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Literary Collections Native American

Sagkeeng Legends — Sagkeeng Aadizookaanag

Stories by John C. Courchene

by (author) Craig Charbonneau Fontaine

illustrated by Lloyd Swampy

Roseway Publishing
Initial publish date
Sep 2012
Native American
  • Paperback / softback

    Publish Date
    Sep 2012
    List Price

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Recommended Age, Grade, and Reading Levels

  • Age: 12
  • Grade: 7


John C. Courchene was born in Sagkeeng First Nation in 1914, where he attended the Fort Alexander Indian Residential School. Courchene’s time in the residential school was short; his brothers, "Joejay" and Louis, took John out school so he could help them cut wood in the bush. While this helped John make a lifetime commitment to hard work, it also resulted in John being “illiterate” in the European sense of the word. In the ways of the forest and his native language, Anishanabemowin, however, John was far from illiterate. Sagkeeng Legends is a testament to John’s cultural literacy and a monument in the face of eroding Indigenous language and culture caused by centuries of colonization.

Originally recorded by John’s wife, Josephine Courchene, in the early 1980s and reprinted here in both English and Anishanabemowin by Craig Fontaine, the stories in Sagkeeng Legends represent two pebbles where a mountain of knowledge once stood. Nonetheless, this book is an important act of preserving and reintroducing Indigenous language and culture to a new generation.

About the authors

Contributor Notes

CRAIG FONTAINE is a researcher with the Manitoba First Nations Education Resource Centre in Winnipeg. His home community is the Sagkeeng First Nation, Treaty One, where his grandfather John C. Courchene was born and raised and originally told these stories.

Excerpt: Sagkeeng Legends — Sagkeeng Aadizookaanag: Stories by John C. Courchene (by (author) Craig Charbonneau Fontaine; illustrated by Lloyd Swampy)

The stories in this book were recorded by my grandmother, Josephine Courchene, in the early 1980s. She was my greatest teacher, and she always obliged my constant questions about Sagkeeng’s past. My grandfather, John C. Courchene, was not a natural storyteller but instead preferred to be out at a hockey rink or a baseball diamond. He was a sportsman who lived for sports, which resulted in him being honoured with the Tom Longboat Trophy as Native male athlete of year in 1976. A citation quickly followed which recognized his contribution to sports development in the province of Manitoba. John was born in Sagkeeng First Nation in 1914, the youngest son of Louis Courchene and Suzette Charbonneau. He briefly attended the Fort Alexander Indian Residential School but was taken out of the school by his brothers “Joejay” and Louis to help them cut wood out in the bush. This action resulted in a lifetime commitment to hard work, which he did at the Abitibi Pulp and Paper Company for thirty years. It also resulted in John being considered illiterate, in the European sense, though he was not illiterate in the ways of the bush or in our greatest gift, the Anishanabemowin language.

The two stories in this book were told in Anishanabemowin and should really be understood in this language for a person to truly capture their essence. The English language is not equipped to express many Indigenous ideas and concepts. A person who wishes to understand “Indian ways” has to go to the language. Without this foundation, everything is just mimicry. After all, language is the context of any culture. Since English is the “dominant” language today, I had the stories translated into English in order to provide a small sampling of our Aadizookaan (legends) to non-speakers. Anishanabe syllabics are included in the translation as they capture the true sounds and expression of Indigenous languages.

The stories represent two pebbles of knowledge where a mountain stood before the onslaught of colonization began to erode the very foundations of our cultures. Each First Nation throughout Indian country needs to rectify this condition. Revitalizing our languages is perhaps the most important step we can take in decolonizing our minds and initiating true sovereignty.

Although John was illiterate in the formal sense he had to rely on an extremely sharp memory, as did our ancestors. The ability to memorize events, geography, weather patterns, plants, and animal behaviour was crucial for First Nations Peoples to survive in times past. My mother, Ruth, once told me her father would never get lost once he had been to a certain place. I assume John had to memorize and internalize the route as, without being able to read, he could not rely on road signs. This idea fits exactly with what my friend, the late great Dakota Sioux scholar Vine Deloria Jr., expressed in his book God Is Red. He explains that Indigenous Peoples’ epistemology is based on place/space as opposed to European linear time-based thinking. I assume this is the reason John always told his son Charles, whenever a certain job or task had to be done, “Kawin atacinon pahmah. piko cemak tci totaman kispin kwetci migoin kekoh tci totamin.”(There is no such thing as later. You must do it right away if you are asked to do something). The here and now is what really matters. Another example of my grandfather’s reliance on his memory of land features occurred when he was out in the bush and came across some plants he had never seen before in Sagkeeng. He liked the look of these plants so much he proceeded to dig one up and plant it in his garden. It turned out to be cannabis, which someone on the reserve had thought to grow. How many educated young people today taking a walk in the bush would be able to realize that an introduced plant was not indigenous to the surrounding land?

The two stories in this book describe the connection of First Nations Peoples to our own realities and existence before the coming of the white settlers. They speak of a time and place where spirit operated on the same reality as the material. Some people believe that our reliance on the material through technology and products has caused a split from the spirit world, so that certain events no longer take place. At one time events that are now considered “supernatural” were commonplace. I personally believe that these events actually occurred in our tribal history.

Oral history is crucial in determining Indigenous Peoples’ connection to our lands. The following stories provide our connection to our place in the Sagkeeng First Nation. They also establish our continuing existence as Anishanabe as well as provide evidence of the rich history of the Courchene family. — Craig Charbonneau Fontaine

Librarian Reviews

Sagkeeng Legends: John C. Courchene's Stories

The two stories in this book are written in English and Anishanabemowin. The stories are handed down through oral tradition and provide a vehicle for understanding both the Anishnabek worldview before colonization and themes of the supernatural. In Aadizokaan Beshing a boy shape-shifts into animals. He is helpful and kind, one day changing a wolf back to his human form. Psychological questions are raised when the wolf man returns to his village and turns his enemy into a snake. Aadizokaan Niish is about love, death and ghosts. A boy searches for his childhood friend, but the girl has died and is buried in a wigwam full of provisions. The boy finds the wigwam and hears a voice telling him to eat the food. During his meal, the girl rises from the dead.

Source: The Association of Book Publishers of BC. Canadian Aboriginal Books for Schools. 2013-2014.

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