A whiskeyjack brother and sister marry brother and sister woodpeckers and attempt to live together, but end up breaking into couples. Alone with her new husband, the female whiskeyjack becomes unhappy with her new diet of worms. “I’m getting skinny! Let’s look for my brother, and you can have your worms for the rest of your life!” When they find him, she demands he take her back into the fold.
“The whiskeyjack told the woodpecker to get lost, and that’s the story of two brothers-in-law who tried to live together,” writes George Blondin in his 1990 book, When the World was New.
Even though I like talking to people, I never really learn anything until I read about it. If you’re anything like me and you live in the NWT, you need to know about George Blondin, whose stories are a delight to read, and hugely informative.
Blondin was born near Horton Lake in the NWT barrenlands in 1922, just a few years before the flu epidemic of 1928 that killed so many Dene. For various reasons — but largely illness — George was the only surviving son of fifteen children. (He died in 2003, after earning the Order of Canada for his writing.) At thirty-five, having lost his own son to illness and after spending six months himself being treated for TB in Edmonton, Blondin decided moved to Yellowknife. He worked for Giant Mine for twenty years.
But the stories — and the life — he grew up with stayed with him. In his lifetime, he produced two books, as well as several stories and projects for the NWT’s department of education’s 1993 Dene Kede curriculum (teachers, I’m given to understand, both hoard and share this material when they find it). A third book came out in 2006, thanks to his son, Ted Blondin.
When the World was New begins with several tales about animals, mostly talking ones, and their interactions with humans. The stories are told in a speaking voice. “He should know, since he’s an oldtimer,” says one man preparing to ask a raven for advice. Another man gets into a long, tortured argument with a raven who not only outsmarts him, but declares, “I’m enjoying this!”
The fables soon make way for stories about medicine power, which in these stories, can be anything that makes a person superior in some way, from being extraordinarily lucky in hunting to being able to run enormous distances or travel in the path of someone far away.
Blondin starts with Yamoria, the great lawgiver (so this is the source of the Dene Laws I read in my son’s Grade 4 classroom!) and his brother Yamoga, and goes right up to real life people from the Sahtu, many of whom held various forms of medicine power. Some of the men Blondin describes — like Blondin’s grandfather, Karkeye, who was born in 1855 — are not much different from the men of myth and legend, overcoming terrible hardship and travelling truly enormous distances (Blondin’s first solo voyage was across Great Bear Lake and back, a distance of some six hundred and forty kilometres). “My people lived in a magical time,” he writes.
The book also includes Blondin’s own story of his failure to get his own medicine power when he’s presented with a golden opportunity as a young boy. How I love stories of failure, disappointment and regret! (His storytelling medicine power obviously emerged later.)
Blondin’s second book takes up similar themes. Yamoria the Lawmaker: Stories of the Dene, published in 1997, is probably Blondin’s most widely available book and the most instructive. It starts with several short chapters on the history of the Dene, from the first arrival of traders and priests to that flu epidemic, but it soon gets back to that tricky subject: medicine power.
“The best I can do is say that medicine power is a spirit, with a mind of its own, and it attaches to us or, to see it another way, we borrow it,” Blondin writes.
Like any complex theology, medicine power is best understood through story, Blondin explains. Here he again tells the full story of Yamoria, as well as real life characters like the Prophet Ayah, also known as Louis Ayah, who lived in and around Deline from 1858 to 1940 and who became a great spiritual leader, predicting the discovery of radium and diamonds in the territory. (This story is widely known in the NWT; if, like me, you need to read about it, here you go.) Blondin includes several stories from other Dene elders, some of which get very real: “Here I sit alone with no wife, surrounded by my grandchildren of modern time. Their attitude toward each other is terrible, no manners or love at all.”
Trail of the Spirit: The Mysteries of Medicine Power Revealed came out in 2006. This book concentrates more strictly on medicine power and is instructive, but less rambly and fun than the other two. (The edition I read also had several painful typos.)
Before Blondin, and according to him, few Dene spoke of medicine power. The subject was simply not discussed, partly out of fear that this would jinx its power, but also a sense that oral stories would lose something if written down, and perhaps a fear of trying to produce a definitive version.
Yet somehow, as I read these stories — and I can’t pinpoint why I feel this — I had the clear sense that the stories were being told to me by one person, and the concurrent sense that the stories might waver and change and still be true.
I started reading these stories about a month ago. Since then, I see them everywhere, from Yamoga’s battle with Eyonee Cho (which pauses, then charmingly resumes when both are feeble old men) to Akaitcho and Edzo’s peacemaking. If ever there was a book that serves as a key to a place, this might be it.
Note at 1pm: This original post incorrectly mentioned Yamoria/Yamoga’s battle as feeble old men, but I had the wrong character there. I corrected it.