Interview with author, Larry Loyie
by Aline Pereira*
First Nations writer Larry Loyie (Cree name: Oskiniko) spent his early years living a traditional Cree life, and at the age of ten was placed in a residential school in Alberta. At age 55 he went back to school, to achieve his dream of becoming a writer. He is the author of plays, short stories and children's stories that deal with native traditions, residential school, HIV awareness and prevention, the meaning of war and other challenging topics. His children's books to date are: As Long as the Rivers Flow (illustrated by Heather D. Holmlund), which received the 2003 Norma Fleck Award for Canadian Children's Non-Fiction and was selected as the 2006 Honour Book of the First Nation Communities Read Program; When the Spirits Dance, a prequel to As Long as the Rivers Flow, set during the Second World War; and The Gathering Tree,
a story that promotes HIV awareness and prevention.
Together with his partner, writer and editor Constance Brissenden, Larry created the Living Traditions Writers Group in 1993, to encourage writing within First Nations communities.
In 2001, Larry received the Canada Post Literacy Award for Individual Achievement.
He lives in Vancouver, British Columbia and High Prairie, Alberta.
Please tell us a bit about 'Living Traditions', the writers group you started with Constance Brissenden in 1993. What is the group about and what motivated your partnership on this project?
Too many books have been written about First Nations by non-First Nation authors. Some write about us without any knowledge of our true history, cultures and lifestyle. What they write may sound good to non-natives, but it is usually far from the truth. After Constance and I taught our first writing workshop together, back in 1993, we had the inspiration to start Living Traditions, to encourage First Nations people to write true stories about native cultures.
Has working together with Constance changed the way you perceive each other's background and history?
I knew about European history because that was all I had learned in residential school. For Constance, the learning curve continues:
[Constance:] Like many non-Native people, I had misconceptions and misunderstandings. Now after 15 years of learning, I have a deep appreciation for Larry's culture but also realize how very much more there is to know. Native traditions are very ancient and non-Native people should not fool themselves that they can understand them easily.
All your children's books say "by Larry Loyie with Constance Brissenden." Please tell us about Constance's role in the book process.
Constance does not consider herself the co-author in a traditional sense. She has a very unique role as editor. We work very closely together on issues of format, length and style.
Both of us are dedicated to the children's books and other projects we take on. We do all our presentations together, as I've had a voice box replacement operation and have to give my voice periods of rest during our presentations. Constance is a trained actor (with an MA in drama) and loves doing the readings and acting as MC.
The three children's books you have written to date explore challenging themes very honestly and effectively. As Long as the Rivers Flow is about your last year before being sent to residential school to undergo an education of forced assimilation; The Gathering Tree promotes HIV awareness and prevention; and When the Spirits Dance deals with the impact of your father being sent overseas with the Canadian Army to fight in WWII. Please tell us a little more about each of these books...
As Long as the Rivers Flow is about my last year before residential school, and it was my first book for children. It shows all the beautiful things I was "encouraged" to dismiss and forget by that system of forced assimilation. Those years were tough, but if you were to ask me whether my "inner river" stopped flowing for a while because of that experience, I would say, no. The flow of my culture inside me never stopped. It was there all the time, and is what kept me alive in those harsh days. It stayed alive during those years and all along, from when I started working at age 14, until I was 55 and decided to go back to school to fulfil my lifelong dream of becoming a writer. The flow of my culture is stronger than ever when I face the tough issues in my books.
The idea for When the Spirits Dance came to me while I was doing research about my father during the Second World War. The story introduces a time of change and challenge when the world was at war. War affects all people and is especially confusing and upsetting for children. As a child, it shook up my world. For a long time I didn't understand why my father had to go overseas. He was in his early forties, with nine children to care for, and unable to read or write... Writing this story helped me find answers and opens discussion of how war affects all people.
The Gathering Tree is a work of fiction, the story of a First Nations family facing the issue of a beloved cousin infected with HIV. I worked with Chee Mamuk, the aboriginal education program of the BC Centre for Disease Control. For the storyline, I drew on several First Nations cultures because many people now practice a variety of traditions. It was written in a gentle attempt to help children learn about the reality of HIV/Aids in their classroom and at home, as opposed to on the streets.
Can you please tell us about the First Nation Communities Read Program, and the selection of As Long as the Rivers Flow as the 2006 Honour Book? What responses have you had to the book?
The selection of the Honour Book from among the nominees is made by First Nations librarians. It came as a surprise to us, at the start of 2006. We really thought that once the book had received the Norma Fleck Award for Canadian Children's Non-Fiction, that would be it. It's an honor to be recognized by other First Nations people. The book, even though it was written for ages 8-12, strikes a chord with all age groups. All I did was tell the truth, and apparently, by doing so, I was telling my own and many other people's stories. As one 71-year-old lady told me: "That is what happened to me when I was taken to residential school."
Robert, the 20-year-old character of The Gathering Tree, who is HIV positive, finds some form of healing by speaking up about his disease at the annual traditional gathering: "[To heal] I had to tell the truth and be open to others." Has writing about your experience as a Cree First Nations person been a form of healing for you?
Yes it has. When I first started writing in a creative writing class, I found myself portraying the residential school as a 'good school'. Only when one of my classmates said, "It must have been a good school" did I realize I actually had to tell the truth, to myself and to others.
Why the choice of writing for children? Do you think your books help children and adults have a more rounded understanding of what it means to be a First Nations person?
I write for children because so many live in the cities nowadays, and never get a chance to experience Native traditions and culture. One of the highlights of our book tours was when an 11-year-old Cree boy in Regina, Saskatchewan, stood up and said he felt 'proud' after listening to our presentation. Non-Native children also enjoy knowing about our way of life. It boosts understanding and friendship. There has been a great divide created to separate us. I want my books to help cross this divide.
Do you think different aboriginal groups from different nations can benefit from learning about each other's struggles and accomplishments?
We can certainly learn from each other, as much of aboriginal history runs on parallel lines. Many countries have suffered the same destructive colonization as Canada. We are now working on a book donation of The Gathering Tree to New Zealand's Maori people because of their very positive response to my books.
How and when did you come by the name Oskiniko?
Oskiniko means 'Young Man'. My grandfather Edward Twin, who was a good and respected man, and who lived to be 105 years old, gave me that name when I was 8 years old. At that young age, I was already a good hunter, and very eager to learn Cree ways. He also taught me that I didn't have to go to church to be good a very important lesson.
When did you realize that the experience of Native people was nowhere to be found in books? Was that what motivated you to start writing?
Years ago, after visiting a public library in search of First Nations books written by First Nations authors, I was disappointed to find just a handful of them on the shelves. My dream then became to see library shelves filled with these books. One way I found to accomplish this was to write some myself. Another was to encourage others to write their true stories.
The path from residential school to being a First Nations voice who works to educate, protect and restore indigenous values is quite remarkable and inspiring. Can you tell us more about it?
I was actually 12 years old when I knew I wanted to become a writer. At age 55 I went back to school to learn English grammar and typing. I was determined to become a good writer before I started tackling the subject of my childhood.
It's very upsetting to me to find books on First Nations cultures that are not accurate or honest, because many people will read them and believe them. Many non-First Nations people have appropriated First Nations stories and written books that are now out there, for anyone to read. They believe they have captured the truth but, in my opinion, most of them are far from it. My frustration with these books inspired me to write the truth about my culture as I remember it. I am thankful to have an excellent recollection of my childhood and about what I was taught. Besides that, I always double check everything that I write.
In your opinion, is there a fundamental difference in the sensibility of First Nations authors in comparison to non-First Nations ones?
Very much so. When I write, I do not want to Hollywoodize or romanticize, as some non-First Nations writers seem to have a tendency to do. We are not what we have been portrayed in the movies or in the vast majority of books about Native nations we find out there. Non-First Nations writers sometimes jump to conclusions without bothering to go beyond the surface of our cultures. The good news is that Native writing is slowly and steadily developing. We Native writers have a responsibility to go beyond the surface ourselves.
Taking a hint from words in the title of your three books for children river, tree and spirits nature and spirituality seem to be at the core of the indigenous values. Is that so?
Nature and spirituality are at the core. To me spirituality means being good, as my grandfather taught me; it means understanding and respecting nature as part of who I am. First Nations cultures have been on this earth, sustaining us, for thousands of years. It is essential that we portray them accurately and that we help them remain alive for future generations.
When did you realize the importance of the written word in helping to preserve one's cultural history and identity, and in particular the history and identity of your Native people, who for so long relied solely on oral tradition to pass stories from one generation to the next?
Families used to gather and share stories for ages our stories were passed down orally. Unfortunately, this doesn't happen much anymore and isn't enough to keep our traditions alive. Technology is replacing traditional ways, fast and furiously. A few years ago, I planned to interview a Native elder, as part of a personal project, but ended up not getting around to it for a year. When I finally tried, he had passed away. That made me realize I had to put down on paper what I remembered about my traditions and culture. This is why I write books: to save what I remember.
Do you think it's possible for a non-First Nations authors to write about the subject without running into issues of appropriation and stereotyping?
In my opinion it's very difficult for a non-First Nations author to write about Native issues accurately. Our culture is very strong and deep. It is almost impossible for a non-Native writer to understand the links in our thinking. That writer might say we "pray" to everything, for instance, when in fact, everything in First Nations cultures is "respected." Our skills are also often misunderstood. Living off the earth has many nuances... These and many other aspects of our cultures are extremely complex, and can't be understood in a short period of time. And a short period of time is often all non-First Nations writers have to work with.
What books on the subject would you recommend to young readers?
Theytus Books, my publisher, is Canada's oldest aboriginal publisher, with an all-First Nations staff. Books from Theytus are legitimate expressions of aboriginal cultures. Another good source for authentic narratives is GoodMinds.com, an aboriginal book distribution company. Editor Sheila Staats' online reviews can always be trusted.
May we ask what projects you will be tackling next?
Right now I am working on completing my Lawrence Series trilogy. The next book, Rabbit Hill, will be the first of the trilogy, followed chronologically by my previous two, When the Spirits Dance and As Long as the Rivers Flow. An underlying theme in Rabbit Hill is respecting animals. The book is set in the time before war and residential school affected our family. I'm also working on a storyline for a youth chapter book about what happened to me after residential school. And I have about another five ideas on the back burner!
*Aline Pereira is PaperTigers Managing Editor and Producer
Posted January 2007
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