Darrel J. McLeod's memoir of resilience as a Cree from treaty eight territory in Northern Alberta, Mamaskatch: A Cree Coming of Age  (D&M 2018), won the Governor General Literary Award in the Non-Fiction category. Prior to his retirement, McLeod was a chief negotiator of land claims for the federal government and executive director of education and international affairs with the Assembly of First Nations. Fluent in French and Spanish, he holds degrees in French Literature and Education from UBC. McLeod now writes, sings and plays jazz guitar in Sooke. B.C. when not performing in Victoria and Puerto Vallarta, Mexico. His next book will be a follow up to Mamaskatch.

'Mamaskatch,' a Cree word used as a response to dreams shared, evokes feelings of awe. In an interview with CBC Radio's Shelagh Rogers for The Next Chapter, McLeod explained his personal connection to this word: "The word, Mamaskatch, has stuck with me over the years. Mom used to say it a lot when we were kids when things happened that were a bit extraordinary. I gave the book that title after going online with some fluent Cree speakers. I asked them what it meant and they gave various meanings, ranging from, 'How strange' to 'It's a miracle.' It is the perfect title. I keep saying that word over and over again now. Somebody asked me yesterday what would your mother say if she read that book and I said she would say, 'Mamaskatch.'"


The pattern of my mother’s stories is different from the ones I hear at school. The timelines are never linear. Instead, they are like spirals. She starts with one element of a story, moves to another and skips to yet a different part. She revisits each theme several times over, providing a bit more information with each pass. At first I find it hard to follow, but I’ve learned that if I just sit back and listen without interrupting, she will cover everything and make each story complete.

“Auntie Margaret and I grew up on the trapline. We moved around every season and camped in large canvas tents to be closer to the animals and birds. In the evening, we sat around the fire, Auntie Margaret across from me, sometimes cutting sheets of moose meat to make kakiwak—dried meat—other times scraping moose or beaver hides for tanning. I always sat right beside Mother, your Cucuum Adele. Oh, she used to get so upset when I had to go pee. It was a big deal. She had to walk in the bush with me till we found a fallen tree that I could sit on and hang my behind over.”

I smile inside at the notion of my strong mother with her man-hands being a dainty little girl. The detail in her stories and the intensity of her look as she tells them holds my attention, but the way she speaks as if it all took place yesterday or the day before troubles me. We both know that it happened years ago, and that it’s part of our family history that will soon be forgotten.

“Auntie Margaret had her first baby, Chiq-iq, there on the trapline, you know. I loved that baby. There were no soothers then, so she would suck on my bottom lip between feedings—fall asleep that way.

“The birds are messengers, Son. Sometimes they told me things that would happen in our family. Âhâsiw, mikisiw, ôhô and wiskipôs—crow, eagle, owl and whisky jack. They’ll help you—guide you through life. Watch them, talk to them.”

She chuckles nervously and watches for my reaction. I laugh too. Her bloodshot brown eyes are an exact replica of my own. In these moments she is so sincere, so real. I love that she thinks she can communicate with birds. Will I ever have that gift myself?

“I learned to be tough, Son. My brothers were rough, and I had to learn to defend myself or get beaten up play-fighting. I learned to whip the boys and come out on top.”

Mother continues on, and every half hour or so I pull myself upright. I feel guilty about my dreariness and impatience. It is in these nocturnal sessions that I learn about our family history. Dead family members come to life and find their place in my heart. The seasonal dwelling sites and hunting areas she describes so clearly take shape in my head.

After a few hours she starts to slur her words and nod off. I take advantage of her sleepiness to put a few LPs that I like on the metal peg of the turntable—Creedence Clearwater Revival, Roy Orbison and Elvis Presley—turning the volume down at the same time, but I don’t get away with it. She shakes her head and sits up straight.

“Play Johnny Horton again. Or put on Johnny Cash. Merle Haggard. Please, Son. I need to hear country. Turn it up, can’t hear it.” Her tone is gentle, but it’s a demand, not a request.

The Johnny Cash album slides down the peg first; the arm moves over to the edge of the 33⅓ album and sets itself down.

Call him drunken Ira Hayes, he won’t answer any more...

“Yes, that song, Son. I love that song.”

Not the whisky drinking Indian, nor the marine that went to war.

I finally get to bed around four in the morning. I roll onto my side and rest my head in the crook of my elbow, careful not to awaken my little brother. Sometimes after these sessions I can fall asleep, but other times I lie there thinking about what Mother has told me. Why does she pick me to tell her stories to, and why does she only tell them when she’s drinking? She knows I have school in the morning and that I never miss a day—she must think what she’s recounting is important. Does she want me to repeat her stories to others, my sisters and brothers, her grandchildren—someday, somewhere?

I know I could never share stories the magical way she does. The structure of our language, Cree, is hard-wired in her brain, and English is still a challenge for her. She sees the world differently from the way they teach us in school. Rocks are alive—she calls them our grandfathers. The markers for I and you are attached as extra syllables to the verb forms. The second-person pronoun is always more important, so it comes first, whether it’s the subject or the object. Unlike in English, I love you and you love me both start with the marker ki, for you. The third person is split into two parts; this distinguishes important characters in a conversation from secondary ones. The gendered pronouns he and she don’t exist in Cree. Mother has told me this more than once, laughing at herself for getting the two mixed up.

Is that why my older brother, Greg, and my uncle Danny could play at dressing up as girls so often without Mother getting upset? Is that why my uncles aren’t as hairy as the Métis or white guys around? What about me? Will I be a regular Cree guy, like most of my uncles, or more like Danny and Greg, who grew up mimicking Mother, my sister Debbie and our aunties? If I spoke Cree, would I see the world the way Mother does and have the answers to these questions? Would I be less afraid?


Mamaskatch: A Cree Coming of Age (D&M 2018) $29.95 978-1-77162-200-4

[BCBW 2018]