Collaborating to Cultivate a Community-Relevant Story

Doris George and Don K. Philpot, Authors of kā-āciwīkicik / The Move

How did conversation at a family barbeque in Eastervile, Manitoba lead to the Governor General’s Literary Award (Young People’s Literature – Illustrated Books) finalist book kā-āciwīkicik / The Move?

Don K. Philpot shared in an interview how the story crystallized in a discussion with Doris George, his co-writer (and sister-in-law), about a children’s book idea he was working on but felt stuck: something was missing. In conversation with Doris, they discovered that what was missing was the language of the community—Swampy Cree—and also how language could shape and become a means to cultivate a community-relevant story.

With Doris’ voice and experience—and through their collaboration—together they made the story feel whole and relevant, the story we all enjoy now as kā-āciwīkicik / The Move.

kā-āciwīkicik / The Move is set in the 1960s and shares—through the perspectives of Cree Elders—the time when Chemawawin Cree Nation were relocated from their ancestral homeland in Cedar Lake, Manitoba to Easterville, Manitoba. For Doris, who was a part of the move in the 1960s, it is important that children explore this period so “they know our history and about our relocation.” And, although it has personal ties for him as well, Don acknowledges this story comes from “thinking about all Indigenous people in Canada and maybe even all Indigenous people in North American who were forced to move.”

The Text

Collaborating in this way was new to Doris and Don and they found a path together in the cyclical process of translating the original English text to Cree and back-and-forth allowing the languages to influence each other–and the telling of the story.

Both Don and Doris are fluent Cree speakers and Don explained how Doris’ Cree translation influenced his English text and then the updated English text would influence the next version of the Cree text and so on; a process that expanded the collaboration beyond one between two writers to also be a collaboration between English and Cree worlds to make a story that makes sense in both worlds.

Don shares an example by explaining that Cree, unlike English, is not a language of things but of actions: I had written the story like “the old people were moving to a new house.” It’s not like there’s a verb moving and their house is a noun. It’s all one word in Swampy Cree. And I didn’t know that word, but Doris knew that word. So she took my English words and put them into a verb form. So that’s what I mean when describing the translation process as taking lots of English words and turning them into one Cree expression, which is so much more condensed and action-oriented in its meanings: In our doing, how are we doing this together? Or how am I learning from what you’re doing?

The Artwork

The collaborative ethos didn’t end with the writing, as the story was visually brought to life beautifully by Alyssa Koski who is Blackfoot—and whose visual framework is centred on Blackfoot culture. Don explained how they worked together to bring authenticity to the story by drawing up Cree cultural references. “Alyssa just ate them up. She just said ‘give me more, I want to understand the Cree culture more.’”

The tireless work and enthusiasm for authenticity shows through in the details of the beautiful imagery created by Alyssa. Don and Alyssa worked together on images like this one to ensure the outfits represented Cree culture accurately. Specifically, check out the detail of the old woman’s footwear and the beading.

The Characters and the Generations

Community relevance is echoed in the way that the two main characters in kā-āciwīkicik / The Move—the old woman and the old man—are almost archetypes and represent many old men and women in a way that likely feels familiar to traditional storytelling for Cree readers.

Doris describes the relationship between the old man and old woman by recalling:

“There was a couple that I remember. They did all kinds of cultural activities and that is who I thought of… Back in the day it was the women that looked after the camp and home. The men hunted and provided for the family. So the woman would be the stronger one to carry on and the man was resigned and easily give up to what is before him… The contrast in their responses (to the move) would be that one stays strong while the other one is weaker and the stronger one will carry the weaker one and show them that we don’t have to accept what we are dealt. There is always hope.”

The presentation of familial bonds is another element of this story that might feel more familiar to Cree readers as kā-āciwīkicik / The Move is a children’s book that doesn’t focus on a child.

Don describes how “in Cree culture, I don’t believe children are at the centre. I believe that the generation headed by the experienced ones is centred. So the telling of this children’s story starts with the experienced ones. It brings in the children and includes the children, but it’s still the experienced ones who tell the story and those are the old people.”

This importance of the relationship between the elderly and the young is something that Alyssa brilliantly captured in the cover images: beginning and ending the story with the family.

Doris George is a Cree educator. She is the principal of Chemawawin Schools in Easterville, Manitoba, where she also taught Cree language for four years. She holds a BA and BEd from University College of the North and a Community Linguist Certificate (CLC) from the University of Alberta. She has a passion for her language, and credits her grandparents and parents with speaking Cree with her when she was growing up. She is married with three sons and six grandchildren.

Don K. Philpot is an educator specializing in Cree language structures and use, language and literacy education, and children’s literature. He is a member of the reading faculty at Shippensburg University and holds undergraduate and graduate degrees in Indigenous Studies, Teacher Education, and Literacy education from the University of Manitoba and University of British Columbia. His current research focuses on Indigenous landscapes and worldviews in contemporary adolescent novels by Indigenous writers.

Contributed by Patti McIntosh and Lorisia MacLeod

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