I look to women like Renae Morriseau, Vancouver Public Library’s 2016 Aboriginal Storyteller-in-Residence, for answers.
In the last month, I have had the honour of spending time with a few Indigenous storytellers. It is only recently that I began to think of my poetry as storytelling but have hesitated to fully claim the title ‘storyteller.’ This state of limbo feels much the same as when I began writing but did not feel comfortable saying I was a writer.
I first visited Renae in her new ‘fishbowl’ office at the Vancouver Public Library where I come bearing gifts (as is our custom) and with a desire for her to explain what it is that makes one a storyteller. She greets me warmly and begins with asking me where I am from. Again this is our way.
Who are your people? What land do you come from?
She reminds me that these are things commonly shared when first meeting someone: not what titles do you use to describe yourself but rather who you are based on who your people are and where their land base is located. Our lands say so much about us and yet so many of us live in a state of diaspora. It turns out that we are both from Manitoba and share some Cree ancestry. We have both lived in Winnipeg but this is where the commonality ends. She was raised in a loving home where she was taught to be proud of her Cree and Salteaux ancestry. You can feel this congruity in her presence. She has a quiet strength. Her Indigeneity is at the core of her being, not an afterthought or something added later in life as it for those of us not raised with our culture. This worldview informs all that she does. As a late comer I am grateful for her patience and her guidance.
During our time together we discuss what she refers to as “the complications regarding the reclaiming of our community’s story” and that there are many “stories of disassociation”, we are “grief carriers” and that not only are we the “direct descendants of broken hearts …” but we are also the result of “massive dreams." She reminds me that “we’ve all been prayed for” [by our ancestors] and that we can bring healing if we use storytelling as a way of “witnessing what we are experiencing”.
Growing up she was taught about “medicines” and our capacity to not only create but also to “keep stuff away”. These are powerful teachings but it does not end there. She offers the understanding that there is “leadership in storytelling," something she clearly demonstrates when she hosts her opening event as the new Vancouver Public Library’s 2016 Aboriginal Storyteller-in-Residence. Never one to put herself in front, she begins by reminding us that we are in the unceded territory of the Coast Salish people as she brings two Coast Salish men, Wes Nahanee and Bob Baker, to the stage. Wes and Bob sing us songs, offer us a few teachings, and we all share some good belly laughs. By the time they are done I feel thoroughly and sincerely welcomed. In fact, I am humbled by their gracious ways. I was also struck by how much time Renae gave the welcome as often these acknowledgements are more a nod or a gesture than an out-and-out acknowledgement of whose land we are on. It does not end there, however, as Renae goes on to share the story of the Great Fire of Vancouver in 1886. Many lives were lost in this fire but what is not often told, Renae reminded us, is that upon seeing the fire the Coast Salish women jumped in their canoes, and rushed in to help save lives. The women did this as the men were away fishing. She said that we should share this story often and I agree. It seems a fitting way to honour those on whose lands we live.
During her time as the VPL Aboriginal Storyteller-in-Residence Morriseau will be hosting a number of events and meeting with people one-on-one. She will also be working on a trans-media storytelling project that focuses on decolonization. As she shares what trans-media is I am reminded of how we as people are always adapting and that storytelling also adapts. As this sinks in I realize that perhaps there is no one definition of what a storyteller is. There is of course our idea of what a traditional Indigenous storyteller might be and then there are all the other kinds of storytellers. Renae herself has worked in many genres. Having worked in film, television, theatre, and music, she is excited to enter the world of trans-media storytelling which she tells me “uses multiple media platforms to tell a narrative across time. Each media piece—a video game, mobile app, a short film, and a feature film—functions as a stand-alone story experience that is complete and emotionally satisfying. Like a giant puzzle, each piece also contributes to a larger narrative. The process is cumulative and each piece adds richness and detail to the story world, such as character backstories and secondary plot lines.” Although the overall theme is still revealing itself, at the heart of it is decolonization.
Not an easy task.
Morriseau will also be “developing the nineth draft of a theatrical play (written by Shon Wong, Sid Chow Tan and Michelle Laflamme) about the Chinese and First Nations. Stating “we are all colonized” this play will explore the effects of colonization, and how we can all fit in this world while honouring our different cultural heritages. She is grateful that this residency will provide her with the time to focus these two projects. Aware that linking the arts and reconciliation can help us to “reconfigure our colonized mind and to look at ourselves as individuals with a worldview that comes from this mind that is re-establishing ceremony” She will use trans-media to explore things such as “how we look at mother earth and how we raise our children as mechanisms to our own evolution” and how can we “truly embody that we all are custodians to Mother Earth.”
In the meantime we have many excellent examples of Indigenous Storytellers in people like Renae Morriseau whose term as the VPL’s 2106 Aboriginal Storyteller-in-Residence ends at the end of June.
Her closing event, The Art of Reconciliation, is scheduled for June 20, 2016 and will bring together seventeen writers who will share their thoughts and experiences regarding reconciliation. Keep a look out for more details on this same VPL event page. Until then I hold my hands up to Renae Morriseau for all the work she has done in our community and send blessings as she makes her way as the Vancouver Public Library’s 2016 Aboriginal Storyteller-in-Residence.
For those beginning their journey as storytellers she encourages “deep listening” and tells of the need to get out of our own way. At some point she says “we are all storytellers” and this phrase has been ringing in my head since she said it. It even enters my dream and has made an appearance in my most recent poem. Like many Indigenous teachings this one will take some time to move its way through my body, my mind, and my spirit. Not one to pin things down too quickly I am happy to let this teaching reveal itself over time.
Maybe one day I will feel comfortable calling myself a storyteller.
— Jónína Kirton
Renae's bio: Originally from Manitoba and of Saulteaux and Cree descent, Renae Morriseau has called Vancouver's Coast Salish shores her home for more than 30 years. Many will recognize her from her role in the CBC television series North of 60, but her contributions to the storytelling craft extend far beyond this – she recently received the 2015 City of Vancouver Mayor's Arts Award for community engaged arts for her work cultivating social justice and inclusiveness through theatre and music.
A producer, writer and director of award-winning television documentaries and theatre productions, Morriseau is also a talented musician with the aboriginal women's hand-drumming group, M'Girl, who recently toured in New Zealand and Germany. She continues to work with First Nation communities in B.C. and Manitoba to share stories of resilience, healing and the importance of indigenous language and cultural worldview.