Our stories are who we are, as Nehiyawak.
The keepers and creators of story impart wisdom and celebrate language. They are also crucial to survival—younger generations once learned how to trap, eat, and stay alive in a long, cold winter thanks to the stories passed down by the Nehiyawak (Cree People).
I keep coming back to the story of Treaty 8. It was an agreement made between Indigenous leaders and commissioners on behalf of the Crown that took 12 years to negotiate and only three days to sign. In the book, The Spirit of the Alberta Indian Treaties by Richard Price, interviews* with Elders—some of whom were there for the Treaty’s signing in 1899—are an account of the Indigenous understanding of the Treaties, and, specifically, how the negotiations highlighted the importance of their way of life. Leaders signed the document with the promise their livelihood would remain unchanged. But, as all Treaty people know—both Indigenous and non-Indigenous—much has changed.
My dad told me this story some time ago of a father who explains to his son, “I taught you all the ceremonies, I taught you the medicines, and how to hunt, but one thing I cannot teach you is the stories you will need to create for your time.” Because we are all Treaty people, we need stories to be reminded of where we come from. And to know where we are going.
The Indigenous “Story” is typically historicized, which does the livelihood of storytelling a disservice. It’s true, most of us no longer live in the woods or hunt for our food, but that doesn’t mean we are disconnected from our story. We just need to tell new ones, for this new time. Our ancestor’s stories will always be important and be part of who we are. But, each generation is also responsible for creating their own stories—ones that tell the tale of how we live now and here.
For Nehiyawak, May is the Egg-laying Moon, and for me it is a time to nurture things you have created. Recently, a new story came to life for me. I wrote it as a play, based on a myth that has always resonated with me about a bear who steals a child. The story is guided by governance principle and the Nehiyaw (Cree) natural law, wâhkôhtowin, meaning “relationship,” and follows two brothers in the 1960s on their last summer adventure. It will be performed in Edmonton’s river valley this summer, and follows a story of the brothers as they go fishing, explore forests, the unknown, and, then get separated.
In writing this play, I have come to realize the importance of knowing where I come from in order to move forward. With my sister playing dramaturge, Dad as producer and Uncle as director, the preparation of this play for theatre, both at the debut performance in the River Valley in partnership with The Fringe Theatre and again in the Fringe’s theatre space in January 2019, has also been an act of leaning on and honouring wâhkôhtowin.
I don’t have an answer as to what story should look like for our generation, but, in pursuing story, myself, I am reminded that we are all spiritual beings having human experiences, and if we can gather around each other to share our stories, no matter where we come from, it would untangle things. When we activate our language and our myths, we evoke the life and empathy that already exists inside each one of us and reminds us of who we are now, and the people we want to be.
*(These interviews were even cited twice in landmark decisions made by the Supreme Court of Canada since the book’s publication in 1979.)