Peawanuck Elder Louis Bird is looking to find new opportunities to share the Omushkego (Swampy Cree) stories he has gathered over the past half century.
“I want to write those stories,” Bird said during the Toronto Storytelling Festival, held March 16-24. “I want to write them in a book so they can be kept somewhere in our communities so when I die or when we die, our children — who will seek where they came from or why am I Indian or what happened — so they can find a book with the stories. That’s the idea.”
The 79-year-old storyteller has already written two books featuring the legends, histories and spiritual stories he has gathered from Elders along the Hudson Bay and James Bay coasts.
Telling Our Stories: Omushkego Legends and Histories from Hudson Bay, was published in 2005 by University of Toronto Press, and The Spirit Lives in the Mind: Omushkego Stories, Lives, and Dreams, was published in 2007 by McGill-Queen’s University Press.
“It is very important for me to start to record and finish those stories, to put them in book form because that is the way the major society or the European education system works,” Bird said. “They only go by the written materials, so that is why we have to do that. We will have our history if we write those things down, and then we can expand and finally put it into our education system.”
Bird’s stories have also been posted on the www.ourvoices.ca website, which includes audio versions of the stories in addition to PDF transcriptions.
One of about 70 storytellers who performed at the 35th annual Toronto Storytelling Festival, Bird shared his stories in a Teaching First Nations Stories workshop along with Gayle Ross, a Cherokee storyteller from Oklahoma. Bird also participated in a Liar’s Contest, a Lives of the Storytellers session and two sessions of First Nations Myth, Legend and Oral Histories.
“Our culture has been slipping away every year, especially the last 10 years,” Bird said during the workshop. “We’ve begun to lose our language, we’ve begun to lose our Elders and we don’t have any more of that storytelling that we used to enjoy when we were small.”
Bird remembers sitting on his grandmothers lap while listening to her tell legends and other stories.
“Those were good stories that I heard when I was young,” Bird said. “All these (stories), I memorized them because I heard them many times. I didn’t know what they were — I thought they were good for a laugh, but these things were teachings. It’s just like reading a different text each night, a different subject, a different book.”
Bird eventually became interested in learning more about the legends and stories his grandmother told him.
“She told me that if I (want to) tell the legend, I have to train myself to listen good just to be able to memorize the stories,” Bird said. “She said that’s how you’re going to learn how to tell the story — you could carry on if you want. So I began.“
Bird also visited other Elders in his community to memorize and gather their stories as well as those told by his grandmother.
“I trained myself to be a good memorizer,” Bird said. “The idea is to save those stories, not to let them die with the Elders. That was my interest.”
Bird has since gathered stories from other Cree communities along Hudson Bay and James Bay, including Moosonee, Kashechewan, Fort Albany, Attawapiskat, Fort Severn and York Factory.
“My wife is from Manitoba,” Bird said. “Our stories in Omushkego, it’s almost the same all across Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Alberta and a little bit of B.C. — it’s all that Cree and it’s almost the same, only different versions, a little bit.”
Although his generation did not grow up with Omushkego traditional spiritual practices such as hunting songs and the shaking tent, Bird acquired his in-depth knowledge of the spiritual practices, beliefs and history of his people through interviews with Elders and a detailed study of Omushkego oral history and legends.
“It is my wish and my hope to save the stories that have been told to us when I was young and that have been passed on to us by our grandfathers and their grandfathers and so on and so on,” Bird said on the ourvoices.ca website. “Some of these stories are very old.”
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