Nova Scotia·Eskasoni Community Bureau

Eskasoni storyteller wants children to seek out knowledge

Terry Denny grew up hearing Mi'kmaw stories from friends, relatives and elders in his home community of Eskasoni, N.S. Now, he's looking to pass them on to the next generation of storytellers.

'If we don't try to bring back our culture, it'll never come back'

Eskasoni storyteller wants children to seek out knowledge

1 month ago
Duration 2:26
Terry Denny grew up hearing Mi'kmaw stories from friends, relatives and elders in his home community of Eskasoni, N.S. Now, he's looking to pass them on to the next generation of storytellers.

This story is part of a series from CBC's Eskasoni Community Bureau, based out of the Sarah Denny Cultural Centre. This series comes from weeks of conversations with community members about what they feel is important to see, hear and read on CBC's platforms.

Mi'kmaw storyteller Terry Denny calls it luck that his family never stopped telling the stories that were passed down by his ancestors.

Denny said his fortune stems from the fact that his family did not attend one of Canada's now-shuttered residential schools.

"My parents didn't see residential school and my grandparents didn't see residential schools," he said.

"We take these for granted, the words I use, or the stories I tell. I was raised by that, but there's a lot of our people that [it was] taken away from them." 

Denny was born-and-raised in Eskasoni, N.S., but now lives an hour away in Potlotek First Nation where he teaches students land-based learning. Among the lessons he shares are bow making, trapping and eel spearing.

Denny passes along animal pelts to Maisyn Sock, CBC Cape Breton's Eskasoni bureau co-ordinator, as part of a storytelling session at Denny's workshop in Potlotek, N.S. (Erin Pottie/CBC)

Today, Denny uses Mi'kmaw storytelling to teach students about their ancestors who lived in Nova Scotia for more than 13,000 years. 

Many of his culture's myths and legends are sprinkled with lessons about human relationships with spirits, shamans, nature, animals and each other. 

He said it was this oral tradition that help preserve Mi'kmaw language despite past government efforts to annihilate it.

'I realized what they lost'

More than 150,000 First Nations, Métis and Inuit children were forced to attend church-run, government-funded schools between the 1870s and 1997. They were made to learn English, embrace Christianity and adopt the customs of the country's white majority. 

It was a life-changing experience that showed Denny how important his work truly is. 

"I told these stories to a gathering of residential school survivors. The elders were very interested in them. They never heard these before, and yet, they were twice my age. And after that, I realized what they lost," he said.

"When I share these stories, it doesn't matter what age [people] are. I'm doing something to preserve our culture. I'm not just letting it die."

Denny looks up to the rafters of his Potlotek workshop where he keeps an array of wooden bows that are used in his land-based learning teachings. (Erin Pottie/CBC)

Denny is considered a Mi'kmaw knowledge keeper, but he's not comfortable with the term. For him, all people are equal and they have wisdom and stories to share.

The art of Mi'kmaw storytelling was taught to Denny in the 1970s and '80s by his relatives and elders. After hearing the stories over and over, Denny said they became embedded in his memory.

"These stories are different than what we hear today. There's stories on how animals came to be. There might be a little bit of truth in there, or a little bit of exaggeration, but there's some stories that make you wonder."

Denny says he wants to keep his culture alive by passing down the stories that were told to him by his friends, family members and elders. (Erin Pottie/CBC)

Passing down the knowledge

Denny want his Mi'kmaw students to better connect with their roots by learning who they are and where they came from. 

But he said there's a lot more competition today for children's attention spans. Back when he was told traditional stories, life was slower, simpler and there was less on TV.

Denny said in order to bring back the old ways, teachers need to use modern technology to help spread their knowledge.

And when asked about advice for the next generation of storytellers, Denny said the stories and lessons are out there, you just have to go looking for it.

"Don't ever give up, learn," he said. "We are not born with these ways. We are not born with the culture but we are created to develop. How much we want to gather is up to us. "

Denny said he'd like to see more people become Mi'kmaw storytellers like he has.

And he said there's a lot at stake when it comes to revitalizing the culture for generations to come.

"If we don't try to bring back our culture, it'll never come back. At least ... I am trying to bring back what little we have left."

MORE TOP STORIES

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Erin Pottie

Reporter

Erin Pottie is a CBC reporter based in Sydney. She has been covering local news in Cape Breton for 15 years. Story ideas welcome at erin.pottie@cbc.ca.

now