A few years ago, an old friend of mine gave me two VHS tapes that he shot himself. The footage was from an annual camping trip for Grade 8 students from the Parry Sound, Ont., area that brought together youth from town with nearby First Nations. Fred Wheatley, an elder from my home community of Wasauksing, was one of the invited storytellers and the focus of the tapes.
When I finally got around to digitizing and screening the VHS tapes this past summer, I was interested to see how my current values and practices as an author lined up with the teachings of one of the elders who enlightened me about being Anishinaabe when I was a child. Now, at the age of 41, I talk often about how my culture and stories guide how and what I write. But I sometimes question my own memory and feel a bit removed from my upbringing in my home First Nation now that I’ve lived in cities since the age of 19. Watching these tapes featuring Fred was an opportunity to go back in time.
In the video, Fred sits on a rock with a lake behind him, wearing a trucker hat, black windbreaker, grey sweater and jeans. The hair around his ears is white and his narrow eyes are piercing as ever. His smile is wide and warm, and that’s exactly how I remember him. It was delightful to see his image and hear his voice again, some three decades after his death.
Throughout the nearly two and a half hours of video, Fred talks about his upbringing in Wasauksing. He shares with the students – who are off-camera for most of the video – what he learned as a boy, and then what he lost when he was taken away to residential school. He tells them that he forgot how to speak Ojibwe while there, and had to relearn his language from his mother when he returned home.
He tells stories about the origins of the trees. He explains the traditional medicines that can be found in the area around this storytelling circle. He talks about the Anishinaabe worldview and how it differs from ways of life imposed by settlers. He gives little lessons in the Ojibwe language for the students to take home.
But there was one bit of Fred’s talk that stayed with me long after I closed my laptop. At one point, when talking about storytelling, Fred says to the group, “the biggest thing we have is our memory.” He goes on to explain that the oral tradition of the Anishinaabe always meant that “you had to listen, and remember everything you heard.”
It’s a principle I learned early in life from Fred and other elders and family members. Hearing the old stories as a little kid in the 1980s is what helped me understand my Anishinaabe heritage and become deeply proud of it. I abided by that tradition for most of my young life, committing many of these stories and lessons to memory. And they have largely inspired my professional work as a journalist and author.
But those careers rely on documentation as story validation. Every story shared for journalism and fiction is captured, written, edited and more. The spoken story is only the beginning, and not the end, as it has been in Anishinaabe culture since time immemorial. That divergence of foundational priorities has created a paradox for people like me who come from the oral tradition. Because I have become reliant on recording and writing stories for the past two decades, I can’t help but wonder how much I have forgotten.
This collision of storytelling worlds created a dilemma that I’ve been trying to reconcile in recent years. When I started imagining my latest novel, Moon of the Crusted Snow, I resolved to carve the entire narrative into my memory before writing it down. I told myself that I needed to be able to tell someone a concise and comprehensive synopsis of the story before I started typing words into sentences on the screen. The novel was published in 2018 without many significant changes to the original structure I imagined and remembered.
I’m currently doing the same thing for my next novel, which is the sequel to Moon of the Crusted Snow. I’ve been allowing the story to gestate in my head over the past few months, and it’ll take a few more before I have a finished narrative arc to remember. Although this method is by no means traditional Anishinaabe storytelling, it’s inspired by the same principles and philosophies. The main plot and the story’s morals are the most important elements. Often, the rest is up to each individual storyteller.
For me, the contradictions around bringing Anishinaabe stories into the written realm don’t end there. Memory of culture and language go hand-in-hand. But my writing happens mostly in English. I don’t speak Anishinaabemowin fluently, yet I write comprehensive accounts of Anishinaabe life in fiction. I do include basic terms and dialogue to the best of my own comprehension, primarily for the sake of representation in the text. Yet, I believe that fails in fostering any meaningful memory of the language in my written work. It’s an emotional reality I struggle with daily.
Today, the majority of my stories are a result of reading books, documenting information, writing in English and creating literature. And most of that happens through digital technology. The solitary practice of typing on a laptop now commands more of my time than sitting in the storytelling circle with my community. Still, I am using the colonizer’s tools to the best of my ability to reinforce elements of Anishinaabe traditions and history.
And although they’re fictional novels, my books still become cultural reference points that can be more accessible than face-to-face storytelling. That is a huge responsibility for someone like me. But it’s a crucial reminder about the eminence of memory, and how the written word can be a good complement to the spoken stories of Anishinaabe culture. I want readers of all backgrounds to understand that.
On those old tapes, as Fred wraps up his teaching about memory, he tells the students sitting on the ground in front of him that “if you don’t use [your memory], it will die. Your body will live, but your mind and your memory will not.” It’s difficult not to interpret that in the harshest of ways – that if we don’t carry on our oral traditions and we become too reliant on writing down culture and stories, we will become husks of ourselves.
At the same time, Fred always spoke in the spirit of care for us and love of our Anishinaabe life. The irony of receiving this message from him on a 32-year-old recorded video is not lost on me, but like all of our teachings, it showed up at the right time. There is hope in his immortal presence. It inspires me to sit with my people and hear our stories, and remember them for the generations to come.
Waubgeshig Rice is an author and journalist originally from Wasauksing First Nation. His latest book, Moon on Crusted Snow, was published in 2018. He will interview Michelle Good about her Scotiabank Giller Prize-longlisted book Five Little Indians at the Toronto International Festival of Authors on November 1.
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