Author and novelist, Waubgeshig Rice| Image source: Shilo Adamson
In early December 2016, MUSKRAT Magazine and Rez 91 presented the first annual Gchi Dewin Indigenous Storytellers Festival, which paid tribute to the rich history, stories and storytellers from and around Wasauksing First Nation. Guest storyteller, Waubgeshig Rice (Anishinaabe) shared stories about what it was like growing up in Wasauksing. Inspired by the stories he heard from his Elders, Rice went onto study journalism at Ryerson University in Toronto before going on to become a novelist and a broadcast journalist with the Canadian Broadcast Corporation (CBC). At the festival Waub also read from his latest novel, Legacy; a story of a group of Anishinaabe siblings grieving the violent death of their sister who was murdered while studying at a university in Toronto. The novel touches on themes of justice, privilege, reconciliation and most notably- revenge.
After the festival, Waubgeshig Rice discussed the significant role that traditional and contemporary storytelling plays in our communities today and in his career.
MM: What role do storytellers play in communities?
WR: I think they play a very important role, mostly in supporting and strengthening culture; sharing experiences; and teaching about social and cultural experiences. As Anishinaabe people our culture is really based on storytelling. I think we are very fortunate because that’s at the core of who we really are. We can always go back to the stories that people have shared through generations to learn about our language, traditional teachings, and our culture. Storytelling is really the heart of who we are.
MM: You grew up listening to the stories from your Elders, how has this influenced your writing practice?
WR: I really focus on dialogue, especially when writing fiction, which is my favourite part to write. Having that oral base and communication experience has helped me in a lot of ways. That’s what I can always really rely on when I’m trying to write fiction. I can rely on my imagination but also some of the conversations I’ve had with Elders about how our stories work, what they are and how they unfold.
MM: What is the relationship between storytelling and journalism?
WR: Traditional Anishinaabe or Indigenous storytelling is so different than mainstream journalism. It’s just that there are different types of stories with different ways of creating relationships with people. Mainstream journalism really flies in the face of traditional storytelling in a lot of ways. It’s all about fast, short stories with punchy sounding bites and quotes. When we are sharing stories in a traditional sense, we’re spending a lot of time with people. It could be hours that we sit with someone to share and learn more stories. That just doesn’t work in a mainstream sense.
What I often tell a lot of my counterparts in the media is you just have to be respectful no matter what. You can’t anticipate or push someone to rush their story because it’s disrespectful. For us as Anishinaabe people we are respectful when we share our stories and mainstream non-Indigenous storytellers may not get that. It can be a tough relationship, but more mainstream journalists are understanding how important our stories are to us and know the time we need to tell them. The awareness is getting better for sure.
MM: How have you seen storytelling evolve from your father’s generation to yours?
WR: Through my lifetime when we were kids mainstream media wasn’t as big of an influence on us. I think that there was more value placed in the stories that the Elders told because that was my primary form of entertainment. That’s how you passed the time with the kids, you would gather them around and tell a story like with my dad’s generation and before him. That was an important and essential part of our culture. Not only to teach younger generations about who they are, but also to keep them occupied. Story time was an important community event.
Nowadays it’s still there and important, but there are lots of other influences that are competing for this generation’s attention, which may make it a little more difficult to get them interested and excited. Storytelling is still there and young people still want to learn about who they are. They just have a lot more ways to access that information now. They can connect via social media, maybe not necessarily with the Elders in their own communities, but to other people in other places. Mainstream and social media have influenced how we do that today. The corner of the culture is still strong which is pretty important.
MM: After publishing your first novel, Legacy, will we be seeing more writing projects from you?
WR: I’m working on another novel right now. I’m almost finished the first draft so I hope to have that done within the next month or so. Then I’ll share it with some of my peers and other storytellers to get their feedback. Hopefully I’ll find a publisher after that and published in either 2017 or 2018.
Waubgeshig Rice Bio
Waubgeshig Rice is an author and journalist from Wasauksing First Nation who developed a strong passion for storytelling as a child while learning about being Anishinaabe. The stories his Elders shared and his unique experiences growing up in his community inspired him to write creatively. Rice’s journalism career began when he was a 17-year-old exchange student in northern Germany, writing about being Anishinaabe in a European country for newspapers back in Canada. In 2002 he graduated from Ryerson University’s journalism program and worked in a variety of media outlets across Canada since, including for CBC in Winnipeg in 2006. Along with reporting the news, he has produced television and radio documentaries and features for the public broadcaster. He currently works as a video journalist for CBC News Ottawa and has two books published with Theytus Books, Midnight Sweatlodge (2011) and Legacy (2014). In 2014, he received the Anishinabek Nation’s Debwewin Citation for Excellence in First Nation Storytelling.