Interview with Jacob Wawatie

Interview with Jacob Wawatie

November 7, 2006 – Interview with Jacob Wawatie

Interviewer: Elaine Keillor
Place: Grande-Remous, Quebec

Elaine Keillor: Would you please identify yourself and your role within the Algonquin

Jacob Wawatie: My name is Jacob Wawatie, Algonquin from Barrière Lake. I have spent most of my life out in the woods, but went to French boarding school. I got my diploma in English and I dropped out of school when I was fourteen. Then I went to work down in New York State as a teacher’s aide, so that is where my career as a teacher began. I was going on 17 when I decided to go back to school and I got my GD [general education diploma] at 19. Then I went back to the community. My brother and I got a GD program going in order to obtain a diploma within the community.


EK: Could you explain more about the GD program?

JW: It was a general education diploma given by the State of New York. That was in 1976. In 1978 I became the director of the school in Rapid Lake. At that time our Grade 7 students were only reading at the Grade 3 level due to the lack of organization within the school, orientation, and goals. There was no set objective. I and the professor with whom I was studying linguistics at the time began to restructure the education program within the community. By 1980 we had set the plans into action. The byword we used was the whole language approach. The children did not understand the concepts of the book. Let us say ‘train.’ That was something with which they had had no contact and they could not explain anything. So you could not develop a vocabulary fast enough. We began using the terminologies that they used to express the things they knew, used, and did. With that program until 1995 we had over one hundred students obtain their diploma. In 1996 a new administration came in and it created quite a setback within the community.

The main objective of my own personal project was trying to do something after seeing the drop-off of students within the community. They would go to school, drop out, and came back but knew nothing about the forests. They were caught between two systems. What they learned in school could not be applied out in the woods. About fifteen years ago I started to integrate culture with the academic system, using legends, teachings. Bringing the materials from the forests into the classroom and making the children write about it to get them familiar with the subjects I was presenting. The main idea was that the children would have a base within their culture, to understand and see what there is out there. Let’s say you bring a basket in, created from the turtle shell. There you have a vessel. This is part of the legend. The basket also has geometry, mathematics, chemistry, teaches environmental and natural science. It teaches you to be independent. This is the objective of my project: to have people understand their own environment and setting because the settings that they were taught in were from the outside. When they came back they did not fit in.

In the year 2000 I was asked to be a spokesperson for my family community that we have in the woods that is called Kokomville. This community is based on tradition, all of us knowing how to survive out in the woods. I was taught by my grandmother [Lena Nottaway Jerome, who received an honourary doctorate from Carleton University]. In 1984 I had taken a sabbatical from my position as director. To start doing the research I took a sabbatical for twelve years with my grandmother in order to learn the traditional knowledge. That was due to a question that had come up within the community as to what was the traditional philosophy. They wanted to integrate within the school system the French and English languages but with the Algonquin language as the primary one to be taught. One of my elders told me that I should learn the traditional knowledge, the traditional educational system of many years ago.  That was where my studies began in 1984. All of this meshed with education, the directorship, and so on.

Why I chose my grandmother was that she was adopted by her great-great-grandmother, who lived to be 128. So she was raised from the age of two to the age of sixteen just living off the land with no usage of European resources. It was like going back in time prior to European contact. How did we survive? What was our lifestyle within the environment? For twelve years that was what I did.

In 1999 they asked me to be a spokesperson to protect the territory [La Verendrye] against logging [by Domtar]. I used the knowledge that my grandmother had passed on to me to protect the territory that my uncle [Willie Nottaway] wanted to have protected. I won the case, as the verdict was in my favour according to the court system. I may be right, but the verdict has been pushed aside just the same.

In 2000 I held a workshop for the Rainbow Family of Living Light within La Verendrye Park. The idea was to find out what is the general knowledge of the society. The Rainbow members represented Canadian, American, Chinese, Blacks, from all over the world. We discussed how to survive in the wilderness. Independently every single one of them would have failed from the standard that you need to survive in the forest. Collectively they would somewhat survive but with hardship because they do not know the environment. They do not know the setting. Generally speaking there was an organization structured. The setting was mapped out. These individuals who did not know each other worked at how they could create a society in which all would come to an understanding. That was the beautiful part of the workshop, the structuring of a society, organizing a community, establishing different critiques for various purposes but yet always to try to find that within the natural setting of the environment and not changing it. So that was the first workshop I gave.

In 2003 I did another workshop organized around the question “what is the environment?” What is out there – medicine, food, shelter, tools; where are they hidden? How do you find them? What is your structure? We did a full report on that and in 2005 I did another workshop. That was Vision amérindienne, the medicine given to barefoot doctors []. It was done with the Rainbow Family as well as many university students from Montreal. How do you evaluate settings and where do you find the medicines and how are they camouflaged? How do they evolve?  What setting do they need?  And this was to envisage the whole nature and structure of Native society. By the time we finished the workshop last year we had collected so many food samples throughout the year and they were dated, upon which you begin to see what grows at what time of the year, different products are coming throughout the year. We related this to the lunar calendar and then one sees what grows within the full moon, and what time of the year. By fall you start seeing how the society moved around within its own environment, traditionally surviving off the land.

That is the school that I am creating, always to help the children. I envision it as a three-part school. One is academic; everything is from the books in a classroom setting. Another one is a transitional school where part of it is in a classroom and part of it is in the woods. The other is a traditional school where you live off the land and your library is the forest. That way if a child wants to go into technology he has a base on how language is built up and how it is used. If he decides to go into electronics then he is able to follow that. If he decides that is not his line, then he could go into the forest and survive. Those are the basic things in my vision.

EK: That is a wonderful concept and something that is sorely needed. As you know, the
website that I am working on is concerned with Native Dance, and is aimed to show how dance is so important within the culture of Canada’s First Peoples. Could you tell me a bit of what your grandmother told you about Algonquin dance?

JW: The dance is an expression of how we see life, how we feel. It is our emotion that dictates the steps. The spirit that leads you in how you are going to tell your story. If it is exciting, then it is fast. If you are enraged, it may be frenzied. Then if it is slow, it is a sad story. Those are the steps that the dancer follows. It is their emotion that leads the way. There are many dances, but each individual will carry a certain type of dance. It depends on his clan. If it is a wolf clan dance, then the dancers will not dance the same because they do not move the same out in the woods.

EK: How many clans are there with the Algonquins?

JW: There are as many clans as there are animals and birds because each one of them carries a spirit and it depends on which spirit you have. From what I understand about the clan system everybody has five: animal, tree, bird, fish, insect. That is what makes life. I could say I am a wolf from the animal clan, pine from the tree clan, eagle from the bird clan, sturgeon from the fish clan, spider from the insect clan. So I have all five of them and it depends which dance I want to dance, from which perception I want to express my story.

EK: For example, in the Gaultier collection there is an Otter Dance. Would that dance be done only by persons who felt they were part of the otter clan?

JW: Yes. They are the ones telling the story. Other people might do it, but they would not know the real story. It is like if I began to tell the story of the moose and you heard it from me and tried to tell the same story, you would not have the same understanding because you may not have the experience that I have. This comes from being in the woods and observing and knowing what skills have to be acquired. The song is an expression of the spirit. The way that we convey the story through our skills, talking about the vision, about what we taste, about what we felt; these are different senses that create the colours of the story.

EK: Returning to songs specifically in Gaultier’s collection, is it correct to assume that songs connected with a story, such as the Song of the Giant of Te-Na-Ga-Din – Wisa Ke Jok, would have been used by anyone telling that story?

JW: Yes, it would be told by the elders usually.

EK: I have read elsewhere that this figure is like a trickster within Algonquin culture. Is
that your understanding of this figure?

JW: The trickster is a person who is able to embody anything that he wishes. He
understands the life and the flow of individual spirits so he becomes a changeling.

EK: Do you recall being told the story about this specific giant by any chance?

JW: There are many stories about giants. One of the giants is the whale. It is a giant figure; it is time; it is dimension of the world of giants. That was conceptualized within evolution. Everything is recorded through the legends. Some of them are sung; some are spoken. It depends on who is recounting them.

That song is referring to grandmother making a bag of knowledge and passing it on. From my study of linguistics, English is closer for writing out the syllables of the Algonquins’ language as a guide to pronunciation because of its phonemes that are not found in French. The forms of writing vary depending if the writer is from an English or French background and depending on which religion, Oblate or whatever. I have found twelve different ways of writing the language in the recorded documentation I have located to date. Sometimes I would like to see the person who wrote it, but I can tell that this person is using English as a background.

EK: Gaultier was a Francophone, but she seems to have used English more and more in the 1920s and 1930s, probably as a result of her performing career being based mainly in New York and Anglophone Canada.

JW: Here the use of “tach” would be more French. For the ‘sh’ sound the French would use ‘ch.’ Then you have voiceless consonants which sometimes a transcriber does not pick up on. If they are lacking it changes the context of the story. There may have been a prefix dropped on “ni-ma-no-say.”

I like these songs. For me, they are an expression of the singer. This also has a philosophical meaning to it. “My grandmother fixed my bag for me.”  What I am speaking of is what is inside my bag, my knowledge, my skill. This is my bag that my grandmother filled up. So you may see her as a giant at one point because she is the one putting your stuff in there because she has so much stuff.

EK: In other words, the song should be understood in that figurative way, in that philosophy, you might say. Another aspect that I found so fascinating about these songs was that Gaultier would say for the repetition, the song should be whistled or even sometimes for a section within a song, whistling would be used. That has not been known about in traditional First Peoples’ songs within Canada, but perhaps that has never been written about or reported. Can you recall if your grandmother sang songs where she whistled?

JW: No. From what I learned though, language songs came from the birds. The songs of the birds were the first things that they sang. Therefore a lot of their singing was imitation.

The Creator said that whatever bird flies the highest has the most beautiful song. The beauty of the song was dependent on how low or how high they went like the [low-flying] crow’s “caw, caw.” That is not a very pretty kind of sound so he did not rise that high. Neither did the owl rise that high. Generally the higher-flying birds have a higher-pitched voice. The eagle is up very high, but there was another one above the eagle that was a little bird but he cheated. We call it the thrush, one of the most beautiful singing birds, but no one sees him anymore. What he did was hide under the tail feather of the eagle. There is a little hole in that wind feather and that is where he hid. When the eagle started to go down he would fly up. The thrush are not seen very much any more as they are not happy how they got their song, the tones that the Creator has given them to sing. The thrush song can be duplicated in many fashions – through the lips, sung or whistled, or even on a whistle-like instrument [such as the Native flute]. The most common voice of this instrument [Native flute] is the loon.

EK: Do you recall Native flutes being made in your community?

JW: It is not really a flute but more like a whistle. They had different tones and were often played with the drum which provided a bass note.

EK: Do you recall hearing that practice or did your grandmother talk about it?

JW: I have been to ceremonies where they actually used these things – single-tone whistles. Also whistle-flutes with two, three, four, five or six holes. These are from the Wind people, the persons of the Wind Society.

EK: Would the Wind people be the only ones that could play these wind instruments or
could anyone play them?

JW: The spirit that you have whether you are a bird or whatever, that is the whistle you would blow.  It’s like the guitar that has a philosophy too. If you listen carefully to it, it has a voice in it that carries a message in its language.

EK: In her notes, Gaultier describes in some detail the Black Bear Ceremony at which young children were given names. Did your grandmother ever talk about that ceremony?

JW: She taught me to do this ceremony as well as the ceremonies for burials, marriages, and so on. The bear is always used because he is the leading spirit. The way it is explained was that there was this wolf clan. He was the chief, but he could not think for every wolf because the individual must defend himself. That is their philosophy. They could not understand the wolf clan so each animal has to become a chief. The squirrel was first. They reduced it [to the bear] in order to survive. There are so many particles of life.

EK: If your grandmother taught you the Black Bear ceremony, I wonder if she taught
you the particular Lullaby or Song of the Black Bear notated in the Gaultier collection.

JW: No. I do not recall that song, but I do not remember the songs that well. That is one of the things that I missed out on in my life. I only picked up the guitar some five years ago. I have sung some songs that come from within. One of the songs that I sing is in a story about someone on a canoe trip. He paddled around in order to go and see different societies. He finds a nice place where there are people and a lot of interaction so he goes back and fetches his wife and children.  Then he begins building a new home at this place. Only at the end did I realize who was paddling around, it was the beaver. It was in this sense that a story would be told.

In your Song of the Black Bear he is dressed in a cloud when he came for the naming ceremony: i di gio = what he was dressed as a cloud.

EK: I was told by others that you performed a Deer Dance.

JW: Yes, this was something I was taught. This man was a good deer hunter and he taught the Deer Dance to tell the story of hunting. He goes out hunting to the beat of the drum and he spots tracks. He slows down and then shoots. Then he runs [to the fallen animal]. Now he is happy and dances around it.

EK: So the dance is describing that whole hunting story.

JW: If you are watching and listening to the person while they dance, you should be able to understand the story. At the time we were learning it, there was a narrator to describe what was going on. “See the deer! Shoot it!” It is all interactive.

EK: I heard in Kitigan Zibi that Arthur Smith used to teach a Deer Dance in the 1970s and 1980s.  Did you know him?

JW: I knew him personally but I never saw him dance during the time he was probably teaching because I would have been in school.

EK: You have given me a good demonstration of the steps that went with this dance, but did the dancers follow a circular pattern?

JW: Not in a circle, not in a zigzag but more in a serpentine pattern as when you walk through the bush, you are not walking in a straight line. You are walking through the trees, separating the brush and branches with your arms.

EK: So there is lots of arm movement as well in this dance.

JW: Yes, it is full of body language. The slowing down in the song is following the movements of the deer. Also the movement of the pitches is very similar to how a deer walks. It is not only the words. The way I see music is that it is like a grid. Tempo is words. Speed is where you are going this way. The notes go up and down and everything interacts. The slowing down and the words are part of that meshing so you see where it is going.

EK: Was that close to any of the Deer Dance songs you know?

JW: Yes, I could see the deer dancing there. I received an image of what is happening when I heard the song and I have to find out who is doing that. I see him right away because I know my animals. I see what they are doing. I see their philosophy because each animal has a philosophy so he expresses it through body language.

[From Gaultier’s notes] you explain the difference between summer higher songs and winter lower songs. You see in summer, the colours are vibrant, but in winter it is very different. You have to scrounge, try to keep warm. This is part of the philosophy of life, of yin and yang. In part this creates the tempo between life and death.

EK: Have you ever heard of this term Onigoke that Gaultier applies to her Algonquin informants?

JW: In my study of linguistics I had come up with a word such as that. In our language we did not have the  ‘l’ dialect. The l becomes an ‘n.’ The ‘l’ was integrated during my mother’s generation in the 1940s and 1950s. Instead of Algonquin they would say ‘Angoquet.’ These dialect changes occurred through the interaction with the English language and you can trace when the ‘l’ dialect came into the Algonkian language of our community.

EK: Accordingly then, you think Gaultier was using this term for the cultural group, not an individual band?

JW: Yes for the Algonquins as a whole, similar to the groups referred to as Crees, Ojibwe, Montagnais [Innu], all of whom belong to the Algonkian language family. These cultures as well as the Abenaki, Iroquoian, all had different names because of the river system they lived in. The Algonquins are in the Ottawa/Gatineau Rivers, the Attikamekw are in the Mauricie River, the Montagnais are in Pointe Bleue, the river that goes to Lac St-Jean, so everybody had their river system. This is how they identify themselves. There are many things that have to be considered to understand the distribution of territory. Let us take the Ottawa River. It is everything in that basin and the Gatineau River provides another basin. An Algonquin cannot go on the other side of that basin. Each one would identify in that fashion and that is the name they carry.

EK: Can you tell me more about The Beavers’ Work Song or Witches Lullaby?

JW: Singing to a child to tell him not to cry as his father is on his way home.

EK: How would the Moose Dance Song be performed?

JW: Probably by a man. The moose man dances alone but he could also be a lone man with a trail or herd of women. This song describes the way a moose runs. There is a legend of a moose who had gone to the edge of existence. Things began crumbling behind him as something was chasing him and he ran back. When you look at the aorta, there are two holes and this is the song he is singing. When you open the moose you can see that, and they say he is going back to his source. There are many things recorded, not only in the mind but in physical things.

EK: How rapidly should the Nigik-Nimic Otter Dance-Song be sung?

JW: It should not be rushed. The text is talking about bleaching something white.

EK: Here is the Canada Wild Goose Song.

JW: That is a flying song. When you listen to it as you are singing it, it brings a vision of
just moving the tips of the wings. That is the conductor you need to follow.

EK: For the Sunset Dance Gaultier says that this dance was performed in a circle around
the sun-lodge. Would you be able to say if that circle was going clockwise or counter-clockwise?

JW: The white man walks clockwise. Native people walk counter-clockwise. Europeans walk with their emotions looking for a simplistic way of life. Everything they invent is to simplify; gardening so they do not have to go running around for food; farming and domesticating animals; today we see simplification in all of its forms. We do not have to walk outside to get water, firewood or whatever. You do not have to go outside to talk to someone; instead you use the phone. That is the emotion so you are going with the emotion wherever it leads. If you want to put the energy back into you, you go counter-clockwise. So if I walk over next door to ask for a loaf of bread, the Creator can see that I am doing something for myself instead of waiting for it to fall into my hand. That is the philosophy to explain going counter rather than clockwise.

I would not agree with the translation given as the sun does not rule. The sun is a guide. When you are singing the song it is guiding you. The sun is not a ruler. There are legends about the sun. When the Creator put the sun up there, it was to guide people. Darkness is hardship as you cannot see what you are looking for.

EK: For the songs that you learned, was there a specified number of times that you had to repeat them or could you go on as long as you wanted to?

JW: It is like how I was explaining about how high or how low you go in life. If you were expressing something exciting and then leading to where the downfall occurred the pitches would go lower. You bring your audience into the emotion that you are feeling. Say for example, what does Mozart do with his music? He brings you to a different elevation. The same thing is happening with each repetition. You are creating that spiritual movement, we might say.

EK: The Rainbow Song according to Gaultier is a summer song. Had you heard this terminology before of distinguishing summer songs by higher pitch levels?

JW: No. A lot of my research is based on the legends and a lot of it is from the philosophy. Once you understand the philosophy it is much easier to understand the connections. This song is concerned with colouring like the rainbow. It’s colouring in a spiritual sense. It is not sad. This is where we would find peace.

EK: Among the legends that you were familiar with, did you have the Hiwatha legend?

JW: Our legends were more those of tcikabesh, anishinâbesesh, misabos,and nanibozo. They are all the same character but are known by different names. This same person gives a report of life. It is like the legend about the geese on how they were tied up so they would fly in a V. The character dived under the water and tied them up with a string. That way you could get all of them instead of just one at a time. One would fly up and then they all flew because they were attached. There are individual songs for each animal. Some people learn how to hunt from it. Some people learn how to manage their lives from the legends, physically, mentally and spiritually. No, I did not know one of these as Hiwatha, but probably under a different name.

EK: I think it is generally regarded that Hiwatha was a Haudenosaunee figure. In the Gaultier collection there are two songs connected with Hiwatha.

JW: In her transcriptions of the texts she has drawn on her French background. She is using the ‘q’ as a ‘k’ in transcriptions such as “qua” and “qe” and “quh.” In the Song of the Laughing Waters, “nin ga di gia” means “I am going” while “ma no nin ga”  can translate as “a nice place ahead”  or nice curvatures on the mountain where I am going.

EK: Did your grandmother tell you about growing corn?

JW: No. In the colder seasons though the Algonquins moved further north for hunting, but in the spring they went south, down in the St. Lawrence Valley where there was gardening. In the Ottawa area they would have this. For Algonquins who stayed farther north throughout the year, they did not grow corn. “Ti–di–lon-ton” means “place it there” and also in the sense of asking the Creator to put life into it.

Peoples further north used the ‘l’ dialects. That is affected too by proximity to the Attikamekw and also some Ojibwe have the ‘l’ dialect. Because the Algonquins were situated between these two cultures, there was an effect on certain words.

EK: Gaultier in her notes about the Algonquins refers frequently to their connection with Oga Lake. Among the songs she transcribed was one connected with this lake, Pa-Na-Be-Kwe Song of the Mermaid.

JW: “An i dach” should be pronounced more like “An is dish” and it means “what is happening or what are you envisioning.” “No din ni” means “it is windy.” The last phrase “Ke–je–ka-ming” means “the whole of the land” and the last sound should be pronounced more like “mick.”

EK: In the Rain Man’s Dance Song, is the tempo determined in the sense of raindrops

JW: Yes. What you are singing creates the tempo. The rabbit will give you a different tempo. Nature creates the tempo, not man.

“Ko-man-man-da” creates the resonance when he shoots “ma-dwe-zi-ke.” The “nisabawe” is the black powder but it is wet so he cries “ma-ke-de.” This is a sad song. This is what happens when your powder goes wet, so you cannot hunt and you go hungry. Therefore, sadness steps in.

EK: I was interested in seeing the drums that you have on your wall, two of which I understand belonged to your parents.

JW: The Algonquins have drums for each of the four directions, north, south, east, and west, as well as personal drums such as those of my parents. The grandfather drum belongs to the north and it is a hollow log with a skin stretched over it. Before man was able to work on anything he just put a cover on a hollow log and that was the first drum made and that is why it is called the grandfather drum. Another early drum was using a piece of birch bark before learning how it could be bent. That was known as the grandmother drum. Mine has a beaver skin on it. The bent form of drum is the third one. This is a big one and it is double-headed. It is the man’s drum and is on the west side. The fourth one is the hollowed one or water drum. It represents the east side and is also known as the rain drum or girl drum. Those are the drums for the four directions.

Then you have the personal drums. Each person should have their own personal vision or experience to tell them how to make their drum or several drums depending on what one wants to learn. My mother made her own drum as did my father.

EK: In the Algonquin area, are you aware of personal drums that have snares?

JW: I have made a personal drum stretching a string with bear knuckles across the head. When you hit it, it makes a rattling sound. Whether you do this, depends on the individual. What is he trying to gain, to understand? What is his vision? What are his requirements? What is his philosophy?

EK: As for beating the drums, was there a specific type of beater for each kind of drum, or did it depend on the situation?

JW: It is like a band. Everyone is playing their own instrument and keeping somewhat the same tempo, but producing different tones. Some would use a padded beater, others would have an unpadded beater, some might use a rattle as a beater, others might just use their hands.


EK: Would the hands be used on personal drums or on the direction drums?

JW: It depends on what song you are singing. It depends on the person telling the story.

EK: Have you made rattles as well?


JW: Oh, yes. I have made many such as this turtle foot rattle, birch bark rattle, moose hoof rattle, moose heart rattle, partridge rattles using their throat sac. That is what they use to sing. Some rattles I have made for the children to help them to learn. Also I make small drums for them. The drum is a single voice while the rattle is many-voiced because of the seeds or stones inside.

EK: Thank you so much for this very informative interview.

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