Woods Cree Stories is a collection of nine Cree folkloric tales related in three versions – syllabic, Cree, and the English translation. Author Solomon Ratt embellishes his stories with humour as an aid to learning the Cree language. If they seem a little weird, it’s probably because Ratt describes himself as having “a weird sense of humour.”
Some of the tales may seem far-fetched. In “Buffalo Wings,” Ratt takes readers on a fanciful flight of fantasy going back to olden days when buffalo had wings. According to Ratt’s mythology, buffalo were hunted just for their wings, which were a delicious delicacy. Shaking-Spear, a character in another story, talks to animals, and they talk back to him. In the end, he makes a talking tree very happy.
Another amusing tale involves a mouse who tries to form a friendship pact with a rabbit, a man, a cat, and a porcupine, all of whom are quite conversational in both Cree and English. Inevitably their alliance starts to break up. The last straw is when man gets ravenously hungry and chases the rabbit. Mouse is so angry at man that he plots revenge, says Ratt. “That is why to this day he lives close to man in secret and in secret enjoys stealing Man’s food from him!”
Ratt explains how Grandmother’s Bay got its name. When a grandmother from Stanley Mission was left behind because of her infirmity, she proved more than capable of taking care of herself. Another story involves church services at the mission. In the early days, people would travel for miles in their dog sleds. After the service, they would gather to socialize, eat good food, and exchange gifts. “Things were done properly back then,” Ratt concludes.
There are lessons to be learned from these stories. Some are obvious, such as the man who foolishly gambled away his money and literally got “skunked.” Other lessons, about two boys who got lost, may be more subtle.
Woods Cree Stories contains a glossary of Cree words with their English translations. For those wishing to learn the Cree language, a glossary of English words with their Cree translations would be most helpful.
Holly Martin, a Swampy Cree artist originally from Moose Lake First Nation, created the illustrations. As a student, she drew sketches in Ratt’s class and gave one to him. He was so impressed, he asked her to do the artwork for this volume. Sometimes it does pay to doodle in class.
Ratt has a serious reason for infusing his stories with his “weird sense of humour.” As Arok Wolvegrey states in his foreword to Woods Cree Stories, “Humour is not only the best medicine; it is also an exceptionally useful teaching tool.”
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