The dual language Caribou Song by award-winning author and playwright Tomson Highway was first published in 2001 with illustrations by Brian Deines. The story is in print again, with stunning new illustrations by John Rombough, a Chipewyan Dene artist living in the Northwest Territories. Also new is the inclusion of a colloquial (Ateek Oonagamoon) dialect of Cree, replacing the original high Cree (Atihko Nikamon) translation.
Set in Manitoba ‘too far north for most trees’, Caribou Song is the story of two brothers, Joe and Cody, who follow the year-long caribou migration with their parents. They live a traditional, nomadic life of dog sleds, bannock, and rather unexpectedly, accordion music. To engage the caribou and draw them out of the forest into the open, Joe plays the accordion, called kitoochigan in Cree, while his brother Cody dances ‘with his arms up like antlers.’ Music, as they say, soothes the savage ungulate.
One day in late spring, the caribou heed the boys’ musical call in an exhilarating and dangerous way. ‘Faster than lightening’, ten thousand caribou fill the meadow. As a sea of antlers roars by, Cody takes Joe by the hand and ‘swims’ to a big rock, where they hear the spirit voice of the caribou rising above the din of the herd. The boys lift their arms in exultation, embracing the spirit. Fearing the worst, the parents are relieved to see Joe and Cody laughing on the rock as the herd dissipates.
Caribou Song is a story of family, tradition, spirit, and livelihood. Music weaves the elements together, making them soar just as Highway’s words and Rombough’s art beautifully and evocatively express a way of life that has slipped (or is slipping) away. Rombough’s illustrations in Caribou Song are strongly influenced by the Woodland (or Anishinaabe) School, with its emphasis on dark outlines, vivid colours, and visionary imagery. Founding member Norval Morrisseau’s iconic style lives on in Rombough’s work, but where they diverge is in the almost effervescent quality of Rombough’s paintings. Bubbling with circular imagery and spots of amethyst, sapphire and topaz, framed in black and laid over flat washes of colour, each scene is like a pane of stained glass; a mix of storytelling and spirituality that is simply magnificent.
When I worked in a bookstore (off and on from 1990 to 2004), there was a dedicated section of First Nations books for children, as schools, libraries and individuals would come looking for stories by, and about the native peoples of Canada. It was a disappointing selection at best, because (at the time) there were few books in publication, and those that were in print were poorly designed and illustrated; a fate often suffered by ‘niche’ publications considered to be too narrowly focused to attract more than desultory attention from publishers and the public. There were exceptions, like the stunning Ojibway Dream by Arthur Shilling, to this day one of my favourite picture books. Also, the equally gorgeous This Land is My Land and A Man Called Raven by George Littlechild. Michael Kusugak‘s delightful series of Inuit stories proved to be a popular exception, and of course, the always reliable Thomas King (Coyote Sings to the Moon, Coyote Columbus Story.) The original Caribou Song was the first in a trilogy of children’s picture books by Highway, followed by Dragonfly Kites and Fox on Ice, both illustrated by Brian Deines. These books, and a few others, were all too rare. However, in preparation for this review I perused lists of native children’s books published over the last ten years (or so), and things have definitely changed for the better, as demonstrated by the publication of Caribou Song. Hopefully, exciting newcomers like John Rombough will continue this trend of excellence in First Nations visual storytelling, and venerable authors like Tomson Highway will continue writing them.
Tomson Highway is the ‘proud son of a legendary caribou hunter and world championship dogsled racer.’ He is also the author of The Rez Sisters, Dry Lips Oughta Move to Kapuskasing, and Kiss of the Fur Queen (great book…highly recommended!) Tomson Highway was made a member of the Order of Canada in 1994. Originally from Manitoba, he now lives in northern Ontario.
A professional artist for over a decade, John Rombough has seen his work featured across Canada, including the 2010 Olympic Games. Born in Sioux Lookout in northern Ontario, John was adopted by the Rombough family of Prince Edward Island at the age of three. He now lives in the small community of Lutselk’e on the eastern shore of Great Slave Lake in the Northwest Territories.
Caribou Song by Tomson Highway, with illustrations by John Rombough. Published by Fifth House Publishers, 2013
Here’s a very short John Rombough bio on youtube
More information on the role of music in the indigenous communities of Canada.