Manitoba History: Book Review: Louis Bird, The Spirit Lives in the Mind: Omushkego Stories, Lives, and Dreams

by John S. Long
Nipissing University

Number 56, October 2007

This article was published originally in Manitoba History by the Manitoba Historical Society on the above date. We make this online version available as a free, public service. As an historical document, the article may contain language and views that are no longer in common use and may be culturally sensitive in nature.

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Louis Bird, The Spirit Lives in the Mind: Omushkego Stories, Lives, and Dreams Compiled and edited by Susan Elaine Gray. Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2007, 256 pages. ISBN 0773532102, $29.95 (paperback).

Intended as “a source book for readers who wish to gain an insider’s view of Omushkego ... culture and its spiritual underpinnings” (p.xvii), this book is truly amazing. No matter how seemingly skilled an Omushkego hunter was, s/he might not find food. Despite knowing the habits of one’s prey and having the best tools or weapons, the hunter just might not be successful. S/he also needed to have mental and emotional strength and powers to live harmoniously with both prey and people—a unique worldview, a “Spirit [that] Lives in the Mind.” You can read one man’s account of this complex worldview thanks to Louis Bird’s generosity in sharing what he has learned from traditional stories and historian Susan Gray’s skill at selecting and weaving them together in a respectful collaborative partnership. (The Omushkego or Swampy Cree homeland stretches across the Hudson and James Bay lowland from Churchill to the Quebec border.)

Let’s get one issue out of the way. English is Louis Bird’s second language and a few readers may object to the book’s verbatim loyalty to his spoken English. But if you want fluent prose, you have to heavily edit what the storyteller has generously given us—changing not just the story, but the storyteller too—rejecting both the gift and the giver. For this book arose from a simple moral contract between storyteller and editor, in Louis’ words to Susan: “[W]e have understood that we would keep it alive with my voice just as it is when I tell the stories—and that’s the great thing that you did ... to keep the story person alive—his voice, and his ways of telling stories—to bring it alive on the page” (p.3). Some will want to argue that this sometimes went too far, leaving punctuation or spelling errors which weren’t his (“its” instead of “it’s” on p. xiv and “then” instead of “than” on p. xii). Nor were the Cree words written according to any standard orthography (more than one mitew is the Cree plural mitewak, while more than one wihtigo is anglicized as wihtogos; sometimes long vowels are indicated and sometimes not, and voiced and voiceless consonants are used interchangeably). But editing is a slippery slope and, for Louis, avoiding a heavy editorial hand is “the great thing that [Susan] did” (p. 3). Susan Gray accepted the way that Louis spoke and didn’t try to turn his everyday spoken English into something that lacked “authenticity” (p. xvii).

One more caveat. Louis also wanted this book to stand alone, as much as possible: “to be printed in a plain, story-telling way. We will not ask any other experts to put anything else in” (p. 5). So this is a book without any academic cross-referencing or commentary, much less than we saw in Louis’ excellent first book, Telling Our Stories: Omushkego Legends & Histories from Hudson Bay. All we get the second time is a nine-page list of further readings at the end of the book.

If you’re still with me, you’ll love this book. Louis Bird (in Cree his surname is Pennishish) was born in 1934 into an Omushkego family on part of the vast territory that was and is home to the people now known as the Weenusk First Nation. He attended the Roman Catholic residential school at Fort Albany for a few years, survived as a hunter and trapper and was in the 1970s elected as chief. In between, thanks to the Cold War, Louis began working for wages at the Winisk Mid Canada Line air defence station, near the mouth of the Winisk River, across from the Hudson’s Bay Company post where he traded his furs. Obviously a dependable worker, Louis later found employment further south, in Ontario and Manitoba, with the Canadian National Railway. Respected for his skills as a translator and interpreter, Louis began to focus his life on stories. A collaboration with scholars at the University of Winnipeg resulted in his magnificent bilingual (Cree and English) website and his first book.

The Spirit Lives in the Mind draws on a thousand pages of transcripts from the University of Winnipeg Our Voices project but is supplemented by new narratives generated by Louis’ interaction with Susan Gray during the production of the book. The introduction and ten chapters are entirely Louis’ words. Water, Earth and Skies includes the Omushkego origin story, thunderbirds and three Chakapesh tales. Intruders and Defenders is self-explanatory, as is Wihtigos and Cannibal Hearts. Pakaaskokan describes the person Louis nicknames “Bag of Bones.” Values for Life and Survival compares Christianity and Omushkego beliefs, a theme that is repeated in Mitewin Heroes and Villains. A lengthy chapter is about relations between Women and Men, a briefer one with Relations with Animals. Personages contains four stories including The Defeat of the Giant Skunk. The final chapter has seven stories about the trickster Wisakaychak. Concepts like dreaming, wihtigo and mitewin cut across several chapters, weaving them together.

One of my Omushkego friends rebuked me once for using the expression “language loss,” reminding me of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis. “It’s not just the loss of our language,” he said, “it’s the loss of our worldview.” In no small way, Louis Bird and Susan Gray have succeeded in making much of the Omushkego worldview understandable to people who do not speak the language. While much more would be gained by telling the stories in Cree, in a traditional setting and over time, many Crees today speak English and do not live in the bush. Given the tragic reality of Aboriginal language shift, Louis and Susan have organized and made many of his stories available to Omushkego and non-Omushkego audiences in written form. Now we wait for the audiobook.

The cover of this book shows tobacco smoke rising from the bowl of a pipe, at first glance a pan-Indian anomaly in a book about that strives for authenticity. Louis explains: “after Europeans arrived, when the tobacco was one of the famous items to trade” it was offered to Omushkego healers by those who sought their intervention, “not as a payment but as a good gesture ... a gift, a symbol of faith” (p. 81-82). This book is a gift, Louis to Susan, Susan to Louis, and from them to us.

Page revised: 15 September 2013