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Alberta Indigenous filmmaker Raymond Yakeleya pushing the boundaries of traditional oral histories

Alberta

Family ties inform an Indigenous New Wave

Raymond Yakeleya has spent 20 years fulfilling his grandmother's deathbed wish that he document 'what happened to our people.' He is among Indigenous people 'taking control of messaging in interesting ways'

Dene filmmaker Raymond Yakeleya, seen at home in Edmonton in November, is attempting to preserve his family’s traditions and history.

Elizabeth Yakeleya was dying. She was Shotah Dene, born, raised, and wilting, in the Northwest Territories. She had long, grey hair and brown eyes. She spoke softly, but with authority. She had lived a long life. Raymond Yakeleya, her grandson, travelled to Tulita from Edmonton to see her before she slipped away.

He joined her and scores more in the bedroom. When his people die, others come to be with them. Ms. Yakeleya said she wanted to talk to her grandson, alone.

"Everybody left. They closed the door," Mr. Yakeleya said. "Granny said: 'I want you to do this – to tell the story of what happened to our people.'"

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Two days later, she passed away.

That was in 1994. Mr. Yakeleya, an accomplished documentary filmmaker, has been working to fulfill her wish ever since. He is telling a story specific to his family and community, yet familiar across the country.

A painting of Elizabeth Yakeleya, who died in 1994, was done by her grandson Raymond Yakeleya. Inspired by his grandma, he has set out to chronicle First Nations struggles through the generations. Indigenous people, he says ‘are marginalized, especially in media. Our stories never get out.’

It is a critique of the negotiations that produced Treaty 11, the document that shaped what is now the Northwest Territories. It is political. His quest is an effort to preserve his family's traditions and history, although in a way some may find controversial.

And it is an example of how Indigenous peoples in Canada are increasingly telling their own stories – using tools ranging from print to podcasts. Indigenous people documenting their perspectives – whether it be oral histories and traditions or breaking news – are gaining profile.

Mr. Yakeleya's family alleges Imperial Oil took over their homes and storage cabins at Bosworth Creek in the early years of the 20th century. Other folks lost homes and cabins to Imperial, too, according to Mr. Yakeleya's family. Some were prevented from building new structures. Mr. Yakeleya's ancestors were among those pushed off their traditional hunting grounds, the family says. This meant his predecessors – the Blondin family – and others had to dramatically change their way of life for the worse, the family says. Mr. Yakeleya's family wants him to document their story. They also want the federal government and Imperial to apologize and compensate them.

Imperial, in a statement, said it has searched its records and is unable to substantiate the allegations.

Mr. Yakeleya's family has spent more than a decade pushing their cause. Indeed, he reckoned he has filmed more than 20 interviews over the 20 years he has been chipping away at this project. He estimated he has about a dozen more interviews to conduct, and wants Imperial's top boss to be among them. Mr. Yakeleya is now seeking the necessary cash – perhaps from a broadcast partner or government grants – to wrap the interviews and produce the documentary. He said he has spent between $50,000 and $75,000 on the project so far and needs another $75,000 to finish.

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The effort – as with others Mr. Yakeleya has worked on – is about more than television and compensation.

"When you lose a [Dene] person, it is like you're losing a whole Encyclopedia Britannica," he said in the condo he shares with his partner in Edmonton. "The goal of my work is to preserve our people's records, history, pass it on to the new generation."

Mr. Yakeleya, who is 63, is stretched out on his couch, surrounded by stacks of information. Books. Magazines. Newspapers. Cartoons clipped out of newspapers. CDs. A VCR. He has grey hair, bushy grey eyebrows, and black-rimmed glasses. A painting of his Granny hangs on a wall. Her head tilts right, her lips pursed, her skin wrinkled, her hair parted. A necklace with a cross hangs around her neck.

Photo of Dene filmmaker Raymond Yakeleya accepting his first ever award, photographed in Edmonton on Nov. 10, 2017.

"I want to be an advocate for First Nations," Mr. Yakeleya said. "They are marginalized, especially in media. Our stories never get out."

Tim Fontaine, a former CBC journalist and now freelance writer who has worked for the Aboriginal Peoples Television Network, noted this is slowly changing. "[Indigenous] people are taking control of messaging in interesting ways," Mr. Fontaine, who is Anishinaabe, said. "Writers, podcasters, artists. So much is in [Indigenous] peoples' own hands now."

This progress extends beyond projects that document history through the eyes of Indigenous peoples to include their perspectives on the present and the future.

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Aboriginal Peoples Television Network, best known as APTN, is increasingly breaking news and expanding its audience, and its brand is widely recognized across the country. Media Indigena publishes stories online and produces a weekly Indigenous current affairs podcast. The organization is crowdfunded.

Even Indigenous satire is catching on in the mainstream. Mr. Fontaine, in 2017, founded Walking Eagle News, a site that would be akin to The Beaverton if it focused on Indigenous peoples. The site, too, is crowdfunded.

Sarah Nickel is an Indigenous studies professor at the University of Saskatchewan and specializes in Indigenous oral history and traditions. Audiovisual tools and books, she said, can be effective ways to capture Indigenous oral histories and traditions – but not for all communities and stories.

It isn't uncommon, she said, to find people who argue writing down oral traditions so others can learn by reading is "bastardizing the process."

Photo of Dene filmmaker Raymond Yakeleya in the Northwest Territories, photographed in Edmonton on Nov. 10, 2017.

The same argument can be made for film. Some stories are meant only for select audiences. Others should be shared only at certain times of the year. Intonations and facial expressions influence the meaning of stories and technology may not be able to capture those nuances.

"I would never say, as a blanket statement, that it is okay to capture oral traditions through a documentary," Dr. Nickel said. "There are communities that would say that's not appropriate."

That does not mean Mr. Yakeleya and others like him are out of line. Mr. Yakeleya, for example, had his Granny's urgent instructions and consent from other family members. Walter Blondin is Mr. Yakeleya's uncle and considers his nephew's work "priceless." But the filmmaker had to earn his own community's trust.

Mr. Yakeleya directed the 28-minute documentary called The Last Mooseskin Boat. It is one-part instructional video, one-part adventure film, one-part time capsule.

"It was preserving the culture," Mr. Blondin said of his nephew's 1982 film, which was produced with support from the federal and territorial governments. The National Film Board of Canada played a role. Elders approved. "He showed he had an ability to do these things."

Mr. Yakeleya expects the documentary about his family's experience with Imperial to be about an hour long.

Imperial, in a statement, said has met with the Blondin and Yakeleya families on "multiple occasions over the years to better understand their concerns.

"We have also searched our records and archives and have been unable to substantiate their claims, which would have taken place more than 95 years ago," Jon Harding, a spokesman for Imperial, said in the statement.

The company, which is a subsidiary of Exxon Mobil Corp., said it will touch "base with [the families] to see if there is new information we should consider," Mr. Harding said.

Mr. Yakeleya is determined to meet his Granny's request.

"I gave my word," he said.

Editor’s note: An earlier version of this article incorrectly referred to people writing down both oral histories and traditions. In fact, the reference is just to traditions. This version has been corrected.
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