Lakeland College hosted National Storytelling with Walter Bonaise in Vermilion on February 5, and Lloydminster on February 6.
Cree author and elder, Bonaise described how with a Grade 7 education, he used his indigenous education to educate himself and get where he is today. Bonaise spent 10 years teaching an aboriginal awareness course at NAIT, and in 1980 led a workshop for 15 - 20 years through Indian Northern Affairs. In Ontario, he worked with five resource people to bring in all government bodies, RCMP, etc. so they could better understand where aboriginal awareness fit into their work.
“It was very hard, but it was much easier when I talked. In native studies, they always miss looking at elders; you have to walk with them and talk with them. When I was young, I was able to understand what they said in multiple Indigenous languages. I walked all over in Manitoba, and taught how to be a powwow dancer and powwow singer,” said Bonaise.
He went on to say that a lot of his students came from places that were very isolated, and they wanted to learn. During the national centennial, he performed at Thompson, Norway House, and the Pas. He also taught aboriginal music at the University of Manitoba for six years, and one of the students came from Denmark to take the course. Through his teachings, he connected others to elders so they could gain knowledge.
“I walked with the young people and talked with them because they had questions and wanted to know who they were and what they should do to learn the powwow dancing and singing; as well as what the traditional way of life was and how they could fit in as a contemporary person. Contemporary music is totally different from the traditional, and sweat lodges are done differently than they were in the past.
In 1946 - 1947 I used to help my grandmother. We used to go into the hills and dig wild turnip, wild onions, and wild carrots and brought them home and cleaned them. We would go get rocks and willows; it took about 3 - 4 days to gather the necessary things. My dad used to go get an elder and put him into a sweat, and when he finished we would eat with him. It was beautiful. You don’t see that anymore.
I really enjoyed teaching. That was my future and way of life; the whole philosophy of understanding who I was. At three years of age, every Sunday afternoon, I spent sitting in a circle with over 200 elders telling stories to me. I was very lucky,” said Bonaise.
Having passed on what he learned, his book, “Listening to Elders Telling Stories Sitting In A Circle,” has spread as far as Germany. You can purchase a copy at Audreys Books in Edmonton, or you can order online.