Elder’s memoirs published in Cree and English
- Julia Peterson | May 08, 2021
Ted Whitecalf remembers his mother, Sarah Whitecalf, as a woman who was “Cree first, in everything that she did.”
Sarah’s stories and memoirs have been collected in mitoni niya nêhiyaw / Cree is who I truly am; nêhiyaw-iskwêw mitoni niya / me, I am truly a Cree woman, a new book published by the University of Manitoba Press.
Whitecalf says the title captures his mother’s approach to every part of her life.
“She lived that traditional life: medicines, right eating, feasting, sun dances and all of that,” he said. “She was totally that. That’s why you say, ‘Cree is who I truly am.’ It’s right at the core of it.”
The book contains stories Sarah recorded before her death in 1991 in collaboration with Freda Ahenakew, founding Director of the Saskatchewan Indian Languages Institute, according to the publisher’s website.
“These are the stories that my mom recorded - the times she had growing up, the different things she learned, the stories she witnessed,” said Ted. “It’s a good memory for me to have of her, too, because she was such a real storyteller. She’d be talking about these stories, and she’d be right into it.
“There are some really good words in there, and they’re inspirational.”
Sarah, who spent most of her life on the Sweetgrass Reserve on the North Saskatchewan River, spoke Cree almost exclusively. Ted says his mother’s love for her language was integral to her storytelling.
“There is such a big difference when she tried to tell a story in English and when she told it in Cree,” he said. “The Cree would make such a big difference, because you feel alive in it. And how can you possibly do that in English? She would laugh and talk with her hands and mix in some of the facts as she went along.”
The book is an important way of preserving his mother’s language, knowledge and traditions, he said.
“She was very respected because of her deep, traditional ways that she was brought up, along with the Cree language that she brought forth and used - which is very nice, because those are really high Cree words that she uses, and so it’s great to have her words out there for people to read and linguists to use and not forget,” he said.
Since the book was published earlier this year - in Cree, with English translations on the opposite page - Ted says Sarah’s family members and those who loved her have been recapturing their best memories of her through the stories on the page.
And he believes his mother would be proud to see her stories helping to energize a new generation of Cree language speakers.
“I think she would be very happy that the spirit of her words have come forth to reality in a book like this,” he said. “And I think she would be happy to know that we were at the edge of losing our language and now it has come to flourish, and she played a role in that.”