Peawanuck’s Louis Bird shared his community’s contact story during a Long Stories session on the last day of the 2016 Toronto Storytelling Festival at Toronto’s Harbourfront Centre.
“This afternoon I continued a little bit more about the contact,” Bird says. “The results, the impact of the first contact. And also the idea of Christianization and why was it done and also the results.”
Bird says the first contact in his community’s area occurred after a sailing ship was stuck in the soft mud in the shallow waters on Hudson Bay. After watching the ship from afar, the community sent one hunter to approach the area while pretending to be hunting.
“Sure enough, two people appeared walking towards him,” Bird says. “He saw them and heard them yelling, but he pretended not to hear anything. Finally he turned around and looked and they did this, a sign of hello.”
Bird says the hunter and the sailors didn’t understand each other at first, but through the use of sign language they soon made “a little sense” of what each other was saying. The sailors were asking the hunter to get his community members to help release the ship from the mud before the next high tide.
So the Cree helped release the ship, and the sailors and the Cree exchanged food with each other.
“(The Cree) were fascinated by the ship, the sails, the lines, the wood they had carved on the boat,” Bird says. “How did they do that — they only knew their own boats and they were very small.”
After the high tide raised the ship off the mud and it sailed away, Bird says many ships returned, usually one at a time but sometimes two.
Bird says contact with the newcomers was predicted by the legends.
“(The legends) predicted contact would happen, and also this phase and that phase,” Bird says. “It was predicted by our Elders that it was going to come. The legends have been there ever since the human person in this land became aware they were here.”
Bird says his people were migrating around the land so they had to store the legends in their memories and pass them on from generation to generation.
“Each of those legends were applied as instructions for the person in the next generation’s survival and also to be self-sufficient,” Bird says.
The Long Stories session was just one of four events where Bird shared his stories during the April 1-10 festival. He also participated in the April 9 session of Long Stories with Ron Evans at the Harbourfront Centre, the April 7 Storytellers from Away: Louis Bird event at the Spadina Road Library and the April 6 First Nations Traditions workshop with Ron Evans at the Artscape Wychwood Barns.
Bird began memorizing the stories in the 1960s after becoming concerned that his culture was disappearing.
“In 1965 my grandmother died, the one we used to listen to many times when we were small,” Bird says. “That was when I began to think I should have a recorder.”
Bird began using a recorder in the 1980s to record the Elders’ stories.
“By this time I was trying to catch the spiritual part of their culture,” Bird says.
Bird eventually began working with an anthropologist at the University of Winnipeg on his stories in the 2000s, which led to the publication of two books: The Spirit Lives in the Mind and Telling Our Stories: Omushkego Legends and Histories from Hudson Bay.
“It’s still not finished,” Bird says, noting he still has many legends recorded in Cree that have not been published. “I still need funding to pay people to write it in English.”
The Toronto Storytellers Festival also featured nine other storytellers from France, Britain and across Canada in addition to Bird and Evans. It was held at various locations in Toronto, including a three-day Storytellers Camp from April 6-8 at the Artscape Wychwood Barns and the Festival at Harbourfront Centre: TD Story Jam on April 9-10.