Darrel J. McLeod explores his Cree family history.

Darrel J. McLeod

Growing up in the tiny village of Smith, Alta., Darrel J. McLeod was surrounded by his Cree family's history. In shifting and unpredictable stories, his mother, Bertha, shared narratives of their culture, their family and the cruelty that she and her sisters endured in residential school. McLeod was comforted by her presence and that of his many siblings and cousins, the smells of moose stew and wild peppermint tea, and his deep love of the landscape. Bertha taught him to be fiercely proud of his heritage and to listen to the birds that would return to watch over and guide him at key junctures of his life.

The fractured narrative of Mamaskatch mirrors Bertha's attempts to reckon with the trauma and abuse she faced in her own life, and captures an intensely moving portrait of a family of strong personalities, deep ties and the shared history that both binds and haunts them. (From Douglas &McIntyre)

Mamaskatch won the 2018 Governor General's Literary Award for nonfiction.

From the Governor General's Literary Awards jury: "Mamaskatch: A Cree Coming of Age dares to immerse readers in provocative contemporary issues including gender fluidity, familial violence, and transcultural hybridity. A fast-moving, intimate memoir of dreams and nightmares — lyrical and gritty, raw and vulnerable, told without pity, but with phoenix-like strength."

McLeod wrote an original essay called Spanning Borders for the special CBC Books series Borders.

From the book

I know I could never share stories the magical way Mother does. The structure of our language, Cree, is hard-wired in her brain, and English is still a challenge for her. She sees the world differently from the way they teach us in school. Rocks are alive — she calls them our grandfathers. The markers for I and you are attached as extra syllables to the verb forms. The second-person pronoun is always more important, so it comes first, whether it's the subject or the object. Unlike in English, I love you and you love me both start with the marker ki, for you. The third person is split into two parts; this distinguishes important characters in a conversation from secondary ones. The gendered pronouns he and she don't exist in Cree. Mother has told me this more than once, laughing at herself for getting the two mixed up.

Is that why my older brother, Greg, and my uncle Danny could play at dressing up as girls so often without Mother getting upset? Is that why my uncles aren't as hairy as the Métis or white guys around? What about me? Will I be a regular Cree guy, like most of my uncles, or more like Danny and Greg, who grew up mimicking Mother, my sister Debbie and our aunties? If I spoke Cree, would I see the world the way Mother does and have the answers to these questions? Would I be less afraid?

From Mamaskatch by Darrel J. McLeod ©2018. Published by Douglas & McIntyre.


Darrel McLeod talks to Shelagh Rogers about his new book Mamaskatch 16:02

The 2018 Governor General's Literary Award winners