Reply To: The Power of the Personal,” with Mythologist Dennis Slattery, Ph.D.”
Thank you again for this powerful post James, which covers many issues –COVID and isolation, role of social media in our lives, mental health, teen isolation and more. The issue that led me to recall this particular story that I am going to tell, is on teaching kids to write about themselves.
The story is about Alanis Obomsawin, CC GOQ (born August 31, 1932) who is an American Canadian Abenaki filmmaker, singer, artist and activist mostly known for her documentary films. Born in New Hampshire, United States and raised primarily in Quebec, Canada, she has written and directed many National Film Board of Canada documentaries on First Nations issues.
She began her career as a professional singer and storyteller before joining the National Film Board (NFB) in 1967. Her award-winning films address the struggles of Indigenous peoples in Canada from their perspective, giving prominence to voices that have long been ignored or dismissed. The basic purpose of her films is to give a voice to her people and to have their existence recognized — to speak of their values, their beliefs, their songs, and that it’s alright to be a native person in North America.
It was my good fortune to meet Alanis in person, and to hear her sing songs, and tell stories of her people. Her own story from her life in a school in Trois-Rivière touched me to the bones. The emotions in her voice as she narrated her short story resonate in my being to this day.
Her parents left New Hampshire and moved to Trois-Rivières, in Quebec, Canada. Her mother’s cousin, initiated her into the history of the Abenaki Nation and taught her many songs and legends. But in Trois-Rivière, she was cut off from her tradition, she spoke little French and not a word of English, but she held tightly to the songs and stories taught by her aunt on the reserve.
James, you wrote, “One of our chief moderators; Michael Lambert; over the years has brought up the importance of teaching kids to: “write about themselves”; to explore their inner feelings and to connect these insights to their developing understanding of what archetypes and mythic themes are and to be able to see these things in everyday life and how this relates to them. But what one of the most illuminating questions he would often have to address from them is: “I just don’t know how to write about myself”.
Yes indeed, “I just didn’t know how to express myself until ” was Alanis’ story. It so happened that the girls at the Trois-Rivières school had made a practice to circle around Alanis during their lunch break and beat her up. This happened every single day for a year or more, perhaps more. Alanis was embarrassed, ashamed, as if she had done something wrong. She spoke not a word, to anyone at school. The year she turned 12, was also the year that her father died, and she had to be in school the day after his death. Lunch break arrived, the girls came around to form a circle and begin their beating. This time, Alanis was not the old Alanis, she got up and beat each and every single one of them. They never ever came for her. The beating stopped. Alanis had changed and so did the girls. She did not say, “it’s always been this way” she fought back, and “participated in it and freed herself from an operatic nightmare”. She refused to be locked in the cage of her never ending pain. That day, I learned a lot from Alanis.
More about Alanis’ films and other works can be found here: