Darrel J. McLeod is Cree from treaty eight territory in Alberta. Darrel was a chief negotiator of land claims for the federal government and executive director of education and international affairs with Assembly of First Nations. He holds degrees in French Literature and Education. Peyakow: Reclaiming Cree Dignity is his second memoir following the events in his Governor General’s Literary Award-winning Mamaskatch: A Cree Coming of Age. Darrel lives, writes, and sings jazz in Sooke, B.C. and Puerto Vallarta, Mexico.
The sequel to McLeod’s award-winning memoir Mamaskatch, Peyakow continues the poignant story of McLeod’s impoverished youth, beset by constant fears of being dragged down by the self-destruction and deaths of those closest to him as he battles the bullying of white classmates, copes with the trauma of physical and sexual abuse, and endures painful separation from his family and culture. Brutally frank but buoyed throughout by McLeod’s unquenchable spirit, Peyakow—a title borrowed from the Cree word for “one who walks alone”—is an inspiring account of triumph against unimaginable odds.
Interview by May Q. Wong
May Q Wong (MQW): Hello, Tanisi Darrel! This book is a continuation of your GG Award winner memoir Mamaskatch. Congratulations on the Award! Did you always have this sequel in mind?
Darrel J. McLeod (DJM): It wasn’t so much that I had a sequel in mind, as the fact that the two books started as one. I wrote my memoir that spanned the whole time from the beginning of Mamaskatch to the end of Peyakow, and it was about 540 pages. I had worked with my first mentor, Betsy Warland, to get to that stage and then she passed me on to her friend Shaena Lambert. Shaena, a talented novelist and short story master told me the original manuscript was too long, so I hived off the second half, put it aside, and we just focussed a year and a half on editing what became Mamaskatch. My agent, Caroline Ford, from Transatlantic Agency, put it out there to publishers and I started getting offers. The very first publisher who put in an offer called me up and towards the end of the interview asked: “So what are you doing now that you’ve finished Mamaskatch?” I told him: “I’m working on the sequel.” He made a two-book offer, as did Douglas & McIntyre, which is who we published with.
MQW: What is the meaning of title: Peyakow? You refer to it close to the end, but can you expand on that?
DJM: I thought I knew what the title would be for the second book, but it wasn’t until I got to the part where my Mosom was speaking when all of my relations came to visit me for my birthday here in my little house in Sooke that I was certain. He asked me to tell stories of my travels and my life and at one point he said: “Mah, sosquats. Peyakow,” meaning “he goes alone.”
In our culture, it is very unusual to travel alone, for a whole number of reasons, historically. In Cree culture, solitude is a big part of our culture. For example, Mosom would go out hunting three weeks at a time, by himself, but that was very deliberate. Normally, in daily life you wouldn’t go around alone because of personal safety from the elements of nature, but it was more from potential attack from others. In northern Alberta there was a lot of racism, and there still is. For example, in [March 2020], two Métis hunters [Maurice (Morris) Cardinal and nephew Jake Sansom], were shot and killed by two white Brothers, [Roger and son Anthony Bilodeau]. The case is going through the criminal justice system now.
I did spend much of my adult life alone because so many of my important people had died; close family members and some ultra close friends. But I am also such an anomaly, so different from anyone in my family. Even in my circle of friends I don’t know anybody who shares the range and types of interests and obsessions that I do. I love to travel, I am passionate about languages, especially Spanish and French, which I speak fluently, so I go to Mexico every year and I like to hang out with people who speak Spanish, but none of my friends can accompany me there except for brief visits. And the same with French, I have a circle of Quebecois who are close and wonderful friends and they share that part of my life with me but they don’t share many other parts. I’m currently learning Cree on my own, because I don’t know many Cree speakers in Victoria. My Indigenous circle of friends do their best to understand and support me in all I do, which is wonderful.
You know writing can be a very solitary line of business. Right now writing and music sort of take up equal parts of my life.
MQW: We are all alone as unique individuals. As a follow-up question to your response, you wrote about your loneliness: wanting to reconnect and belong to your Indigenous Nehiyaw roots, feeling like an imposter when public honours came your way, and feeling unworthy or undeserving. Has the writing of this book changed the way you see yourself? How?
DJM: Things have changed, largely after the publication of Mamaskatch. Bit by bit, reunion and reunification started to happen, first with my extended family. It started with a cousin who read Mamaskatch and wrote a dramatic Facebook post for our family. “I just read our cousin Darrel McLeod’s book and it could be telling the story of my life on those pages and this book can help our family to heal if we let it!” A number of cousins got together to organize a gathering and insisted that I come home. So for Thanksgiving of 2018 I trekked home and they organized a feast to honour me and my book. It was wonderful and since then I have kept in touch with those cousins and many more. There was that reunification, and I don’t feel as isolated because I am really in close touch with many of them, some on a daily basis.
And then people from my early school days, as I mentioned in Peyakow, got in touch with me. Strangers have contacted me to tell me how ˆ touched their lives and how much they empathized with that little boy and how much they would have wanted to have been there for him. I coined this phrase, “retroactive healing,” after this kind of thing happened a fair bit. It has been happening to me after all those people have reached out, sending love and positive vibes my way even if they don’t deliberately send me a message or an email or a note or call me. I know they are still sending positive energy my way. So that has really helped.
Writing Peyakow was cathartic. There was stuff I had to say about different aspects of Canadian society based on my very specific experiences. And I told my whole life story, I laid my life on the line, openly, candidly, frankly, so people will love me or leave me. The ones who love me, I know it’s genuine, they know me through and through.
I understand and believe I deserve the love I am receiving now. We all deserve love, but in terms of receiving love and caring, I am more able to ask for help than I ever have been before. When I came home from Mexico a few weeks ago, I had to self-quarantine and friends helped with that. It was a very busy time, finishing my novel, finishing my second album that I recorded in Mexico, putting some finishing touches on it, and getting the house set up, reconnecting with friends through email and phone, etc., Since the publication of Peyakow I’ve had some time for self-reflection.
In some ways, I am still in a place that says I do not deserve all the things that I have; it’s a disconnect. It surprises me and is discouraging in a way. I’ve been through lots of therapy and counselling and done a lot of ceremony and I’ve even had courses of acupuncture treatment for depression and for grief that have been powerful and incredibly helpful. I hope I can get over this feeling that I don’t deserve these good things or the guilt of owning and enjoying good things.
MQW: You were talking about laying yourself out, just opening up. One of the themes I saw was how you spoke about your own sexual confusion; you refer to your sexual activities and your feelings about it throughout the book. Why was it important for you to be so open about your sex life? What does accepting the label “two-spirited” mean to you?
DJM: There is an important difference between Indigenous culture and Western culture (Judeo-Christian). It is a part of our being that has been colonized, largely through religion; our sexuality has been colonized.
So much of it was imposed by Christian values, the whole concept of original sin now just makes me sick. I remember being six-years-old and having a nun tell me that children are conceived and born in sin and explaining why baptism is necessary to get rid of the original sin and that babies that aren’t baptised before they die, go to hell. I was just devastated; I couldn’t understand and felt helpless. What did I do wrong, how could I be born in sin and how could I be carrying sin. It didn’t make sense to me and was very traumatizing. And it’s the same with sexuality, the Adam and Eve story, whether or not we accept it, is embedded in our minds. There’s the whole misogynist aspect, but the shame of the human body, that we should be ashamed about our bodies and cover up; unfortunately that mythology is taught to children at such an early age; it gets entrenched. I wanted to do my part and unravel some of that stuff in any way I could for myself and for others.
I think in Indigenous culture, those things weren’t taboo, sexuality wasn’t taboo. When I was quite young, late 20s, I came across a book of Indigenous legends called Tales from the Smoke House and it was all erotic tales. I just treasured that book (unfortunately I lent it to someone and never got it back). More than any other book I have ever seen, it captures the Indigenous view on sexuality. It is so completely different, the uptightness isn’t there, the guilt, the stuff our society still carries from the Victorian era, where they would cover the legs of chairs and tables because they had sexual elements to them, that kind of nonsense. It’s still there, in our society and sure we went through a sexual revolution in the 60’s or whatever, but we still, unfortunately, carry that Victorian kind of thinking.
By writing about my own sexuality and activities, I was wanting to push back. I knew there’d be some shock value, especially for my closest friends, but I recognize that the way my adult sexuality played out was largely based on the fact that I was sexually abused as a child. I didn’t have healthy adult sexuality. I went for help and the doctors I saw at various stages of my life have helped me work through a lot of things. So at least I could have some elements of healthy sexuality and not be overwhelmed by Catholic guilt every time I had a sexual experience.
I also wrote about my adult sexual experiences because I wanted people to realize that we have tucked away the sexual abuse thing, whether girls or boys, males or females, we compartmentalized by saying, yeah it’s tragic that it happened, now just get on with your life, but it doesn’t work like that. I wanted people to know if you mess with a child, interfere with their sexual development, you are doing permanent damage. Certainly, in my case, it was permanent. My intuition is that there are a lot of people out there, who for different reasons, maybe they were victims of childhood sexual abuse or maybe they’ve got other stuff going on, maybe they have some insecurity about their gender identity or their sexual orientation and they’ve struggled with it their whole lives or still are, hiding things or burying things and not living a full life and not healing. We don’t talk about it as openly as we should because so much of it is still taboo.
I’ve done a lot of reading on sexual identity and gender identity in North America Indigenous societies pre-contact. A lot of traditional societies, including the Cree, have recognized about six different genders. We didn’t have “he” or “she” in our language; if you needed to know the gender of a person you were talking about, it would come out in the context of the conversation. The pronoun wasn’t important and it wasn’t viewed as relevant. It was a very different world view.
Now, while “two-spirited” is a better term than “queer” or “gay”, it still doesn’t do it for me and I don’t relate to that label entirely. The difference for me between “two-spirited” and the others is that there was a position for “two-spirited” people in Indigenous societies. Usually it was a position of honour and respect that included a spiritual element; hence the term, two-spirited. People with gender variance (sounds so technical) were thought to have additional spiritual powers and were called upon for different things and had particular roles in their traditional society.
Now we have this term non-binary in English. I am puzzled about how heated the current debate over the use of pronouns has been. In Indigenous society, it wasn’t an issue; you are what you are! And you’re honoured for being the way you are – we don’t have to give you a label, define it and kinda lock you in. We’re all human, we develop, we change, and we adjust. The gender one is sexually attracted to may change over a lifetime, it’s fluid. That’s the beauty of what I understand was traditional Indigenous views of sexuality and gender identification.
MQW: The subtitle of the book is Reclaiming Cree Dignity. How do you define Cree dignity?
DJM: We all know there are so many negative stereotypes out there about Indigenous people. In my earlier life I was never ashamed of being Indigenous; Mum really drilled that into us when we were little, and speaking only for myself, her lectures really worked. “Be proud of who you are. Don’t ever let anybody make you feel you are lower or beneath them.” So I would proudly say to whomever and wherever I went, that I am Nehiyaw, Cree, at the time, we said Indian.
What I was trying to say in Mamaskatch and Peyakow, is that the area where I come from in Alberta, the treaty number is Treaty Eight, colonization was rapid and brutal. Only now, my generation, four or five generations after it happened, do we have the wherewithal to analyze what the hell happened and put it into context. We had our societies, our families, and communities turned upside down; we went through lots of trouble in our lives, such as alcoholism and drug abuse, and we were viewed as uneducated, unsophisticated, and in some cases, dirty.
It’s getting a little bit better now, [but in past decades], in downtown Edmonton, Calgary, Vancouver, and Victoria, there were Indigenous bars; everyone knew which ones they were and you’d see a lot of down and out Indigenous people on the street. The general perception of society was that we were all down and outers, and some people still are. My mum, who escaped from Residential School after three years there, lived on skid row as an adult for a number of years, as I wrote in Mamaskatch.
In doing my research for Peyakow, I read a lot of journals written by people who had earliest contact with people from my area. These Commissioners, religious people, and others, always wrote about how dignified, how proud, and independent my ancestors were. That really struck me. I just loved reading about that. Even though they didn’t have a lot of money for clothes, their traditional clothing was always amazing and when they did use Western clothing it was always tastefully done and they always looked so dignified, and I thought, I want to get back to that.
I want people to understand that we are dignified people and that there is such a thing as a Cree work ethic. I learned it from my mum, I watched my aunts and uncles and my great grandfather, my Mosom. The Cree work ethic is that you carry your own weight, you help others, especially your family, you help the people around you, and you try to leave the world a better place. That’s become my work ethic through my life and it’s powerful. There’s a lot of pressure on us culturally to live that ethic.
Those down and out people they see on skid row, that’s not us. That’s not who we are. Those are people who have been disenfranchised, marginalized, and damaged in so many ways, perhaps in the ways I was. They’re victims of Residential Schools, colonization, even if it was their grandparents or parents who went to Residential School, they’re still suffering the second and third generation impacts.
I also wanted to reflect something that I see happening more broadly in communities, and among Cree people. When I travel to Edmonton now and on the prairies, Regina, Saskatoon, and Winnipeg, I see things that just make me so happy. Young families, owning and driving a nice car, Indigenous families looking healthy, nicely dressed, proud, and it’s not something that looks out of place or extraordinary for them. They are carrying on dignified, healthy, and happy lives. And a lot of them are still strong or have regained knowledge of their culture, our culture, more and more. Also in my work, as I wrote in Peyakow, I worked for a few years in the post-secondary educational system in BC and I got to go to university graduation ceremonies. These were the most joyous time of the year for me, usually May and June and October, when I would see these beautiful young Indigenous youth who were happy, healthy, and proud to have accomplished what they had set out to do and were graduating as professionals and were ready to take on the world. That just gave me so much joy and I wanted to document that we are making huge leaps of progress even though at the same time there is an epidemic of youth suicide and there’s a good portion of our people who are still suffering tremendously from the inter-generational impact of Residential Schools and rapid colonization.
MQW: What more needs to be done collectively in order to achieve Cree Dignity?
DJM: I was just thinking on today, Canada Day, and I’m in mourning. One of the things that occurs to me is for Indigenous Peoples to be more present in mainstream society. So today, if there are still Canada Day celebrations, [I would say:] “Be present there and make your presence known so that there is an increased awareness of who we are, where we are. We are all over Canada, we’re in every nook and cranny, every pocket of Canada. We saw that when the Wet’suwet’en crisis [protests against the Coastal GasLink Pipeline] was happening a year and a half ago. We are all over and people may not be aware of it. But if we make our presence known more, I think that will help transform [erroneous, stereotypical] impressions of us. They won’t be able to forget or ignore us anymore.”
Community awareness has improved – ableit slowly. For example, a couple of years ago, while attending a writer’s festival in Ottawa, I met with students at some high schools. I was so pleased to find that the students could tell me the tribal names, languages and relevant information about the traditional lands and territories of the local Indigenous Peoples. This was a marked difference from classes I spoke to twenty-five years ago.
MQW: In your career, you have taught in an affluent Vancouver neighbourhood, and a dilapidated rural school with inadequate supports; been a BC government advisor of Aboriginal education, Federal government negotiator on land claims. Executive Director of International Relations for the Assembly of First Nations has led to working on files that have had significant local, national, and potential international impacts. Some success, many disappointments and frustrations. What was the most gratifying work that you were involved with and why?
DJM: Around the year 2000, I was the Federal Government lead in negotiating an apology to the Nuu-chah-nulth for their residential school experience. The moment the negotiations on that file were completed, I thought that was the crowning accomplishment of my career for sure. We had the Apology Statement printed on a scroll for community leaders and elders. I’ve kept a copy of that scroll nearby and I treasure it and I was very pleased to write about it in Peyakow. It is immortalized and in the public eye now.
Now with these “reveals”, I don’t call them “discoveries,” of these unmarked graves, uncelebrated deaths, and undignified burials at former Residential Schools, I feel even more strongly that was a key accomplishment in my career because the Nuu-chah-nulth asked for an apology and the government at the time really balked at it. They may have done it in a Machiavellian way because there was an important leading-edge milestone lawsuit against them, the Blackwater case, that was proceeding at the same time we were negotiating the Nuu-chah-nulth apology. I wonder if the final awards to the plaintiffs was much lower than it would have been had the government not apologized to the Nuu-chah-nulth in such a dramatic and candid way.
For example, in the apology, they even talked about those who died in Residential Schools. Maybe we need to repeat that process in every community where these kinds of unmarked graves are being found, that same process of discussion and formulation of a proper and decent apology. It needs to be addressed in every single instance in whatever way the local chiefs and community members and elders request it.
MQW: On land claims and Indigenous Rights, you have worked from within Indigenous organizations such as the AFN, and from the colonizer (government) side. How would you advise young people about the pros and cons of working from these perspectives?
DJM: It would be great if Indigenous Peoples could infiltrate every level of government. Infiltrate sounds so dramatic but what I mean is to participate at every level, right from policy analysts, to negotiators, to chief negotiators, to Assistant Deputy Minister, to Deputy Minister, to politicians. We have had some real trail blazers in that regard, such as Jody Wilson-Raybould (her memoir is coming out – I can hardly wait to read it). I would say to young people: “Your presence is needed in government and in Indigenous communities, agencies, institutions, First Nations government, etc. Be wise in your career, map out a career plan that includes your own career needs and how to take care of yourself. Be clear about where you want to go with your career, be clear about your own values, and what you want to accomplish – it’s really important to have your values straight. If you want to bring about social justice for Indigenous People, be clear about that in the beginning and throughout your career. Be uncompromising in your own ethics; it’s too easy to be co-opted and people will try to co-opt you.”
As an Indigenous Person working in mainstream government, I was often the lone Indigenous voice, but I found support from other Indigenous People working in similar fields, allies from within the organization, and even from my own personal circle of friends. I learned something that as an Indigenous Person, Visible Minority, or Person of Colour, if you are working in a mainstream organization like government or school district, you have to be twice as good at your job to be considered half as good. That was certainly the case with me; I worked so damn hard, but that’s just the way I am so I didn’t mind, I was driven and I was passionate about what I was doing so it was fun too a lot of the time.
MQW: It is clear that the spirits of your Mosom, your mother and other loved ones continue to give you comfort and guidance. What gives you joy and contentment now after your retirement?
DJM: Closeness to my culture, renewed connection with my family my cousins, reconnection with the land back home as well, the connection with the land here in Sooke where I live, and writing and music all gives me joy. When I’m enmeshed in the creative process, I’m usually writing 4-8 hr a day, five days a week (I used to do it six days a week when I was writing Mamaskatch and Peyakow, but mentors told me it’s important to take weekends off), I sing at least an hour a day, every day. In Mexico, I work with a jazz band and here in Victoria I also work with an amazing musician, Wes Carroll, who is a jazz master. I’m at a phase in my life where for some reason, the creative side is critical to me and to my happiness. Being in Mexico gives me great joy and I stay there at least six months during the winter.
MQW: Do you have any new writing in your future?
DJM: I do! I just finished a novel loosely based on the year I spent in Yekooche, but the village and characters have been fictionalized. I just sent it off to my agent early this week and she has agreed to represent me and has sent it out to publishers so of course I’m anxious to see what happens with it!