Cree author shares struggles, obstacles and angels in memoir

Cree author shares struggles, obstacles and angels in memoir

Darrel J. McLeod covers a lot of ground in his memoir, Mamaskatch: A Cree Coming of Age. It's a tale of poverty, addictions and abuse but also angels that helped guide him.

The former federal chief negotiator of land claims and accomplished musician can now add author to his resume. His book is a 2018 finalist for the Governor General's Literary Awards.

McLeod recently shared some of his motivations for writing the book with The Homestretch.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length. You can listen to the complete interview here.

Q: What is the story behind the book's title?

A: It's a word that my mother used to use a lot when I was growing up, so it stuck with me even though I am not fluent in Cree.

She always said it when something extraordinary happened, usually something good.

When I was contemplating using the word for a title, I checked in with a group of fluent Cree speakers to get a definition. There were about 19 different definitions and it ranged from "How strange" to "It's a miracle."

Q: Is it a miracle that you are here today?

A: I ended one of the short stories, about my mother and auntie's escape from the residential school, with that word.

An editor I worked with who published an advance version of that story scolded me and said, "You're taking away from the characters if you say it was a miracle. It was the determination and strong will and cultural underpinnings of those girls that helped them to escape from that school. It's unfair to say it was a miracle."

Q: Your great grandfather played a significant role in your life and that's woven throughout the book. Talk about that.

A: My father, unfortunately, passed away when my mother was six months pregnant with me.

She already had two older children, they were six and four. At that time, single Native mothers were in danger of losing their children in a phenomenon now known as the Sixties Scoop. Mother knew she had to go into hiding.

That combined with the fact that there was no widow's pension or any other form of support, my great grandfather decided to take us in to his trapping cabin in the bush in the middle of nowhere.

You could only get there by boat and on foot. Mother went into hiding with us and we narrowly escaped the Sixties Scoop.

My great grandfather was our caregiver and provider. He was already in his 70s when we went to live with him.

The place was remote then but it isn't remote now. It's about three hours north of Edmonton.

Q: Please tell us about some of the other obstacles in your life.

A: My mother was a wonderful, doting mother, the best mother anyone could hope for until I was about six. And then there was a series of events, deaths of people very close to her — her mother, my father, one of her closest brothers and then my great grandfather passed away when I was nine.

Mother started to spiral downwards at that time in a frenzy of drinking and became a bit of a binge drinker. She left us when I was 10.

That's where my great grandfather was one of my angels and he's still one of my guiding spirits.

My sister Debbie came along to take care of me. She was seven years older.

She got married at the age of 15 and convinced her husband that they should take me in. Unfortunately, my younger siblings had to go into foster care.

Q: Did this start off as a memoir? Did you plan it that way?

A: I didn't plan it to turn out the way it's turned out. It's been fabulous. It came together in an amazing way.

I was a school principal in northern British Columbia and I worked with this amazing elder. We used to share stories after school.

At one point, she turned to me and said to me very emphatically, "Darrel, you have to write these stories down. They will help people someday."

There was something about that moment. I knew it was the universe talking to me, not just her. I knew from that point on that I was going to write my stories down.

A couple of years before I decided to leave full time work with the federal government, I took a writing course called Memoir of Inquiry.

We started writing a couple of paragraphs, then a couple of pages, then it morphed into short stories. Within about two years I had 26 short stories.

Q: Did you ever question yourself as you were doing this?

A: The trick about a memoir is finding a compelling, interesting voice. It's the way you tell the stories as much as what you are telling that matters.

With files from Ellis Choe and The Homestretch.