kâ-pî-isi-kiskisiyân / The Way I Remember
by Solomon Ratt
Published by University of Regina Press
Review by Shelley A. Leedahl
$25.95 ISBN 9780889779143
I went to school with a relative of educator, writer, storyteller and keeper of the Woods Cree language, Solomon Ratt, so when his memoir kâ-pî-isi-kiskisiyân / The Way I Remember became available for review, I requested it.
Blurbs from Buffy Sainte-Marie (“Sol is an international treasure …”) and Maria Campbell (“This is an important book …”) demonstrate that Ratt’s highly lauded for his work in restoring Woods Cree and preserving the traditional stories he heard near his home community “on the banks on the Churchill River just north of … Stanley Mission”. Ratt’s 340-page autobiography is uniquely and significantly presented in Cree th-dialect Standard Roman Orthography, syllabics and English. The cover features a photo of the smiling author, and this joviality’s evident in many of his autobiographical stories.
Between ages six and sixteen, Ratt was “Torn from his family” for ten months each year to attend All Saints Indian Student Residential School in Prince Albert, SK. The abuse that several thousands of residential school survivors endured has been documented via the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada (2007-2015), and the multi-generational legacy of being wrenched from one’s home has been the subject of several books, but Ratt’s story differs greatly. He writes: “I was not abused, and I did not lose my language. I still speak Cree because my parents spoke Cree to me when I would go home in the summer months.” Hallelujah that.
Home was a northern wonderland where his family lived off the land … berry picking, canoeing, building a cabin, fishing, snaring, “[fetching] moosemeat,” storytelling, and enjoying traditional foods like bannock. The author shares a brief letter—his first written from residential school:
How are you? I am fine. School is fun but I am homesick a lot. Please send bannock.”
He writes that “Each letter ended with ‘please send bannock’”.
Possessing “full retention of his mother language” has made Ratt one of a few Cree language pioneers. He learned to read and write Cree in Contemporary standard spelling (SRO) through studies at Saskatchewan Indian Federated College. The Cree Syllabics system learned via Dr. Ahab Spence “rekindled his interest in traditional stories,” like the dozen that appear in the second half of this book. Oral stories were used to teach, ie: “The Shut-eye Dancers” teaches one to “Be wary when someone offers you a wondrous gift,” and the “Wisahkecahk and the Chickadees” teaches respect of sacred ceremony, and explains why foxes have white-tipped tails.
Ratt writes that if he forgets about the residential school children who were lost and killed, he will “not show them honour” and he “will lose [his] soul”. He admits that he “wandered about lost for a long time” too, but “walked away from alcohol and drugs” thirty years ago.
As for my former classmate, when I reached out to her, she didn’t remember me. She says she’s blocked most of her childhood, and this speaks volumes. It’s okay that I was forgotten. What’s important is that I remember her.
THIS BOOK IS AVAILABLE AT YOUR LOCAL BOOKSTORE OR FROM WWW.SKBOOKS.COM