The legends tell of a universe filled with magical beings such as Little People and cannibalistic spirits, but they’re not from the world of Marvel movies or from the pages of a J.K. Rowling novel.
They’re the stories that Rocky Cree storyteller William Dumas grew up with in Manitoba, Canada.
By sharing them in a series of books, “Six Seasons of the Asiniskaw Īthiniwak,” he hopes to save the stories and the language of his people by getting readers involved at all ages.
“I find that that young people are starting to see the reality, and that 40-year-olds are starting to see the reality, of what loss of language means,” Dumas told ICT. “It's a learning experience for children to read … about how the Rocky Cree lived 350 years ago and to be able to still access these old stories.”
Dumas’ book, “The Gift of the Little People,” published by HighWater Press and available online, is a companion volume to the “Six Season” series, which is funded through grants from Canada’s Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council. Book 1 in the series is “Pīsim Finds her Miskanow,” illustrated by Leonard Paul, a revised version of which was published last year. Book 2, set for release in September, is “Amō’s Sapotawan.”
The companion book was published before the series was completed because the team felt it was the right time.
“We believe there is a particular need for this story in the world today, and we wanted to share it as soon as possible,” said Warren Cariou, a professor in the Department of English, Theatre, Film and Media at the University of Manitoba, who is part of a group of academics and traditional storytellers and knowledge keepers who have drawn support from the university for the Six Seasons project and more.
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“There are references to the Little People in some of the main Six Seasons books, including “Amō’s Sapotawan,” said Cariou, who is Métis from Meadow Lake, Saskatchewan. “‘The Gift of the Little People” is a little different from those books because it is a traditional Rocky Cree story, whereas stories in the series are ... created by William Dumas, in consultation with knowledge keepers and other members of our team.”
The latest two books are beautifully illustrated by Rhian Brynjolson to capture both the detailed reality of the pre-contact Rocky Cree world as well as the fantastical worlds told in the stories.
Saving the language
The books in the “Six Seasons of the Asiniskaw Īthiniwak” will tell a story based during each of the six seasons in the northern territory, which include Freeze-up and Break-up as well as the traditional four seasons, Spring, Summer, Fall and Winter.
Dumas is passionate about storytelling and language, and he wants to get readers of all ages listening, reading and speaking the stories and the ancient words.
“I find that young people are starting to see the reality and that 40 year olds are starting to see the reality of what loss of language means,” Dumas told ICT. “It's those stories - they are for any age. It’s a learning experience for children to read the Six Seasons series once it's completed about how the Rocky Cree lived 350 years ago, and to be able to still access these old stories.”
The “Little People” companion story is set at the time of the break-up and takes readers on a journey to a camp of non-Indigenous visitors after the ice has gone and the rivers and streams are once again open for canoe travel. During the visit they are infected by an unknown virus that sends the elder KaKakiw on a journey into the spirit world.
The story about surviving an unknown contagious disease was chosen long before the COVID-19 pandemic, but the events of the past two years have made the story that much more relevant.
“It wasn't planned,” Dumas said. “It just happened ... That message is always about hope. You know, keep the hope alive.”
The legends of the Rocky Cree are steeped in characters like the little people that populate fantasy novels and films, with some spilling over into the horror genre. An upcoming story in the Six Seasons series will feature a terrifying Cannibal spirit.
“One of the ones we're gonna be working on is the Wetigo. A really, really interesting story about how lateral violence can be curbed,” Dumas said, “because some old people believe we're at that state where Wetigo is alive again. The Wetigo is alive and it’s basically lateral violence.”
Dumas is trying to do everything he can to save his people’s language, much like the elder in his “Little People” story who tries to save his people by going on a journey.
“The whole idea came from the fact that our languages are eroding,” Dumas said. “And we believe the stories are in the language. So while there's less and less fluent speakers, I will record the stories because once the language speakers are gone the line to the stories will be gone, too. So now is the time to be gathering the stories.”
Cariou said the project reflects the national conversations about reconciliation that are circulating through Canada and the United States.
“The role of education and the stories are a major part of Rocky Cree education. And that's so amazing to see that coming forward as a way of reclamation, as William was saying, and trying to undo some of those harms that the residential schools have created over the generations.”
Dumas was among those who attended Canadian residential school.
“I served those 11 and a half years in residential school. So I've done my time. And work is part of healing for me. It's a healing journey. Nothing is ever lost. My mother used to tell me nothing is lost. You just have to find it. Search for it and you will find it. That's where I'm at.”
“The Gift of the Little People” and “Pisim finds her Miskanow” are published by HighWater Press and are available at www.highwaterpress.com. The latest installment, “Amo’s Sapatowan,” will be released in September but is available for pre-ordering.
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