Manitoba History: Review: Arok Wolvengrey, editor, Wawiyatâcimowinisa: Funny Little Stories

by Jeff Muehlbauer
University of British Columbia

Number 58, June 2008

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 As an historical document, the article may contain language and views that are no longer in common use and may be culturally sensitive in nature.

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Arok Wolvengrey, editor, Wawiyatâcimowinisa: Funny Little Stories Regina: University of Regina Publications, 2007, 110 pages, ISBN 0889771855, $ 12.95 (paperback)

An interesting feature of Cree literature is its division into numerous genres by the tellers. These divisions include kakêskihkêmowina “counselling speeches,” tipacimowina “historical narratives,” âtayôhkêwina “sacred stories.” Among these genres, wawiyatâcimowinisa “funny little stories” occupy a unique position; on the one hand, they constitute the backbone of Cree socializing, while, on the other hand, they occupy a peripheral position in the canon of Cree literature. In setting aside an entire volume to wawiyatâcimowinsa “funny little stories,” then, the current volume brings the Cree socializing and Cree literature into balance.

Modeled in all senses on the kiskinohamawâkanâcimowinisa “student stories” collected and edited by Freda Ahenakew in 1989, Arok Wolvengrey (First Nations University of Canada) here presents the results of his and his students’ text collection and transcription work on the Cree languages of the Prairies (Plains Cree, Woods Cree, and Swampy Cree). In about half of the cases, the student has transcribed someone else’s story, while, in the other half of the cases, the student is also the teller.

Texts are presented first in the Cree syllabary, which is accompanied by a chart explaining it, and then in the standard Roman orthography and an English translation. These last two are presented on facing pages, as has been the tradition for Algonquian texts since Leonard Bloomfield. The texts are introduced by a detailed explanation by Wolvengrey, which set the context and explain the editorial practices. At the end of the text is a 36-page glossary that contains all of the Cree forms found in the texts. Text presentation thus closely matches the publications of Freda Ahenakew and H. C. Wolfart, meaning that anyone familiar with the work of these two scholars will be instantly comfortable with the presentation here.

One notable departure from other Cree texts is the inclusion of one cartoon illustration for each story. Roughly, in the style of Japanese manga, these nicely done drawings fit well with the humorous tone of the book and its intended audience—Cree language learners. The drawings were done by Melissa Sanderson, who is the teenage daughter of Jeff Sanderson—one of the students whose work transcribing his mother Annabelle Sanderson’s story is represented in the book. Involving young people in the work their parents and grandparents are doing is crucial to the development of strong identities for Cree youth and the survival of the Cree languages. It is to be greatly hoped that this kind of collaborative work continues.

In terms of content, the stories are typically short (one to two pages), as promised by the diminutive title (acimowinisa “little stories”). Some are simple jokes, as in kîkwây ana? “What is that?” told by Neil Sapp, which plays on the alternate meaning of English “cowboy” (i.e. a boy that is a cow). Others relate funny things that happened in the teller’s past, as in ê-sîpêkistikwânênisot “Washing his own hair” by Bealiqué Kahmahkotayo, which tells how her father accidentally washed his hair with toothpaste. The final few relate to the cultural hero Wîsahkêcahk, as in Annabelle Sanderson’s telling of wîsahkêcâhk ê-kî-wîkihtot “Wîsahkêcahk got married,” which tells how Wîsahkêcahk outrageously schemes to get his own beautiful daughter into bed. One story, môtha nîtha Indian “I’m not an Indian,” told by the linguist Solomon Ratt (First Nations University of Canada), manages to artfully combine humour and tragedy by relating his childhood desire to be a cowboy like John Wayne while at the residential school. Representing the Cree approach to hardship (humour and good-natured self-criticism) this is a common mode of communication for Cree people who lived through those times. They likely deserve an entire volume of their own.

For students of the Cree languages, the present volume also provides an important source of data. For example, the story tânisi ôma ê-itwêhk? “How is it said?” by Guy Albert, shows several examples of the Plains Cree evidential preverb matwê- “visibly or audibly” (e.g. nête matwê-ay-apiw “he was sitting over there in view”), which I have found nowhere else. The differences between Woods, Swampy, and Plains Cree are also thrown into sharp relief, as shown by the stringing together of multiple Independent Order verbs in the same clause (… kî-ayiw kî-nâpêwiw …) in the Swampy Cree story wîsahkêcahk ê-kî-wîkihtot “Wîsahkêcahk got married”—a pattern that could never happen in Plains Cree.

In reading these stories, an interesting difference between oral and written communication is brought to light. Although the genre is overtly identified as humorous, many of the stories are not funny on paper. For example, the tale of Wîsahkêcahk trying to trick his own daughter into bed reads something like a court report from a social worker. I did not realize it was terribly, outrageously funny until I told the story to a friend, who laughed heartily at my telling of it. The oral performance, then, is a crucial component of these stories, and is lost in the printed work as surely as a textual synopsis of a classic Bugs Bunny cartoon would lose its humour. The best way to appreciate the humour of these texts, then, is the next time you’re sitting with friends that want to laugh. Try telling them, and you’ll understand something fundamental about Cree socializing—if you don’t understand it already.

A group of Cree people in full dress, Saskatchewan, circa 1900.

A group of Cree people in full dress, Saskatchewan, circa 1900.
Source: Glenbow Archives, NA-1255-48.

Page revised: 11 June 2014