Larissa Desrosiers, an emerging Anishinabekwe singer and songwriter from Couchiching First Nation, performs during an event highlighting Indigenous storytellers

Indigenous Storytellers Share Diverse Cultural Tales at Carleton

By Susan Hickman
Photos by Chris Roussakis

Stories From the Land host Ryan McMahon, an Indigenous artist, comedian and storyteller, says performing a show at Carleton University on Dec. 5 was a history-making event.

His project brings together diverse Indigenous storytellers from across Canada to share stories about land and community in an effort to engage reconciliation.

The Carleton show, arranged in collaboration with the university’s Centre for Aboriginal Culture and Education (CACE), was the 24th of 30 road shows on the national live storytelling tour.

“For Carleton to embrace us and invite us in is very special,” says McMahon, who introduced and interviewed four local storytellers in front of a live audience of more than 100 people. “We are making history together. This is inherently political that we are here in the nation’s capital telling stories in the name of reconciliation and resurgence.

“Stories,” he says, “are beautiful. Stories give you access to our deepest fears and are a celebration of our lives and this is our gift to Canada.”

McMahon started the evening with a ceremonial song and a brief tale about how the land will tell you stories “if you ask nice enough.”

Larissa Desrosiers, an emerging Anishinabekwe singer and songwriter from Couchiching First Nation, performed songs she explained were born from feelings of fear, anger and vulnerability.

“And I will fight for a day where I can walk off the beaten path without looking at my shoes,” she sang. In an a capella piece, she declared: “All I know is this violence has to end because nobody should die that way again.”

Indigenous Storytellers: Interacting with the community

Desrosiers is a third-year music student at Carleton and began studying Indigenous courses this year. “I don’t know what I want to do with my life,” she says, “but I want to interact with elders in my community and might major in Indigenous studies and possibly do a master’s.”

“You are vital to us,” McMahon told Desrosiers after her performance. “You are one of those youth voices that rarely gets heard in our territory.”

Inuk Deborah Webster, who grew up in Baker Lake, Nunavut, and now lives in Ottawa, read stories from her recently published children’s book, Akilak’s Adventure, a story about a young girl’s journey from one camp to another to gather food. A Carleton alumna with a degree in anthropology, Webster spoke of her wonderful childhood in Nunavut, where “you can see very far across the fragrant and colourful tundra in the fall. You can walk for days without seeing another human being. I wanted to bring that into the book. I wrote Akilak’s Adventure because there aren’t many books on Inuit culture and I thought it was important to get our voice out there.”

Anishinabekwe Geraldine King from Gull Bay First Nation, and her 15-year-old son Adrian Dent of Kitigan Zibi Anishinabeg, completed the storytelling. Dent, performing for the first time, drew gales of laughter from the audience with his natural, comedic style of stories of fishing, hunting and trapping, which included the graphic details of killing, skinning and gutting a moose.

King, who comes from a long line of storytellers, looked at how erotica is expressed in everyday spaces for Indigenous peoples. Also a Carleton alumna, King says love is an important aspect of resurgence. “Being vulnerable is the mechanism that will allow us to fight the shame that was put on us. It creates an intimacy that allows us to communicate with each other.”

Funded by the Canada Council for the Arts, the project is also supported by sponsors such as the Circle on Philanthropy for Aboriginal Peoples, the J.W. McConnell Foundation, Indian and Cowboy, and Makoons Media Group.

“This event is important,” says CACE Cultural Liaison Officer Naomi Sarazin, “because it gives space for Indigenous people to share their knowledge through oral storytelling in an academic setting, in an effort to move toward understanding and reconciliation. Indigenous people have relied on the oral transmission of stories, histories, traditional teachings and other knowledge to maintain historical record and as a way to sustain their cultures and identities.”

Larissa Desrosiers, an emerging Anishinabekwe singer and songwriter from Couchiching First Nation, performs during an event highlighting Indigenous storytellersThe audience listens during an event highlighting Indigenous storytellersThe audience listens during an event highlighting Indigenous storytellers