"It is my wish and my hope to save the stories that have been told to us when I was young and that have been passed on to us by our grandfathers and their grandfathers and so on and so on. Some of these stories are very old. " Louis Bird, Omushkego (Swampy Cree) storyteller and elder Louis Bird lives in Peawanuck, Ontario, near the mouth of the Winisk River on Hudson Bay. Beginning in 1999, the Centre for Rupertís Land Studies at the University of Winnipeg has been privileged to have him in residence for several periods, first through a Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC) Major Research Grant to work with George Fulford (Anthropology), Jennifer S.H. Brown (History and director of the Centre for Rupertís Land Studies), and Mark Ruml (Religious Studies), and then with a broader team of colleagues and students through a Canadian Heritage grant from the Canadian Culture On-line Program (2003). The Omushkego Oral History Project has been devoted to the transcription, digitization, and preservation on CD-ROMs of a large portion of Louis Birdís extensive collection of audio tapes documenting Swampy Cree legends and oral history. Now it presents on http://www.ourvoices.ca a wide selection of his English-language stories for listeners and readers. We look forward to making his Cree-language stories available as well, both in audio and in Cree syllabic text files.
Louis Bird is a gifted performer. He has been invited to storytelling gatherings across Canada as well as to the United States and the Netherlands. He was born in 1934 in the wilderness, 60 miles northwest of the former village of Winisk, Ontario. Aside from four years spent at Ste. Anneís Residential School, Fort Albany, Ontario, Mr. Bird during the first 20 years of his life received a traditional cultural education from his parents and elders. He developed a deep knowledge of the Hudson Bay coast and lowlands through practical experience as well as through the teachings of stories and legends. In addition, he learned how to fish, hunt, trap, and survive in the bush.
Members of Louis Bird's generation did not grow up with Omushkego traditional spiritual practices such as hunting songs and the "shaking tent"; these activities were strongly discouraged by Roman Catholic Oblate priests who established missions among his people in the late 1800s. However, through interviews with elders and a detailed study of Omushkego oral history and legends, Mr. Bird acquired a profound understanding of the spiritual practices, beliefs and history of his people.
Louis Bird traces his fascination with history back to his earliest memories when his mother first began telling him traditional stories. As a young man, Mr. Bird continued seeking out his elders and asking them to tell him stories that their "grandfather's grandfathers" used to tell. Since he did not have a tape recorder at this time, he memorized the stories that he heard. "The only way I could record them without losing them was to try to record them as I heard them from the elders," he says. "Not just legends, but also our cultural education."
Jobs as a tractor operator, line cutter, economic development officer, and translator took Louis Bird to various communities along the west coast of James and Hudson Bay and brought him new opportunities to meet elders and learn more stories. But his success in obtaining so many stories was testing his memory. When he finally purchased a tape recorder in the early 1970s he hoped that by recording the stories on tape he could make the work easier. However, he discovered that most Omushkego elders were too shy to have their voices recorded on his machine. So he returned to his old way of doing things - but with a difference. Now, whenever an elder told him a new story, he returned home and carefully made a recording of it in his own voice, noting who had originally told the story.
Unfortunately, audio tapes have a useful life of about 10-12 years. Many of Louis Bird's early tapes deteriorated so much that they were barely audible. It became imperative to re-record them on a more durable medium such as CD-ROMs. In addition, he came to realize the significance of his stories as curriculum materials in Cree-language and social studies classes in northern schools. "It is very important to keep our Omushkego language alive and also to teach our young people how to read and write in our language," Mr. Bird says. He decided that, "My collection of stories should be written down so the young people will be able to study our language and understand their culture better. It is time the stories should be put on paper."
Louis Bird is aware that writing down the stories changes their quality; for example, ďthe emotion is not there.Ē But he fears that if the stories are not written, they may soon disappear. This is because many young people no longer speak their Native language. They speak only English and cannot learn the stories from their grandparents, who generally speak only Swampy Cree. For them, and for the students and others to whom he has told his stories across Canada, Mr. Bird has recorded many hours in English, and the stories presented here are predominantly in English. The Cree sound files have also been digitized and enhanced, and will be transcribed in Cree syllabics as resources allow.
Mr. Bird is hopeful that the Omushkego Oral History Project will help to turn the tide, helping to preserve First Nationsí languages and cultural heritage. "I can see a very bright future. We will accomplish something that will be very useful for the future generations of our people who may want to develop their own education system and curriculum."