Laughter and Resilience

I have been listening to the podcasts of Connie Walker for some time now. Connie is a Cree journalist from Okanese First Nation, east of Regina. She began her investigative journalism career with CBC News as a reporter, producer, and a correspondent.

In 2016, CBC published her investigative podcast entitled Missing and Murdered, focussing on the murder of Alberta Williams in 1989 along British Columbia’s Highway of Tears. Walker launched Season two of the podcast in 2018. She then released the podcast Stolen in 2021. She has received many awards recognizing her investigate work, focusing attention on missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls.

Her podcast Surviving St Michael’s, details how she learned of the abuse her late father experienced at that institution. All of Walker’s podcasts are intense and factual, well supported by research. Her work broadens our understanding of the experiences of Indigenous people and brought me something I hadn’t thought of before. Let me explain.

In my research for the story of my great (x4) Cree grandmother born circa 1772 in northern Manitoba at Fort Prince of Wales, I turned to the writings of Louis Bird. Louis is a Cree elder born in 1934 at Winisk, a settlement six kms up the Winisk River from Hudson Bay. I walked the tundra of Winisk in 1984 having been a crew member aboard a Hawker Siddeley 748 that flew from Pickle Lake to Winisk. Winisk was obliterated by flood in 1986 and the Weenusk people were forced to relocate 30 kms inland to Peawanuck.

Louis is a storyteller, a historian, a musician, and a visual poet. He spent many years of his life listening to and re-telling the stories and legends as told to him by his grandparents. He later recorded an extensive library of audio tapes of the stories and legends. The Hudson Bay Lowlands are rich in beauty and resources, says Louis, where one can live in abundance rather than hardship. He has a thorough knowledge of the land having learned to hunt, fish and trap as a child. His traditional education was interrupted for four years when he was forced to attend St. Anne’s Indian Residential School at Fort Albany, considered one of the worst of those institutions. To call them schools is shameful. St. Anne’s closed in 1976. CBC News reported on “the horrors of St. Anne’s” on March 29, 2018, as reported by Jorge Barrera. The OPP investigated the indecent assaults on 700 victims with 900 statements of abuse and suspicious deaths between 1941 and 1972. The school had a home-made electric chair used for punishment and torture. Louis does not focus on this painful part of his life but rather on the strength and wisdom of his culture and heritage. He spends his life sharing his knowledge.

Louis’ books are The Spirit Lives in the Mind and Telling Our Stories and they have a permanent place on my book shelf. The latter book tells of the sharing of legends in the evenings, young children at the feet of elders, in a circle around the fire. The stories were often comical in nature, laughter the main component and … it got me thinking.

The Mayo Clinic tells us laughter is essential for good health. Laughter creates physical changes in our body. We take in more oxygen, our brain releases endorphins, our stress responses are relieved, circulation to our muscles is increased causing them to relax, our immune system is improved, relief from pain is experienced, to name just a few. Indigenous people have known the importance of laughter and have been hard-wired for thousands of years to hold tightly to humour and its benefits.

Back to Connie Walker’s podcast – Connie interviewed family members on her podcast who had survived St. Michael’s. The survivors shared stories of the abuse and suffering they experienced, of the loneliness and lacking. As they spoke, these survivors had the sound of laughter in their voices. One might think it strange and somewhat off-putting to hear laughter with such difficult subjects. To the contrary, I believe it is laughter that forms the armour of Indigenous people, their survival tool, the very foundation of their resilience.

I have listened to interviews with Eden Robinson and her huge laugh, the author of Son of a Trickster, shortlisted for a Giller in 2017, and with Lee Maracle and her infectious laugh, one of the first Aboriginal writers to be published. Before her death in 2021 Lee was the most highly published First Nations writer in Canada. Richard Wagamese had an easy laugh at the ready, a giggle that erupted from every part of him. Michelle Good, author of Five Little Indians, has laughter woven into her speech. Thomas King has a razor-sharp wit he shares in his writing – The Inconvenient Indian and Indians on Vacation are my favourites. I could compile a long list of Indigenous people I have met and listened to and without exception – laughter is always present.