Peyakow by Darrel J. McLeod is a finalist for the 2021 Hilary Weston Writers’ Trust Prize for Nonfiction.
The $60,000 prize is the largest prize for nonfiction in Canada. The winner will be announced on Nov. 3, 2021.
Peyakow is a follow-up to McLeod’s memoir Mamaskatch. The title is the Cree word for “one who walks alone.” Peyakow tells the story of his childhood and youth. He was bullied by white classmates, lived in poverty, endured physical and sexual abuse and lost several people he loved. But the story is one of love and triumph, as McLeod goes on to become a teacher, the First Nations’ delegate to the UN and an executive in the Canadian government.
McLeod is a Cree writer from Treaty 8 territory in Northern Alberta. Before his retirement, McLeod was chief negotiator of land claims for the federal government and executive director of education and international affairs with the Assembly of First Nations. His first book, the memoir Mamaskatch, won the 2018 Governor General’s Literary Award for nonfiction.
Read an excerpt from Peyakow below.
Someone had moved the yellow cedar ceremonial rattle carved in the shape of an eagle’s head that sat usually on a brick shelf over the woodstove. Likely Mosom. Where had he put it?
“How can you ever forgif’ me, son? We were sep’rated by this barryer o’ language our whole lives. Now I see it so clearly. You can’ even talk to Mosom and Cucuum. Hurts so much ta’ see the longing in your eyes to speak with them — your grandparents — go deep, and you can’t.”
Mosom joined us and put his arm around Mother’s shoulder. “Mahti poni mato Ndans. Dh’on wh’orih pee happih,” he said. Mother glanced at him and forced a smile. Mosom was right. What was the point in worrying? More important to pray.
When Mother and I returned to the family room, Mosom, Cucuum and a few Uncles and Aunties were talking. Uncle Jack translated snippets to let the rest of us in on their conversation.
“When they were young, our people were the majority,” Cucuum said. “It was like that for decades, so most Moniyawak learned Cree to trade with us and make money. Some nuns and priests spoke it really good — even wrote it down. But they brought diseases that killed so many of our people. They put a bounty on the heads of the buffalo to starve our cousins on the plains, force them onto reserves, and us too — we used to join them in hunting parties.”
Mother, Auntie Margaret, Uncle Jack and the other Cree speakers nodded. We all sat in silence for a few minutes, staring down or straight ahead.
Cucuum cleared her throat, then continued. “Once the Moniyawak outnumbered us, they tore apart our culture one piece at a time. Outlawed powwows and gatherings, our form of government. Took our kids away when they were still really small and taught them English. Brought French-speaking nuns and priests in to teach it to them, along with their religion. They hardly spoke English and never used it between themselves. Spoke fran-saey — wem’stigoso. Forced us to end our seasonal migration from the northern bush to the Rocky Mountains, fed us whiskey — iskotewapoy — ’til it ruined us. A real bad dream. Too bad to be true.”
She glanced around the room. “We didn’t have no heaven or hell before they came, and we weren’t ashamed of our own nakedness. We enjoyed sex and talked about it freely. We didn’t hide it away in darkness, and we didn’t have VD — their men brought that too. We ate good — nobody was fat or had diabetes. And we knew how to laugh — a good belly laugh that healed us and kept us going.”
Then, more quiet. I remembered this type of silence, when we were content just to be together and sit there happy with life.
LISTEN | Darrel J. McLeod discusses Peyakow:
12:57Darrel J. McLeod on Peyakow: Reclaiming Cree Dignity
After a while, Mosom spoke to Mother in Cree. She turned to me. “He wants you to tell us about your travels, my man. I told him that you have traveled to many places.”
I didn’t know where to start, so I began with the Three Sisters Mountains at Canmore — how I’d marveled at them at the age of 10. They’d become my surrogate Grandmothers. Did Mosom know there were Cree names for those mountains? Then the beauty of B.C. I couldn’t settle on one place, so I described other Rocky and Coastal mountains — how I loved the waterfalls that adorned them like diamond necklaces. Rivers, streams, mineral hot springs, lakes, and ocean; magnificent forests of cedar and spruce. I told them how nature had healed me and given me new vigor — right there, at my little house near Sooke.
He can’t believe you did all those travels alone, son. You took our spirit to all those places — alone.
I told them about Mexico — the jungle, warm ocean, masses of cinnamon-colored faces, mangos and coconuts, the Huichol people. During the spring and fall equinoxes the setting sun turned the shadows on the steps at Chichen Itza into an illusion of a Mayan deity, a feathered serpent, slithering down its banister. The Aztecs called that same deity Quetzalcoatl: god of wind and rain, of knowledge and learning.
I described how the Mapuche and other tribes of Argentina had welcomed me, sharing their ceremonies and feasts.
Mosom turned again to Mother, shook his head, nodded in my direction and said, “Mah, sosquats. Peyakow.”
“He can’t believe you did all those travels alone, son. You took our spirit to all those places — alone.”
Excerpted from Peyakow: Reclaiming Cree Dignity, by Darrel J. McLeod, ©2021. Published by Douglas & McIntyre. Reprinted with permission of the publisher.