Beesum Communications is launching its Legends series, which aims to immortalize the Cree legends by filming Elders telling the stories and posting them online.
The initiative began in early 2011, after Cree expressed fears youth, who are less interested in the stories that have instructed and encapsulated Cree life for centuries, would not be able to pass on the stories to their children.
“It’s something we’re very proud of, and something we hope will be useful for education, for the Cree School Board, and to bring Elders together with the youth, again,” said Michel Goyette, who helped spearhead the project for Beesum. “We’re hoping it will outgrow our expectations.”
Beesum Communications, which owns the Nation, invested 60% of the funds for the project, while the remaining 40% came from Heritage Canada and the Niskamoon Corporation. A cameraman met Elders of Eeyou Itschee, each of whom tell a different legend. While the Elders have told the stories countless times, the presence of a camera was a new – and, for some, unnatural – guest in the ritual.
“At first it felt very weird, because the Elders aren’t used to being filmed,” said Brian Webb, a Cree language specialist who filmed and helped translate the stories. “But they got used to it eventually. For them, storytelling is so natural. If they weren’t recorded, I’d be the one carrying the stories. But this way, they’ll be kept for generations.”
The legends have already been kept for generations, in many cases because of their power as a teaching tool. Goyette says the stories carry useful lessons for any listeners.
“These legends, when you listen to them, may sound absurd when you see a bear killing a child and the parents are left with no child, but there’s a meaning behind it,” he said. “Why were parents telling legends like that? They wanted to tell kids not to wander too far off or run off because nature could kill you. There’s always a lesson in a legend – it’s not a true story; it’s a designed legend. It was a way for Elders to teach youth.”
“The Bear and the Child,” is just one of the eight stories currently online. Others include “Adrift on the Bay”, “Falling Through the Ice”, and “The Death of Chikabash”. Each contains a pertinent lesson that was passed down generations.
In addition to the online presence, the Nation will be printing these legends in forthcoming issues. Each will take up a one-page spread, and promise to be intriguing and, in many cases, riveting stories.
The videos, however, offer an additional boon: the lyricism of the Elders’ storytelling style. Webb spoke in awe of the elaborate vocabulary they employ, which, he says, is increasingly rare in modern Cree. Moreover, the style with which they present their story – intonation, tension, and sound effects – represent an art form to which few are dedicated today.
“The way the Elders weave their words in Cree, it creates a very vivid picture in your mind: of how life was, the way of the land, and how people were in the old days,” Webb said.
Now, thanks to the camera, the Elders’ storytelling prowess is as visible – and imitable – as the content itself.
Webb has worked as a Cree translator for 18 years, and headed up the effort to transcribe the legends into three written languages: syllabic Cree, Roman Cree and English. All three subtitles are available online, meaning the stories are highly accessible to the community, and to other Canadians.
For Webb, who has spent years helping to expand the Cree language to incorporate more modern terms – coining, for example, the word for Internet, which he derived from a word for the spiritual communication that took place during a ceremony called “the shaking tent” – the very foundation of the language can be seen in the Elders’ stories.
A path to the past, in more ways than one.
The legends can be found at www.beesum-communications.com/legends, or in these pages in the coming months.