Assignment: A Selection of Indigenous Creators

Choose one of the writers or storytellers below for a more focused research project. Read one story, or collection of poems, along with any relevant introductory material. What values does the work promote? How does it represent relationships?

West Coast

Henry Wellington Tate (Tsimshian; b.?–1914): Franz Boas, the founder of American anthropology, recruited Henry Wellington Tate to transcribe oral stories from Tsimshian people. Instead of transcribing, Tate wrote these stories in English from his own knowledge. Since Tate was both literate and a Christian, Boas saw him as a good transmitter, but an inauthentic source of stories.

Ralph Maud explains, in Transmission Difficulties, that once Boas realized what Tate was doing, he went to great lengths to correct what he saw as a problem. Maud collected Tate’s versions in The Porcupine Hunter and Other Stories (1994) and provided each story with a short introduction. He leaves Tate’s writing style alone; despite its unusual syntax and spelling, it is full of charm and detail.

Harry Robinson (Okanagan; 1900–1990): Harry Robinson’s told-to stories can be found in three published collections compiled by Wendy Wickwire. Her introductions to these volumes provide an excellent picture of their working relationship, and Robinson’s attitude toward his stories. He told them in English because he realized that few people spoke Okanagan anymore, and he wanted them published to reach a broad audience “in all Provinces in Canada and United States” (qtd. in Wickwire 30).

Robinson’s stories often contain modern and political elements that Wickwire first found unusual or unexpected, given her training as a Boasian anthropologist. Later she came to realize that he was speaking directly to her as a white woman, and through her to the mainstream audience about political, as well as cultural issues. Two of his stories have received sustained attention: “Coyote Makes a Deal with the King of England” and “The Cat with the Boots On” (a version of “Puss in Boots”), which have been analyzed by Keith Thor Carlson and Mareike Neuhaus, respectively.

Central Canada

Louis Bird (Omushkego [Swampy Cree]; 1934–): Louis Bird’s stories are collected in Cree and English as part of the Omushkego Oral History Project. Bird began collecting and retelling stories in 1965, and has amassed over 340 hours of stories that are available as audio files and transcriptions. In his introduction to the project, he explains his intention to preserve stories, “to make them alive, to be important and to be useful” (2). He expresses his hopes to work with a range of experts, historians, anthropologists, and linguists, “to keep an eye, or just to enjoy being used,” and to make sure the stories are preserved for “this generation who have been denied access to this information” (3). He stresses that this is “Not just to make believe, not to make a showcase out of the old important things of our culture” (4).

Maria Campbell (Métis; 1940–): Maria Campbell collected and translated eight Métis stories in Stories of the Road Allowance People into “the dialect and the rhythm of my village and my father’s generation” (2). These stories, illustrated by Sherry Farrell Racette, almost require reading aloud, giving a broader visual and auditory experience than the simple reading of text. Warren Cariou suggests that the shape-shifting “Rigoureau” in one of the stories particularly reflects a Métis identity.

Eastern Canada

Rita Joe (Mi’kmaw; 1932–2007): Rita Joe was a poet as well as a storyteller. She started out writing poems as well as traditional stories and interviews with Elders for a local Mi’kmaq newspaper. She published her first book of poems, Poems of Rita Joe, in 1978 (reprinted in We Are the Dreamers: Recent and Early Poetry [1999]), followed by Song of Eskasoni (1989), and Lnu and Indians We’re Called (1991). The National Film Board of Canada documentary Song of Eskasoni (1996) gives a glimpse into her life. She recounts her life story in Song of Rita Joe: Autobiography of a Mi’kmaq Poet (1996).

Northern Canada

George Blondin (Dene; 1923–2008): Dene Elder George Blondin published his first book, When the World was New, with Outcrop in 1990. His second book, Yamoria the Lawmaker: Stories of the Dene (1997), focuses on Yamoria, the great medicine man known by many other names across the North. In Trail of the Spirit: The Mysteries of Medicine Power Revealed, Blondin “broke some important rules,” (“Note” 6) according to his son Ted, regarding the dissemination of stories, because of the difficulty of keeping the knowledge alive in the old ways in an age of television and the Internet.

Basil H. Johnston (Chippewas of Nawash [Anishinaabe]; 1929–): Basil Johnston is a prolific and well-known author and transmitter of stories learned from his parents, tribal storytellers, and elders. In The Manitous: The Supernatural World of the Ojibway (1995) he devotes the “longest chapter to Nana’b’oosoo because he is the prototype of humankind and the center of human interest” (xiii). Daphne Ojig’s illustrations and paintings offer a wonderful counterpart to these stories, many of which can be found in museums and art galleries around the world, but also on her website.

Norval Morrisseau / Copper Thunderbird (Ojibway; 1932–2007): Although most famous as a visual artist, Norval Morriseau told his stories to Selwyn Dewdney, who describes in the introduction to Legends of My People, the Great Ojibway some of the difficulties he faced in transforming a handwritten text to the published version. Here, one can read of the ferocious cannibal Windigo who appears in other works, including Tomson Highway’s novel Kiss of the Fur Queen.

Alootook Ipellie (Inuit; 1951–2007): Like Morrisseau, Alootook Ipellie was primarily an artist who provided the illustrations for collections of stories, reflections, and memories. He is notable for introducing Frankenstein’s Creature to the Goddess of the Sea, with good consequences, as well as recounting the impact of Brigitte Bardot, a French actress, on the seal hunt in the North. Arctic Dreams and Nightmares (1993) showcases both his art and storytelling, and includes an autobiographical introduction as well.

Works Cited

  • Bird, Louis. 0009-Our Voices-OOHP Introduction. Omushkego Oral History Project, 1998. PDF. Transcript. (Link)
  • Blondin, George. Trail of the Spirit: The Mysteries of Medicine Power Revealed. Edmonton: NeWest, 2006. Print.
  • Campbell, Maria. Stories of the Road Allowance People. Illus. Sherry Farrell Racette. Penticton: Theytus, 1995. Print.
  • Cariou, Warren. Dances with Rigoureau. Troubling Tricksters: Revisioning Critical Conversations. Ed. Deanna Reder and Linda M. Morra. Waterloo: Wilfrid Laurier UP, 2010. 157–67. Print.
  • Carlson, Keith Thor. Orality about Literacy: The Black and White of Salish History. Orality and Literacy: Reflections across Disciplines. Ed. Kristina Fagan and Natalia Khanenko-Friesen. Toronto: U of Toronto P, 2011. 43–69. Print.
  • Johnston, Basil. The Manitous: The Supernatural World of the Ojibway. New York: HarperCollins, 1995. Print.
  • Maud, Ralph. Transmission Difficulties: Franz Boas and Tsimshian Mythology. Vancouver: Talonbooks, 2000. Print.
  • Morrisseau, Norval. Legends of My People, The Great Ojibway. Ed. Selwyn Dewdney. Toronto: Ryerson, 1965. Print.
  • Neuhaus, Mareike. The Rhetoric of Harry Robinson’s Cat with the Boots On. Mosaic 44.2 (2011): 35–51. Print. (Link)
  • Robinson, Harry. Living by Stories: A Journey of Landscape and Memory. Comp. and ed. Wendy Wickwire. Vancouver: Talonbooks, 2005. Print.
  • Robinson, Harry. Nature Power: In the Spirit of an Okanagan Storyteller. Comp. and ed. Wendy Wickwire. Vancouver: Douglas & McIntyre, 1992.
  • Robinson, Harry. Write It on Your Heart: The Epic World of an Okanagan Storyteller. Comp. and ed. Wendy Wickwire. Vancouver: Talonbooks/Theytus, 1989. Print.
  • Tate, Henry Wellington. The Porcupine Hunter and Other Stories: The Original Tsimshian Texts of Henry Tate. Ed. Ralph Maud. Vancouver: Talonbooks, 1993. Print.
  • Wickwire, Wendy. Introduction. Living by Stories: A Journey of Landscape and Memory. By Henry Robinson. Comp. and ed. Wickwire. Vancouver: Talonbooks, 2005. 7-33. Print.
  • Ipellie, Alootook. Arctic Dreams and Nightmares. Penticton, B.C: Theytus Books, 1993. Print.