Winter is a traditional storytelling time for Indigenous peoples living in North America. In the past, family members would spend their cold winter nights listening to Elders as they sat near the fire and told the stories that sustained the community. Some of these stories were every day stories, while others contained family and community laws and had strict protocols around the telling – but all contained lessons embedded in the multiple layers of meaning. Each community member, young or old took their own lesson out of the telling – lessons that would unfold and change over time.
As an urban Cree/Metis mom & writer, running as fast as everyone else in this speedy 21st century world, I don’t have the benefit of sitting with teachers by the fireplace every night. But I do have Elders that I work with, as well as books of traditional knowledge that warm and sustain me. I have recently been working with Elders for an oral history project on Indigenous masculinities, and three of the men I have interviewed are also authors. Tom Porter, Dominique Rankin and Rene Meshake share stories from their respective traditions (Mohawk, Algonquin, and Ojibway) through books in English and French, although they integrate their Indigenous languages throughout as a way of furthering our understanding of Indigenous worldviews.
Porter’s book, And Grandma Said…Iroquois Teachings as Passed Down Through the Oral Tradition (XLibris Corporation, 2008) is a compilation of transcribed speeches made by the Mohawk Elder over the many decades he has spent as a traditional teacher and knowledge keeper. If you have ever been to one of Tom’s lectures, you know you will be in for a treat – he is easily the best orator I have ever heard. As Lesley Forrester, the editor of the book points out, “I couldn’t remember a time when I had heard him speak, that I hadn’t both laughed and cried…” Kudos to Forrester, who has skilfully captured the way Porter delivers his lectures while making it all readable as a book.
This book is history, cosmology, philosophy, linguistics, poetry, law – all wrapped up in stories so engaging that you forget how much you are learning. Porter has structured it around the history of the Iroquois according to their main teachings, starting with the creation story, the arrival of the clan system, the Four Sacred rituals and the Great Law, through the time of Karihwi:io (the prophet Handsome Lake) and moving into “modern disarray.” All of this material is interwoven with Porter’s own personal history, incorporating all the laughter and tears that has involved. There are some favourites here for those of us who are fans, such as a lecture on how to count from one to ten in Mohawk, in which Porter explains how the word for each number carries a story bundle that links back to the major events in Iroquois history. There are lessons for parents and future leaders in his material concerning childrearing and the connection to good governance. Porter points out that, “When you raise your children, you’re raising them in case they’re needed…. It’s not necessarily that you are doing that in order for them to become leaders, but so that there will be a lot to choose from. Just like when you plant corn, you don’t just plant one corn.” Porter’s book definitely plants a lot of seeds for the mind and spirit, and will be something that I will read again and again over the years.
Dominique Rankin’s work also provides a riveting way of learning about Aboriginal history, worldview and lifeways. Co-written with Marie-Josee Tardif, Rankin’s book On nous appellait les sauvages: souvenirs et espoirs d’un chef hereditaire algonquin (Le jour, 2011) is an autobiographical work, structured around the framework of the Seven Fires Prophecy of the Anishinaabek, which provides a parallel for Rankin’s life. He begins with early history of his people, then takes us through the dark times of colonial interference, and out into the juncture of history we are currently at: that of lighting the “eighth fire.” Rankin describes spending his early childhood on the land in northern Quebec, and the devastating consequences of being taken away to residential school. His vivid descriptions give an insider’s look at the experiences of his people as they are forced to move into villages, and of his own path of having to struggle so that he could be the teacher, hereditary and medicine man that he is today. The book is beautifully written and so accessible – even with my limited high school French immersion skills, I found it easy to read. It is so rewarding to see history told from an Indigenous lens, and so needed.
Rene Meshake shows us history and teachings through using story in a different way. Meshake has created a series of beautiful picture books about nine year-old “Giniw,” a boy growing up with his grandmother in Northwestern Ontario. There are more planned in the series, but the first three books, Blueberry Rapids, Moccasin Creek, and The Copper Axe provide plenty of teachings drawn from Meshake’s own life history, where the “old ladies” held plenty of authority and were respected for their knowledge in his traditional homeland community. Like Giniw, we can learn from the wisdom of Grandmother and the life lessons she shepherds us through. The books are written in Ojibway and English; like Porter and Rankin’s work, they allow us a glimpse at the teachings embedded in the words themselves, for Indigenous words and languages are like poetry – they carry story bundles waiting to be unwrapped. The illustrations in the books are paintings that Meshake, an accomplished artist, has done to accompany the stories.
There is so much to be learned about the history and worldviews of Indigenous societies, even for an Indigenous scholar and writer like myself. If we can be entertained and enraptured by story along the way, all the sweeter! I have been lucky to work on oral history with these men, and am now delighted to see them in print so their words can reach wider audiences. I encourage readers to warm their winter minds and spirits with these books.
Kim Anderson is a Cree/Métis writer, a Canada Research Chair in Indigenous Relationships, and an Associate Professor in the Department of Family Relations and Applied Nutrition at the University of Guelph. She has published six books, including Life Stages and Native Women: Memory, Teachings and Story Medicine and Indigenous Men and Masculinities: Legacies, Identities, Regeneration. View books by Kim Anderson.