Land and language through story

Reviewed by Jasmine Spencer

Oral stories which have been written down offer a living depth and breadth of knowledge in their concepts, links between land and language, and ways of thinking—their epistemological dimensions. In this review, I share two important new contributions to the growing field of oral literature.

The first is Otter’s Journey through Indigenous Language and Law, by Lindsay Keegitah Borrows, a graduate of the University of Victoria’s Indigenous Law Research Unit. Borrows is Anishinaabe and conducts research on law and language revitalization. For her, Otter’s Journey is an expression of the legal dimensions of story. “Stories invite us to enter into different worlds,” she writes, and thus you become an “agent with the storyteller as you create your own understanding of his story.” Borrows shares her life and work in the mode of storyteller, recounting her learning experiences—in her home territory, Nunavut, Mauri territory, the Salish Sea, Minnesota, and her home again—as “fiction”—and she is Otter. As a literary scholar, I find the word “fiction” troubles me: fiction, for me, connotes “non-fact”—an implied duality which, as with most dualities, quickly becomes hierarchical in epistemological terms. But Borrows makes the bumpiness of ideological translation between world views more visible by using this word. And the evocative language which Borrows offers in her telling of the creation story in her introduction, in her enmeshing of the realities of language revitalization in Canada and New Zealand in Chapter Three, and especially, I find, in her experiences in the Salish Sea in Chapter Five, talking with Raven, serves to make real for me as a reader the power of the stories as conduits to ecologically, linguistically, and legally precise truths. And Borrows offers a glossary to enhance readers’ understandings of her expressive multilingual writing. In Chapter Six, a teacher recites a ceremonially and spiritually grounded legal statement from Diné legislation. The Navajo Nation’s law tells a story about the embodiment of wisdom in the land “[t]hrough songs and prayers.” It is to this embodiment of wisdom evoked through language and land and invoked through story that I now turn in a northern-Dene context.

The second contribution to the field of oral literature which I review here is The Man Who Lived with a Giant, a collection of Sahtu Dene oral histories divided into traditional and personal stories. The Sahtu region is situated around Great Bear Lake, called more accurately Sahtu from sah-, “bear,” and –tu, “water.” The stories told in and around the area have been shared by Elders such as George Blondin and researchers such as Fibbie Tatti. In the story collection produced by Morris Neyelle and Alana Fletcher, another Elder shares his storytelling: Johnny Neyelle, Morris’ father. The stories were told in Sahtúot’įnę Yatı̨́ and recorded on tape, and then transcribed and translated collaboratively by Morris Neyelle and Fletcher. In the introduction there is a statement on the history and future of the stories by Johnny Neyelle, who says that his mother taught him that the “stories that your betá is giving to you are like a good road he has made for you to follow. It’s a long road with no end . . . To walk on this road does not mean everything will work out for you . . . but God willing, you will make it to the very end.” The stories are then shared as “Sacred and Traditional Stories” and “Oral Histories from the Life of Johnny Neyelle.” Interspersed through both sections are photos of the Neyelle family, and at the end are a family genealogy and a glossary. This glossary is beautiful, and as a student of Dene languages and stories, I would love to see a dual-language edition of this book. The afterword, on the editing process, is an important part of understanding the translation and redaction methods used in creating this collection.

The titular story recounts travel shared between a man of typical size and a giant. By spending time with the giant, the smaller man learns to see animals and the land at a different scale, and he acquires powerful foods and abilities even as he and the giant part ways. In the life stories section, one story which particularly stands out for me is titled “The Dream, 1940s.” It passes on a philosophy of powerful visions, a spiritual practice held by many Dene people, stories of which are always extremely generous gifts to those with whom such visions are shared. In Johnny’s dream, Johnny, who is ill, is lifted up and sees his cosmos, the lake, the rivers, the villages, and the spirit world. Johnny contemplates the effects of suffering and compassion on our experiences in this life and the afterlife, with reference to the Sahtu prophets in Dél̨inę and to his people, his family who came before him. When he wakes up, he is healed.

This review “Land and language through story” originally appeared in Canadian Literature, 12 Feb. 2020. Web.

Please note that works on the Canadian Literature website may not be the final versions as they appear in the journal, as additional editing may take place between the web and print versions. If you are quoting reviews, articles, and/or poems from the Canadian Literature website, please indicate the date of access.

Canadian Literature is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for us to earn fees by linking to and affiliated sites.