Storyteller passes on Cree culture through children's book

March 7, 2015 - 4:39pm
Book illustrator Mike Keepness with author Judith Silverthorne and storyteller Ray Lavalee. Photo by CJME's Adriana Christianson
Book illustrator Mike Keepness with author Judith Silverthorne and storyteller Ray Lavalee. Photo by CJME's Adriana Christianson

Just as their ancestors had done, the children sit at the feet of an elder speaking in Cree with a story about honouring buffalo.

Except these children are hearing the story in a shiny new gymnasium, not next to a campfire under the stars. The story is being shared through a new book intended to help children understand the Cree language.

"You must always honour the buffalo because they gave us life," elder Ray Lavalee told a group of students at Seven Stones Community School in Regina.

"Remember where you come from, that is how you know who you are," he tells the children before beginning a traditional Cree prayer.

He is the storyteller behind a new children's book 'Honouring the Buffalo: A Plains Cree Legend' written by Judith Silverthorne and illustrated by Mike Keepness. The book is special because it is written in English with a Cree translation.

Lavalee’s words echo a Cree storytelling tradition passed on to him by his grandmother. He worries there are very few people left who can tell those stories when he is gone, because he knows Salteaux and Cree.

He says if First Nations youth don't learn their own culture and their own language they risk losing their identity.

Children's author Judith Silverthorne reads to students at Seven Stones Community School

Author Judith Silverthorne collaborated closely with Lavalee to translate the oral tradition into writing for a children's book. Reading the story aloud to the students at Seven Stones was special because she went to Wascana School as a girl.

On one page Silverthorne stopped to invite a student to help her tell the story. Thirteen-year-old Sierra Dubois smiled nervously as she stepped up to the podium.

In her hands, Dubois held a crumpled note with the phonetic spelling of the Cree words she has studied in class. She stumbles only once, but grins with pride at the end. That pride extends to learning not only her language, but also her heritage and understanding of the significance of the buffalo.

"I know that it's a sacred animal and that we should honour it because it sacrificed itself for us," she said. "The buffalo is a really special animal. It's one of the most historic animals of First Nations people."

Dubois says she was impressed to hear the story because it tells the truth about how the First Nations people survived by using every part of the buffalo.

Original illustrations for Honouring the Buffalo by Mike Keepness

Mike Keepness stands quietly by a table in the gym featuring his original paintings of buffalo roaming free on the prairies.

"I have sold more paintings of buffalo than anything else," he explains. "In a funny way, I guess the bison is still putting food on the table."

As a member of the Pasqua First Nation band, Keepness shares his Saulteaux and Cree heritage with Lavalee. He considers it a great honour to help pass on a part of his own cultural heritage that he feels he missed out on when he was growing up.

"When I was a young boy, my grandmother was teaching me Saulteaux so I could communicate with her," he said. "But somewhere along the lines I lost that and, in a sad way, I lost some of the culture and the teachings.”

Working as a youth mentor in North Central Regina, Keepness sees what that loss of identity and culture can do to people.

"A lot of people have lost their culture and the teachings and the language, and to be a little part of that educational process -- I'm very grateful," Keepness explained.

His three children go to a different school, but they each took one copy of the book to present to their teachers.

"They were so proud to see daddy on the cover," he said smiling.
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