Master Dane-zaa orator Charlie Yahey
First Nations literature, as indeed all literature, begins with oral narrative.
September 25th, 2016
Robin Ridington looks at how one of B.C.’s greatest storytellers and singers is being remembered by his people in northern B.C.
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Arts of the Dreamer: Dane-zaa Communities Remember Charlie Yahey
by Robin Ridington
First Nations literature, as indeed all literature, begins with oral narrative. Writing has never entirely replaced orality as a narrative genre, even in cultures that have produced written documents for millenia. For many First Nations, oral literature continues to be a source of community strength, whether performed in a Native language or in English, as in the work of the late Okanagan storyteller Harry Robinson (Robinson and Wickwire 1989, 1992). Robinson was a master of performative translation. He told stories he had learned through his Okanagan language in English, translating from one to the other through his narrative performance rather than by dictating a translation to be transcribed in the other language (Robin and Amber Ridington 2011:138-167). Until the advent of audio and video documentation, oral literature was as ephemeral as the soundscape and viewscape shared by performer and listener but as enduring as the web of a community that sustains it (Ong 1982:31-32). Sometimes First Nations oral literature is intentionally dialogic (a conversation between two or more narrators), in the same way that First Nations creation stories describe worlds coming into being through conversation between spirits, humans and non-human persons (Ridington 2013: 148-170).
The term literature, of course, originally meant something like learning through written letters or simply words written in books. More recently it has come to include artistic and creative uses of words to represent cultural, spiritual, emotional, aesthetic and personal meanings. Critics wrestle with the question of whether authorial intent is a necessary condition for something to be literature. Sarah Palin’s remarkable stream of consciousness utterances could either be described as found poetry or rejected for their complete lack of authorial intent. Perhaps it is for critics to decide whether her spoken words would be framed as literature if transcribed and published as found poetry by an editor. Critics also wrestle with questions of how to discriminate between good and bad literature, although many agree on some general guidelines regarding composition, vocabulary, symbolic depth, subject matter and overall interest. Most critics would agree that a phone book is not literature, despite being written, and that Homer is literature, despite originally being composed and performed orally.
For First Nations oral performances to be oral literatures, they must be accepted by a community of speakers and listeners as worthy of performing and passing on to other generations. Complex genealogies pass the test, despite being lists of people that might seem superficially like phone books. The difference is shared context. Storytellers pass on genealogical information intentionally to connect past, present and future generations. They describe a shared web of relationships. I have called the oratory of people like the Dane-zaa highly contextualized discourse, because narrator and listener share knowledge of which any particular performance is a small part (Ridington 2006:113).
Because the Dane-zaa have been dependent on an adaptive strategy of seasonal movements, they have perfected arts that can be carried in their minds and expressed in the immediacy of oral performance. Elsewhere (Ridington 2006: 207-221), I have described Dane-zaa oral literature as narrative technology. Oral literature continues to be central to their health as a community, just as it has always been essential to their adaptive strategy. It is as real as relationships between people who share a world of knowledge and kinship, but as insubstantial as the acoustic environment in which they share their lives. It exists in the relationship between storyteller and listeners and between collaborators in conversations. It is maintained within the interconnections of people who tell and learn stories from one generation to another.
Like most humans for most of our time on earth, the Dane-zaa have carried their most important knowledge in their oral literatures. They store information in a way that is similar to visual holographic imagery. Even a small piece of an image contains an attenuated version of the whole. Similarly, a small piece of a story includes references to the whole of which it is a part. Amber Ridington (2011) describes the way information is widely distributed among members of an oral culture as oral curation.
Just as First Nations cultures vary in the complexity of their social organization, they can produce more or less formal genres of literary performance. Dennis Tedlock (1991) describes the Zuni as having two kinds of poetics. One he calls recitation, the performance from memory of culturally standardized texts such as prayers, sacred formulas and songs. The other is recreation, a freshly authorized performance of material held in the mind but adapted to a particular audience and occasion. His distinction corresponds to Plato’s categories of mimesis and diegesis. Recitation and memorized genealogies are common in cultures like those of the Northwest Coast, Plains, Southeast, Southwest, Native Hawaiians and many others. Dane-zaa oral performances are largely diegetic and newly authorized in the act of performance. This paper describes some oral performances of Charlie Yahey, the last Dreamer of the Dane-zaa First Nations, and stories told about him by later generations.
Charlie Yahey, who died in 1976, was the last in a long line of Dane-zaa Dreamers (Naachiin). I was fortunate to know him and record some of his Beaver language oratory and songs in the late 1960s and early 1970s. I was in my mid twenties and Charlie Yahey was at least in his mid 80s. As a Dreamer or Prophet, he had a better understanding than I did at the time of how important the recordings we made would be to future generations of Dane-zaa. He was confident that his stories would continue to be told as Dane-zaa oral literature. I have transcribed some of his words as translated by Billy Attachie in a line-for-line ethnopoetic form. In one of the recordings he said,
He (Robin) took my voice.
This whole big world will listen to my voice.
Through this tape recorder, the world will listen to my voice.
(CMC8-1 Doig River Reserve, July, 1968; translated by Billy Attachie)
In another recording he again spoke about the work we were doing together. He began by describing the context of a Dane-aa storytelling event.
He (Robin) wants me to tell him that story.
He wants to hear my story.
There are lots of old people getting together
telling each other stories lots of times.
Before they start they have meat, something to eat together,
and then they start telling stories.
Long time ago when old people got together,
they got together, ten of them, one after another of them.
People tell stories all in this world.
That's why some of the people are wise.
(CY 11 – Doig River Reserve, July, 1968; translated by Billy Attachie)
In the fifty years since I first recorded Charlie Yahey, the Dane-zaa communities have gone from a subsistence hunting and fur trade economy to participants in a world of multinational corporations. They are coping with intensive exploitation of their traditional territories by the oil and gas industry. Their leaders negotiate with politicians and leaders of industry on behalf of their people. The sons and daughters of traditional hunters and hide workers now run their own businesses as they continue to draw strength from the Dreamer’s words and songs. Most Dane-zaa households cherish copies of the recordings I made of Charlie Yahey and other elders of his generation. They listen not only to the Dreamer’s songs but also to his spoken words and those of his contemporaries.
The younger generation, though, no longer uses the Beaver language. In 2009 the chief and council of the Doig River First Nation asked Jillian Ridington and me to work with elders recording to obtain translations of their oral history, beginning with the words of Charlie Yahey. The result was Where Happiness Dwells: A History of the Dane-zaa First Nations (Ridington and Ridington 2013), which places translations of Dane-zaa oral narratives within a broader historical context. The knowledge of younger Dane-zaa includes popular culture and the recent history they have experienced. The book was intended to help these readers cross the borders between traditional knowledge and contemporary experience. It also provides non-Dane-zaa readers with an entry into Dane-zaa history and oral literature.
A story of creation is the foundation of knowledge for most First Nations people. There are many variations of these stories both between and within cultures. In his PhD thesis, his essays and his novels, Thomas King has explored how multiple variations are possible within a set of stories that are widely known and shared. He expands on this theme in The Truth About Stories (2003). Each chapter begins with a variant of the following.
There’s a story I know. It’s about the earth and how it floats in space on the back of a turtle. I’ve heard this story many times, and each time someone tells the story it changes. Sometimes the change is simply in the voice of the storyteller. Sometimes the change is in the details. Sometimes in the order of events. Other times it’s in the dialogue or the response of the audience. But in all the tellings of all the tellers, the world never leaves the turtle’s back. And the turtle never swims away (King 2003).
King’s Green Grass, Running Water (1993) moves beyond stories of First Nations origin to multiple stories known by First Nations people today. The book juxtaposes Biblical and First Nations creation stories, both of which are widely known among First Nations communities like those in which the novel is set. His most recent novel, The Back of the Turtle, uses a creation narrative that includes the story of “the woman who fell from the sky” with another about creatures diving beneath a primeval body of water to discover earth. The Dane-zaa creation story is a version of this earth diver theme as well as the story of a mythic culture hero who overcomes the giant animals that preyed on humans. The southern Athapaskan Navajo call this culture hero Monster Slayer. Among many northern Athapaskans, he is called Tsayaa or Yamadeya, “He Who Circles the Heavens.” By the time I recorded the story from Charlie Yahey, I was already familiar with its general outlines from other storytellers.
In the 1960s and 70s Beaver was the first language for all members of the Dane-zaa First Nations. The reserves did not have electricity or running water, and of course, no TV or phones. Until the 1960s and 1970s most people spent a great deal of their time camped out during the summer or in small trapping cabins in winter. Storytelling was the major form of entertainment and instruction. Oral literature was an important part of their lives. Stories learned from the elders served as models for childhood vision quests. As Billy Attachie, echoing Charlie Yahey, told Jillian and me, “Wise stories, that’s what I live by.”
Charlie Yahey knew that I had already heard elements of the creation story. He introduced the recording by acknowledging that what we were doing would transform the process of what Amber Ridington (2011) calls oral curation into an audio actuality that would be heard by people in other times and places. He began by comparing writing as a form of curating knowledge with the Dane-zaa way of curating it orally and accessing it through songs and dreams.
Those kind of people, the whitepeople
must have known when God created the world.
They must have got it in the book
I myself, I'm not old enough. I don't remember way back.
I only know with my dream about everything.
I draw a picture [of the trail to heaven].
I don't know much, but with my dream, just like I find the trail.
I find the right way.
I can remember when the Dreamers made new songs,
I don't say anything. I just listen to them singing.
I hear them sing a new song.
I have been singing ever since I can remember, I start singing,
and then I start making my own song.
It's our music, just like whiteman got different music,
It's our Dane-zaa way, Dreamer's music.
With the drum, it's our music.
Those who don't have ears, when you say something,
they don't know. Those who have good ears,
they put their ears toward some people telling the story
and then they hang onto it, they remember, they hold it all.
I thought, himself, [talking about Robin] he knows everything about God, but he wants to know it from me. He wants to know.
Following this preamble explaining his credentials as a Dreamer and story teller, Charlie began to tell the earth diver story.
When this world began, it was all covered with water.
There were no people.
There was only him [Yagesatiin, He Sits in the Heavens].
He made a big cross. He floated that cross on the water.
He called all the animals.
From the cross, he sent them down to get the ground.
Muskrat, little muskrat, he went way down
and he came out with a little ground, dirt under his nails.
He just made it back up. He came back.
God, he put that ground on the cross.
His earth began to grow.
It's becoming bigger and bigger ground,
His earth just keeps growing.
Charlie continued to tell about how the Creator made humans and all the animal people. He then went on to talk about the culture hero or monster slayer. Rather than naming him as the culture hero, Tsayaa, Charlie simply refers to him as “one person.” He assumed that anyone hearing his story has already heard many stories about Tsayaa and understands the reference. Dane-zaa oral literature is living and evolving as it integrates traditional knowledge with lived experience. Each telling newly authorizes cultural knowledge. By the end of Charlie Yahey’s lifetime, the oil and gas industry was firmly established within Dane-zaa territory. Seismic lines, oil rigs and vehicles were a part of daily life. As a Dreamer, Charlie was creative in linking the work of the culture hero with oil and gas being extracted from deep within the earth. New experiences could be explained in relation to what is already known.
This one person, when the world was finished,
All the different bad animals that were in this world.
some of them were really mean; some of them big,
sometime they killed people.
There was one person who saw the bad animals.
There was one man who went around the world
to kill all the bad animals.
The ones he can't kill, he sent them under the big ridges,
like a mountain, he sent them under.
Some he killed. Some he can't.
God knew that there was going to be a vehicle to run around with,
and where they are going to get the oil and gas.
The person who killed all the bad animals,
he sent those under the ground.
That's the one they drill now; they get oil.
Charlie then returned to the comparison between the Dane-zaa way of knowing through dreams and the whitepeople’s knowing through the written word.
He give us to dream to heaven.
There's a place, talk to each other
about how to believe in God.
This is the way God gave us dream.
All different tribes have a dream.
This is how it was.
Having already introduced the bad animals, Charlie then went on to explain how they had come into the world. His story of both good and bad creators is a version of the right and left handed twins Thomas King describes in The Back of the Turtle and The Truth About Stories (King 2014:238-239; 2003:18-20).
And this devil, he did something like God,
but he made all the bad things.
He created the bad things.
He created the bad things. He copied God.
Finally, this person, he made all the world nice and quiet.
He killed one big animal.
He cut the piece of meat, threw it over where it will be Fisher, Marten. Every time he threw meat away, it turned out to be different animals. This is how it is.
(CMC8-1 Charlie Yahey 1968 – Translated by Billy Attachie)
Charlie Yahey was a master orator. Even just listening to him speak without understanding the language, it is obvious that this man’s speech commands respect. I first met him in January of 1966 when I accompanied elders from the Prophet River community in a visit to the Blueberry Reserve where Charlie lived. The visit came soon after winter solstice, a time when the Dreamers say people should sing and dance together to encourage the return of the sun and the turn of the seasons. For several days Charlie and the visiting elders sang and spoke to one another while younger people listened. I recorded some of his words and songs. Charlie spoke about how people should live and respect the teaching of the Dreamers. Dreamers are able to receive messages from the people who have gone before and pass them on to the living in the form of songs and stories.
In carrying on this tradition, Charlie is adding his voice to the voices of Dreamers who have gone before. Collectively, they contribute to the body of Dane-zaa oral literature. Charlie recognized that by recording his words and songs, future generations would be able to learn from them. Just as Dane-zaa storytellers integrated oil and gas wells into their culture hero stories, Charlie recognized the potential for using the tape recorder to send messages to future generations. Nearly every Dane-zaa household now has copies of the recordings we made together. Dane-zaa songkeepers still sing his songs and those of the other Dreamers. Billy Attachie translated some of what the Charlie said in 1966.
Good people are just like a good tree that stands straight up.
That's how you are all supposed to be.
The bad people are just like a tree growing all over in a crooked way. The good people are like a tree growing straight.
A person, when you are growing up, listen to the Dreamer.
When they talk to you keep what they say. Just keep it for yourself. When you keep the Dreamers words,
sometime you think bad and want to do wrong,
you must remember what they told you.
It's just like a tree growing straight.
Your mind is growing good every year.
One year you mind grows a little bigger and next year more;
next year more. That's when you are keeping the Dreamer's story. That's how we're supposed to be.
That's what they want us to do from Heaven.
That's the story from Heaven. Sometimes people can't sing.
They don't even think about tomorrow.
Even before I went with girls, when the Dreamer is having a dance,
I don't hold back. I just go there and listen. I was pretty young.
I didn't even go near women yet. Sometime when we are singing,
even after the people quit, I gather some more people to sing.
After that, some more people are coming.
They bring in some more people. I don't know what's happening now. The drum is just a moosehide.
It's not hard to hit it when you are drumming.
People are not singing much anymore. (CY 5 January, 1966)
After singing a song by Maketsueson, who was one of his teachers, he spoke referencing a complex story about how Maketsueson became a Dreamer.
Maketsueson. That's his song.
Whoever has a good mind, keep it with you.
This song you sing, keep with you.
These two songs are very important.
Maketsueson said that the very last time.
Something happened to him. He's was a Dreamer
but he got fooled by something that happened to him.
When Charlie talked about Maketsueson (1870-1916), whose personal name was Atsukwa, his few words evoked the entirety of stories his listeners knew about this Dreamer. The Prophet River elders who were Charlie’s contemporaries shared his knowledge about Maketsueson and knew his songs. Even I, then a young anthropologist, had already heard many stories about him and would hear many more. Each oral performance newly authorizes the entirety of which it is a part. Oral literature is a collaborative enterprise involving both storyteller and listener. As songkeeper Tommy Attachie told me, “When you sing it now, just like new.”
My role as recorder was very different from that the Dane-zaa elders to whom Charlie was speaking. They shared a deep knowledge of the language and understood his words through many decades of shared experience. My recordings created documents of what otherwise would have existed only in the moment of interaction between speaker and listetners in Charlie Yahey’s small house on the Blueberry reserve. His songs continue to exist in the memories of those listeners and are reauthorized as they pass on what they have heard to other listeners. My role was to create acoustic actualities that could reach Dane-zaa listeners in different times and places. Even people outside the Dane-zaa community would hear the songs and at least get a sense of his oratory from translations Billy Attachie has done.
I later used Billy’s translations as a scrolling text cued to the audio document and recorded on DVD with video images of scenes from Dane-zaa territory and still images of Charlie and other elders of his generation (Ridington 2016). As Charlie Yahey said, “The world will listen to my voice.” These written translations when presented in conjunction with the original audio, reflect and evoke Dane-zaa oral literature, but of course are not the same thing. They are twice transformed, being both written and translated into a foreign language. The texts Billy and I created are deliberately constructed rather than performative translations. In July, 2016, I showed the video to a Dane-zaa audience on an outdoor screen as part of Doig’s Cultural Days Festival. Younger people who had not known Charlie Yahey told me how moved they were listening to his songs and hearing him speak to them. As songkeeper Tommy Attachie has reminded us, “When you sing it now, just like new.”
I have heard multiple versions of the story about Maketsueson becoming a Dreamer, but the essential feature of them all begins with a violent conflict between Maketsueson and a man who tried to steal his wife. Here is an excerpt from Tommy Attachie’s version, translated by Billy Attachie.
We're going to tell about Maketsueson.
How he became a prophet.
A long time ago, Maketsueson started.
He wasn't a prophet then.
He and his wife were snaring rabbits or something like that.
They killed some rabbits.
Crying Man wanted to take Maketsueson's wife away from him.
Maketsueson's wife and that man, they went with each other.
Just the two of them alone, they went with each other.
Maketsueson's wife told Crying Man,
"If you kill Maketsueson, I'll go back home with you."
They made that plan.
Maketsueson and his wife went back to check their rabbit snares.
They got some rabbits, put them in a sack.
They got a little rabbit there too, alive. She put that in her pocket.
Maketsueson was standing there.
She started to set that snare. Then she sat down.
Suddenly, that bullet came.
Crying Man shot Maketsueson.
The bullet went right through his chest.
It went right through him and hit his wife where she was setting snares.
The bullet hit her. It killed her.
It got her right where she was sitting, and that little rabbit too.
Maketsueson started to run around.
He went all over the place looking for Crying Man.
He was planning to kill him.
He never slept. Night and day, he was looking for him.
Finally, he fell asleep and he dreamed of the fire.
He saw all those people burning up there
in a fire that never went out.
Maketsueson saw that, and God spoke to him.
"That man made a plan. He was going to kill you,
and she was going to go back where he came from.
He made that plan. That's why bullets just went through you
and she died there." He told Maketsueson,
"If you kill Crying Man you're going to burn forever."
God showed him the fire there.
Maketsueson saw that, and he quit.
He just stopped.
I think from there on he wanted to live a good life.
(Ridington and Ridington 2013:176-177).
In 2006, Doig River elder Madeline Davis told a story about Maketsueson as we were driving through Doig territory in the band’s van. I recorded her words on video and later Billy translated. She began by referencing Maketsueson as her Asah (grandfather). The story Madeline told describes Maketsueson’s shin kaa or vision quest. He visits a giant eagle’s nest and meets boy and girl eaglets. The events of his shin kaa are the same as those of a story about the culture hero and giant eagle found among both northern and southern Athapaskans. In his thesis on northern and southern Athapaskan “slayer of monsters” stories, Robert Tyhurst describes this story as “the Eagle motif” and within it “the nest episode” (Tyhurst 1974 ii-iii). A Dane-aa listener would understand the story both as Maketsueson’s shin kaa and as an episode in the cycle of stories about Tsayaa, the monster slayer culture hero. Most Dane-zaa of Madeline’s generation would know that a person’s shin kaa experience brings him or her directly into the mythic world of stories. In shin kaa, oral literature becomes lived experience. In this case, the story explains the Dreamer’s affinity with Tsayaa through his vision quest.
Asah (grandfather), when he started dreaming,
there was something in his hand.
My grandma asked him, "What is that in your hand?"
He told her, "Natane (Thunderbird) put that in my hand."
He was with Natane in the mountain. Maketchueson said that.
When the lightning and thunder came,
I was with their (Natane's) young one. Those young thunders told me, "Our dad comes back with the hail, the big hail,
and our mother comes back with the rain."
The Natane parents brought something back, maybe a snake.
They told Maketchueson, "You can't eat this. This is what we live on," and they put it in a different place.
The Natane parents told him, "You've been with us for a long time.
It's just like you grew up with us, our family.
When the thunder and lightning comes, these young ones are crazy. They strike anything. You'd better watch out."
This is what my grandma said about Maketchueson.
Our grandma said, "Our grandfather told us about that."
By entering the story in his shin kaa, Makenunatane becomes like Tsayaa, the culture hero who overcomes giant animals made by the evil creator (Thomas King’s left handed twin). Madeline continued,
Asu said, "Maketchueson knew about thunder.
He was a very powerful man." Natane is a really beautiful thing.
You don't see him. You just hear his voice.
Natane is made for the sky. Natane is also a living bird.
Natane said, "When my kids go through the storm,
anything that's black they will strike. They are crazy
when they are traveling," Natane told Maketchueson,
"You tell your people." Even when it's a real thunder storm, Maketchueson goes out wearing his moccasins
and they don't even get wet. That's what my grandma said.
(Madeline Davis 2002) DZDV02-28)
Maketsueson was Atsukwa’s Dreamers name. Madeline explained how the name Maketsueson came from his Thunderbird vision. Thunderbird gave him a power song from Heaven, the land beyond the sky.
This is Maketchueson’s story. After that, Maketchueson was singing. Then lots of people gathered at Maketchueson’s camp. This is what they call Maketchueson, “He Sits in Heaven.”
When Charlie Yahey sang Maketsueson’s songs and mentioned that “something happened to him,” he referenced the shared knowledge of stories about Maketsueson’s shin kaa and the events that led him to become a Dreamer. Each song and each story evokes the entirety of which it is a part. The difference between this symbolic referencing and symbolic associations in Western written literature is that, for the Dane-zaa, knowledge required to understand the references is part of a common core of culturally stored information. This knowledge persists with variations from one generation to another because it is so widely distributed among people who share a common language and culture. Similarly, ancient Greeks who listened to Homer’s oral narratives shared a common knowledge of characters and events from the Trojan war. They valued his performance for its artistry rather than as a source of new information.
Western knowledge, in contrast, is compartmentalized. As Fee and Flick point out in an essay on Green Grass, Running Water, “There is no reader of this novel, except perhaps Thomas King, who is not outside some of its networks of cultural knowledge. But every reader is also inside at least one network and can therefore work by analogy to cross borders into the others” (Fee and Flick, 1999:131). Understanding King’s novel requires sharing knowledge across borders. As the title of their paper makes clear, reading the novel requires, “knowing where the borders are.” Understanding Dane-zaa oral literature requires shared cultural knowledge that is analogous to visual information stored holographically. Within Dane-zaa communities there are no borders, merely degrees of shared knowledge.
In 2015 Chief Marvin Yahey, Charlie’s youngest grandson, invited me to the Blueberry First Nations’ cultural camp on their land at Pink Mountain, BC. He encouraged his older brother Randy to tell me about their grandfather’s life as a Dreamer. Randy began by speaking of Makenunatane and Maketsueson.
Makenunatane is that really lead prophet. Maketsueson’s brother, oldest brother. My grandpa when he was just young, Maketsueson’s the one. Before Makenunatane, before Makenunatane, seven prophet.
Randy then explained how Maketsueson helped make Charlie Yahey’s Dreamer’s drum that Randy is currently keeping.
That’s his first dream and that’s where they give him first song. From in there, he said, that’s where he start. “But when I start there,” he said, “I never leave Maketsueson in there. Whenever I get a chance,” he said, “I go over here to the mountain. I stay with Maketsueson.” So that drum, the one designed drum, my grandpa got the one I keep right now, Maketsueson’s the one that made that drum.
Randy went on to describe the symbolism on the drum that Maketsueson made. A Dreamer named Guayaan drew designs on each side of the drum. One described the gate to Heaven and the other, the trail itself. Together, these designs represent the Dreamer’s experience of flying on a trail of song from earth to Heaven and returning to tell stories of his journeys. These designs are as much a part of Dane-zaa oral literature as paintings that illustrate Biblical stories are in the European tradition. Because Dane-zaa literature is oral rather than written, its messages include both songs and visual imagery. Randy described the drum’s symbolism in these words.
When after they put all that together that prophet they call Guayaan, I guess that Guayaan, you know that design, that print. Guayaan’s the one that made that design. You see how fancy design, cause he’s good with his hand, with paint. So after Maketsueson got that drum all ready, when it’s ready they use it. Now Maketsueson in his dream, they told him, “These are the people going to do all that.” After he went, Guayaan he stay in Doig. He went over there and Guayaan made that design for him. They make all that just fancy.
[Is that a picture of the dream to Heaven?]
Yeah, that drum they have that. That drum, one side that drum it’s a picture of when you start go inside Heaven gate, when you just go inside. Those boxes, those door. Just like you know elevator when you get there it slide open. Like that. That’s why that door. And other side is that trail. [there’s a cross] Yeah, the one with a cross in the center with those black box both side, that’s the side that’s where you go in the Heaven door. And other side, that’s the trail from this earth to Heaven, that one. So both side is different. So that side towards to go in the Heaven door, you’re not supposed to use that side until you know there’s got to be for a reason. My grandpa used to tell us all those story about it. (Randy Yahey 2015)
The arts of the Dane-zaa Dreamers are oral, performative, musical and visual. They are shared and passed on from one generation to another, from a speaker/singer to other listeners. Listeners, in turn, become performers as they recreate episodes from a large repetoire they know will be understood within the circle of related people. Dane-zaa oral literature is diagetic rather than mimetic. It is a body of knowledge shared within the entire Dane-zaa community. Each telling of a story recreates one part of a whole that is widely shared.
As a Dreamer, Charlie Yahey knew his words would continue to be heard by succeeding generations of Dane-zaa. He once spoke about the importance of his stories and about the necessity for future generations to make them, “just like new.”
This winter was pretty hard.
It was supposed to be hard but I prayed
and thought about all the Dane-zaa across the world.
I prayed hard to stop it and this spring is coming early.
Early spring water is coming.
They hurry me from Heaven.
They hurry me but just like I took one step back
to stay with you for a while.
If they call me again you're going to hear that I'm leaving.
I feel sorry for you guys.
Just like I take one step back
but next time you're going to hear about I have gone.
Charlie Yahey died in 1976, but his words, stories and songs live on in the arts of the Dane-zaa community. The recordings we made together keep the sound of his voice alive, but even more important are the song keepers and storytellers who continue to make the arts of Dane-zaa oral literature just like new.
Fee, Margery and Jane Flick
1999 Coyote Pedagogy: Knowing Where the Borders Are in Thomas King’s Green Grass, Running Water. Canadian Literature. 161-162:131-139.
1993 Green Grass, Running Water. Toronto: Harper Collins.
2003 The Truth About Stories: A Native Narrative. Toronto: Anansi Press.
2014 The Back of the Turtle. Toronto: Harper Collins.
1982 Orality and Literacy: The Technologizing of the Word. London and New York: Routledge.
2015 (DVD Videos by Robin Ridington: Pink Mt. 15-1 & 2)
Ridington, Amber and Robin Ridington.
2011 Performative Translation and Oral Curation: Ti-Jean/Chezan in Beaverland. Born in the Blood. Brian Swann, ed. University of Nebraska Press. 138-167.
Ridington, Robin and Jillian Ridington
2013 Where Happiness Dwells: A History of the Dane-zaa First Nations. Vancouver: UBC Press.
2014 Dane-zaa Oral History: Why It’s Not Hearsay. BC Studies. No. 103. Autumn, 2014. 77-102.
2016 Charlie Yahey: The Last Dane-zaa Dreamer. https://vimeo.com/158676759 (password dzfn)
1991 The Speaker of Tales Has More Than One String to Play On. in Anthropological Poetics, Ivan Brady, ed. 309-340. Savage, MD. Rowman & Littlefield.
1974 Comparative Analysis of the Northern and Southern Athapaskan “Slayer of Monsters” Myth. MA Thesis, UBC Departmant of Anthropology.
Robin Ridington is Professor Emeritus of anthropology at the University of British Columbia and taught there from 1967 to 1995. He has a BA from Swarthmore College and a PhD in anthropology from Harvard University. He first met the Dane-zaa in 1959 and has been documenting their culture since 1964. Recent work he and Jillian Ridington did with the Doig River First Nation documented genealogy for a Treaty Land Entitlement claim. His narrative ethnography, Trail To Heaven, describes how he learned from Charlie Yahey and other Dane-zaa elders. With Jillian Ridington, he co-authored When You Sing It Now, Just Like New. He is an audio and video documentarian and has worked with Dane-zaa elders to create videos documenting the life and teaching of the Dreamer, Charlie Yahey. At the request of the Doig River First Nation, he and Jillian Ridington collaborated with elders to write, Where Happiness Dwells: A History of the Dane-zaa First Nations.
Ridington, Robin. Swan People: A Study of the Dunne-za Prophet Dance (Ottawa: Mercury Series No. 38, National Museum of Man, 1978).
Ridington, Robin & Jillian Ridington. People of the Trail: How the Northern Forest Indians Lived (Douglas & McIntyre, 1978).
Ridington, Robin & Jillian Ridington. People of the Longhouse: How the Iroquoian Tribes Lived (Douglas & McIntyre, 1982).
Ridington, Robin. Trail to Heaven: Knowledge and Narrative in a Northern Native Community (Douglas & McIntyre, 1988).
Ridington, Robin. Little Bit Know Something: Stories in a Language of Anthropology (D&M, 1990).
Ridington, Robin & Dennis Hastings. The Sacred Pole of the Omaha Tribe (University of Nebraska Press, 1997).
Ridington, Robin & Jillian Ridington. When You Sing It Now, Just Like New: First Nations Poetics, Voices and Representations (University of Nebraska Press, 2005).
Ridington, Robin & Jillian Ridington. When You Sing It Now, Just Like New (University of Nebraska Press, 2006).
Ridington, Robin. The Poets Don’t Write Sonnets Anymore (Galiano Island: Plume of Cockatoo Press, 2008).
Where happiness Dwells: A History of the Dane-zaa First Nations (UBC Press, 2012) with Jillian Ridington in collaboration with Elders of the Dane-zaa First Nations. $95.00 978-0-7748-2295-4
The Ormsby Review. More Readers. More Reviews. More Often.
I would like to review this for the Fort Nelson News. Can you give me permission to do so?
Anyone is free to comment as they please about material on this site. This site provides an outlet for B.C. writers, spreading as much information as possible about B.C. culture to as many people as possible.
Wonderful piece. Thanks, Robin.