Reviewed by Ashley Supinski
Darrel McLeod’s second memoir, Peyakow: Reclaiming Cree Dignity (Milkweed, 2021), opens with a retelling of the signing of Treaty 8 in Canada, which allowed the Canadian government to take lands from the First Generation peoples of the Lesser Slave Lake area. The story goes on to recount major milestones in McLeod’s life, first as a teacher and principal on reservations, then to his work as a federal government official for treaty negotiations with the First Nations.
The thread that connects the opening story of Treaty 8 to McLeod’s life is his desire to understand and reclaim his Cree identity. This idea becomes larger than just McLeod’s own heritage as it becomes a journey to give rights and lands back to the First Nations. At the start, McLeod is happy as the new principal in Yekooche. His mission is simple: to help students regain their culture and to undo some of the past damage of the residential schools (which are no longer in operation). He doesn’t stay long at the school, moving on to a job with the government where he works as a treaty negotiator with the First Nations. While he believes that his purpose in this role is to help the tribes get equitable deals, he’s often seen as the enemy across the table and is not able to connect with other natives as he hopes. Much of his career is recounted this way: a search for understanding and connection, while simply being bulldozed by the white federal officials who oversee his department and operations.
Other threads run through the chapters. McCleod copes with the death of several family members (almost all by suicide) and the impact of losing his family and their culture. He suffers quietly, often keeping these things to himself. The book is set during the early 1990s and continues through the 2010s — and during that time McCleod also struggles with keeping his identity as a gay man secret from his co-workers.
Reading about McCleod’s life and his work for the Canadian government and his attempt to organize a conference for the First Nations tribes of the Americas was fascinating. He weaves history and personal experience together for the reader, which makes it hard not to be sympathetic about the treatment of these people. It’s a unique inside look at both sides of a treaty negotiation – the Tribes, the Government, and the man in the middle.
For all of its strengths, there were times that this reader struggled with understanding what was happening. Fluent in several languages, McCleod does not always translate for the reader what is being said, especially when using Cree, which is not easy to find on Google Translate. When a translation was not provided, there was something lost in the understanding of conversations and interactions.
Another issue is McCleod’s tendency to include random anecdotes and stories from his life that are not connected to the overall theme or other events within the chapters. These anecdotes felt like they were included just because, but they didn’t add anything to understanding the story itself on a larger level.
Overall, this is a highly recommended read for anyone interested in First Nations and the treatment of these tribes by government officials. With the recent headlines about the discovery of more than 1,300 unmarked graves believed to be those of indigenous children at Canada’s residential schools, McCleod’s memoir gives a little more insight into the treatment and suffering of the Cree and other tribal nations.