“Stoneface” – Memoir of a Dene Leader.

Readers of my blog will know that I consider my years in the Northwest Territories, working for the Dene Nation, as having been critical to my own development. Our work environment fostered analysis not only of the society and world we confronted in our daily efforts to expose Canada’s colonial reality, but also analysis of the way this colonial and racist society was reflected in our own working relationships.

I owe a lot to the young Dene I worked alongside in those years, young men and women trying to make sense of the brutal treatment they had experienced on the colonial front lines, wrenched from immersion in their communities and culture into the alien and abusive world of the residential school.

While I was aware of the oppressive presence of that horrible history, I don’t think I came close to grasping the depth of the harm it had wrought. No one talked about it explicitly and I didn’t ask, but it was ever the elephant in the room.

Today, due to the brave exposure of that unbearable past by Indigenous communities from coast to coast to coast, we are increasingly aware of the truth, though we are far from full admission of our complicity. The work of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission has been a major force in that process of recognition, but reconciliation demands much more of us than we have admitted to date.

One of those colleagues in the Dene Nation in the 1970s to whom I am indebted, and also someone I am lucky to consider a friend, was Stephen Kakfwi. He has been an activist and leader as long as I have known him. He is also a former President of the Dene Nation, a Territorial MLA, government Minister, Premier of the NWT, and a poet and song writer. It is hard to think of a challenge he hasn’t taken on – bringing Pope John Paul II to the NWT not least among them.

Kakfwi has now published a memoir, “Stoneface”, that leads us through his life, starting with his early memories of family and community life immersed in the seasonal cycle of life in and on the land. The logic and beauty of that existence was then shattered by the inexplicable kidnapping of his generation and the attempted cultural genocide of which the residential school was the chief instrument.

Anger would be a perfectly justifiable response to that history – anger at the colonial government in Ottawa and Yellowknife, anger at the Church, anger at the abusers, perpetrators and bureaucratic agents of racism. There is plenty of blame to go around. And Kakfwi admits to his share of anger, but he has moved beyond that.

This is a forgiving book, a generous book, giving others the benefit of the doubt, while pursuing honest self-examination. Kakfwi takes us with him as he confronts the demons of his residential school experience, a graphic and harrowing story – a story we now know belongs to too many others who have taken the same path. In sharing his pain, Kakfwi is giving voice to more than one generation.

Yet, he emerges with surprising hope and even optimism, as this excerpt from one of his songs suggests:

        You drum, you sing your song

There is light in the deep of the dark

        An Elder, she spoke these words

        “Our happiness is our revenge”

        My friends, we faced the demons

        We healed our wounds inside

        And now we know the darkness

        We can truly love the light

                 – Stephen Kakfwi, “Love the Light”

But this is much more than a story of personal introspection. Kakfwi takes up his people’s story-telling tradition and in story after story, delivered conversationally, sparse, understated, direct, yet poetically evocative of a larger cultural world view, he helps us glimpse a vibrant, coherent, pre-colonial life. The stories are at times humourous, at other times poignant and moving, and always engaging.

Today, as we scramble to cope with the catastrophic effects of our extractivist corporate colonial culture, it is dawning on many of us that Indigenous cultures we settlers once sought to disinherit and destroy may ironically hold the answers to ensuring our own survival.

We can thank people like Stephen Kakfwi for keeping that alternative worldview alive.

  • Edmonton, 19 April, 2023

By Peter Puxley

Hi, I'm Peter Puxley, an economist, geographer and urban planner by academic training, and a political organizer/activist, development educator, journalist, policy wonk, researcher and political staffer by practice. I have tried my hand at poetry, fiction and non-fiction writing, some of which has been published.

2 comments

  1. Beautiful and moving post, great-uncle Peter.
    I had to keep myself from tearing up in the office. You do not see many stories written by non indigenous people writing so elegantly and without a small hint of spite or bitterness in these type’s of topics. Thank you for the breath of fresh air this beautiful July morning.
    “Our happiness is our revenge”

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