Nova Scotia

Mi'kmaw artist Alan Syliboy explores death, afterlife in new children's book

Artist and author Alan Syliboy's new children's book, When The Owl Calls Your Name, uses Mi'kmaw culture to begin the conversation about death.

Teaching youth about death and Mi'kmaw culture is essential, he says

man sitting down holding his new book
Alan Syliboy says there is a stigma attached to death, and he hopes his children's book will help people understand it from the perspective of another culture. (Alan Syliboy)

An author and artist from the Millbrook First Nation in central Nova Scotia has published a new book that aims to teach children about how the Mi'kmaq understand and come to grips with death.

Alan Syliboy said death is a part of life and he believes it should be addressed at an early age. 

"I always thought of death as natural,"  Syliboy said. "It's just reality and we have to have ideas about when it happens and how to handle it."

When The Owl Calls Your Name follows a spirit as it prepares for the journey to the next life. The children's book conveys the message that people should live their lives to the fullest until the owl is ready for them.

Adapting a decades-old story

Syliboy came up with the owl concept after reading the book I Heard The Owl Call My Name, a 1967 novel about an Anglican priest who learns about ancient beliefs of death and mortality while at a First Nations community in British Columbia.  

The book was released by Nimbus Publishing earlier this month, with Syliboy hosting a book launch at his art studio in Millbrook.

Throughout the years, he adapted the story to his traditional teachings and performed it as a spoken word song with his band Alan Syliboy & the Thundermakers. 

"Owls are a messenger from the Creator and when they call your name the Creator wants you to come home," he said. "Owls fly on silent wings and you may never know when he'll be coming."

When The Owl Calls Your Name is Syliboy's fourth children's book. He said he enjoys writing for children because it starts teaching them about Mi'kmaw culture. 

Important conversations

"I've heard it said that you die twice. First you die, and then you die again when no one says your name," he said.

Syliboy said creating this book is another way to remind youth that the Mi'kmaq are still here, he said, anticipating the next generation will "keep your memory alive too."

Clinical therapist Michelle Peters, who has worked in her community of Pictou Landing First Nation for years, said it's important to have conversations with young children about death and grief.

"I think it's important for Canadians to be open to other world views," she said. "There's many forms of knowledge and the Indigenous world view is one that embodies a holistic perspective on life."

Sylliboy's other titles include Wolverine and Little Thunder, The Thundermaker and Mi'kmaw Animals, with versions available in English and in Mi'kmaw.

'It is part of nature'

He dedicates When The Owl Calls Your Name to Robert Denton, a close friend and animator who died in 2022. They wanted to explore the connection between Mi'kmaw cosmology and death.

"The Milky Way is a spiritual path and that's where your spirit journeys from here to back to the Creator," Syliboy said. "If you imagine travelling along that road, there are signposts to tell you the way to get here."

Communities on reserves are close-knit and deaths reverberate, be they from natural causes or others such as car accidents. That means young people living in these communities often must learn about death at a young age.

Syliboy said there is a stigma attached to death, and he hopes the book will help people understand it from the perspective of another culture. 

"People have a lot of fear of it," he said. "I think if they come to see that it is part of nature, then they would be less afraid of it."


Tehosterihens Deer is a Haudenosaunee from the Mohawk nation of Kahnawake. He is a reporter and journalist with CBC Nova Scotia.