Recently nominated for the Governor General’s Literary Award, Darrel McLeod’s memoir will break hearts in the best possible way.
“MAMASKATCH! WE’RE FREE!” “Tapwe! Mamaskatch. MAMASKATCH!” The triumphant call and response is from a group of Cree girls who just ambushed two nuns at residential school and escaped into the woods, heading for home. Years later, in an altogether different kind of homecoming, Darrel McLeod would drive the casket bearing his mother, one of the daring escapees, to the small town of Smith, Alberta, near the Athabasca River, recalling lost hope for a happier return he’d imagined: “Mother showing me off and bragging: This is my son—he went to university; he’s a teacher now, mamaskatch.”
McLeod’s new memoir takes its title from the word his mother would use when something amazing happened and she wanted to share the moment. And it is, indeed, something amazing. Mamaskatch: A Cree Coming of Age (Douglas & McIntyre) generously and bravely invites us into intimate stories of McLeod’s family, their experiences with trauma, racism, violence, sexual abuse, addiction and, through it all, a deep and complicated love.
Darrel J. McLeod
Written in his retirement, McLeod takes us back to his tumultuous childhood in Treaty 8 territory in northern Alberta, through his searching young adulthood and up to the early days of his career and his mother’s passing, the latter in some ways key to the book’s beginnings.
“When Mom died, I felt lost,” McLeod tells me, his usual cheerfulness muted. He had been teaching French immersion in Vancouver at that time, and was separated from her geographically and socially. “I felt I’d lost my connection to my culture with her passing, so I looked for ways of getting it back.” After applying to jobs on reserves all over the country, McLeod landed the principalship of a school north of Prince George, in a community of about 200. It was there that Catherine Bird, one of the Elders, planted an important seed. “We used to exchange stories sitting around visiting in the evenings or around the campfire on the weekend,” he recalls fondly. “She said: ‘You have to write those stories down. They’ll help somebody some day.’ So I had that in the back of my mind, but I never had time!”
Absorbed in a whirlwind career of curriculum and program development, federal treaty negotiation and so much more that took him from Victoria to Ottawa, Mexico and the UN (a career so full of its own stories that it’s the subject of his next book), McLeod waited to write, which brought its own blessings. “If you start at the age I started,” he laughs, “you have time to process things, put it all in perspective.” He says he also needed time to find a confident voice, not surprising given that he had become protective and secretive for much of his life.
Not a linear memoir, the 17 chapters unfold more like short stories, focusing on certain moments, sliding tangentially over others, and lingering over resonant details. For instance, huddled around a radio hooked up to a car battery listening to the news: “I have a dream… I heard.” And the first chapter hints at McLeod’s lifelong love of and escape into music, as his 13-year-old self is called downstairs at one in the morning. to listen to his mother’s troubling stories as record after record plays, from Elvis’ “There Goes My Everything” to Merle Haggard’s “The Fightin’ Side of Me.”
It’s not my place to try and tell or even summarize McLeod’s stories—a life he’s waited long and worked so hard to finally tell. But what I found so remarkable about the book is its fearless intimacy. It allows us to come indoors, sit at kitchen tables and at the edge of nighttime beds, peek around the corners of glass-strewn hallways, sit at schoolroom desks or along for lonesome bus rides and listen to conversations, whether in English or with snippets of untranslated Cree, and to a child’s painful and self-discovering questions. It allows us to also meet the man that child became: thoughtful, funny, strong, proud, resilient, creative and still questioning. And it allows anyone who has experienced violence—or, like McLeod, witnessed violence both by and against people he loves—to know that they are not alone.
“You know, Catherine Bird said I should write these stories down because they would help someone someday,” he says again, passionately, acknowledging some of the risks he took. “And I realized I had to bare it all. I had to show people—particularly youth, but it could be anybody my age or even older—who are carrying around a big load of shame and guilt and self-condemnation that they can get their stories out, they can deal with their issues. They don’t need to carry around that guilt and that fear: fear that people will find out, fear about if people find out your deep, dark secret, will they still love you or like you? In the feedback I’ve been getting, everyone has been so loving.”
Recently nominated for the Governor General’s Literary Award, Mamaskatch will break hearts in the best possible way. Years ago, my friend Richard Van Camp gave me a copy of his collection Angel Wing Splash Pattern with the inscription: “I hope these stories break your heart with beauty.” At first I wondered why a friend would wish me heartbreak, and I puzzled over the relationship to beauty. But I came to see that the beauty of art and honesty and bravely inviting others in and sharing truth is how you crack the shell of another’s heart, break it open to its glowing hidden place where it is molten, malleable, ready to be receptive, changed.
This is my last column for Focus magazine, and I leave it, after nine years, incredibly changed by all the conversations, in person and in pages. I am honoured to have shared time with so many wonderful writers and to have tried, in turn, to share that with you. Darrel McLeod sends me off with a softer heart and a big smile, as the last two words of his book, Ekosi etikwe, mean “See you later” or “It’s done” or “that’s it—for now.” It’s a beautiful ending because the story, McLeod reminds us all, is never over.
Amy Reiswig humbly thanks all of you for reading over these past nine years. May our stories cross again.