Storytelling with Aboriginal Storytellers

By Elizabeth Karchut

In the shadow of a massive pipe-organ, one host, three writers and a hoard of spectators gathered on unceded Algonquin territory to discuss Aboriginal storytelling.

On Oct. 22, at Centretown United Church, Writers Festival hosted a panel of indigenous writers. Joseph Boyden, author of the award-winning novel, Three Day Road, Bev Stellar, author of the personal memoir, They Call Me Number One, and writer and poet Lee Maracle were on the panel, which was hosted by CBC’s Waubgeshig Rice.

The evening began with the panellists reading excerpts of their work. Boyden stepped up to the podium first and read the prologue and first chapter of his new novel, which is about an indigenous teenager who is part of a native gang.

Stellar read from They Call Me Number One, which is about her time in a residential school. She shared with the audience that at first, she felt she could only share her experiences with her grandmother and her mother because they both went to residential school and they would understand her pain.

While reading the last paragraph of her memoir, Stellar, who was fighting to keep her composure, began to tear up. She said, “The Indian was not beaten out of me. I am more than a survivor, I am a full out victor of this war. I win.” Her powerful last sentence caused the crowd to erupt.

Maracle lightened the mood with her excerpt from her novel, Ceila’s Song, which covered an encounter between a Scottish priest and Ceila’s grandfather. She explained that by making fun of settlers, her people were able to bring them back down to their size. This, she said, would help them like the white people.

But Maracle brought everything back to perspective when she said, “You have my country and your own country. Look at how many Englands there are — every commonwealth country is attached to England.” It was a simple reminder as to whose land the nation of Canada was on.

After their starting comments, there was a question period led by Rice, who asked the writers about the importance of Aboriginal peoples’ stories.

“We’re not writers, we’re orators,” Maracle said. It is the job of each generation to make a new story and “stories are what make us big.”

Stellar added that Aboriginal peoples need to tell their stories because their children and grandchildren need to know what happened. She said she believes the world is ready to hear their stories.

Boyden said he felt that the 10 years under Harper was oppressive for Aboriginal peoples. “People want to hear from its original peoples,” he said. “There is a tide that is slowly turning for a different direction.

“Canadians are trying to figure out who they are as a nation, Aboriginals are anchors of this nation and Canadians are ready to listen.”

Rice then shifted the conversation to the importance of social media and how it can help young people immortalize and tell their stories.

“We were put on reserves, we were put away. People couldn’t see the injustices that were happening,” Stellar said. “With the information age, anyone can access anything.

“People are becoming aware about the tremendous contributions indigenous peoples in North, Central, and South America have made.”

Boyden commented on how the upcoming generation is saying, “We are alive. We’re not a thing of the past but a thing of the future.” He said he believes social media can help tie us together.

Stellar said the hardest thing to do is to get others to talk about their experiences. “There are going to be people that will take their stories to the grave with them. They will never talk about them,” she said.

“There will be others who can talk about their stories,” Stellar added. She said she believes others will be encouraged to share their stories with the rise of indigenous writers.

Boyden, who runs storytelling workshops, said, “It is a matter of saying the story of yours, release it… Telling stories is a release.”

The last question of the night came from a woman who asked what the writers thought influenced Aboriginal peoples to go out and vote.

“I know what did it for a lot of my people is the body bags,” Maracle said. “We asked for medicine and we got body bags.

“I think what happened too is I realized that we don’t vote and so no one has to listen to us because we’re no threat.” She also said the election was exciting: “As we saw this little riding up north tip the scales — oh my god we are powerful.”

For Stellar and her people, she said it was the lack of environmental protection laws. “We’ve been fighting and fighting to protect the resources,” she said. “We know resource extract has to happen, but it needs to be done in a reasonable way.”

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