The school musical explores the Cree language through stories and songs



Cree elder Winston Wuttunee took out his drum and invited more than 50 new friends, almost all of them sitting cross-legged on the gymnasium floor at their Winnipeg elementary school on Monday afternoon, to sing the alphabet in his native language.

“Now I know my ABC. Next time you won’t sing in shout!” he exclaimed, surrounded by a crowd of schoolchildren who burst into joy after the musical pun.

It was a fitting way to end another rehearsal for the upcoming AE Wright Community School Musical, Peynikamun Nici – a Cree expression that translates to “Sing With Me, My Friend” in English.


ETHAN CAIRNS / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

Cree elder Winston Wuttunee drums with AE Wright music teacher Jordan Laidlaw on guitar.

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ETHAN CAIRNS / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

Cree elder Winston Wuttunee drums with AE Wright music teacher Jordan Laidlaw on guitar.

On June 16, Grade 3 and 4 students from The Maples will perform 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 from the Red Pheasant Cree Nation in Saskatchewan, told each of the six classes participating in the year-end show a unique story. Each group has since worked on a visual representation, such as a dance or a painting, to tell their respective story alongside their teachers.

The musical will consist of storytelling, visual performances and complementary songs composed by Wuttunee and music teacher Jordan Laidlaw, the co-creators of Peynikamun Nici.

“I hope (my students) will learn things that I never learned in school,” Laidlaw said, adding that he didn’t learn the Elders’ teachings firsthand in elementary school. nor even that he knew of the existence of residential schools when he graduated from grade 12 in the early 2000s.




<p>ETHAN CAIRNS / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS</p>
<p>Wuttunee, an award-winning musician and artist from the Red Pheasant Cree Nation in Saskatchewan, is the co-creator of Peynikamun Nici, a Cree expression that translates to "Sing with me, my friend."</p>
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<p>ETHAN CAIRNS / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS</p>
<p>Wuttunee, an award-winning musician and artist from the Red Pheasant Cree Nation in Saskatchewan, is the co-creator of Peynikamun Nici, a Cree expression that translates to “Sing With Me, My Friend”.</p>
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<p>“As an act towards truth and reconciliation, I think it is our duty as teachers and as learners in Canada to learn more about the First Peoples here.”			</p>
<p>The musical duo have been working on the project since January.  Wuttunee’s specialty is creating melodies, while Laidlaw’s is songwriting – a task the teacher said he undertook with lots of guidance from his friend.			</p>
<p>Among the lessons Laidlaw learned from Wuttunee was the importance of spelling Cree phrases carefully.			</p>
<p>“You have to speak very slowly, because it’s a very spiritual language,” Wuttunee said, adding that their musical’s inaugural audience will be “well entertained – spiritually, mentally, physically and emotionally.”			</p>
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<p>ETHAN CAIRNS / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS</p>
<p>On June 16, grade 3 and 4 students from AE Wright Community School at The Maples will perform what is believed to be the first public school musical to feature Cree songs and stories in Manitoba.</p>
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<p>ETHAN CAIRNS / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS</p>
<p>On June 16, grade 3 and 4 students from AE Wright Community School at The Maples will perform what is believed to be the first public school musical to feature Cree songs and stories in Manitoba.</p>
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<p>One of the stories in the musical is based on the story of a young Cree boy who runs away from his community because he is being bullied for being different and returns home after a trip magic of self-discovery.			</p>
<p>Tired of being on the run, the boy falls asleep in a field and wakes up to observe a butterfly—a mamikwe—unfolding from a cocoon.  Suddenly, a kaleidoscope emerges in front of him.			</p>
<p>“As (each butterfly) rose into the air, it started to sing and it sang about who it was and where it was going, and how life was so beautiful and all that… The air was full of songs” , the eldest recalled.			</p>
<p>According to the story, the boy returned home to celebrate his identity after reflecting on the enchanted encounter.			</p>
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<p>ETHAN CAIRNS / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS</p>
<p>Elder Winston plays guitar.</p>
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<p>ETHAN CAIRNS / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS</p>
<p>Brother Winston plays the guitar.</p>
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<p>Self-discovery, friendship and acceptance are the key themes of the musical.			</p>
<p>Wuttunee said he hopes the students leave the project “with love and understanding” for each other and their greater community.			</p>
<p>“What it might do is just help them be a little kinder, a little better, a little more thoughtful, generous, willing to help others,” the 82-year-old said.			</p>
<p>The original lyrics for the songs in the musical are primarily in English and Cree, but they also include French, Punjabi, and Filipino terms, a nod to A. E. Wright’s diverse demographic.			</p>
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<p>ETHAN CAIRNS / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS</p>
<p>The musical, Peynikamun Nici, will consist of narration, visual performances and complementary songs composed by Wuttunee and music teacher Jordan Laidlaw.</p>
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<p>ETHAN CAIRNS / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS</p>
<p>The musical, Peynikamun Nici, will consist of storytelling, visual performances and complementary songs composed by Wuttunee and music teacher Jordan Laidlaw.</p>
</figcaption></figure>
<p>Throughout their creative process, the co-creators emphasized respecting Cree protocols.			</p>
<p>Prior to the musical later this month, the teachers involved will participate in a smudging ceremony with Wuttunee.			</p>
<p>“I think we have to be very careful when it comes to art and cultural performance – and I think there’s a risk of cultural appropriation, especially when it’s by white people who have never consulted the music community or the music of those people,” Laidlaw said.			</p>
<p>Too often, non-Indigenous people sing or teach Indigenous songs from an old book without a proper context, the music teacher said.			</p>
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“We as teachers are responsible for indigenizing our practice, for decolonizing the ways we have taught,” he added.

Wuttunee echoed those comments on Monday. And when it comes to the Cree Elder, learning an Indigenous language through song is one of the best ways to do that.

“When you have to speak another language, you really learn to listen,” he said.

Members of the community are invited to attend the free performance scheduled for 6:30 p.m. at Maples Collegiate on June 16.

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Twitter: @macintoshmaggie

Maggie Macintosh

Maggie Macintosh
Journalist

Maggie Macintosh reports on education for the Winnipeg Free Press. Funding for the Free Press educational journalist comes from the Government of Canada through the Local Journalism Initiative.