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Tyrone Tootoosis stands near Wanuskewin Heritage Park south of Saskatoon. He was a played a pivotal role sustaining the traditions of activism, spirituality, storytelling and leadership within his community. (Kevin Van Paassen/Kevin Van Paassen/The Globe and)
Tyrone Tootoosis stands near Wanuskewin Heritage Park south of Saskatoon. He was a played a pivotal role sustaining the traditions of activism, spirituality, storytelling and leadership within his community. (Kevin Van Paassen/Kevin Van Paassen/The Globe and)

Tyrone Tootoosis was ‘a walking library’ and a keeper of Cree culture Add to ...

Proud of his Cree Assiniboine identity, Tyrone Tootoosis was a multifaceted man who made enormous contributions to his community as an actor, story keeper, linguist, activist, dancer, cultural interpreter and rancher.

For his whole life, Mr. Tootoosis was on a personal cultural mission, whether he was gathering his people’s oral history or sharing their stories through his writing and performing. He once did a powwow dance for the Queen and Prince Philip while they were visiting Saskatchewan, and on another occasion he acted the role of his own 19th-century ancestor, the legendary Cree leader Chief Poundmaker.

“I met [Mr. Tootoosis] in the late 1990s,” says John Lagimodiere, the publisher of Eagle Feather News, a Saskatchewan-based aboriginal newspaper. Mr. Tootoosis approached the publisher about printing transcriptions of elders’ stories and a popular column began.

According to Mr. Lagimodiere, Mr. Tootoosis, who died of colon cancer on Feb. 12 at the age of 58, was “a walking library” and he was “a teacher by everything he did.” The men also worked together on the development of the Wanuskewin Heritage Park site, south of Saskatoon, where Mr. Tootoosis was the curator and manager of cultural resources from 2007 to 2013.

“He brought culture, language and elders to Wanuskewin. He taught the Cree way and was an invaluable public resource,” Mr. Lagimodiere said.

Okiysikaw Tyrone Wilfred Tootoosis was the first-born son of a first-born son. He was born on May 9, 1958, on Samson First Nation, the central Alberta home of his mother, Irene B. Tootoosis. When he was a year old, his parents moved back to Poundmaker First Nation, the ancestral home of his father, Wilfred.

Tyrone’s grandfather, John B. Tootoosis, was born on Poundmaker First Nation in 1899. John’s own grandfather was Yellow Mud Blanket, the brother of Chief Poundmaker, a prominent participant in the 1885 resistance by Métis and aboriginal peoples to the government of Prime Minister John A. Macdonald.

John was Chief of Poundmaker First Nation and in the 1930s, he travelled from reserve to reserve organizing for the League of Indians of Western Canada. Money was scarce, so each community passed the hat for his expenses to get him to the next stop.

John’s courageous legwork helped secure treaty rights and the entrenchment of treaties in the Canadian Charter of Rights.

Since the Tootoosis family’s proud lineage dates back to Chief Poundmaker, he was a pivotal figure in Tyrone’s Plains Cree identity. He spent a great deal of time with his activist grandfather and father in the 1960s and 1970s. The traditions of activism, spirituality, storytelling and leadership were passed down from father to son. This crucial mentorship gave young Tyrone the strong foundation he carried forward into his own community work.

“My brother was always connected to stories. He would bring a book to the dinner table and read during our family meals. He’d get told: ‘Put that book away,’” recalled his younger sister, Lynn Tootoosis.

“Our father would also take him when collecting elders’ stories and to the Sun Dance ceremonies. My brother was special since he was the first-born grandson in the Tootoosis family,” Lynn said.

“My husband was the culture bearer for his community,” said Winona Wheeler, his wife of 18 years. “He inherited his father Wilfred’s oral history collection. And then he interviewed all of these elders, too. He had a wealth of information that he willingly shared.”

Ms. Wheeler and Mr. Tootoosis met in February, 1990, when she was writing her PhD dissertation on oral history and its philosophical roots and husband-to-be was working as a freelance arts writer. Ms. Wheeler offered him some tobacco for assistance with translation and the couple quickly bonded over a shared passion for storytelling. Ms. Wheeler completed her studies and is now a professor of native studies at the University of Saskatchewan, in Saskatoon.

“He was a quintessential modern traditional man. Old men loved him since he did so well with old people. He was fluent in the language [Cree] and was always learning more. He was always a student and that’s how he perceived his life,” Ms. Wheeler said.

Yet Mr. Tootoosis was also comfortable bridging the gap between his traditions and mainstream culture. Ms. Wheeler said her versatile husband could work with anyone who was honest and willing to work fairly.

In addition to his role as a culture bearer, Mr. Tootoosis took up the family tradition of activism and was a leader in the creation of the First Nations Accountability Coalition. He was openly critical of band council corruption.

Mr. Tootoosis paid a price for his activism but carried on with his life’s work on accountability, despite opposition. He subscribed to the traditional First Nations government system of selection, not election, Ms. Wheeler said.

“The land was his chief,” she said. In July 2016, Mr. Tootoosis raised public awareness about water purity after the Husky Oil spill into the North Saskatchewan River at Maidstone, Sask. The village, west of North Battleford in west-central Saskatchewan, is in the same region where he was raised on Poundmaker First Nation.

Mr. Tootoosis, an avid hunter and horse rancher, was known to share the bounty. When he was asked by a farmer to cull deer, he would redistribute the deer meat to elders and single parents. “He looked after people,” Ms. Wheeler said.

The Renaissance man also had a busy acting career. He was the nephew of the late actor Gordon Tootoosis (Legends of the Fall, North of 60). He followed in his uncle’s footsteps, appearing, in the first of his many roles, as an extra alongside his uncle and Donald Sutherland in Dan Candy’s Law (a.k.a. Alien Thunder), a 1974 Canadian feature film based on an actual 1890s event in Saskatchewan. It was filmed near where Mr. Tootoosis grew up with his younger siblings, Merlin, Willene, Lynn, Beverly and Coady. (Their parents also adopted a son, Justin.)

His sister Lynn, who spoke from her brother’s family ranch near Duck Lake, said her famous sibling was low-key. “My brother had a big life but he didn’t come home to boast.” Yet Mr. Tootoosis had plenty of bragging rights as the recipient of two Saskatchewan Lieutenant-Governor’s Arts Awards and a 1997 Hero Award from the International Children’s Festival to his credit.

Last month, the Tootoosis family gathered for a traditional mourning feast during the week of Tyrone’s death. In February 2018, in the Cree tradition, another feast will be held to honour his spirit.

After a Cree family member dies, their possessions are distributed and you don’t look back from the burial site and their name is not uttered aloud. “We do this so their spirit can move on,” Ms. Wheeler explains. To honour that tradition, Ms. Wheeler now only refers to her husband as “he” or “himself.”

Their family includes 10 children and 10 grandchildren. Since 2010, the couple lived and raised horses together at their Duck Lake-area ranch north of Saskatoon. In March 2016, two months after major surgery, the tireless Mr. Tootoosis was laying paving stones and erecting fences at their ranch.

“He was never bored,” Ms. Wheeler said. “He was an artist and a powwow dancer. He took over his father’s dance troupe. He even made his own fancy outfits. He loved both traditional music and Bruce Springsteen.”

His sister Lynn says her fondest recollection of her brother is seeing him at his happiest, in the middle of a dance. “I imagine him in his fancy outfit, twirling his sticks.”

Mr. Tootoosis had numerous feature film credits and he performed voice-over work for APTN’s Wapoose Bay. He appeared in The Trial of Poundmaker, The Englishman’s Boy and Big Bear. Ms. Wheeler said the Cree tradition prohibits mimicking the dead, as this is believed to dishonour their spirits. Mr. Tootoosis had to go to the spiritual elders for guidance before he could play his famous ancestor, Chief Poundmaker.

Doug Cuthand, a Saskatchewan film producer, recalls the day in the late 1990s very clearly when they cast Big Bear, a CBC miniseries. Tyrone Tootoosis auditioned in full costume as Chief Poundmaker. “Tyrone looked at himself in the mirror and it scared him. He looked just like Poundmaker.”

Mr. Cuthand said Mr. Tootoosis was traditional, he adhered to the old ways and he was guided by his spiritual beliefs. “As Poundmaker, Tootoosis sure filled the bill. He did a good job.”

But then Mr. Tootoosis always carried himself with confidence. “His Indian customs and beliefs grounded him,” Mr. Cuthand said.

Mr. Tootoosis leaves his wife; siblings Merlin, Willene, Lynn, Beverly and Justin; children, Tyson, Tannis, Tala, Tynnella, Tyanna, John, Jacob, Tyrone Jr., Alex; and step-daughter, Theresa. He was predeceased by his brother Coady.

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