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This article was published 13/11/2017 (805 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
This is the work that lies ahead and, at first, it sounds daunting: to save languages that are struggling, to reclaim cultures once stolen in residential schools and recover histories erased and replaced by those of the colonizers.
Yet that work can begin with just six simple words: "Let me tell you a story."
It was 2006, and William Dumas was visiting the University of Winnipeg when he approached Prof. Mavis Reimer for help. Could Reimer, then a Canada Research Chair in children’s texts and cultures, help him create a storybook?
At first, Reimer demurred: they were scholars. They studied other people’s books, they didn’t produce them.
"Let me tell you a story," Dumas replied.
That story was this: in 1993, the 350-year-old remains of a young Cree woman were found near Manitoba’s South Indian Lake. Elders allowed researchers to study her, believing she had let herself be found to share lessons from their ancestors.
More than a decade later, researchers had learned a great deal from that archeological finding and published scholarly articles. But Dumas, a Cree storyteller and educator based in Thompson, thought a key part was still missing.
They needed to connect modern youth to that ancestor and those lessons.
"Native youth of today are disoriented, because they don’t have the history behind them," Dumas says. "When a people don’t know where they come from and where they’re at, it’s hard for them to know where they’re going."
By the time Dumas finished telling this story, Reimer was convinced. She helped convene a team of researchers and, with Dumas’ storytelling leading the way, they created a book inspired by the young woman who lived so long ago.
That 2013 book, Pisim Finds Her Miskanow, is a remarkable offering, an intricate and loving homage to language and history and the lives Cree people made on the land.
It won a number of awards, and sold more than 2,600 copies. Now, a project that began with a story is being lifted by some big federal money.
On Monday, the U of W announced a new project led by Reimer and her team, called Six Seasons of the Asiniskow Ithiniwak, has won a $2.5-million grant from the Social Science and Humanities Council of Canada.
Over the next seven years, the money will support the creation of five more books in the series. The books will follow characters through the six seasons known to northern Cree cultures, showing the seasonal cycle of pre-contact life.
There will also be a teacher’s guide and digital apps, which will allow users to hear the stories told in the northern Rocky Cree dialect.
The project has many voices: there are 12 primary researchers from a variety of institutions, 12 other collaborators and 10 partner organizations, including the Nisichawayasihk and O-Pipon-Na-Piwin Cree Nations near Thompson.
Together, they will train 169 student researchers, at least half of them Indigenous. The project will work closely with community members of Rocky Cree First Nations, collecting knowledge and histories from the grassroots on up.
Yet, Dumas remains the heart and soul of the project, his own life serving as a road map for its future.
Dumas grew up in the 1950s and ’60s near South Indian Lake, where his family worked a trapline. Today, the region is connected to Thompson by a looping 300-kilometre road; in those days, it was accessible only by canoe or float plane.
There was no TV available there when Dumas was young, only a radio that crackled with Hank Williams tunes and inscrutable news. Instead, the children gathered around Cree-speaking elders, listening to stories told by the light of a kerosene lamp.
"I was at the tail end of a new future," Dumas says. "The elders, the storytellers, that’s how we were connected."
In a way, the storybooks and digital apps he will now help develop — the first app is tentatively planned to be released in the spring — are just another version of that experience, now updated for a mobile and digitally-saturated century.
"If we can use technology to get their attention, more power to us," he says. "That’s the beauty of it."
Because this is not only about Rocky Cree youth, he adds, though they are at the heart. It’s also about connecting youth from all backgrounds with each other, with the history of these lands and the languages that belong here.
"That’s important for me to give Aboriginal youth a sense of history," he says. "It’s (also) about Canadian children knowing who the Aboriginal people are in Canada. That’s very important for me to create that Canadian identity.
"It’s a beautiful dream and I’m so glad to be a part of it."
On a final note, there is also a crowdfunding campaign to raise $20,000 for a storybook app for Pisim Finds Her Miskanow. To see what’s planned and help fund that effort, visit the campaign’s website (uwinnipeg.ca/pisim).
Updated on Tuesday, November 14, 2017 at 7:14 AM CST: Photo fixed