Image retrieved from https://www.congress2017.ca/calendar/1004.
“Our stories had seasons and cycles, some stories were about family, others were about heroes and the people we grew up with.” - Maria Campbell, from the ILSA’s Annual Aboriginal Law Speaker Series, March 9, 2018.
Today we conclude our week’s coverage on the Aboriginal Law Speaker Series, with an overview of Friday’s speaker: Maria Campbell. Campbell is a a Métis author, playwright, theatre producer, filmmaker, broadcaster, educator, and Elder. Her first book, a memoir titled Half-Breed, continues to be taught in schools across Canada. Famous for her story-telling, it was only fitting that Campbell presented the audience with a series of stories, all drawing back to the title of her talk, “Wahkohtowin and Indigenous Justice.”
Before Campbell began to share her stories, she warned us of what we may lose when we recount a story. She made a comparison to a cup, explaining, “we pull a word out and we look at it, and we try to deconstruct it. As Indigenous people, many of us are doing that, and what we’re doing is leaving a lot of stuff in the cup.” Campbell explained that this is the reason that it’s difficult to teach the Cree concept of wahkohtowin (meaning the laws that govern all relations). She explained how the “story belongs to these words,” and that “once you take them out of the stories they don’t work anymore.” Despite these challenges, Campbell recounted the stories told to her, along with her own stories, in an effort to help the audience understand the meaning of wahkohtowin.
One story in particular was a family story, describing when Campbell returned home for the Summer holidays to spend time with her father. She asked her father if he had any moose meat, but not having any at the time, he set out on a three day hunting trip for their feast. On the third morning of his trip, he took a canoe out onto the lake. He stayed on the edge of the lake searching, eventually finding a moose eating water lilies. He picked up his gun and raised it to shoot the moose, but suddenly the moose looked up, locking eyes with her father. He could sense the moose questioning him, “why are you doing this grandson? I always gave myself to you, why do you want to shoot me now? This is not what you should do to the relatives.” Her father put his gun down. The moose had always taken care of their family when they were hungry and needed food. Campbell recalled that her father never hunted again after this experience, concluding that you shouldn’t hunt because you have a right to hunt, but rather for sustenance, to survive.
Another story Campbell shared was of the beaver, being the closest relative to humans, with marriages occurring between the two long ago. She spoke of a time when her father had set traps to catch a beaver, waking up to find all the traps were sprung. Asking a nearby Elder why this happened, the Elder responded, “that’s because there is an old man beaver here, you have to move someplace else because he doesn’t want you trapping here.” The following day he set up a better trap, and returned to find the beaver’s hind leg caught in the trap (he had chewed it off to escape). At this point, her father understood what it meant to break something – he was so ashamed. Many years later, he was diagnosed with gangrene in his leg. The night before his surgery to amputate his leg he said to Campbell, “I always knew that old beaver was going to come and get my leg.” Finally understanding the Elder’s explanation: once you do something to an animal, it will get back to you.
Although the above stories only brush the surface of what Campbell shared with the audience, they do provide us with a better understanding of how stories are intertwined with the concept of wahkohtowin. How everything is interconnected – our roles and obligations to each other, animals, and all of the things that live within wahkohtowin. Campbell concluded by encouraging the audience to seek out the knowledge keepers, so that these stories aren’t lost (something key to ensuring Indigenous laws continue to exist). Echoing the words of Thomas King, she stated “the truth about stories is, that’s all we are.”
Until next time,
Team ReconciliAction YEG
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