David A. Robertson's picture book On the Trapline is a story of Indigenous language, family and empowerment
On the Trapline won the Governor General's Literary Award for young people's literature — illustrated books
David A. Robertson is a Swampy Cree author and graphic novelist based in Winnipeg. He has published more than 20 books across a variety of genres including novels, children's books and memoir. His recent books include Black Water, Breakdown, The Barren Grounds. He won the 2021 Freedom to Read Award.
His latest book is the picture book On the Trapline, which was illustrated by the Swampy Cree and Red River Metis artist Julie Flett. In On the Trapline, a young boy flies north with his Moshem, his grandfather, who's taking him to the trapline — where he hasn't been since he was a kid himself.
Robertson spoke to Shelagh Rogers about writing On the Trapline.
A story of intergenerational connections and wisdom
"When I went out there on the trapline with my dad, I felt like I had come home. My dad, who had seemed so much weaker over the last couple of years and had begun to lose his balance, looked like he just got 10 years younger.
I wanted to emulate the importance of intergenerational connections, the wisdom and knowledge that we are gifted with by the elders.
"It was a very easy decision for me in this book to make it about a grandson and a grandfather rather than a father and a son. I wanted to emulate the importance of intergenerational connections, the wisdom and knowledge that we are gifted with by the elders. As my dad got older, he began to believe more and more that the relationship between grandparents and grandchildren was the most important and the most powerful relationship in this pathway toward healing.
"My dad had 10 grandchildren at the time of his passing. He saw in them the ability to carry forward a tradition."
Language as empowerment
"In one sense, I wanted to use Cree as a way to continue to work toward language revitalization, to have our language represented in mainstream literature. The other thing was to display the beauty of the language to both Indigenous and non-Indigenous readers.
What I love about Cree is that one word can mean so much. Cree is such a beautiful language.
"It added so much breadth to the emotions, the meaning, the tone of every page. I used the language very carefully and very intentionally. What I love about Cree is that one word can mean so much. Cree is such a beautiful language.
"I remember when When We Were Alone came out, the first class that I read this book to was a predominantly Cree class in the inner city in Winnipeg. A journalist asked the kids, 'What was your favourite part of the book?' They said the language, all of them. They heard their language, and that was so empowering."
Our ancestral home
"As Cree people and as Indigenous people, the land is our ancestral home. It's life-giving. The land is the basis to which I've been working through a lot of my literature. It has become more and more important to me as I've gotten older.
"Thomas King writes about the stereotypes of Indigenous representation of the 'dead Indian,' an Indigenous person whose culture is a relic and a thing of the past. With this story, I wanted to explain that this is still a way of life for many Indigenous people."
I didn't want it to be a story that felt like history. I wanted it to be a story for the characters to be living in the present.
"We still live on the land. We still hunt and snare and trap and fish the way we used to hundreds of years ago. It's a beautiful and vital way of living. I didn't want it to be a story that felt like history. I wanted it to be a story for the characters to be living in the present."
Finding peace amidst pain
"I've been involved in advocacy, speaking out in the last few days about this revelation, of the children whose bodies were found in Kamloops — it wasn't a revelation to many Indigenous people. What I have found has helped me in self care is to go out into my backyard, water the grass, take my shoes off and stand on the earth.
"That's where I've been able to recharge my batteries. But more than that, to feel a bit of peace. It's also a good place for introspection. That has been the most important place for me, other than in the arms of my children."
David A. Robertson's comments have been edited for length and clarity.