“There once was a tribe of people living in the mountains,” begins the title story of this oral history. “This was in the time of the dinosaurs, so the mountain people always had to be prepared for the unexpected.”
The unexpected, in this case, is the arrival of a giant who kills one brother and steals the other, eventually making him a partner in adventure. They become friends until the giant is injured and decides to set his human friend free to find his family, with the help of some magic bone grease that replenishes itself each night.
I came to this book largely ignorant of Dene myths and legends, and was surprised (then not surprised) to find the same raw materials from myths and legends anywhere: war, battles, shape-shifters, heroes and heroines and voyages to the spirit world. Also: kidnappings and cannibals, vengeance and curses and people making epic quests.
In this case, these elements are mapped onto the Mackenzie Mountains and along the Dehcho (Mackenzie River) between Wrigley and Deline: a dramatic background.
The stories are told in cinematic detail. Nearly all would make amazing graphic novels.
The story of “Yamoreyha, the one who walked the world,” uses typically vivid language to describe this legendary figure’s encounter with two small eaglets. “Which one of you is going to rat on me when your parents get back?” Yamorehya asks. “The female baby said, ‘I will tell my parents you were here when they get back,’ so Yamorehya grabbed her and clubbed her to death and threw her over the side of the nest.”
“This is one of the stories that was passed on to us during the cold winter nights when there wasn’t much to do,” Johnny Neyelle says at one point, in typically understated fashion.
About halfway in, the book veers into the real world, switching from stories Neyelle was told as a child to stories from his own life.
It was not an easy one. Born in Wrigley in 1915, Neyelle was one of five sons. By the time he was 26 he had his own “tent, boat and dog team, everything that was needed to live off the land at that time,” and decided to get married. Seven years later, he found himself alone with one son, having lost his wife and five children to tuberculosis. Neyelle remarried two years later, spending much of the rest of his life either on the land (often hunting alone) or in the community of Deline. He died in 2002.
His stories are about hunting and travelling, large gatherings and at least two provident moose catches that save several people from the brink of starvation. One short tale, “The Hunt to Whiskeyjack Point,” recounts everything that goes wrong on a particularly unlucky snowmobile trip.
The book was put together by Johnny’s son Morris Neyelle and Alana Fletcher, both conscious of the need to document elders’ stories, and published by the University of Alberta Press.
Knowing so little about these stories, it’s hard for me to say any more, other than that this book is fascinating, and well worth reading.
Richard Van Camp, on the back cover, compares it to George Blondin’s When the World was New and Trail of the Spirit. I’m adding those to my reading list now.
The Man Who Lived with a Giant, Stories from Johnny Neyelle, Dene Elder
Alana Fletcher & Morris Neyelle, Editors
The University of Alberta Press, 2019