An “interview” with Judith Silverthorne, featuring Ray Lavallee, and the journey of creating Honouring the Buffalo.
Before I start, please note that Ray’s name is pronounced simply “la valley,” (as in Ray lives in the valley).
Q. How did you come to write Honouring the Buffalo?
This was a collaborative effort between Ray Lavallee and myself. His concern in preserving the traditional oral legends for the youth coming along in future generations led to a discussion of the importance of writing them down before they were lost. So many of the old people with the knowledge are dying and there are not many younger people that want to learn the traditional ways. I was honoured that he chose me to work with. Together we completed the project. He related the legend to me, and then I wrote the story around it in a way that preserved the oral storytelling.
Q: That’s it? You just decided to write it? Weren’t there protocols to observe?
A: Oh yes, when working with Indigenous communities, there are certain protocols and respectful observances and seeking of permissions that need to be fulfilled. This is just as there are in any culture or interactions in any kind of relationship, whether in business or other societal connections, churches/religions, and partnerships.
Q: Like what?
A: When one is asking for help in any area of your life, for knowledge or healing from someone from an Indigenous community, an offering is given. Then you ask the question of the Elder, Wisdom Keeper, or Medicine Man/Woman for the assistance you require. An offering consists of tobacco and sometimes a piece of cloth and/or a cash honorarium to help offset the cost of gathering and preserving medicines and as show of respect for the knowledge that is being shared.
Even though we discussed the project and agreed to work together, I followed the appropriate process. I offered him tobacco and asked for permission to have him share the legend with me and for me to write the story. When he deemed it was appropriate through his own rituals and asking for blessings, he related the legend, which I wrote down. I continued to consult with Ray as I wove the story around the legend to make sure I had everything right and appropriately portrayed, according to his Plains Cree ways.
Q: So you had to ask for permission?
A: It wasn’t a question of ‘had to,’ it was simply being respectful of the customs of this particular culture.
Q: How so?
A: Whenever anyone writes about an Indigenous culture, permission must be sought from the related community and the proper sources. One does not want to be exploitative or use anything that is not formally authorized. Cultural appropriation is not acceptable, as it infringes on another culture without the context of the knowledge, history, and understanding of the significance and sensitivities of a certain group of people.
Q: I’m not sure I understand what you mean. Can you explain further?
A: There are certain meanings/associations to many of the cultural expressions, artifacts, intellectual property (including oral storytelling), traditional knowledge, etc., that if not used with permission, or as considered proper for the customs, are highly disrespectful, insulting, and rob the credit that is deserved for a particular group of people and their customs, some even to the point of having financial consequences.
There is significance to someone else’s culture, and adopting or using elements, whether traditional medicine, religious symbols, dance, and music, or language, legends, dress, or cooking practices, and all fall under the necessity of seeking appropriate permissions to use them.
The Elder or Wisdom Keeper has spent many years learning the traditions and seeking blessings from their own Elders and other sources to share and guide people, just as many religious orders or professional doctors and lawyers have earned their degrees.
Traditional ceremonies are performed that give the Elder or Wisdom Keeper the right to allow the knowledge to be shared outside their communities. They have their spiritual traditions that they have followed for centuries and these must be respected. As I understand it, they pray to to their Grandfathers and Grandmothers who have gone on before them. They give thanks and they ask to be blessed.
Q: How did the process work once you started writing?
A: I wrote a draft of the legend down, and then wove a story around it.I did it in a way that ensured the legend was self-contained in its entirety, and the rest of the story was peripheral at the beginning and the end.
This took a bit of time, as I wanted to capture the tone and meanings accurately. I also did some research in understanding the terminology, the kinds of artifacts that were derived from bison, and to help me understand the cultural importance of the bison to all Plains People. I wanted to use a few Cree words in the story too and I had Ray tell these to me on subsequent visits.
Several times Ray told me the legend, adding more about each item that was made. I also did research on this as well, as I wanted to make sure the scope was covered and accurate. Once I began working with the illustrator, I also had to find photographs or images of each artifact so that they would be depicted accurately. Ray reviewed what I’d done and was pleased. I did some tweaking, and then sought a publisher for us.
Q: How did you meet Ray Lavallee?
A: Ray Lavallee and I have known each other for many years. We first met in 1994 when I contacted him about writing an article on his way of life as an Elder and Wisdom Keeper, and the teachings he was doing to bridge the cultural gap between Indigenous and Non-Indigenous people. I had heard about him through a television show I was the scriptwriter for at the time. He lived on the Piapot First Nation, where he had a cultural camp for visitors from different countries. He also travelled to many countries, like Germany, Switzerland, Australia, and Mexico, teaching and learning. He was a forerunner of his time, creating an awareness of Indigenous culture for anyone who wanted to learn.
The article: RAY LAVALLEE: BUILDING A CULTURAL BRIDGE was published in Western People, 1994. Ray Lavallee article B&W-colour version of article to come)
Ray and I kept in touch over the years, and I participated in many sweat lodges and ceremonies as his guest. He took me on the occasional gathering trip for medicines or invited me to participate in traditional events.
Our lives became busy and we didn’t see each other very often for a time. He led a busy life as Native Traditional Consultant on Indian Religious Beliefs for the RCMP, and many other government agencies and community groups. He also practiced his Medicine skills, led people on Plant Walks, and held Cultural Camps on the Piapot First Nation, as well as leading Spiritual Ceremonies and Storytelling activities.
A few years on, in 2009, he was the Elder for the North Central Family Centre in Regina, where I was working with young people for several months to help young folks journal about their lives.
Not long afterwards, Ray requested that I be hired to work on the Traditional Health Pathways AHTF Project with him for the Eagle Moon Health Office in Regina.
We began work in September and my part was completed by the beginning of the following year. The project was to glean in-depth information about Ray’s work as a Healer in his community, to record the medicines he used, where to find them and how to use them. This was another project that Ray felt was important to be recorded before the knowledge was lost. There are very few younger people learning the ways of plants.
He doesn’t consider himself to be a Medicine Man. “I listen to the spirit as to what medicines to use,” he said. “I’d like to share my medicines.” He was taught by his grandmother, Mable Whitestar, who lived to be 104 years old. He told me many stories about learning about medicines from her, as well as other parts of his life.
Once the project was finished in 2010, I had another opportunity to do an article on Ray as a freelance writer for Fine Lifestyles Regina magazine. This one was on how Ray was working to preserve the knowledge of traditional First Nation medicines. (Article)
Right after this was when we discussed the idea for the book on the Buffalo.
Q: So once you and Ray had the book written, what was the process you followed to have it published?
A: I did try to find a traditional publisher, but no one seemed interested in picking it up. I tried off and on for two or three years to find a publisher, and then I did find one, but they didn’t seem keen on making it a kid’s picture book as that wasn’t the kind of books they did at the time. The publisher and I did try to arrange to meet with Ray to discuss options with him, but by this time he was quite ill and there never seemed to be a good time to make the arrangements.
In the meantime, I’d forgotten that I’d given the manuscript to a hybrid publisher – Your Nickel’s Worth Publishing – one that does hybrid self-publishing for a client, but also helps with design, layout, marketing, and distribution. One year, she tried to find funding, but it didn’t come to fruition and I kind of forgot about it while I worked on other writing projects.
About two years later, I got a call to say Your Nickel’s Worth Publishing had received some funding from Creative Saskatchewan towards my picture book. I withdrew my manuscript from the first publisher, with their blessing to move forward. While the funding from Creative Saskatchewan paid for the majority of the printing process, the fees for the artist and later the Cree translation and study guide, I still had an outlay of several thousand dollars for the layout and design work, the photographer, and any other costs that were incurred as we created the final contents of the book. I gladly paid these fees to see this beautiful book become a reality!
While the artist had a direct flat rate contract to do the artwork, Ray and I worked out a contract between us to share the royalties of the book. Someday I might recoup the money I put into the publishing of the book, but for now, I make sure that Ray (or his family) is given due credit and fair share of the royalties first, as I feel this is only respectful and proper protocol. I gladly pay for award entry fees, postage, and advertising, and Ray and I share in the accolades, and the prize money, if there is any, which there usually isn’t. 🙂
We feel truly special to have worked on this project together.
Ray Lavallee passed on April 1, 2016, but his memory and his legacy will live on.