'Arcy Linklater. "Others have tried to define our history for us, our destiny, our land, our homeland and our territory. No one can define our destiny but us. That is why we started this oral history project."

The finished products will end up in every school in Manitoba, so if a young student does not have the opportunity to learn from and speak directly with an elder, they can at least have access and "hear" their voices in the written form. Volumes will also be available to any interested citizen, through the Treaty Relations Commission, and will form an important part of finally putting to print the crucial lessons of our elders. It is better late than never.

As a side note, it has been impossible to work on this oral history project without personally reflecting on the importance of our elders. I think back to myself as a young teacher, heading into a new direction with a background of training and experience in the outdoors. With an ego well-honed by past experiences in the infantry, survival schools, hundreds of hours spent paddling, hiking, navigating, climbing and slogging through swamps and deep dark forests with some of the world's finest warriors, I was pretty sure I knew it all.

Imagine coming to the sudden realization that you know nothing about the land you are standing on compared to the person on it in front of you.

That was me. Not the little more knowledgeable one of today, but the arrogant one of my youth. The man standing in front of me was, of course, a Cree elder -- a trapper who had spent his life on the land and who carried with him oral stories and histories as old as the land itself.

Humbling is an understatement.


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 March 6, 2013 A11

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