Explorer Vilhjalmur Stefansson said the Arctic was at the very centre of national life though southerners thought of it as the edge of the frontier. The unforgiving land and its rugged people are instantly recognizable worldwide as uniquely Canadian. Say “Canada” from Germany to Japan and foreigners see Inuit art, Northern lights and merciless winters.
Johnny Neyelle, a Dene Elder with the Bear Lake people, from the 1980s made cassette recordings of ancient lore and his life experience. Neyelle had a stark purpose. As his son Morris puts it, “I realized that storytelling was changing and that kids weren’t coming to listen to the Elders’ stories anymore.”
“Elders were the greatest teachers we had,” Neyelle explained. “Think of rolling together all the professional experts like lawyers, doctors, teachers, priests, scientists, whatever, all rolled into one. That’s what they were. If you had a problem, they were the ones to ask for help.”
Neyelle died in 2002 at 87. The University of Alberta Press transcribed Neyelle’s recordings into The Man Who Lived With A Giant, an oral history from the centre of the world. It is a haunting and beautiful book, a documentary of life as it was for millennia with tales of prophetic dreams and reincarnation, survival and starvation, inter-tribal warfare and a “crowded land of the dead.”
“A lot of people would starve during the winter,” said Neyelle: “They had to hunt enough to put up food for the coming winter, since winters were always severe.”
The stories are appreciable to modern readers. Neyelle tells of a medicine man who could summon the power of the sun to bring lake water to a boil. It was “passed on to us during the cold winter nights,” a pleasing thought in the sunless cold.
There is an account of cannibalism. The origins of the legend require little imagination: “There was a man who was a very strong medicine man. In those times, people would often curse each other and put hexes on each other if they got really angry. There was one such man who was a jealous type, and he would make his enemies dream he was a giant who ate people. After a while he started to believe the dream himself, and then he started hunting people and eating them. He ate all his children and his whole family except for his mother, who also turned to cannibalism. Everyone around was afraid.”
Neyelle recalls the code of the Bear Lake people as eloquent as the Ten Commandments. “Talk wisely and truthfully, because if you don’t, misadventure will befall you,” he told his cassette recorder. In a dream from his 30s, he recalled a vision of the afterlife with old people and small children awaiting judgment in the clouds.
“Those are the people you need to help most while you’re on earth, the old people and the orphans,” a Guardian tells Neyelle. “That pleases God the most, since those people often have nobody to help them though they need it most.”
The Man Who Lived With A Giant is unforgettable.
By Holly Doan
The Man Who Lived with a Giant: Stories from Johnny Neyelle, Dene Elder; University of Alberta Press; 160 pages; ISBN 9781-77212-4088; $24.99