Writer in Residence

What is fiction?


What is fiction? This is a question that I have often thought of as a writer and a student of nêhiyawêwin. I have also thought about this question as a painter who works from nêhiyaw-âcimowina.

I think about how stories capture truth, and how they affect us, and we in turn affect and shape truth. There seems to be a relationship, at least in my thinking, between narrative truth making, and how we use these stories to shape our lives.

I often think of the nêhiyaw-âcimowina that involve spirituality. For instance, nicâpân had stories of the buffalo drowning themselves [ê-mistapâwêhisoick] at mihkomin sâkahikan during the time of the 1870s. This was a period when nêhiyawak were losing connection to nêhiyanâhk. The paskwâwi-mostoswak felt the songs of the territory become softer and more quiet. nicâpân said, they retreated into the earth—they retreated into the water.

Did this really happen? Did the buffalo really retreat into the earth? I told this story once, and someone who grew up at mihkomin sâkahikan did tell me that there are many paskwâwi-mostoswak bones that the bottom of the lake. 

Did they retreat into the earth- the water- because they felt the changes of the land? – changes in the earth and water?  I think they did, but even if someone holds this is not a truth, then we can still hold that most nêhiyawak at the time believed it to be true. The belief in this had a real affect upon their actions. Because they believed it to be real, they made certain decisions because of it. I call this aspect of narrative truth: action truth. It is truthful because the narrative in question really has an impact on the how people live their lives, and has an impact on the choices that they make: their belief in the narrative shaped their actions.

There is another form of narrative truth: poetic truth. By poetic truth, I mean that a series of iconic elements- images and words- thread together to form a narrative. It is not important whether these markers of meaning point to something directly which really happened, but rather that they represent other things which really did happen or even could happen.

An example of this is the classical nêhiyaw-story of mistasiniy. The story of  the grandfather buffalo who cares for a Cree orphan boy. Did this really happen? I don’t think that it matters. What matters is that the narrative provides us with a poetic framework, a narrative example if you will, of how to take care of those who need our help. Given the reality of how many Cree children are in foster care, I think that it would be helpful if more people knew this narrative. The poetics of this provide us a narrative example of how to live: a poetic truth.

All too often nêhiyaw narratives are dismissed. They are not seen as being truthful because they are not scientific, that they are not in English, or perhaps that they do not rest and dwell in an interpretative framework grounded in European understanding.

However, there are deep and profound truths in nêhiyaw-stories, but action truth and poetic truth need to be taken into account.



nêhiyawêwin. Cree language

nêhiyaw-âcimowina. Cree stories

nicâpân. my great-grandfather

ê-mistapâwêhisocik. they drown themselves

nêhiyanâhk. Cree territory

paskwâwi-mostoswak. buffalo

mistaniy. Grandfather Buffalo stone (literally “big stone)


IMAGE: "Blue Horse", by Neal McLeod (2009)

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.

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