Cree cultural icon dies at his home near Duck Lake, Sask.

Saskatchewan has lost a central figure in the revival of Plains Cree culture, Tyrone Tootoosis.

Tyrone Tootoosis fought for justice, reconciliation

Tyrone Tootoosis, who was 58, died early Sunday morning of colon cancer. (Red Sky Performance)

Tyrone Tootoosis preferred to organize powwows, not star in them.

He could often be found in a quiet spot offstage, smiling as the drummers, singers and dancers took to the floor.

But last November, with his health failing, Tootoosis was brought to the centre of the circle.

Tyrone Tootoosis, right, leads the delegation as he's honoured at the Federation of Sovereign Indigenous Nations (FSIN) pow-wow at SaskTel Centre in Saskatoon in November, 2016. (Courtesy Eagle Feather News)

Elders sat around him, with the performers in wider circle around them. They prayed for Tootoosis, who was then led around SaskTel Centre to the beat of an honour song.

Tears streamed down his face. Tootoosis is the only person central to every edition of the Federation of Sovereign Indigenous Nations powwows since their inception 15 years ago. This was a solemn thank you from the participants, as well as the hundreds of people of all cultures in the stands, Tootoosis knew this was also a farewell.

"He was starting to get tired by the end (but) he was very happy," FSIN Chief Bobby Cameron said. 

A sad day for Cree people

Tootoosis, who was 58, died early Sunday morning of colon cancer. He was at his ranch near Duck Lake, Sask., which he shared with his wife, University of Saskatchewan professor Winona Wheeler.

Tyrone Tootoosis and wife Winona Wheeler owned a ranch just outside Duck Lake. Tootoosis, a tireless promoter of Plains Cree culture, died early Sunday. (Winona Wheeler/Facebook)

"Tansi & hello," relatives posted on his popular Facebook page, where his archival photos and historical vignettes taught thousands about Plains Cree culture.

"Tyrone left us early this morning, riding a comet during the full snow moon. We will miss him dearly."

The post, as well as a similar one on Wheeler's page, were flooded with more than 600 comments by Sunday evening.

"This is so truly heartbreaking. He put so much good into the world," wrote Howie Firth.

Lynette Gordon posted it was a "sad day for Cree people."

Jim Waldram wrote Tootoosis "was an ideas kind of guy, always full of energy and excitement about what was possible."

A wake for the father of 10 is due to begin Monday evening on the Poundmaker Cree Nation near the Battlefords.

A story keeper

Tootoosis was a key figure in the Indigenous performing arts, but also in Cree linguistics and history. Like his father, Wilfred, Tootoosis spent tens of thousands of hours sitting with elders, recording their stories.

Two walls of his study were lined with cassette tapes. He spent just as much time translating and transcribing them, preserving generations of knowledge.

Tootoosis' goal was to make the words public through an archive, museum or other organization. He'd share excerpts on his Facebook page, believing in the power of social media to unite and educate.

He said he wasn't a storyteller, but rather a "story keeper."

He was central in the development of Wanuskewin Heritage Park. He played Chief Poundmaker, a distant relative, in a number of feature films. His First Nations Accountability Coalition pushed for ethical governance at all levels. And after years of meetings and document submissions, he convinced the federal government to alter the way it teaches tourists and schoolchildren about the Indigenous-settler relationship at Fort Battleford.

He lived by the words of his grandfather and FSIN co-founder John B. Tootoosis who repeatedly told him, "You don't have a minute to waste."

A warrior and a peacemaker

Cameron considered Tootoosis a big brother. He visited Tootoosis just before he died.

"He said, in a really low voice, he said, 'Bobby, stay true … I'm grateful for all you've done for me,' when it was many of us - thousands of us - that were grateful for his contributions and his teachings," Cameron recalled.

Tyrone Tootoosis' goal was to make the stories he collected from elders public through an archive, museum or other organization. (Tyrone Tootoosis/Facebook)

Tootoosis also had a unique ability to bring all cultures together on treaties, environmentalism and a host of other issues, said friend Don Kossick. He worked his entire life at reconciliation.

Kossick worked with Tootoosis on water security following the Husky oil spill near the Battlefords last summer. Kossick said he was amazed by Tootoosis' humility.

"He was incredible in the way he combined being a warrior who was always prepared to stand his ground, but he was also a peacemaker. He really wanted to bring all communities together," Kossick said. 

Eagle Feather News publisher John Lagimodiere said Tootoosis' series of columns helped educate the general public, but also helped other Indigenous youth find their voice and connect with their culture.

"Yes, he's gone, but what he has done will live on forever."

About the Author

Jason Warick

Reporter

Jason Warick is a reporter with CBC Saskatoon.

With files from Joelle Seal.