Tall beavers — and other tales — live on in new book from Alberta Métis students

Elder Archie Collins was interviewed by Elizabeth School students who later transcribed his stories for their anthology. (Submitted by Curtis Walty - image credit)
Elder Archie Collins was interviewed by Elizabeth School students who later transcribed his stories for their anthology. (Submitted by Curtis Walty - image credit)

In words and pictures, students from schools on Métis settlements in northern Alberta have brought together fascinating stories — many told by elders — and packaged them into a new book.

The book, created in partnership with Cenovus Energy and available on Amazon, is called Finding Fire Within.

Elder Archie Collins, who lives on the Elizabeth Métis Settlement, south of Cold Lake, worked with students at Elizabeth School.

The stories Collins told the students weren't anything new or different he said. They were normal things that happened in the community.

He remembered one particular story about a young fellow holding a beaver almost as tall as him, he said.

"Back in the day, when I was young, we did a lot of hunting beavers and going out camping," Collins said.

"They were worth quite a bit of money back then."

The book opens with a story from student Max Sagan, titled My Favourite Hobby, about waking up early to hunt moose with his father.

"My heart was pounding with excitement and a big smile spread over my face," Sagan wrote in the story, co-authored with his school principal.

Another story, from Elder Mary McKenzie as told to students at Bill Woodward School in Anzac, is called How the Black Poplar Got Its Sacred Bark.

Submitted by Curtis Walty
Submitted by Curtis Walty

In October 2021, teachers from several schools in the Northland School Division met on Zoom to plan out the project.

Their focus was to tell stories from Métis settlements, with each community approaching the project differently.

"Our end goal was to have a book that we would have as a shared anthology representing all the different communities and different schools," Karen Davies said on CBC's Edmonton AM.

Davies is the principal at Elizabeth School on the Elizabeth Métis Settlement.

Principals from each school in the division invited elders from their communities to be interviewed by students.

Because of the pandemic, it wasn't until this spring that students were able to meet their elders in person.

Davies said her school interviewed the elder they were working with two or three times.

"He told us stories from his whole life," she said.

"We made sure when we talked with the elders we had permission to rewrite their story in our own words and then to illustrate them."

Submitted by Curtis Walty
Submitted by Curtis Walty

Teachers divided students into groups for writing, transcribing and drawing.

At Hillview School on the East Prairie Métis Settlement, southeast of High Prairie, elementary student Karma L'Hirondelle was in a group that transcribed the elder's story.

Her classmate Steven Big Charles was involved in producing the art for the stories.

Keep the culture alive

It wasn't the first time Collins, a community leader for 30 years, had told stories to students in school.

His wife used to teach students at Elizabeth School about their language and culture.

"She'd always bring me to the school to talk about the culture, the future," he said.

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Elders in Indigenous cultures pass down stories in different ways — orally, through song, and drumming, for example.

Writing stories down is often uncommon, but one Collins hopes will continue.

"I think this is such a great way to keep the culture alive and keep the stories alive and bring them to new kids too," he said.

Collins said he enjoyed contributing to Finding Fire Within, even though it took a little while to get things co-ordinated for the project.

"It was real exciting when they first approached me to take my stories and do a book."