Oskiniko Larry Loyie’s dream of becoming an author has been realized several times over, but he hasn’t stopped with his own success. For Loyie, the process of writing is a powerful force for healing and achieving a sense of self-esteem and power – an important part of his job consists of helping others to find their own “voices” as writers. Along with his partner Constance Brissenden, he works and teaches extensively in Native communities across the country.
Jack-of-All-Trades Oskiniko Larry Loyie was born in Slave Lake, Alberta, to a traditional Cree family. He spent his early years living a traditional Cree lifestyle, learning by watching and practicing skills with his extended family, listening to stories and participating in ceremonies. At the age of 10 he was taken away from his ancestral home and placed in St Bernard’s Mission residential school in Grouard, Alberta. He left when he was 14 and made a life working on farms and in logging camps. He joined the Canadian Armed Forces at 18, and spent years serving in Europe before returning to work in Northern B.C. and Alberta as a fisherman, logger and Native Counsellor.
Throughout all this, Loyie longed for the traditional way of life he had lived as a young child. This longing, coupled with his burning desire to be a published writer, motivated him to go back to school and to become involved with the literacy movement; he spent 1991, the year of literacy, crisscrossing BC interviewing Native teachers for two radio documentaries.
A Match Made In Heaven Larry Loyie met Constance Brissenden in the mid-1990s at a creative writing workshop she was teaching in Vancouver. The meeting must have been serendipity of some sort – Brissenden, a professional magazine writer, became his partner in life and work, encouraging him in his craft. Since 1993, the two have worked together on many projects. Loyie is now the proud author of several published and performed plays, and a book of short stories. Loyie’s first play, Ora Pro Nobis (Pray For Us), about surviving residential school, was performed across Canada in the mid-90s, including a tour of federal prisons, with Brissenden as the play’s director. Since then, Brissenden has directed all Loyie’s plays for the stage, and the two have formed a company, Living Traditions, which published the volume Two Plays About Residential School (1998), which includes Loyie’s Ora Pro Nobis (Pray For Us) and Strength of Indian Women, a play by Secwepemc/Ktunaxa writer Vera Manuel.
Teaching: A Mission Loyie and Brissenden were recently in Montreal for the Blue Metropolis Books festival, an event that draws writers of many races and nationalities for a week of celebrating words with readings, panels and parties. The two participated on a panel, “Voix Autochtones” (Aboriginal Voices), with children’s author C.J. Taylor and well-known Native playwright Daniel David Moses. They also participated in a Community Writing Event, a writing workshop to encourage enthusiasm for the written word.
In fact, literacy outreach work is a big part of Loyie’s and Brissenden’s profession as writers, and a major mandate of their Vancouver-based company. The two spend a large part of every year traveling to Native communities across North America giving writing workshops and encouraging people to tell their stories “in their own voice.” A collection of students’ writing, Acimowina /Storytelling (Voices Rising/Learning at the Centre Press, 2000), shows the impressive results of a week-long session with the Wabasca Desmarais people at Stony Point Campus at the Northern Lakes College, in Alberta.
“It’s important to encourage writing within First Nations communities,” says Loyie. “Writing can be a tool to honour the past and heal the present.” The Living Traditions motto, “To honour yourself is to honour your ancestors,” speaks of Loyie’s and Brissenden’s conviction that creative writing is a good way to begin healing the anger that many Native people carry within themselves.
“In my workshops, I show the students what I have written about my own memories of the old ways, and I treat them as equals, encouraging them to write down their own versions of what they remember from their own history and the histories of their families,” says Loyie.
The Future is the Past Loyie sees the process of writing as a way to remember the old ways. “Nobody travels by horse anymore, and most of us don’t learn the traplines and the way to dry meat and where to collect berries from our elders the way we used to,” says Loyie.
“I like to tell stories about the traditional First Nations ways, so readers, especially young ones, can have access to a way of life they may not hear too much about these days. It’s a way of putting down the stories of my people’s history, of recording the memories so that a hundred years from now, even, people can go back and read about the way things were.” Most recently, Loyie and Brissenden are the authors of a children’s book, As Long As the Rivers Flow, coming soon from Vancouver’s Groundwood Books. The story is based on Loyie’s own memories of his last summer before entering Residential school, a time full of learning and adventure.
That summer, Loyie learned to trap, to sew moccasins, and he got his name, Oskiniko, meaning young man, from his grandfather. “It was very painful to go from being a young man included in all my family’s activities to the Catholic school, where we were treated like little children and abused and called savages, and punished every time we tried to speak our own language or practice the things we had learned from our families.” Loyie remembers that summer of his tenth year very well. “I think this summer is [so clear in my mind] because it was my last summer of being a kid, before the Residential School stole my childhood away from me,” says Loyie.
But the book, which is intended for kids aged 10 and up, is a mostly happy tale of the ways Loyie’s people did things in the old days, full of fun and adventure. In it, the boy Larry cares for an orphaned baby owl, helps prepare the men of his family for a hunting-gathering trip, and watches his grandmother sew moccasins and kill a grizzly bear with a single bullet. All of which, confirms Loyie, are true stories. “That Grizzly ended up being the biggest one ever killed in North America,” he says with a grin.
Larry Loyie and Constance Brissenden can be reached on the Internet at www.firstnationswriter.com by email at firstname.lastname@example.org by telephone at 604-876-0880 by fax at 604-876-5105