The winter months are the traditional time for storytelling. Snuggled around the fire in the tipi, children of all ages would hear the voice of their nuuhkum or nimushum recounting one of those Cree legends that had been repeated since time immemorial. It was a time for laughter, reflection, learning and understanding. It was also an opportunity for togetherness and individual reflection.
Each story had a different medicine that is food for the soul. The stories were not simple. The language was elaborate and rich, and only through repeated exposure would children eventually understand. The many layers of the stories allowed revisiting them to uncover meanings that would apply to one’s life, year after year.
Most Cree children who went to residential school were not told those stories. Some started to believe that traditional Cree legends were evil and stopped passing them on to their children. That’s why many people today feel a hole, a gap, because of what has been lost.
However, some gifted Cree storytellers are keeping this tradition alive. Young people are interested and have eagerly worked to preserve and revive this tradition. If you want to find out for yourself if these stories have medicine for you or your family, several venues are now available to reconnect with this tradition.
Collections of oral Eastern James Bay Cree legends and stories are available for free, in Cree, in an oral stories database on the web: www.eastcree.org/stories
Cree students like Erica Stephen, Suzanne House, Christine Duff, Francine Snowboy, Brian Webb and many others have worked hard over the last four years to edit the sound and describe in Cree, French and English the content of oral material gracefully donated by anthropologists and linguists.
Some of these recordings date back to the 1960s. The sound quality is not always great, but it’s good enough to learn back the stories. They can be searched by topic, title, story teller, among others, and downloaded to a computer or to an iPod. Biographies of storytellers are also being added, thanks to the work of Cree Program staff like Margaret Nine O’ Clock.
If you are looking for quality, there is the Great Cree Storytellers audio CD series. It’s for sale from Cree Programs, Cree School Board*. There are now eight CDs available, featuring two master storytellers: Florrie Mark-Stewart (Southern dialect) and Job Kawapit (Northern dialect). The storytellers were recorded in a studio-like environment, had a say in the editing of the sound files, and retained authorship and control over the final product.
There are new ways to pass on or reclaim traditional knowledge and culture as well as the Cree language. Next time you take your family for one of those long drives on the James Bay highway, why not listen to one of these CDs in the car?
Marie-Odile Junker is a professor of Linguistics at Carleton University. For the past seven years she has collaborated with Cree Programs exploring how modern technologies can help language documentation and preservation. See www.eastcree.org
*To order the Great Cree Storytellers CDs, contact Mabel Pepabano (firstname.lastname@example.org) Tel: (819) 855-2230 or Fax: (819)855-2724.