The late Dorothy "Dot" Desjarlais from Fort Smith, NWT
I was born 1952, January 24, at a place called Rhines Creek where my Dad trapped and, according to my mother, there was supposed to be a midwife coming to help her with her labor, and that when I was coming through the world but she didn’t make it in time so my Dad had to deliver me. So by the time they got there I was already here…I’ve lived in Fort Smith now for forty-six years.
I was put in this world to teach children how to live. How to be them. Without being ashamed of who they are. Have pride. That’s what I was put on this world for: to teach.
On our history as Aboriginal People:
You know, we had our own way of living. We weren’t useless. We worked for our lives. We didn’t go running to the welfare office for a hand- me-out, you know? There was no food banks. There was no woman’s shelters. No thrift shop you can run to when you need a pair of jeans. We paid for everything we had. And yet they call us savages, we don’t know nothing. Savage …you know that really hurts when I think about that…what the government has done to the native people and they did succeed in some. Because some today figure they are too good for their own people. I’ve seen it: there are some out there that figure they’re too good. Too good to be native. The white people don’t want you; your own people don’t want you; what are you gonna be? Nothing. You know, so they did a pretty good job on some people. Thank God some people didn’t lose their way of life and their language. Thank God for that. I thank God I pray a lot that there still some people left to teach younger children how things were done years ago. I mean we didn’t wear traditional clothing like, you know, long dresses and moccasins. We wore runners and jeans like they do today. But we were taught to set snares, go out trapping for rats, out to skin them, out to fix the meat, out to, you know, smoke the meat so it lasts longer in the smoke house, the meat doesn’t spoil. We know all that, you know, but the schools too now, though, they have culture days. That’s five days out of 365. What’s five days going to teach a kid? Nothing. They have to learn this every day. If they’re ever going to learn their language or their way of life, their culture, they have to be taught this every day. Starting from home, hopefully some people still have their language left. Starting with two small words: “Tansi Kititi”--you know--that’s all it takes. If a child can answer you in that language it’s beautiful. It’s been so many years since I’ve heard a little kid talk nothing but Cree playing--same thing working, hunting--Cree was spoken all the time.
On climate change:
You know, when it stayed cold, it STAYED cold. It wasn’t like you got forty below for today and the next day it was minus 12. You know when you got forty below you got forty below for a good many days. And when it started to warm up it didn’t just warm up, it gradually warmed up. You know … it doesn’t do that anymore. It even rains in January now. So the world has gone crazy; it’s the weather with all the … with everything we’ve been doing to it, you know. All the resources and everything we’re taking from the ground. And they’re putting all that into the ozone and we’ll never get that back. You know once that’s destroyed it’s destroyed for good.
For babies on the way:
If you carried low you were going to have a boy…and if you carried high it was a little girl.
When a baby teethes:
My mom used to tell me when a kid starts teething to give them a piece of moose hide, you know, the smoke from the hide stays in the hide and you chew on that and it numbs your gums.
Cultural practices about a baby’s belly button nub and care for the placenta:
For her children’s belly button nubs: I put … I think the oldest one I think I put it into my sewing kit. And the second one, hers I put out into the bush. The third one, I think I put it in the river.
The first one I wanted her to sew like I do. I did, you know? Like I still do? I wanted her to get into that tradition and the stories I heard from people and from my grandparents and my mother saying that bellybuttons are placed in different places where a child will someday know where they’re at because of it. And the one I placed in the river is because he was a good swimmer and I wanted him to not be afraid of water. And the second one, she loves trapping; she loves setting snares; she still does that. My oldest passed away 6-9 years ago now, she left five children that I raised.
On the care of the placenta after the baby is delivered:
To burn it…Yes, because it was sacred. Mhmm, it was part of the birth. And you can’t discard it anywhere. ‘Cause say you’re out in the bush, and you have a certain place where you put your garbage, right? Some of them had pits; we had pits where our garbage went. But dogs get into it and so a dog might get into the placenta and that was not respectable.
On teachings about when you are pregnant:
Don’t laugh at people. ‘Cause your child is gonna turn out to be real, how would you say it without being mean? Mmm, like if somebody was, you know sometimes we see, we did see very many crippled people when we were kids and sometimes when we did see them it amazed and we would stare and we would ask “Why, what happened?” Not to them but to our parents. “How come that person looks like that? You know, what happened to them. Why?” And my mother used to say, “Don’t ever laugh at a person like that or, you know, get amazed and stare because your child will turn out like that. Mmhmm, it was part of respect, too, I guess.
On changing your diet when you are pregnant:
I was told not to smoke or drink too much tea ‘cause there’s a lot of acid in tea so they said the baby won’t like that. And the kidneys might not be too strong. So I was told to stay away from tea because I love drinking tea. So I had to put up with water most of the time.
On helping out with the delivery her grandchild:
She was at the hospital with the midwives and she was in real bad pain and I wasn’t there. And she said, “I want my mumma here because if she’s not here I’m gonna quit having this baby. So I went in, well, I was busy I meant to go in anyway and I thought I can do in and have this done, leave and she’ll still be there, you know? But I had to rush and get over there. Soons as I got there she was just happy and she started going into labour and I started rubbing her back and she said, “Mumma, I’m going to cry.’ I told her “No, sing a song.” So she started humming and she hummed and hummed and hummed and singin’ and the baby started to come out and she was sitting in water and the baby came right out and we took it and it was just you know … I don’t know it was so beautiful…Yep, you know … little baby just coming up from the water. You know, I’ve never seen that before…It just came out in the water, and we picked it up and it was just out of this world, you know: I’ve never seen something like that before.
RVC: Did you get to cut the cord?
RVC: And what was the name of this baby? What is the name of this little one?
D: Shane Aaron
On life and culture:
You gotta put your whole heart and soul into things if you want them done right. But if you’re just going to do things for the money or just for, you know, being on TV--fifteen minutes of fame or whatever they call it--that’s not gunna work because it doesn’t come from your heart . You gotta have your whole heart and soul into things like this and to be truthful. If you’re not truthful, it’s not going to work because your truth and your pride and your way of life, you know. That’s what you have and you have that forever. You can never, never just say, “Oh I don’t want to be that anymore; I want to be this. You can’t ‘cause that’s not your culture. But if you don’t have language, you don’t have culture. You gotta have the language to go with the culture so you understand the culture.
It’s gotta continue, generation after generation; it’s gotta continue. ‘Cause if we let it die now, it’s gonna die and it’s never gonna come back. There’s been languages that have been lost, you know--completely lost that we’ll never get back.
On the Northern Lights:
Dot: Yeah, we were told not to bother them but we did. You know, just to be curious. And…we used to call down the Northern lights.
Dot: By whistling.
RVC: Do you ever do this? Ever use your zipper?
Dot: I used to do matchbox. Matchbox is good.
Dot: Yeah, shake the matches? (laughter) And it would come right down and they’d have this noise that goes (*mimics wind) just as loud as you can think. And they smell like sulfur, and that smell is so powerful and they scare you. You know, we ran into the house when that happened. My mom would get mad at us.
RVC: Were you ever taught to send them back up to the sky?
Dot: By lighting a match
RVC: Oh, were you every shown this? (Richard flicks his top teeth with his thumb nail).
Dot: No, just used to light matches.
RVC: Oh matches, eh? So you could do this, they come and then you would light …
Dot: Yes send them right up.
RVC: What about the constellations? Were you ever told about, you know they say Orion ..
RVC: The Big Dipper.
RVC: Were you ever shown anything or told by anybody about anything in the night sky?
Dot: Just the Big Dipper really, cuz that was the main star, the North Star. And we were told if we were ever lost to look for the North Star. If we couldn’t find the North Star, if it was cloudy, they told us to watch the trees. Go look at the trees and moss always grows higher on the north side of the tree and it’s very true. The moss does grow higher on the north side of the tree.
On the constellations of Orion’s Belt
Dot: We were told they were The Three Kings.
RVC: The Three Kings?
Dot: Mmhmm that went to Jesus when He was born
RVC: See? That’s beautiful. We were never told that. Wow. I’ll never forget that.
D: Yeah, we were told they were the Three Kings
On mental well-being:
There were certain teas that we drank. Like wild peppermint and wild rose along the creeks and we collect that in the fall time and drink that and it has a…has a matter in it that makes you, I don’t know … it sort of makes you happy, I guess? Yeah.
RVC: Fights depression?
D: Mmmhmm yeah, and there’s labrador tea we used to do that with, too
R: Were you given any teachings about depression? How to help someone who is going through … like an adult? Or a teenager?
D: You know when I was growing up there was not much depression, no.
D: I think there was less alcohol and less drugs. And there was not as there is now for people to really get into thoughts about other things outside their own world. Because now you have TV, you got phones you got everything, right? Them days there was nothing, you know, so you just lived a peaceful life among your people in your own world, sort of. You didn’t know that much about the outside world. Not unless what you hear from the radios. Not many people had radios, too. And the radio we had at home, we weren’t allowed to open it whenever we wanted. It was opened only for news and weather and one hour on Saturday nights because they had a program called ‘The Hoe Down’ and there’d be fiddler music and that on there so we’d listen to that.
Kyle Napier: This is a conversation, too, that we’ve had a few times now in the past few days, but I’m really looking for maybe your input because we haven’t, I think you’d be able to speak well towards this … there’s something I’ve heard where the language you think in determines your perspective of the world around you and I’ve heard that English is actually a very unhealthy language to think in.
Dot: It is. It is because English explains everything. Like, you know, in just a short sentence you can tell people how many died in a plane crash today. But in Cree language we can tell people that people got killed in the plane crash but not in that kind of way. You know, we can explain what happened because there was a malfunction in the plane or something went wrong you know we can do that. But in the English language they don’t really explain anything: plane 307 went down over the Indian Ocean today; there was 127 passengers; no survivors--that’s what they usually say and that’s it; they don’t explain to you--anything.
Kyle Napier: Packaged.
Dot: Yeah it is--mmhmm--and it’s just given to you so bluntly, you know? But in the Cree language there's explanations.
Kyle: Within the words.
Dot: Mmmhmm, yeah, that’s why I think people didn’t have so much depression in them days because they understood in their own language about what was going on around them. Mmhmm.
Kyle: And it’s a softer language, too.
Dot: It is and it’s a happy language. You have a lot of laughter in that language. You can actually be talking about something serious and somebody would say something else and you would just laugh, you know, because it’s said in such a funny way. (laughter) I know it sounds crazy but you have to talk Cree to know what I’m talking about, you know.
Yeah and you feel better by laughing, you know? You feel happier. Mmmhmm, it’s a very happy language. Very comical sometimes. To me it is, anyway.
Hope for the future
That’s what we got to get back to here. We gotta get back to socializing like that, you know: without any technology--just being you. I think that’s what’s going to bring people back together and that’s gonna make them proud. And once they’re proud they’re gonna have their language, everything is gonna be coming back, hopefully. Hopefully this is taken very seriously because I do take my language, my customs and my way of life very seriously. I hope by talking with you guys and trying to make the younger generation see that there’s help if they want it and they can get help. I hope they will hopefully they will turn back to their culture.
RVC: Our book is going to be called “For Our Children.”
Dot: Mmmhmm, yeah that’s where it’s gonna have to be: for our children. ‘Cause they’re the ones who are gonna have to carry on all this after we’re gone. And I wanna leave them as much as I can. All my sewing and all my artwork and everything--everything I’ve...that I have learned through the years, I want my grandchildren to have that. I want them to be proud of who they are because I am a very proud person. I am a very proud Metis woman. I take my pride seriously.
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