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Mamaskatch: A Cree Coming of Age

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As a small boy in remote Alberta, Darrel J. McLeod is immersed in his Cree family’s history, passed down in the stories of his mother, Bertha. There he is surrounded by her tales of joy and horror—of the strong men in their family, of her love for Darrel, and of the cruelty she and her sisters endured in residential school—as well as his many siblings and cousins, and the smells of moose stew and wild peppermint tea. And there young Darrel learns to be fiercely proud of his heritage and to listen to the birds that will guide him throughout his life.

But after a series of tragic losses, Bertha turns wild and unstable, and their home life becomes chaotic. Sweet and eager to please, Darrel struggles to maintain his grades and pursue interests in music and science while changing homes, witnessing domestic violence, caring for his younger siblings, and suffering abuse at the hands of his brother-in-law. Meanwhile, he begins to question and grapple with his sexual identity—a reckoning complicated by the repercussions of his abuse and his sibling’s own gender transition.

Thrillingly written in a series of fractured vignettes, and unflinchingly honest, Mamaskatch—“It’s a wonder!” in Cree—is a heartbreaking account of how traumas are passed down from one generation to the next, and an uplifting story of one individual who overcame enormous obstacles in pursuit of a fulfilling and adventurous life.

ISBN-13: 9781571313874

Media Type: Paperback

Publisher: Milkweed Editions

Publication Date: 06-11-2019

Pages: 240

Product Dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.40(h) x 0.40(d)

Darrel J. McLeod is Cree from treaty eight territory in Northern Alberta. Before deciding to pursue writing in his retirement, he was a chief negotiator of land claims for the federal government and executive director of education and international affairs with the Assembly of First Nations. He holds degrees in French literature and education from the University of British Columbia. He lives in Sooke, British Columbia.

Read an Excerpt


I am suspended in purgatory—that no man’s land between full sleep and wakefulness—when I hear her voice: “Darrel! I need to talk to you. Come down now. Puh-leeze...”

One o’clock in the morning on a Monday, a school day ahead. All of the records have played through and my mother, Bertha Dora, has turned on the transistor radio in the kitchen. My nostrils twitch from the fumes of a freshly lit cigarette, and the smell of stale beer hangs in the air. Great. Provincial exams today.

I catch snippets of the radio announcement: Janis Joplin heroin overdose. A driving rhythm on the bass guitar contrasts with Janis’s shrill and throaty voice as she exhorts someone she loves to rip out another piece of her heart.

“Come ’n turn the records over, Son,” Mother yells. “I love this woman’s voice, but they’re sayin’ she died.”

I know what will happen next if I don’t go. She will pound the broom handle on the first of the twelve stairs up to our bedroom, causing another restless night for my little sisters and brother. But I wait a few minutes more, hoping she will pass out or get distracted, and I pray the kids will sleep through it. They hate listening to me when I’m trying to get them ready for school: Gaylene and Holly, brush your hair. Travis, brush your teeth and put on your good clothes; you can’t wear those raggedy jeans and old runners to school. Gaylene, put the Cream of Wheat on, and be sure to stir it this time. It’s even worse when they’re tired too.

Then the agonizing starts. Oh my God, oh my God—I was wrong to talk Mother into bringing them out of the foster home. They were better off there, with the Milots. Three years we were apart: 1967 to 1970. But now it’s too late—we can’t send them back, and they’ve already seen so much. Gaylene and Holly cried every night of their first two weeks here, scared by the drunkenness and loud voices of partying strangers. They don’t know it was because of me Mother got them back, that I hounded and nagged her to take me for a visit, to go to court so they could live with us here in Athabasca. Well, it worked, and now here we all are in this shack behind the pool hall.

“Darrel! Come here. Please, Son. I need to talk to you.”

Damn, she isn’t giving up. Her voice, which is usually a lilting alto, squeaks when she tries to force volume. I think of Tituba from The Crucible, which we studied recently in my Grade Nine drama class. Yes… this is like a play—think of it as a play—a cyclical drama with the scenes taking place in our living room or kitchen, with new characters every weekend. Last week it was Eddie Mullins—Mother called him Dad, then launched into a long explanation after seeing the puzzled looks on our faces. The props are altered in each scene, along with the costumes. Like that buckskin jacket that I love. Fantastic plots and intrigues—like last night at eight o’clock, Uncle Andy on all fours thinking he was an astronaut crawling on the moon after a successful Apollo mission. The play even has special effects: overwhelming new odours, a blue haze, the darkness of a power failure, the occasional flash of lightning and cats shrieking nearby.

Mother’s cigarette smoke is getting to me. Her hoarse voice wails in unison with Janis Joplin’s, pleading earnestly with the Lord to buy her a Mercedes Benz. I doubt if Mother has even seen a Mercedes or a Porsche—I know I haven’t. Somehow it doesn’t matter. She loves this song and tries to outsing Janis. Mother’s rasp is almost as dramatic, but she can’t get the volume. Will she turn off the radio, get out the guitar and try it on her own?

I sneeze, pull off the covers, roll out of bed and pull up my loose underwear. Grab a shirt, a pair of pants and socks to protect against the cold floor. My round thirteen-year-old face in the scratched hallway mirror—thick black hair sticking out every which way and faint purple bags under my eyes. I spit into my hands, slick my hair down and rub my eyes with closed fists. Where will her stories and songs take us tonight, and how many hours will pass before I can go back to bed? I trudge downstairs, turn off the radio and flip the records.

Johnny Horton comes on first. “Whispering Pines.” Oh boy, that’ll make her cry, but I don’t dare change it. I take my place in the kitchen chair opposite her. Mother lights yet another Rothmans tailor-made cigarette and sets it down in the clear glass ashtray. The bright red spark gradually burns up the tobacco to make a long grey ash that holds together until she picks it up. Then she starts.

“That priest, Father Jal, came to see us a couple of months after your dad died, you know, just after you were born. It was a Saturday evening and you kids were asleep. We were staying with your great-grandfather, Mosom Powder, in his trapping cabin near Spurfield. There was nowhere else to go. No widow’s pension in those days, Son. One afternoon, there was a knock on the door. I opened it, and there he stood. He was in Spurfield to cel’brate mass the next day and said he wanted to see if we were okay. I was so impressed that he would come to console us, to pray for me, and for you—the new baby. I asked him to come in. He smiled and asked how we were doing, but before I could answer he stepped in closer. I thought he was going to pray—put his hands on your forehead or on mine. But a strange look came over him, and he turned toward me, put his back to you. I thought he was raising his arm to make the sign of the cross—to bless us and the cabin, but instead, he opened his hand wide, and he fondled my breast. With the other hand he started feeling me up.”

Jesus! I took catechism with Father Jal! I gasp at the image of the short and balding priest touching her like that with his pudgy hands. I clench my teeth. I breathe deeply to calm myself—afraid to get emotional. My eyes meet Mother’s for a second, but neither of us can handle the intensity of what we see. I wonder if the other priests I have known would have done the same—I only admire one of them, Father Fornier. After hearing this story, I understand why Mother cried the day I told her I wanted to be a priest when I grew up. We go quiet for a few minutes and stare at the kitchen floor.

That night she tells me again about going to a residential school run by the Catholic Church at Grouard. About being taken from her mother when she was only six years old, having to sleep in a dorm with thirty-nine other little girls. She tells me about being forced to learn English along with her sisters. Then how her sisters Margaret and Agnes, her auntie Helen and several other aunties who were teenagers at the time escaped. Merle Haggard warbles the last line of “The Fightin’ Side of Me.”

The next record falls from the stack. The needle sets itself down and there is static. Elvis’s voice launches into “There Goes My Everything.” Oh no, Mother sings that song almost every time she gets out her guitar. Will she go on again, telling me how it makes her think about Daddy dying, or my sister Debbie getting married at age fifteen?

The pattern of my mother’s stories is different from the ones I hear at school. The timelines are never linear. Instead, they are like spirals. She starts with one element of a story, moves to another and skips to yet a different part. She revisits each theme several times over, providing a bit more information with each pass. At first I find it hard to follow, but I’ve learned that if I just sit back and listen without interrupting, she will cover everything and make each story complete.

“Auntie Margaret and I grew up on the trapline. We moved around every season and camped in large canvas tents to be closer to the animals and birds. In the evening, we sat around the fire, Auntie Margaret across from me, sometimes cutting sheets of moose meat to make kakiwak—dried meat—other times scraping moose or beaver hides for tanning. I always sat right beside Mother, your Cucuum Adele. Oh, she used to get so upset when I had to go pee. It was a big deal. She had to walk in the bush with me till we found a fallen tree that I could sit on and hang my behind over.”

I smile inside at the notion of my strong mother with her man-hands being a dainty little girl. The detail in her stories and the intensity of her look as she tells them holds my attention, but the way she speaks as if it all took place yesterday or the day before troubles me. We both know that it happened years ago, and that it’s part of our family history that will soon be forgotten.

“Auntie Margaret had her first baby, Chiq-iq, there on the trapline, you know. I loved that baby. There were no soothers then, so she would suck on my bottom lip between feedings—fall asleep that way.

“The birds are messengers, Son. Sometimes they told me things that would happen in our family. hâsiw, mikisiw, ôhô and wiskipôs—crow, eagle, owl and whisky jack. They’ll help you—guide you through life. Watch them, talk to them.”

She chuckles nervously and watches for my reaction. I laugh too. Her bloodshot brown eyes are an exact replica of my own. In these moments she is so sincere, so real. I love that she thinks she can communicate with birds. Will I ever have that gift myself?

“I learned to be tough, Son. My brothers were rough, and I had to learn to defend myself or get beaten up play-fighting. I learned to whip the boys and come out on top.”

Then she remembers something else, and she tells the next story while moving her hands as if she were now the play’s director. With the mention of each character she raises her hand and points to where they are in the scene that’s so vivid in her mind.

“Auntie Helen was sitting there. My mother, Cucuum Adele, was over there, and your dad was sitting over that way. Your dad and I played guitar and harmonized for your cucuum. People invited us to sing at parties all around Slave Lake, Spurfield and Smith. Sometimes the neighbours let us take their Model T. Your dad made me drive, because he was drinkin’. I didn’t drink then. I started after your dad, Cucuum Adele and my brother Louis died, even though that ain’t no excuse.”

I block the wave of emotion that comes over me about Daddy’s death, about Granny and Uncle’s deaths. I lost the three of them before I even had them. How could I fathom that scale of loss—that I would never be kissed by my father; that Cucuum would never sing to me in Cree, never rock me or tickle my belly with her vibrating lips; that Uncle Louis would never teach me to snare rabbits or hunt.

The effort to suppress my feelings leaves me with a pulsating headache. I lean back as far as I can, cross my arms and stretch my legs out in front of me. Mother stares at me. I wonder what she sees, and in my weakened state I wonder if she can read my mind, if she knows that I too have a dark story to tell.

Mother continues on, and every half hour or so I pull myself upright. I feel guilty about my dreariness and impatience. It is in these nocturnal sessions that I learn about our family history. Dead family members come to life and find their place in my heart. The seasonal dwelling sites and hunting areas she describes so clearly take shape in my head.

After a few hours she starts to slur her words and nod off. I take advantage of her sleepiness to put a few LPs that I like on the metal peg of the turntable—Creedence Clearwater Revival, Roy Orbison and Elvis Presley—turning the volume down at the same time, but I don’t get away with it. She shakes her head and sits up straight.

“Play Johnny Horton again. Or put on Johnny Cash. Merle Haggard. Please, Son. I need to hear country. Turn it up, can’t hear it.” Her tone is gentle, but it’s a demand, not a request.

The Johnny Cash album slides down the peg first; the arm moves over to the edge of the 33⅓ album and sets itself down.

Call him drunken Ira Hayes, he won’t answer any more...

“Yes, that song, Son. I love that song.”

Not the whisky drinking Indian, nor the marine that went to war.

I finally get to bed around four in the morning. I roll onto my side and rest my head in the crook of my elbow, careful not to awaken my little brother. Sometimes after these sessions I can fall asleep, but other times I lie there thinking about what Mother has told me. Why does she pick me to tell her stories to, and why does she only tell them when she’s drinking? She knows I have school in the morning and that I never miss a day—she must think what she’s recounting is important. Does she want me to repeat her stories to others, my sisters and brothers, her grandchildren—someday, somewhere?

I know I could never share stories the magical way she does. The structure of our language, Cree, is hard-wired in her brain, and English is still a challenge for her. She sees the world differently from the way they teach us in school. Rocks are alive—she calls them our grandfathers. The markers for I and you are attached as extra syllables to the verb forms. The second-person pronoun is always more important, so it comes first, whether it’s the subject or the object. Unlike in English, I love you and you love me both start with the marker ki, for you. The third person is split into two parts; this distinguishes important characters in a conversation from secondary ones. The gendered pronouns he and she don’t exist in Cree. Mother has told me this more than once, laughing at herself for getting the two mixed up.

Is that why my older brother, Greg, and my uncle Danny could play at dressing up as girls so often without Mother getting upset? Is that why my uncles aren’t as hairy as the Métis or white guys around? What about me? Will I be a regular Cree guy, like most of my uncles, or more like Danny and Greg, who grew up mimicking Mother, my sister Debbie and our aunties? If I spoke Cree, would I see the world the way Mother does and have the answers to these questions? Would I be less afraid?


As I toss in bed, it occurs to me that Mother is preparing me for a life that terrifies her—a world that is foreign and hostile. She wants to warn me about the Catholic church, about the priests and the nuns, and to remind me that we have other ways of being spiritual. We have our ancestors, medicine men, ceremonies and sacred herbs. She wants me to know that for help and guidance, they are the ones to call upon. Them and the birds. hâsiw, mikisiw, ôhô and wiskipôs.

Table of Contents


Hail Mary, Full of Grace
Macimanitowi: Devils
One Little Indian Boy
Be Careful Little Eyes
Madonna of the Athabasca
Flying around the Maypole
Prince Charming
Long as I Can See the Light
Indian Princesses
Eddies of the Makhabn
Pîhpîkisîs: The Sparrow Hawk
The Eviction
Code 99
Mistikosow: The Frenchman
Beyond the Athabasca