First festival of the first people

September 1, 2014

Beatrice Culleton’s book, In Search of April Raintree and anyone doing throat singing are two things that are extremely moving to me. They are awesome, awesome, awesome. Curious if you might feel the same way? Here is more about both in this article about an event that took place on the Labour Day weekend in 1984:

Indian Record
October 1984
First festival of the first people
by Tanya Lester

Canada’s first peoples in the personages of Beatrice Culleton, Alanis Obomsawin and the Inuit Throat Singers were heralded as storytellers extraordinaire at the first Canadian Women’s Music and Cultural Festival held at Winnipeg’s Kildonan Park over the Labour Day weekend.

Metis author Beatrice Culleton, of Winnipeg, took the audience back to her childhood days through readings from her semi-autobiographical book In Search of April Raintree. Feeling the urgent need to write about the pain she was feeling after her sister’s suicide in 1980, Culleton’s book is the all-too-familiar story of many Metis and Indian people.

“I became aware that I was ashamed of my heritage.” Culleton explained that working on the book brought her face-to-face with this terrible realization: “I had been ashamed of being a Metis person.

“This part I’m going to read was really hard for me to write because I had to be really honest with myself,” Culleton told her audience before reading an excerpt from her book in which April contemplates changing the spelling of her last name to sound Irish rather than Indian. She pities her younger sister Cheryl whose darker skin will never allow her to masquerade as being white.

Culleton read another excerpt from In Search of April Raintree, during the weekend, that perhaps best explains how she came to this self-denial of her heritage. “This means a lot to me although it didn’t happen to me in exactly the same way it happened to April,” she said.

The piece describes April and Cheryl going home to find the police and a social worker waiting to take them away from their parents. Their mother is “sitting at the table openly weeping” while the children are told their parents are too sick to look after them. “My mother should have fought with her life to keep us; instead she was giving us away,” Culleton’s main character, April, laments, not understanding her parents’ powerlessness.

The book goes on to tell the tale of April’s shunting to one white foster home after another not unlike Culleton’s own experience. During her childhood years, Culleton remembers telling on set of foster parents about the “white buffalo’ at a previous foster home.

Drawing on that early fantasy, Culleton’s next book to be published in 1985 will be called The White Buffalo. A children’s story of special appeal to those in grade five or six, the white buffalo escapes the hunter’s gun by being invisible but finds a loyal friend in the Indian named Lone Wolf.

Culleton was inspired to write about the white buffalo, she told a workshop audience, after she saw the film about rabbits called Watership Downs adapted from Richard Adam’s book. It made her realize Native children need an animal story connected to their own heritage.

Alanis Obomsawin, an Abenaki Indian hailing from Quebec’s Odanak Reserve, shares Culleton’s warmth for children. Her story-telling at the festival enchanted children and adults alike as she led them through the fantasy world of the serpent who at a whole family while they were out canoeing. Her words were met with delighted laughter when she concluded her story by saying the mother was found baking bannock at the stove when the serpent’s stomach was finally opened.

But Obomsawin brought tears to her adult audience when her words, eerie chants and drum beat out the tale inspired by her own experiences on Winnipeg’s skidrow. In the end, she, too, was overcome with tears after chronicling the story of the “bush lady” who is taken off her reserve and led to the city by a whiteman who deserts her after she becomes pregnant. Knowing she cannot return home with her “blonde bady,” she gives it up to a white woman.

In another story, Obomsawin went back to the root of white dominance over Native peoples when she explained the Indians’ reactions to Cartier’s arrival 450 years ago. “Our chief feels it’s up to him to go tell Cartier that he can’t take his land without his permission,” Obomsawin said. In the end, though, Cartier does the taking. Two “savages” are captured, stripped of their Native clothes and pride, and taken back to France.

While Culleton and Obomsawin took the audience back decades and centuries into their ancestry, it seemed the Inuit Throat Singers went back thousands of years when they told their story without even using words.

As is the custom, Lucy Kownak and Emily Alerk stood with faces close together while ancient guttural keenings poured from their throats. Having travelled from Baker Lake in the Northwest Territories to attend the festival, the women spoke, through an interpreter, about this traditional game passed down to them by their parents and older sisters.

They said throat singing was a game played when people gathered to spend a sociable evening together. Seldon are words mingled with the noises but the loser of the game is the one who breaks out laughing before her partner does. They said, while many Inuit communities have played at throat singing, the Baker Lake version is unique to their own community. Because the elderly women said younger people no longer want to learn throat singing, the audience was privileged to have had the opportunity to witness this authetic custom while Kownak and Alerk are still performing it.

The festival organizers must be commended for inviting Beatrice Culleton, Alanis Obomsawin and the Inuit Throat Singers to tell their stories of sorrow and joy. Their inclusion contributed to the hight entertainment calibre of the first Canadian Women’s Music and Cultural Festival. Winnipeg festival goers now know what they have been missing and will demand that Native performers be included at future events of this nature.
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Confessions of a Tea Leaf Reader by Tanya Lester can be purchased from the author or by going to the title and author name to read the first few pages or to purchase it at


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