by Robin Ridington, University of British Columbia
In 1967, I recorded the last Dane-zaa Dreamer, Charlie Yahey telling his culture’s creation story in the Beaver language. As he spoke into my tape recorder, he knew that he was creating a performative document for future generations. On the recording he said, “the world will listen to my voice.” Dane-zaa Dreamers, he said, “Dream ahead for everybody.” Over the intervening years, that recording and many others of the Dreamer’s songs and oratory have become important parts of the Dane-zaa soundscape. Initially people asked me for cassette copies of the recordings they could play in their vehicles and homes. Later, I made CD copies, and more recently MP3 versions of the recordings on DVD. Today’s Dane-zaa songkeepers and storytellers agree that in the recordings we made, Charlie Yahey was speaking to people who would live after him.
Dane-zaa who grew up speaking the Beaver language understand his words, as did the generations that went before. Younger people no longer speak Beaver and can only hear the obvious authority of his voice. In 2010, translator Billy Attachie and I worked together to write down a time-coded translation of the story that would make it accessible to people who did not grow up with the language. I then put the audio together with video images I took of the Dane-zaa environment. Underlying the original audio I mixed recordings of contemporary Dane-zaa singers and drummers, as well as video clips of people dancing to the Dreamers’ songs. Finally, I added Billy’s translation as a scrolling text synched to the Dreamer’s voice. I have called the result a transformed performance of the Dreamer’s story. One evening in the summer of 2016, the Doig River First Nation invited me to show the completed video in an outdoor setting during their cultural days celebration. We billed it, “the world premier” of the Dreamer’s performance for an audience that included both elders and youth, forty years after Charlie Yahey’s death in 1976.
The Dane-zaa creation story reflects themes that are commonly found in what Mircea Eliade (1964) called “shamanic cosmology,” in which upper and lower realms are connected through a common center or axis mundi. He writes:
The pre-eminantly shamanic technique is the passsage from one cosmic region to another – from earth to the sky or from earth to the underworld. The shaman knows the mystery of the break-through in plane. This communication among the cosmic zones is made possible by the very structure of the universe. [Eliade 1964:259]
In a paper on shamanic cosmology, Roger Walsh adds:
The shaman’s universe is three tiered, comprised of an upper, middle, and lower world, and the upper and lower worlds may themselves be multilayered. What makes shamans “cosmic travelers” is their experience of being able to traverse these multiple worlds and levels. [Walsh 1961. 259]
By these definitions, Dreamers like Charlie Yahey are clearly shamans. In their dreams they experience travel along yagatunne, the trail to heaven. When they return to their bodies on earth, they bring back stories and songs from people who have gone before them. The Dane-zaa creation story connects the three cosmic realms described above. It is a version of the widely distributed “earth diver” story. As Charlie Yahey tells it, the Creator draws a cross, creating a center, on a primeval body of water. He then sends animals down to find earth. Muskrat eventually surfaces with “the world” under his nails. The Creator tells this small world to grow and creates plants and animals, men and women, to live on it. When the white people come into Dane-zaa territory they bring agricultural crops for their food.
The story goes on to describe a “bad creator,” like the “left handed twin” of Thomas King’s, The Back of the Turtle (King, 2014; Ridington, 2015). Charlie Yahey’s story describes the bad creator making giant animals that hunt humans. They are overcome by Tsayaa, a culture hero, who cuts some of them into little pieces to become the fur bearing animals we know today. Others, he places beneath the earth. In Charlie’s story, the white people have discovered that they can drill into the ground for grease of the giant animals and use it to propel their vehicles. By exhuming bad energy from a previous episode of creation, they make the world smaller and less self sufficient. The video footage shows pump jacks and compressor stations, some of which are placed in giant fields of canola on former Reserve land the Dane-zaa still call, Suu na chi K’chige, the place where happiness dwells (Ridington and Ridington, 2013). The people at Doig who were present at the video’s “world premier” told me they felt that Charlie Yahey had returned to be with them again. They experienced the video as a transformation of Charlie Yahey’s original performance. As he suggested in the recording, his story has journeyed to a very different world from the one in which he grew up.
Dane-zaa Creation Story told by Charlie Yahey https://vimeo.com/121211703 (password dzfn)
Eliade, Mircea. 1964. Shamanism: Archaic Techniques of Ecstasy. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
King, Thomas. 2014. The Back of the Turtle. Toronto: Harper Collins.
Ridington, Robin. 2015. Got Any Grapes? Reading Thomas King’s The Back of the Turtle. Canadian Literature 224:163-68.
Ridington, Robin and Jillian Ridington. 2013. Where Happiness Dwells: A History of the Dane-zaa First Nations. Vancouver: UBC Press.
Walsh, Roger. 1991. Shamanic Cosmology: A Psychological Examination of the Shaman’s Worldview. ReVision 13:86-100.