- Weasel Tail: Stories Told by Joe Crowshoe Sr (Áápohsoy'yiis), a Peigan-Blackfoot Elder
Several years ago I had the pleasure of meeting and then getting to know Louis Bird, an Omushkego (Swampy Cree) storyteller from Peawanuck, Ontario, a small community on the shores of Hudson Bay. Now in his seventies, he has spent more than twenty years tape-recording his people's history and stories. Louis grew up in the twentieth century, long after the 'old ways' were past, but when traditional knowledge was still vibrant and alive. Louis is a teacher, a bridge between a wholly Aboriginal world view and the more Westernized ways of today, and he has a keen sense of the old knowledge at risk of being lost forever.
Joe Crowshoe (1909-99) was a man of similar stature and importance. Well known and respected in the Peigan community of Southern Alberta, Joe was a great teacher, ceremonialist, elder, recipient of many honours and distinctions, and, foremost, a spokesperson for his people. Weasel Tail consists of the transcripts of about twenty hours of interviews Joe [End Page 557] gave between 1991 and 1998 to friends Michael Ross and Brian Noble. Joe's wife, Josephine, and their son Reg were usually present. Joe spoke in English and Blackfoot, with the Blackfoot portions translated, sometimes several years later, by Reg and other Blackfoot interpreters.
Weasel Tail is mainly stories about Joe's life, told by Joe with frequent additions by Josephine. In typical Aboriginal fashion, the autobiographical narrative does not follow European norms (starting from birth and moving chronologically through to the present), but moves seamlessly from topic to topic, focusing on what was important to Joe - the interplay in his life between the traditional ways and Christianity, times at the residential school, sun dances, farming, and life on the reserve. Interspersed are stories about Peigan history, both long ago and more recent, myths, and some dreams.
Joe was one of a generation born in the early reserve period, after the buffalo-hunting days were over, who witnessed the almost overwhelming changes that shaped Aboriginal communities in the twentieth century. Like others of his generation, Joe was profoundly aware that young people had lost a great deal of their people's traditional knowledge. They no longer speak their language, they no longer possess ceremonial knowledge - in short, they have lost many of the tools one needs to live in the proper way. Joe hoped that, by recording his words, he could pass on some of this essential knowledge to the younger people so that they might 'Try hard, help each other, care for each other, pity each other. Carry on and try hard in our sacred ways, our smudge, our prayers.'
Joe 'want[ed] people to get some benefit out of the book, you know.' They will. It is a sourcebook for Peigan culture, a starting point for those who wish to begin learning a Peigan way of understanding the world. It is a very important book, and if there is any complaint to make it is that it is not longer. We long, for instance, to hear more from Joe on the proper way to transfer tipi designs, pipes, and ceremonial bundles, and of his (and Josephine's) reflections on the complementary nature of Aboriginal and Christian religious beliefs. Twenty hours of audiotape recorded over a handful of days means that we only skate over the surface. But that is how it is. Elders do not tell it all at once. One needs to be patient and to listen, and with Joe Crowshoe we ran out of time.
Weasel Tail contains carefully selected, historic photographs. It is reader friendly, eschewing footnotes for sidebars and brief explanatory texts. The commentary is never superfluous and never distracts the reader from Joe's message. Likewise, the introductory chapter on Blackfoot culture and history provides context for Joe's narrative without coming across as an academic treatise. Elders are often quiet people, providing little by way of introduction or foreword. So, without much...