A new series of books released in Manitoba is aiming to bridge the gap between what has been taught in schools and the reality of aboriginal culture.
The Oral History Project is a project of the Treaty Commission of Manitoba and it offers a perspective from aboriginal elders drawing on an oral tradition that has never been recorded in writing. It will eventually be in classrooms and bookstores across the province.
The first of four books that make up the project was released Thursday in Winnipeg. It's a glossy paperback packed with stunning photographs under the title Untuwe Pi Kin He -- Who Are We, in the Dakota language.
How the story's told makes the difference
To show the difference between indigenous and non-native storytelling techniques, here's one story from the book, told traditionally by treaty commissioner James Wilson:
We haven't changed a word. And note, if this story were to be retold, the narrator would be expected to repeat it word for word, with the same intonation, inflections and pauses. The twist is at the end; remember, we're talking about little kids in this account.
"There's such a discipline involved. One of the stories is from Tobasonakwut Kinew. If you look in the book -- it's page 25 -- Tobasonakwut talks about in the fall, the crows leave and that's when the storytelling begins. That's when his grandmother would gather up all the grand children:
"On the first night, she told the story about Nanaboozhoo. (Nanaboozhoo is a spiritual teacher but a born klutz, who can be counted on to make himself the butt of the joke in any story.)
"And on the second night, she told a story about a bear, third night something else.
"On the 34th night, she stopped. And the kids were all: 'How come? How come they're stopped?' And they asked their grandfather. And he said 'Well, you haven't offered her tobacco.'
'Well we don't have tobacco!"
"And so the grandfather said, 'Well you have to learn the tobacco song if you want to have that tobacco... ' The kids learned the song.
The grandmother said, 'I'll keep telling you the story if you tell me the first story I told you, the second, the third, the fourth and so on.'
"So the kids all got together and the first two were easy. But what happened on the third and the fourth story? And as they started retelling it, they started seeing how everything was connected.
"The discipline involved, people don't realize the discipline involved in oral cultures," Wilson said.
"Tobasonakwut passed away last year. We're lucky there was a man with such beautiful teachings and a lot to give; he's passed on a lot to his children, his family and the broader community. But this (book) is one way your kid from Fort Richmond or from Shamattawa can access people like Tobasonakwut."
NOTE: The late Anishinaabe elder Tobasonakwut Kinew (1936-2012) is remembered as an advocate and teacher of civil liberties and treaty rights, indigenous language, culture, and philosophy. He was born on his father's trapline on Lake of the Woods in 1936 and chosen by elders as a child to be instructed and mentored in the knowledge and traditions of the Anishinaabeg. A survivor of a residential school, he made it his mission to reconcile with the wider Canadian and European society, some of his more public gestures making headlines that served to publicize his work internationally.
In 2009, Kinew presented Pope Benedict XVI with an eagle feather as part of a chiefs' delegation to Rome in a gesture of reconciliation between the Roman Catholic Church and Canada's aboriginal people. Months before he died, Kinew adopted Archbishop of Winnipeg James Weisgerber as his brother in a public ceremony.
The release took place at an education conference at the Greenwood Inn on Wellington Avenue.
'The elders are really the knowledge carriers, the scholars, the society, so every time and elder passes away -- and we've had 26 elders pass away since we started this project -- if they haven't passed on that knowledge. it goes with them'
The product of painstaking work in almost every First Nation in the province, the anthology took nearly a decade to put together with interviews of 228 elders from 62 communities.
With the inaugural volume, Manitoba is well on its way to preserving some of the most important First Nations teachings of the past century, treaty commissioner James Wilson told a conference of aboriginal educators.
"First Nations have oral cultures," Wilson said. "The elders are really the knowledge carriers, the scholars, the society, so every time an elder passes away -- and we've had 26 elders pass away since we started this project -- if they haven't passed on that knowledge, it goes with them."
There's a lot of focus on bringing a spotlight back to traditional perspectives, said Wilson and others at the launch.
Morris Swan Shannacappo, a former leader of the Southern Chiefs Organization, said the book offers a glimpse into a culture still thriving in many First Nations communities but almost unknown outside them.
A storyteller himself, Swan Shannacappo had the audience nodding as he recalled what that gap meant to him as a little boy slouched in a seat with a school history text open on his desk.
"I'm pretty certain it was in Grade 5 that we were reading this book called Fair Domain. It wasn't a Book of the Month club. This is what they were teaching in our schools. I remember... reading who our people were -- and what I read was we were savages. We were hunters and gatherers. Just like the Cro-Magnon Man. "
As a kid he believed it.
"What I learned away from school was different," Swan Shannacappo said, drawing on politics as an example: "We were taught male dominance by the European culture, but it was the women (at home) who selected our leaders. In my community today, it's the women in their traditional role who go out, wearing their dresses and with their tobacco and offer it to a leader. This is how I came home, how I came to be a leader -- from a woman. It wasn't my friends who said you should run for chief. It wasn't my family. It was a traditional woman who come to me with tobacco and said 'we would like you to run for chief,' " Swan Shannacappo said.
He served five terms like that, leaving his western Manitoba First Nation to run for grand chief of the Southern Chiefs Organization, which represents 33 First Nations in southern Manitoba, only to return home when another traditional emissary called him back.
"I had no say in it," Swan Shannacappo said. The release of the first book in the series, packed with similar accounts, was made with the flourish of a formal aboriginal presentation.
Two youngsters were called up on a stage where each handed a packet of tobacco to elders Doris Pratt of the Sioux Valley Dakota Nation and Harry Bone of Keeseekoowenin Ojibway Nation, both in western Manitoba.
The pair were instrumental in bringing the project to life as a way to pass on knowledge and pride in indigenous history and culture and set the record straight.
"This volume brings forward First Nations' stories from the perspectives of the people who are responsible for the preservation of histories for future generations," Pratt said.
It's a gift for the whole province, to new generations of aboriginal people and to non-native cultures alike.
"In order to know where you are going, you need to know where you come from, which is why the Oral History Project is so important," Bone said.
Together, the group of four books will cover aboriginal history and its relationship to the land, the immigrants who settled here and the treaties to guide relations between them. Eventually, the set will find its way into classrooms and bookstores around the province.