Legends and lessons from Cree grandmother brought to life
Emily Masty's passion for stories and legends focus of a digital life history
Robert Auclair remembers the four-track cassettes filled with aatiyuuhkaan — or Cree legends — that his uncle would bring to camp and that his mother loved.
As children, he and his brother Patrick would listen to them at night before going to bed.
"Cree legends ... tell you about your identity and teach you about different things ... about life and the connections between a Cree person — and another time and space — and their relationship with the land and the animals," said Auclair.
He also remembers how his mother, Emily Masty, loved sharing these legends and other stories told by elders and ancestors.
Cree legends ... tell you about your identity ... and teach you about different things.- Robert Auclair, son of Emily Masty
"We have an oral tradition, where we pass down stories and teachings ... these little memories, stories and pictures," said Auclair.
Life history project cut short
Now Auclair and his brother Patrick have helped launch a website dedicated to the Cree stories and legends his mother loved, with the help of researcher Naomi Adelson.
Adelson is currently associate vice-president, research and innovation, at Ryerson University, but in 2012, she collaborated with Masty on a life history project. It was a project cut short when Masty died in February of 2015.
The website, www.emilymasty.ca, includes the audio tapes and transcripts of interviews with Adelson from 2012.
The recordings share detailed memories of Masty's family and life on the land near an unnamed lake south of Kaaminapskawshee, located 370 kilometres northeast of Whapmagoostui, Que., as well as pictures and memories of her sons, Robert and Patrick.
Whapmagoostui is a fly-in only community and the most northern of the Cree communities in Quebec, about a 1,200-kilometre flight from Montreal.
The website also includes some of the stories and legends that were part of a book called Mind's Eye: Stories from Whapmagoostui, that Emily wrote with Susan Marshall in 2014. The book was also staged as a play by the same name, written by Cree actor and writer Shirley Cheechoo. The play toured Cree communities in 2014.
Robert Auclair said he's very pleased to be able to share his mother's life work digitally in this way.
"These memories will live on forever in their original form," said Auclair. "Fifty years, 100 years from now, [these recordings] will have the same words, the same message."
He said as he has listened to his mother's stories and the legends throughout his life, he gets different lessons from them.
"The same story ... I could listen … when I'm 15, 25, 35 or 45 ... but I can receive different messages from it," he said, adding it's an important way for him to stay in touch with his Cree identity.
In her life history interviews, Emily dedicates the stories she shares to her grandchildren and future grandchildren, something Auclair said is now a tangible, living connection thanks to the recordings and the website.
"It's like she is leaving them (her relatives) something ... even though she is not here, yet still is. She is alive to our own family through the work that she did," said Auclair.
He said for his children, particularly his youngest children, the stories collected on the website are precious.
"My two youngest children saw her only in the photos ... their grandma had already passed away. Through the photos [and recordings], they still get to know her," said Auclair.
The family is still collecting photos and memories for the website and Auclair said he hopes it will inspire others families to collect and share their family stories in the same way.