Cree elder Winston Wuttunee took out his drum and invited more than 50 new friends, nearly all of whom were sitting cross-legged on the gymnasium floor of their Winnipeg elementary school on Monday afternoon, to sing the alphabet in his mother tongue.
"Now I know my ABCs. Next time won’t you sing in Cree!" he exclaimed, surrounded by a crowd of schoolchildren who burst into cheers after the musical wordplay.
It was a fitting way to finish another rehearsal for A. E. Wright Community School’s upcoming musical, Peynikamun Nici — a Cree phrase that translates to "Sing With Me, My Friend" in English.
On June 16, Grade 3 and 4 students from The Maples will stage what is believed to be the first public school musical to feature Cree songs and stories in Manitoba.
Wuttunee, an award-winning musician and entertainer who is originally from Red Pheasant Cree Nation in Saskatchewan, gave each of the six classes who are taking part in the year-end performance a unique story. Every group has since been working on a visual representation, such as a dance or tableau, to tell their respective tale alongside their teachers.
The musical will consist of story-telling, visual performances, and complementary songs composed by Wuttunee and music teacher Jordan Laidlaw, the co-creators of Peynikamun Nici.
"I hope that (my students) learn things that I never learned in school," Laidlaw said, adding he did not learn teachings firsthand from elders in elementary school or even know about the existence of residentials schools by the time he graduated Grade 12 in the early 2000s.
"As an act towards truth and reconciliation, I think it’s our duty as teachers and as learners in Canada, to learn more about the First Peoples here."
The musical duo has been working on the project since January. Wuttunee’s speciality is making melodies, while Laidlaw’s is songwriting — a task the teacher said he has been undertaking with much guidance from his friend.
Among the lessons Laidlaw has learned from Wuttunee is the importance of enunciating Cree phrases with care.
"You have to speak very slowly, because it’s a very spiritual language," Wuttunee said, adding that the inaugural audience of their musical will be "well entertained — spiritually, mentally, physically and emotionally."
One of the stories in the musical is based on a tale about a young Cree boy who runs away from his community because he is bullied for being different and returns home after a magical journey of self-discovery.
Tired from being on the run, the boy falls asleep in a field and awakes to observe a butterfly — a mamikwe — unfurling itself from a cocoon. Suddenly, a kaleidoscope emerges in front of him.
"As (each butterfly) lifted in the air, he would start to sing and he was singing about who he was and where he was going, and how life was so beautiful and all that… The air was full of songs," the elder recalled.
So the story goes, the boy returned home in celebration of his identity after he reflected on the enchanted encounter.
Self-discovery, friendship and acceptance are key themes in the musical.
Wuttunee said he hopes the students will leave the project "with love and understanding" for each other and their greater community.
"What it might do is just help them be a little bit kinder, a little bit better, a little bit more thoughtful, generous, willing to help other people," said the 82-year-old.
The original song lyrics in the musical are primarily English and Cree, but they also include French, Punjabi and Filipino terms in a nod to the diverse population at A. E. Wright.
Throughout their creative process, the co-creators have placed great emphasis on following Cree protocols.
Prior to the musical later this month, teachers involved will participate in a smudging ceremony with Wuttunee.
"I think we need to be very careful when it comes to art and cultural performance – and I think there is the risk of cultural appropriation, especially when it’s by white people who’ve never consulted the community of the music or musics of those people," Laidlaw said.
Far too often, non-Indigenous people sing or teach Indigenous songs from an old book without proper context, the music teacher said.
"We, as teachers, are responsible to Indigenize our practice, to decolonize the ways that we’ve been teaching," he added.
Wuttunee echoed those comments Monday. And as far as the Cree elder is concerned, learning an Indigenous language through song is one of the best ways to do just that.
"When you do have to speak another language, you really learn how to listen," he said.
Community members are invited to watch the free performance scheduled for 6:30 p.m. at Maples Collegiate on June 16.
Maggie Macintosh reports on education for the Winnipeg Free Press. Funding for the Free Press education reporter comes from the Government of Canada through the Local Journalism Initiative.