The Assay Interview Project: Darrel J. McLeod
February 21, 2022
Darrel J. McLeod is the author of Peyakow and Mamaskatch, which received the Govenor General’s Literary Award for Nonfiction. He is Cree from treaty eight territory in Northern Alberta. Before deciding to pursue writing in his retirement, McLeod was a chief negotiator of land claims for the federal government and executive director of education and international affairs with the Assembly of First Nations. He holds degrees in French literature and education from the University of British Columbia. He lives in Sooke, British Columbia.
About Peyakow: In Mamaskatch, McLeod captured an early childhood full of the stories, scents, and sensations of his great-grandfather’s cabin, as well as the devastating separation from family, ensuing abuse, and eventual loss of his mother that permeated his adolescence. In the equally potent Peyakow, McLeod follows a young man through many seasons of his life, navigating an ever-turbulent personal and political landscape filled with loss, love, addiction, and perseverance.
Guided internally by his deep connection to his late grandfather, in a constant quest for happiness, McLeod strives to improve his own life as well as the lives of Indigenous peoples in Canada and beyond. This leads him to a multifaceted career and life as a school principal, chief treaty negotiator, executive director of education and international affairs, representative of an Indigenous delegation to the United Nations in Geneva, jazz musician, and, today, celebrated author.
Weaving together the past and the present through powerful, linked chapters, McLeod confronts how both the personal traumas of his youth and the historical traumas of his ancestral line impact the trajectory of his life. With unwavering and heart-wrenching honesty, Peyakow--Cree for “one who walks alone”—recounts how one man carries the spirit of his family through the lifelong process of healing.
Maurine Pfuhl: Darrel, first of all congratulations on being a finalist for the Hilary Weston Writer’s Trust Prize for Nonfiction for Peyakow! You open the book like this: “I write what I’ve come to understand about the colonization of my people and tell the story of how I struggled to turn around our dystopian lives, striving to salvage some degree of happiness and well-being not only for myself and my family but also for Indigenuous individuals and peoples in Canada and other parts of the world” What does this recognition mean to you as an Indigenous author and, by extension, to your community?
Darrel J. McLeod: I understand how we got to our nadir, at the personal, familial, and societal levels and that it clearly wasn’t our fault. At a conscious level, I didn’t blame my parents, grandparents, or ancestors for our situation – for the fact that we were poor and in the lower echelons of the socio-economic spectrum overall, but I think everyone, including me, wondered if there was something wrong with us, or that perhaps we’d unwittingly done something to deserve our fate – the sins of the father visited on their sons – that line of thinking.
At once, we had our way of life, culture, and language, our relationship with the Earth usurped; our spirituality came under severe attack. A foreign language, a different form of governance, an iron-clad foreign land tenure and legal system, education, and even spirituality were all foisted on my people in a sudden, unforgiving, and irrevocable way. It is only now that we, as a people, have the time, energy, and distance from the brutality and trauma of all of this imposed change to understand the phenomenal injustice of it all. Now, we’re turning things around – reclaiming our rightful place in society at the local, regional, and national levels and resuming our historic way of life as best we can. We’re reclaiming our dignity. This paradigm shift is happening in Canada, the US, and most parts of the world where colonization happened, but it is a slow process and there is still a lot of suffering. Fortunately, as much as we could, we’ve clung to our language, culture, and entrenched personality traits such as humor, inventiveness, and profound caring for one another – what some call resilience.
Now, we understand that there was and is nothing wrong with us. There is nothing wrong with us at all. To the contrary, we have a lot to offer the world and this is increasingly apparent – in the last quarter century there has been what I call a revolution of Indigenous voices and creativity in the arts. A similar groundswell has just begun in the sciences.
Your book has reached both Canadian and US audiences. Have you noticed any difference in its reception in the two countries?
Both books have received numerous wonderful reviews in both the USA and Canada, including a starred Kirkus Review for Mamaskatch and an excellent Kirkus review of Peyakow, and that in itself certainly helped. In Canada I was invited to participate in many book festivals across the country which garnered a lot of attention for both books. I did a tour in the USA centered around bookstores, and I suspect that attending literary festivals in the USA in the future will help to improve the reception there. Also, I’ve noticed that I’ve had a lot more media coverage in Canada, although it’s still early days for Peyakow, since it was just released earlier this year (2021). While I’m still hoping media coverage increases in the USA for both books, I’ve been pleased with the reception to date.
Peyakow is a book about reclaiming Cree dignity amidst the enduring legacy of intergenerational trauma. It chronicles the remarkable evolution of your faceted professional life, and it also functions as a meditation on community, belonging, and finding your own path to happiness. Although Peyakow follows your 2018 book Mamaskatch, you explained in a recent interview at The Victoria Festival of Authors that Peyakow (a book about adulthood) is not a sequel to Mamaskatch (about childhood). I was interested to learn that an early draft became two separate manuscripts in the process of editing. Tell me about how one book become two for you in this way. Did your vision for these projects change as a result?
The format or structure came about organically – linked story-like chapters. I wrote the book that way without any premeditation or deliberation. After I had what I thought was a solid first draft of the entire manuscript, before sending it out to any agents or publishers, I hired an editor - a master of the short story form and a fiction writer, and it was under her tutelage that I came to realize that twenty-six or so short stories was far too much content for one book. In the editing process we found a very natural break in the narrative of my life – the death of my mother, Bertha, since it was a huge milestone for me and a turning point in my life.
I have to admit I was concerned about having two memoirs – who did I think I was? Then, I remembered that the memoir of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Les Confessions, has ten tomes and I thought, well, if Rousseau took ten lengthy volumes to tell his story, perhaps it wasn’t so outrageous for me to offer the world two medium-sized books. And, the final version of Mamaskatch inspired me to make adjustments to the final version of Peyakow. For example, after seeing readers’ responses to my stories “Hail Mary, Full of Grace,” and “Maci Manitowi” in Mamaskatch, I decided it was important to add work in a chapter of historical non-fiction into the content of Peyakow.
One of the many things I appreciated in Peyakow was the care that you took in making the various intersections of your identity transparent on the page. For example, we come to know you as a member of the Néhinaw, a member of the LGBTQ+ community, a trauma survivor, and a man maneuvering through a range of communities and professions. You work to illustrate how such intersecting identities informed your sense of belonging. Can you talk about what it means to live life so intersectionally?
In a nutshell, it’s damn hard work and at times it’s isolating and exhausting. Few friends, family members or colleagues understand who (and how) I am in the world, so I’m constantly explaining my life – or just silent about different aspects of it. For example, my Indigenous friends and of course, my family, understand what it’s like to be Indigenous, but only a handful of them understand what it’s like to make quantum leaps ahead in one’s career, become an executive in government and a national Indigenous organization, only to find oneself swimming among sharks; and having to work four times as hard to be considered half as good. A concrete and current example: as I write this, I’m enroute to the Salon des Livres de Premières Nations, an Indigenous book fair organized by francophone Indigenous people based in Québec. Telling some of my friends and family about this event and what I’ll do there would probably draw polite curiosity and then a blank stare. But, I’m fascinated at the idea of meeting Indigenous authors who’ve written in French – the colonial language of Quebec. And, speaking French is a passion of mine which has come into play at a few key moments in my career. Ditto for Spanish. I’m also obsessed with jazz singing. It almost begins to feel like I have multiple personalities, and maybe this is the case, but in a good way. When close friends who have known me for years read Peyakow, one common reaction is, my god, how many lives did you live? I always told people, superficially, what I was doing in my career life, but attempting to enter into any detail usually caused a glazing over of the eyes. Nevertheless, a number of key people chose to love and support me even if they didn’t understand me entirely, and that has been so important.
I’m interested to know about the work and materials that went into this book. What materials (journals, archives, ephemera), aside from memory, enabled you to achieve the multi-faceted sense of self that greets and guides the reader within this work?
I’ve written a personal journal since I was in my early twenties. I’ve kept professional notebooks since I was in my early thirties, and I safeguarded all of them. I’ve kept every letter and card friends and family have sent me since my teen years. I relied on all of these resources to piece together my life story in Peyakow. In addition, I used music and memorabilia to trigger memories. For example, if I needed to recall what I was going through in a certain era, like the nineties for example, I’d do a Google search of the hit parade for the 90’s and listen to it. I would also play my favorite songs from different eras in the background as I wrote. For the first chapter of Peyakow I downed tools and did academic-like research of government records and archives for six months, and it was very worthwhile.
I really appreciate what you said about the paradigm shift in Canada, the US, and other parts of the world wherein Indigenous people are reclaiming dignity after colonization. What do you see as the future of Indigenous writing? What authors and texts do you want your readers to know about?
I see a revolution in Indigenous writing, an eruption of new voices across the continent and it’s so encouraging. I believe this phenomenon will continue and, as a result, Indigenous literature will push the established genres and writing conventions in excellent ways to expand creativity in written expression. New and established voices I think everyone should read are: Eden Robinson, Lee Maracle, Terese Mailhot, Billy-Ray Belcourt, Joshua Whitehead, Richard Wagamese, Maria Campbell, Waubgeshig Rice, Norma Dunning, Louise Erdrich, Thomson Highway, and Joy Harjo.
Thanks so much, Darrel.
Maurine Pfuhl is a PhD candidate at the University of Missouri.
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