Night Spirits: The Story of the Relocation of the Sayisi Dene – BUSSIDOR; BILGEN-REINART (CSS)

BUSSIDOR, Ila; BILGEN-REINART, stn. Night Spirits: The Story of the Relocation of the Sayisi Dene. Winnipeg: The University of Manitoba Press, 1997. 152p. Resenha de: GOULET, Jean-Guy. Canadian Social Studies, v.35, n.3, 2001.

Among the Sayisi Dene of northeastern Manitoba, when children are put to bed they are told to be quiet less the night spirits hear them and cause them harm. These are the spirits of dead people who linger around the community. According to the Sayisi Dene people grieve to reach the point where they can let go of the spirits of their loved ones. Only then can these spirits complete their journey to the other world. To grieve is to set free and to heal.

Night Spirits is a creative and courageous act of individual and collective grieving. It vividly documents the all-too-common experience of indigenous communities around the world who endure massive social disruption, impoverishment and tragic deaths following the intrusion of foreigners in their lands and their lives. The story told is not for the faint of heart. The authors ask the reader to behold a social disaster of great magnitude as it develops and takes the lives of nearly one third of the Sayisi Dene.

The story unfolds over 17 chapters, some as short as 2 pages long, none longer than 20 pages. Most chapters are filled with accounts of Sayisi men and women who describe their life experience. In a brief introduction that is followed by sixteen pages of maps and photographs that assist greatly in gaining a sense of people and place, these Sayisi Dene men and women are appropriately introduced as The Narrators of This Book (pages xxi-xxii).

The first 6 chapters (My Story (Ila Bussidor), The Caribou and the People, The People from the East, Treaty Five, Duck Lake and ‘Preserved at all Costs’) describe the people’s history and lifestyle in their traditional homeland up to1956 when dramatic changes were set in motion. Government officials then reported a general collapse of the caribou population from an estimated 670,000 animals in 1942 to a mere 277,000 in 1955. The Sayisi Dene were seen as a major culprit in the destruction of the caribous. Since the caribou had to be preserved at all costs the relocation of the Sayisi Dene to Churchill was called for. To the despair of all, their new home quickly became one of the worst slums of the province’s history.

Chapter 7 deals with the airlift on August 10, 1956 of the 58 people and 73 dogs who were then camping near their hunting grounds. People were told they had to board the plane. Within a few minutes, says John Solomon who was then 30 years of age, We took whatever we could with us, we left behind our traps, our toboggans, our cabins, and we got onto the plane (p. 46). What is the source of such authority that such an order be obeyed so promptly? The book does not tell. The fact is that one hour and a half later the Sayisi Dene were landing in Churchill in the vicinity of which many more band members were already settled. It is then that the Sayisi Dene begin their descent into abject living conditions, chronic unemployment, systemic discrimination, alcohol and drug abuse – all painfully described from chapters 8 to12 (Churchill, Camp-10, Alcohol Takes Over, Dene Village, and Deaths).

The last two chapters of the book, Return to the Land and Tadoule Lake, capture the spirit of Sayisi Dene, when in the fall of 1969 a small group discussed going back to the bush to resume a healthier lifestyle. In the winter of 1973 the Sayisi Dene had built for themselves 28 new log cabins on the shore of Tadoule Lake. These were to become the homes of 75 adults and 12 pre-school children, their older siblings attending schools in far away cities.

Relief at the sight of relatives reconstructing their lives is short lived for Ila Bussidor and others of her generation who, as young adults entering marriage and parenting, see the demons of the past revisit them in the form of spousal violence spurred by alcohol and drug abuse. In Tadoule Lake they have to confront once again the terrible legacy of the past and the challenges of the present.

Determination to build a better future prevails. In 1995, in a community that has become known as the dope centre of northern Manitoba, a school is opened to accommodate 112 students from kindergarten to grade twelve. The band decides to teach the aboriginal language to children and to their parents who have lost the mother tongue that linked them to their elders. Young adults draw upon the power of the drum and of small healing circles to sustain hope in the face of despair. A few individuals decide to write an astonishing book that truly honour Ila’s parents, all those who perished in Churchill and the Sayisi Dene of yesterday, today and tomorrow. Night Spirits is a striking accomplishment to be read by everyone interested in the life, struggles and aspirations of aboriginal communities today.

Jean-Guy Goulet – Saint Paul University. Ottawa, Ontario.

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