Writer in Residence

Cree storytelling, Cree novels


We live in interesting times. The speaking of Indigenous languages has declined in the last generation- especially where I come from (nihtâwikihcikanisihk). When I was younger, in the 1970s and 1980s, most, but not all, of the older people spoke Cree. It was people of my generation who so dramatically began to shift to âkayasimowin (well most anyway). Now, my generation has become another, and in some family lines, another. The threads of sound connecting us to the ancient stories and songs have become thinner. âkayasimowin is like a cloud, of dark bluish grey, speaking out over the stretch of the sky. nêhiyawêwin is like another feature of the sky, overshadowed, and at least partly concealed.

âkayasimowin is the first language I spoke. All of my nêhiyaw relatives ê-kî-nêhiyawêcik, they spoke Cree. ê-kî-nêhiyawêmototawitocik mâna, they always spoke cree to each other. But, to use younger ones, they spoke mostly âkayasimowin.

However, eventually one of my aunts, Barb McLeod, took the time to teach me the basics of Cree grammar. One of my other relatives, my late uncle Burton Vandall, would sit with me for hours as I would record him talking Cree with my Sony tape recorder. Through his words and stories, I started to be able to stitch sentences together.

Then, in the late 2000, I met Charlie Burns whose name in Cree was yôtin. He was named this because kî-yôtin kâ-kîsikâk ê-nokosiyan, it was windy the day he was born. 

Then, I spent over ten years visiting with him, learning more nêhiyawêwin, and learning stories along the way. Charlie Burns became my Cree Obi-wan Kenobi.

As I reflected on the relationship between these stories, these Cree stories, and writing novels, I came up with this list of comparison, this list of similarities:

1. Context is important. Just like the stories of the late Charlie Burns, the stories in Neechie Hustle, are heavily dependent on nêhiyawêwin and nêhiyaw-cultural context.

2. nêhiyawêwin connects people. The act of seeking out nêhiyawêwin also brings the characters of Neechie Hustlecloser together. It connects them through formal speech and also through jokes and slang, and gives them the narrative power to subvert colonialism.

3. Storytelling grounds the way people engage the world. At the end of novel, there is the formation of the “âcimo” club: in the club, the stories told would connect the past to the present, and the present to the past. When I would visit the late Charlie Burns, I felt like I was a time traveller- sometimes we would even go back to the first part of the 1800s.

4. Stories and language are more important than money. Stories and language are the life blood of Cree culture, and they ground us, and they provide us a place in the world to dwell. They are like blankets that warm our souls.

5. Novels develop characters over time- over time characters become richer and the stories become woven with us as readers. The same applies with Cree stories. As listeners, and sometimes readers, we get to know them better. Over time, while sitting with Charlie, I got to understand the life and embodied reality of characters such as mânitowêw, kâ-monahikos and Priscilla Smith (daughter of James Smith) became richer and deeper in my imagination.

I will always remember the time I spent with the late Charlie Burns: this time we sat together is a precious treasure which I will carry with me for the rest of my days. I will never forget the characters that he brought to life. These characters ground me and they ground my own storytelling. These characters provide me a template for my own narrative imagination.



nihtâwikihcikanisihk. James Smith Cree First Nation

âkayasimowin. English language

nêhiyaw. Cree

yôtin. wind

nêhiyawêwin. Cree language

âcimo. to tell a story

mânitowêw. Almighty Voice

The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book.