The Next Chapter

Darrel McLeod's memoir Peyakow is about love, Indigenous education and 'walking alone'

The Cree writer's new memoir continues his life story from his award-winning debut book Mamaskatch.
Cree author Darrel J. McLeod won a Governor General Literary Award for Non-fiction in 2018 for Mamaskatch: A Cree Coming of Age. (Ilya Herb)

When Darrel McLeod retired from a career in Indigenous education, he sat down to write his life stories. The result was a stunning debut memoir called, Mamaskatcha title which translates to "it's a wonder" in Cree.

The book follows the author through his first three decades in rural Alberta. His coming-of-age was marked by his mother's profound love and her connection to her Cree identity, but McLeod also inherited her pain as a residential school survivor.

McLeod ended up winning the Governor General's Literary Award for nonfiction for Mamaskatch.

His work continues with the memoir Peyakow, which translates to "one who walks alone." The book picks up on McLeod's life as an adult working in education and advocating for Indigenous people.

The author spoke with The Next Chapter host Shelagh Rogers this spring about Peyakow in a virtual event hosted by the Ottawa Public Library and the Ottawa International Writers Festival. 

How Peyakow was named

"It occurred to me that Peyakow should be the title as I was actually writing the stories. In so many of the scenes, in each different context, I was alone. Darrel, the character was alone in his work life and his personal life, performing music alone in his piano on Saturday mornings, singing alone, so much of his travels alone.

"When my great-grandfather uses that word in the dialogue in the final chapter, I knew that was the title."

Surrounded by love

"When I got the final manuscript of Mamaskatch, I gave it to one of my writing mentors at the time, Shaena Lambert, who was still a friend and will probably stick with me as my mentor for my lifetime as a writer. She reviewed the final manuscript for pleasure and she said, 'Darrel, this is amazing. You've gathered all your loved ones together in one place and given them life again.'

"That was so true, and I just feel the love. I was very young when I lost some of my family. When love works, when it's all there, it is an incredible force and it gives us this life force that will endure whatever else gets thrown at us. And that incredible love from mom, from mushum, from my sister Debbie and my aunties and uncles. When I was a baby, we lived with our extended family. I got passed around from from auntie to auntie to uncle to uncle to grandma to grandma because it was just us. And that love, when it happens, it stays with you for the rest of your life and beyond, and hopefully I have enough to to pass on to future generations, too."

Teaching in Yekooche First Nation

"My mother died a couple of years before [I became a principal in the Yekooche First Nation community]. In so many ways, she was my connection to my culture and my community. When she was gone, I felt I'd lost that bridge and I really wanted to get it back — that connection not only with Indigenous culture and community and language and food, but also with nature. I went from living in Vancouver, an urban setting, to a very rural setting, 80-km up a logging road from Fort St. James on the shores of an amazing lake, Stewart Lake.

"I taught French immersion in Vancouver for five years and I loved it. The students and the parents were wonderful. I got a great reception. They treated me so well, but I really needed to get back to to community to an Indigenous way of living and an Indigenous context, day in and day out. 

"I sometimes talk to my people who are in the spirit world. I don't know if I made one of these oaths to devote the rest of my career to Indigenous education. But I was passionate about education, and I did, from that point on, devote my career to Indigenous education and advancing Indigenous rights. 

I felt wonderful love from the people there.- Darrel McLeod

"I just fell in love with the people and the place instantly. I think it was pretty reciprocal. I felt wonderful love from from the people there. They're beautiful people who have stayed living close to the land, maintained the culture and their language and live in isolation. It's a very small community without a lot of external support or external interest in their welfare. But I also saw the devastation of I think at that point would have been four or five generations of residential schools. Unfortunately, a lot of the people in the community there had been had raised in residential schools for probably anywhere from five to 10 years. It had a devastating impact on the family and family connections and the parent-child relationships, the grandparent-grandchild relationships.

"The natural instinct of loving children was obviously there in powerful ways. But some of the habitual things and traditional child raising and family building aspect of their culture have been really undermined severely. They were struggling to get it back. They were working very hard on it and were determined to get it back."

The importance of song

"Singing just puts me into a whole other space. I sing every day. I sing everywhere — hotel rooms, traveling through Asia. I was singing every day in Vancouver in a friend's apartment. I asked if I could lock myself in the bedroom and sing, rehearse.

"Singing is so healing for me, I think. It gives me the ability and the capacity and the joy to be able to write and to continue to write. I sneak in a lot of songs into my writing."

Darrel McLeod's comments have been edited for length and clarity.

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