Award-winning book a look back into Northern Manitoba's past

It took a long time to come together, but Pisim Finds Her Miskanow - a story written by Thompson resident William Dumas with help from the Centre for Research in Young People's Texts and Cultures (CRYTC) at the University of Winnipeg and illustrated by Mi'kmaq artist Leonard Paul, is finding a receptive audience as it seeks to introduce pre-contact aboriginal culture to non-academic audiences.

"Initially it took a long time," says Dumas. "A lot of research because when you work with academics and oral historians it takes longer to get the story together.

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Mavis Reimer, an English professor and dean of graduate studies at the University of Winnipeg, as well as the Canada Research Chair in Young People's Texts and Cultures, said the idea for a children's book arose eight years ago.

"I first met William Dumas in 2006 so it's taken a long time," she said.

The inspiration for the story dates back about 30 years, to the discovery of the remains of a woman near Southern Indian Lake in 1993, which were dug up and studied by anthropologists and archaeologists before being returned to the community for reburial.

"The people who were doing the studies had always committed to the elders of that community that they would find ways to ensure that the teachings that she had sort of brought back would be passed on to the young people of the community because the elders, when they gave the permission for that grave site to be dug up and studied and so on, felt that this find was an opportunity to teach young people about the old ways," said Reimer.

But the first literature relating to that find was not exactly kid-friendly.

"It's very, very detailed, it's got all kinds of scientific data," said Reimer. "It's very interesting in its own way to read but it doesn't exactly suggest that it's for an audience of young people, right, so William had always thought what other form could be used to bring this information and these teachings to young people?"

Having an idea is one thing, though, and taking action to make it a reality another.

"Money becomes a factor," said Dumas, who came across the CRYTC while serving on the advisory board of the Centre for Rupertsland Studies, which is also based at the University of Winnipeg.

"He'd been at the University of Winnipeg and walking down the hall he saw the label the title for my centre," Reimer says. "He'd asked the people from Rupertsland, he said, 'Do you think those people would know anything about making a picture book?' And so they said, 'Well, I don't know, you'd think they would.' They called me and asked would I be willing to meet William and so on and that's really how we started talking about it."

"That's where we found the money to start working together," said Dumas, who says the fact that his name is on the cover is not indicative of how many people actually combined to create the book. "It's the work of many people. The unfortunate part is you can't put all of their names on the front page."

Creating a book was not the usual sort of work done by CRYTC, says Reimer, as normally the academics attached to the centre just study various texts and cultural products aimed at young people, whether they're books or films or video games.

"We're not here just studying a book that's already produced but we're kind of doing a study that also helps us to produce a book," said Reimer, describing the centre's role as applying for and administering grants for various expenses that supported the work of creating Pisim Finds Her Miskanow. "In the long run going forward, you know our plan is to kind of coordinate the ongoing projects because we do have a plan to do five more books. So one for every one of the six seasons."

The book, which combines the fictional story of the title character, Pisim, the Cree word for sun, as she realizes her miskanow, or life's journey, with information about traditional ways and a glossary of Cree vocabulary, has received numerous accolades, including a 2014 Canadian Archaeological Association Public Communication Award and nominations for book design and young people's books from the Manitoba Book Awards, as well as a nomination for excellence in illustration from the Atlantic Book Awards.

More importantly, said Reimer, people have been buying it.

"What's really exciting for us is the way it's being taken up all over the place," she said. "The book has sold a lot of copies already. I think it's about over 2,500 copies at this point and in Canada that's a lot of books to sell. Many books never sell anywhere close to that amount. So it's obviously a story that's also speaking to a lot of other people right other than those that live in Northern Manitoba."

Dumas says many of the stories of life in North America prior to the arrival of Europeans are based on snapshot memories that elders shared with him, including the story of the robin, which was told to him by his great-grandmother when he was a little boy and she asked him what the robin that had landed on the tallest spruce tree at sundown was singing.

"She sang along with it in Cree," he recalls. "'I thank you my creator for giving me life.' It doesn't take long, she said, to say thank you. That's a very powerful thing to offer them whether they're Christian or non-Christian. Everyone has a sense of a higher power."

Part of the urge behind creating the book, Dumas says, was recognition of the crisis facing many aboriginal youth when it comes to education.

"We are very concerned about the high dropout rate of young aboriginal people," he says. "It's very high."

Part of the strategy to combat that is to inform them about their history and where they came from.

"If you teach children to understand the culture they live side-by-side in a healthy way," says Dumas, remembering that he himself rejected one side of society as a youth but later discovered that co-existence is a gift to the other cultures you live alongside. "You will create a citizen that is strong like two people."

Reimer says Pisim Finds Her Miskanow can be a boon for educators in the region in which the story is based and throughout Canada.

"I think that if what is happening in the school classroom matters and connects with what happens when you walk outside the schoolroom, if it's about your place or it's about activities that people around you still do 0r know about or whatever, it matters," she said. "I'm not aboriginal but as a Canadian this also seems really, really important to me so it's not just for indigenous kids in the north but it's also the case that this is part of history, the history of this place that we sort of all share that we don't know. People don't know about all those details about how life was lived before there was contact with Europeans so finding out about that seems to me important for all of us just to know the history of our place."

A symposium using Pisim Finds Her Miskanow and the academic study that it sprang from will be held at the University of Winnipeg in July.

"We're going to get the participants to help develop curriculum units, ways in which you could use this book in the curriculum," Reimer says. "So, for example, for nature studies class or social studies class or history or any of those subjects there are ways in which elements of the book you could pull out and use as a way to develop a curriculum unit so that's what we're going to work on for a week. We're going to have some teachers that have already begun to use the book in their classroom participate. We're going to have some of the people who were working on the project participate as teachers, so that's what we're going to try to collaboratively do, develop some teaching unit that hopefully people will be willing to let us to share quite broadly with any teachers that are interested."

Dumas hopes the book will inspire others to follow a similar path.

"I think it will also generate interest in other native people to create their own materials," he said, likening the process of creating it to a dance. "It's amazing how things come together when people listen to each other with an open mind. It was a beautiful waltz with fellow human beings."

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