"Don't let anyone steal a good story you remember. Write it down. The written word strengthens our oral tradition." - Larry Loyie

Larry Loyie (aka Oskiniko) was born in Slave Lake, Alberta, where he spent his early years living a traditional Cree life. He died on April 18, 2016 at age 82.

At the age of ten he was placed in St. Bernard's Mission residential school in Grouard, Alberta. "We had no more family life," he recalled, "and we weren't allowed to speak our language. Mostly what I learned there was how to pray and how to work and how to sing Latin at Mass. We got to go home once every school year, though many children stayed the whole year. It was basically worse than jail. Everything that was natural to a small child was a sin and we got punished for it. I didn't know about sin and heaven and hell until I got there, and then I was always getting beatings from the nuns. I ran away twice and both times I was caught and severely beaten. After that I started reading everything I could get hold of. There were classics like Huckleberry Finn but there was exactly nothing about Native people. We were punished for the fact that hundreds of years earlier Jesuits had been killed by Native people. I lost all feeling about my Native heritage."

As he describes in his autobiography of his boyhood, When the Spirits Dance, World War greatly upset Loyie's family life. Having already served in World War One, his father Victor Loyie, at age 43, was called up to serve again in the Canadian Armed forces as an illiterate man with nine children. In 1942, food was rationed and families drank Klim (milk spelled backwards), a drink made from powder. When the Spirits Dance describes how Larry Loyie helped his family endure.

At 14, Loyie left school to work on farms and in logging camps. At 18, he joined the Canadian Forces, living in Europe before returning to work in northern British Columbia and Alberta. "Through it all," he says, "the longing for the traditional First Nations way of life I experienced as a child always stayed with me."

Many years later, in Vancouver, he went to the Carnegie Centre at Main & Hastings to upgrade his education and writing skills, and to learn typing. In 1991, he traveled around British Columbia to interview Native teachers for two radio documentaries. The following year he co-edited an anthology for novice writers called The Wind Cannot Read, having traveled across Canada to collect material for a 1,000-page manuscript.

Constance Brissenden, one of Loyie's writing instructors recalls, "Sometimes the stars align. In the early 1990s, living in Vancouver, I taught a creative writing class at the Carnegie Community Centre on Hastings and Main in Vancouver's Downtown Eastside. Larry attended the free class. He had a childhood dream of becoming a writer, and was determined to make it come true. I soon learned that Larry was a much better creative writer than I was, and a strong literacy advocate.

"Larry wanted to write a play about his six years in residential school. As a former dramaturge (play editor), I started working with Larry on his first play, Ora Pro Nobis, Pray for Us. This play, about the friendship of the boys and how it helped them survive their residential school years, was staged in BC, Alberta, and Ontario. At this point, Larry saw that he could only reach a limited audience with plays. He turned to writing books, and ultimately produced nine books. I worked with Larry as co-author and editor."

Constance Brissenden quickly realized she was learning as much from him as he was learning from her. Their partnership and mutual concerns led to the creation of new writers group called Living Traditions in which Loyie blossomed as an educator and as an author of several plays, short stories and a children's story dealing with residential schools, native traditions and literacy.

Loyie's Ora Pro Nobis (Pray for Us) was staged in Vancouver and five federal B.C. prisons (1994), at Weesageechak Festival in Toronto (1995) and in Alberta (1998). Excerpts from the play are included in Away from Home: American Indian Boarding School Experiences, 1979-2000 (Heard Museum, 2000). Loyie wrote two more plays, Fifty Years Credit, based on the media's view of First Nations people, performed at Carnegie Community Centre (1998); and No Way to Say Goodbye, a commission for the Aboriginal AIDS Conference in northern Alberta (1999). All of his plays have benefited from his association with Brissenden.

For Loyie's autobiographical children's book, As Long as the Rivers Flow, Loyie and Brissenden toured Canada to present more than 90 readings. Due to Loyie's voice ailment, Brissenden reads the text; Loyie responds to questions. This poignant memoir recalls Loyie's last summer of freedom before he was forced to attend residential school. Cree artist George Littlechild suggested Loyie write the story for children. "I told George about the truck that picked us up and took us away," Loyie says. "The sides were so high, we could only see the sky."

Illustrated by First Nations artist Heather Holmlund, As Long as the Rivers Flow reflects Loyie's perspective at age nine as he cares for an abandoned owl, watches his grandmother make moccasins, helps the family prepare for a hunting trip and receives a new name, Oskiniko-meaning Young Man-a name he still uses. Children are fascinated by the story of Larry's tiny grandmother, Bella Twin, who reputedly shot the biggest grizzly bear in North America. First Nations communities are using the book in classrooms, at conferences, and for healing purposes. Some listeners are moved to tears. As Long as the Rivers Flow was selected as the 2006 Honour Book of the First Nation Communities Read program.

In mid-September of 2003, Loyie was singled out for an honour dance at the Niagara Native Friendship Centre in St. Catherine's where more than 200 people lined up to shake hands with the writers, then gathered behind them as they danced slowly around the arbour while drummers sang a special song. "Being recognized by my own people this way," says Loyie, "was the greatest honour I could have."

Loyie was also a recipient of a 2001 Canada Post Literacy Award for Individual Achievement (British Columbia) and the 2003 Norma Fleck Award for As Long as the Rivers Flow. Larry Loyie is also featured in Honouring Time: A 15-month Aboriginal Day-timer (Ningwake Learning Press & TransCanada, 2001) and Learning about Participatory Approaches in Adult Literacy Education (Edmonton: Voices Rising, Learning at the Centre Press). He contributed the essay on First Nations people for The Greater Vancouver Book (Vancouver: Linkman Press), edited by Chuck Davis.

In 2007, Loyie moved to High Prairie, Alberta, with Constance Brissenden to build a log house.

Over time, Loyie and Brissenden participated in activities at the First Nations House of Learning at UBC, giving talks and readings, and attending student activities. "Larry heartily believed in the Aboriginal Teacher Education Program here," according to Brissenden. Lowie's friendship with Kim Lawson, a librarian at UBC’s Xwi7xwa Library, led to the donation of his papers to the library. Lowie and several of Kim Lawson’s family members had fished professionally on the north coast of B.C. before he started writing in his mid-fifties.


Loyie, Larry (co-editor). The Wind Cannot Read: An Anthology of Learners Writing (Province of British Columbia Ministry of Advanced Education, Training and Technology, 1992).

Loyie, Larry & Vera Manuel. Two Plays About Residential School. Ora Pro Nobis (Pray for Us) by Larry Loyie & The Strength of Indian Women by Vera Manuel (Vancouver: Living Traditions, 1998).

Loyie, Larry & Constance Brissenden. As Long as the Rivers Flow (Groundwood, 2003). Illustrations by Heather D. Holmlund.

Loyie, Larry & Constance Brissenden. The Gathering Tree (Theytus, 2005). Illustrations by Heather D. Holmlund. $19.95 978-1-89477-842-8

Loyie, Larry & Constance Brissenden. When the Spirits Dance (Theytus, 2006). $16.95 978-1-92688-602-2

Loyie, Larry & Constance Brissenden. Goodbye Buffalo Boy (Theytus, 2008) $16.95 978-1-89477-862-6

Loyie, Larry & Constance Brissenden & Wayne K. Spear. Residential Schools: With the Words and Images of Survivors (Indigenous Education Press 2015) $34.95 978-0-9939371-0-1

How the Fox Got His Crossed Legs (Theytus) $22.95 9781894778749


Acimowina Storytelling (Order from Voices Rising, Learning at the Centre Press, 10116-105 Avenue, Edmonton, AB, Canada; e-mail: learningcentre@compusmart.ab.ca) Cree stories from student writers, many written in creative writing classes with Larry Loyie and Constance Brissenden.

Away from Home: American Indian Boarding School Experiences, 1979-2000. Edited by Margaret L. Archuleta, Brenda J. Child and K. Tsianina Lomawaima. Published by Heard Museum, 2000. Includes excerpts from Larry Loyie's play Ora Pro Nobis (Pray for Us). ISBN O-934351-62-7.

Honouring Time: A 15-month Aboriginal Day-timer (Ningwake Learning Press & TransCanada, 2001. Order from info@ningwakwe.on.ca) Featuring First Nations writers and artists, including Larry Loyie.

Learning about Participatory Approaches in Adult Literacy Education (Order from Voices Rising, Learning at the Centre Press, 10116-105 Avenue, Edmonton, AB, Canada; e-mail: learningcentre@compusmart.ab.ca) Six teachers talk about their experiences; includes an overview of creative writing workshops by Larry Loyie and Constance Brissenden.

The Healing, a Memoir for Four Voices by Larry Loyie (Order from Living Traditions Writers Group at livingtradition@telus.net)

[BCBW 2008]