When the Spirits Dance
By Larry Loyie
with Constance Brissenden
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When the Spirits
A prequel to As Long as the Rivers Flow, winner of the Norma Fleck Award for nonfiction, When the Spirits Dance also deals with another transformative year in the life of Lawrence Loyie, a young Cree boy. In 1941, Lawrence, then just eight, lives with his parents and three sisters in Rabbit Hill, a small community in northern Alberta located just a half-hour’s walk away from the town of Slave Lake. In the fall, Lawrence’s father, Victor, a World War I veteran and father of nine, is called up to serve overseas, and Lawrence finds that many things change over the ensuing year as he has to assume some new responsibilities. Because Lawrence’s story is told in a chronological and episodic fashion, readers just get glimpses of some of the moments that Lawrence considered memorable over the book’s one-year time span, such as the day when a military deserter tries to steal the family’s supplies or the day a letter from Lawrence’s father finally arrives at the Slave Lake post office. While a three-page “Epilogue” provides hard facts about the period, including the information that many First Nations people who served in the armed forces during World War II later lost their Indian status while, at the same time, being denied benefits offered to other veterans, the main text also has many period details imbedded within it.
The book’s title is derived from the book’s concluding incident which finds Lawrence feeling old enough to camp alone while the family is gathering birch sap to make sweet birch syrup. During the night, Lawrence has a terrifying dream, one which includes a grizzly bear. Later that night, Lawrence’s grandmother tells him that his dream has brought him his animal spirit that will guide him through life. As the pair watch the dancing Northern Lights, his grandmother explains that “Our people believe that the lights are the spirits of our ancestors.”
A one-room school, a battery radio, wooden sidewalks, ration books, horses and wagons for transportation and gravel roads are just a few of the details that will remind readers of the book’s time setting. Some of the contents of When the Spirits Dance also signal the beginning of major changes in the lifestyle of these First Nations peoples. Grandpa walks 30 miles to bring Lawrence’s mother some smoked fish because he recognizes that “With your husband away, I’m sure your family is not getting enough wild meat or fish to eat.” From depending upon the land, rivers and lakes for much of their food, the family, without its hunter and fisher, come to count much more on store-bought foods, a change in diet which would ultimately lead to health problems. With his father away, Lawrence has no one to teach him how to “read” the forests, an education which is essentially terminated when Lawrence must attend a residential school, the story told in As Long as the Rivers Flow.
When the Spirits Dance, which is printed on glossy paper, is liberally illustrated with captioned, period photographs, both black & white and colour.
—By Dave Jenkinson teaches in the Faculty of Education, the University of Manitoba.
Spirits Dance (Theytus) by Larry Loyie with Constance Brissenden,
the second book in a series of stories from Loyie’s childhood,
paints a gentle picture of life in a First Nations community in northern
Alberta during World War II. One night a train takes Larry’s
father away to fight in the war and young Larry is left to help his
mother, grandmother and three sisters cope with food shortages and
the frightening presence of army deserters, who hide out in the bush
and steal from Larry’s family. He finds solace in the beauty
of the land and reassurance in family rituals: collecting birch sap
to make syrup, listening to music on a battery-operated radio and
walking to the post office to pick up the mail; and with the help
of his grandparents he is comforted by the spirits of his ancestors.
This memorable but unassuming book is illustrated with faded photographs
of Loyie’s family, and a tiny glossary at the back gives English
translations for Kokum (Grandmother), Mosoom (Grandfather), tansi (hello)
and other Cree words.
New Trail: Spring
Reviewed by Sheila Staats, Six Nations of the Grand River Territory, www.GoodMinds.com
In 1941 when Larry was eight, the family’s traditional lifestyle was interrupted as the need for an increased Canadian war effort reached Slave Lake in Alberta. The Loyie family was faced with the need for all able-bodied men to enlist in Canada’s army. Despite the fact that Victor and Marie Loyie had nine children and that Victor had gladly served during the First World War, the Canadian Armed Forces called up the 43-year-old Cree father.
The days of living off the bounty of the land with parents and elders teaching the children were over. The women, their children, and the elders had to survive on the scarce game and the rationing of staples such as sugar, butter, and tea. Larry helped his family survive without their father by drawing on the traditional knowledge taught by his parents and grandparents. Coming to terms of living with the uncertainty of war and the fear of losing their father were additional lessons for the children to learn. The family also had to deal with the threat of army deserters who had escaped in the area. The caring wisdom of their Kokum and Mosoom help the family live through the difficult months.
The narrative, told through Larry’s eyes, explains how the family rationed food, collected birch sap, and waited for any news from the battlefield. Throughout the story the authors have woven facts about how the war years changed the life of one Cree community. Teachings about the environment and the vision quest become vital parts of the narrative.
The reality of the Second World War is highlighted by the inclusion of black and white family photographs and images of the community in northern Alberta. Colour photographs showing the landscape and the Northern Lights add to the feeling that Mother Earth is central to the story.
This prequel to As Long As the Rivers Flow: A Last Summer Before Residential School is the second book in the Lawrence Series about Larry Loyie’s life. The story contains themes that examine the meaning of war for young children, the contributions made by courageous Aboriginal veterans, the importance of traditional knowledge, and respect for the environment. The young Cree boy in the autobiography obtains his Spirit Animal in a dream while camping alone and gains the respect of his Elders for his bravery.
This important new title brings to life the impact of World War 2 on First Nations in Canada from a personal perspective. This book fills a gap in the growing literature by First Nations writers about the recent history of Aboriginal Peoples. Highly recommended for elementary students as well as adult learners.