Darrel McLeod starts his memoir Mamaskatch: A Cree Coming of Age with a quotation from Sartre: “Freedom is what we do with what is done to us.” In the following pages, McLeod—a retired land claims negotiator for the federal government and executive director of education and international affairs with the Assembly of First Nations—demonstrates resilience and strength as he works through abuse suffered in childhood to find his place in the world. In doing so, he also shows that belonging to some kind of community, no matter the size, is essential for all human beings.
Born in 1957 in northern Alberta after the death of his father, McLeod was the youngest of three children whom his mother Bertha struggled to raise on her own. As a widow and residential school survivor, she had a profound sense of loss; when she remarried and added more children to the family, the challenges simply grew. McLeod’s happiest childhood days were with his great-grandfather, a strong force in maintaining Cree culture—as was Bertha. But as his mother’s life grew more unstable, her natural exuberance and love of life diminished and she disappeared into alcoholism. McLeod lived with various family members, while his younger siblings went into foster care.
The word mamaskatch is Cree for a response to dreams shared, and it gives an organizing principle to the stories and memories in the book, including some McLeod was told about the awful experiences of Bertha and her sister in residential school. A sensitive boy who loved music and education, McLeod carried his own painful memories, including sexual abuse by his sister’s husband, which caused him horrendous guilt and confusion. The collision between Catholic and Cree beliefs, particularly regarding sexuality, terrified McLeod—he thought he was going to hell. With numerous moves around Alberta, it’s remarkable he was able to keep up attendance at school and work to earn money for himself and his siblings, including his sister Trina, a key figure in the memoir, who started life as Greggie and who underwent gender transition.
Mamaskatch does not adhere to a tight chronology, but it is emotionally lucid. McLeod tells his stories honestly and directly, without judgment: “I awake with an aching hollow in my chest. It’s not a dream—it’s just weeks before my tenth birthday, and Mother is gone.” The book shines a revealing light on appalling situations of discrimination, violence and need, and gives insight into a past that must be revealed so the collective future can be better. McLeod is apparently working on a follow-up memoir exploring his life after the events recounted here. I’m sure it will be as engaging, sensitive and thoughtful as this one.
—Candace Fertile teaches at Camosun College in Victoria.