The master plan

The Spirit Lives in the Mind: Omuskego Stories, Lives, and Dreams
Published on April 1, 2007

The Spirit Lives In The Mind: Omuskego Stories, Lives, And Dreams
Louis Bird

McGill-Queen's University Press

Susan Elaine Gray, a research associate at the University of Winnipeg, met storyteller, scholar, musician and former chief of the Winisk First Nations, Louis Bird, at a party where they both felt out of place. Out of that chance meeting grew The Spirit Lives in the Mind, in which the oral stories of the Omuskego (Swampy Cree) community are captured in print by a scholar with the sensitivity to retain the teller’s voice. “I am very happy with that – I appreciate that very much, to keep the story person alive – his voice, and his ways of telling stories – to bring it alive on the page,” Bird says.

Gray retained more than Bird’s voice. She was true to the worldview of the Omuskego, who live along the western shores of Hudson’s Bay and James Bay. “Much material on Aboriginal world views is heavily mediated by outsiders,” she says. European writers traditionally see northern Aboriginal history and culture as people searching for personal power in order to survive a harsh and brutal world. That’s the outsider’s view. Bird’s stories are, in fact, intended to bring out the spirituality of the Omuskego.

Gray’s third gift to Bird and to the reader is her conscious decision to avoid the scholarly approach. There are no explanatory footnotes from scholarly sources. The text flows because Gray has resisted the urge to interpret Bird’s stories for the European experience. The book becomes a history of the Omuskego from the Omuskego point of view. The stories, Bird said, are the ones that kept youngsters glued to the sides of the elders in the same way that more modern children attach themselves to TV sets. But these are not children’s fairy tales.

The stories are two-sided, reflecting the Omuskego belief that only by cultivating superior mind power could they protect themselves and their families. At the same time they searched for spiritual help, recognizing that, as mere humans, they could not survive on their own. Bird’s stories also illustrate the Omuskego code of ethics that required that the people respect elders, animals, the land, and one another. Bird says there is an order and purpose to everything and, if life follows the systemic plan set out by the Great Spirit, there will be order and balance.

The Omuskego knew that there were strange rocks that fell from the sky, and they understood that the moon was a big rock. Living without access to scientific research tools, they developed their own explanations for the wonders of the natural world, and these are included in Bird’s collection. Characters range from the mitewak (the shamans), to Wisakaychak the trickster, who more often than not falls prey to his own greed. In Omuskego stories greed, anger, and chicanery bring grief to the perpetrator, not the intended victim.

The Omuskego stories are earthy and filled with wry humour, as in Wisakaychak’s revenge on his buttocks when that part of his anatomy failed to keep watch over a brace of roasting geese. Furious, Wisakaychak stirred up the fire, heated a rock, and sat on it as punishment.

Bird tells of the arrival of the missionaries from the Omuskego perspective. According to Bird, some of the Christian teaching was good. The problem was that missionaries condemned all Omuskego culture and beliefs as uniformly evil. “If only they had taken the time to see the good,” Bird laments.

But this isn’t a sociology textbook: it’s a book of stories and a teaching book, a living example for anyone wishing to explore the practice of professional storytelling. Bird’s stories, even presented in black and white, leap off the page. They live.

Joan Eyolfson Cadham is a freelance writer from Foam Lake, Saskatchewan who has spent many hours on the pleasure side of the counter of Montreal pastry shops.



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