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Last Modified: June 23, 2021

Darrel J. McLeod won a Governor General’s Literary Award for his memoir, Mamaskatch: A Cree Coming of Age in 2018. In 2021, he released Peyakow: Reclaiming Cree Dignity, which picks up where Mamaskatch left off.  He continues the poignant story of his impoverished youth, beset by constant fears of being dragged down by the self-destruction and deaths of those closest to him as he battles the bullying of white classmates, copes with the trauma of physical and sexual abuse, and endures painful separation from his family and culture. With steely determination, he triumphs: now elementary teacher; now school principal; now head of an Indigenous delegation to the UN in Geneva; now executive in the Government of Canada—and now a celebrated author. Darrel J. McLeod reflects on his two memoirs in this interview (submitted by the publisher). 


You’ve written another memoir on the tails of Mamaskatch: A Cree Coming of Age. How are the two connected?

Peyakow: Reclaiming Cree Dignity is the sequel to Mamaskatch: A Cree Coming of Age. It picks up where Mamaskatch left off, but it also loops back in time to the real beginning of the disruption and destruction of the world my extended family and ancestors had enjoyed since time immemorial. This is the true beginning of the story I sought to tell the world. It’s an important piece of the puzzle, since this history has not been taught in schools. Peyakow continues to recount the impacts of the brutal and rapid colonization of the Nehiyaw/Cree people in northern Alberta and on my family. It is also an illustration of resilience, as one man soars above adversity and tragedy to accomplish amazing things and enjoy a wonderful, albeit incomplete, life. Peyakow recounts a journey, both literal and figurative, that sees me travel from a tiny village to places like Geneva, Paris, New York, Buenos Aires, and Antigua, Guatemala not to mention most major centers in Canada to undertake significant work related to the rights of Indigenous Peoples. I was intrigued by these places and became quite comfortable navigating them, but I was more at home in other Indigenous communities like Yekooche in BC.


Why did you choose the title and subtitle you did?

For Mamaskatch, selecting the title was long process with perhaps 13 possibilities that presented themselves over time. This was not the case for Peyakow—I knew the title at the outset and oddly, it was confirmed in the drafting of the last chapter, where Mosom, my Grandfather upon reflecting on my life and travails actually says, “Peyakow, he travels alone.”

This is remarkable for our people because while historically both men and women would isolate themselves in nature for spiritual and health reasons as well as to hunt and gather, it was very unusual for anyone to travel alone, anywhere, mostly due to issues of personal safety. Because of the collapse of my nuclear and extended and family, as well as personal and family dysfunctionality, I ended up moving through many key passages of life alone. That isn’t to say I wasn’t loved or accompanied—but accepting love and care can be a challenge when one’s childhood has held trauma.

As for the subtitle, I’ve always known that my ancestors were very dignified people as are my Nehiyaw relatives and contemporaries. However, in the course of my life, family disruption and intense abuse of various forms, which led to an addiction to sex, racial discrimination, poverty and disenfranchisement, took me to a place of desperation and low self-esteem in my teen years.

In early adulthood I began to experience occasions of acceptance and encouragement in the first decent job I had at the Rockyview Hospital in Calgary. There, the nurses and doctors I worked with supported my desire to further my education. This was in sharp contrast to my experience in northern Alberta where people couldn’t get past my race or socio-economic status.

Once I began to reconnect with other Indigenous people who were strong, proud, and healthy I began to feel a resurgence of my own pride. When I was a senior and later chief negotiator with the federal government, working alongside and supervising high level experts in fisheries, forestry, land and resource management, governance and infrastructure, and the law, I noticed people were treating me differently. The Nuu-chah-nulth chiefs, powerful leaders and experts in their fields, showed me wonderful support and deference, and this greatly advanced my self-esteem and self-confidence.


What are some of the topical themes you address in Peyakow?

The unjust underpinnings of Canadian society and the impact of their continuance. As with Mamaskatch, it was not my intent to deal with themes as explicitly as I did, chapter by chapter, but I ended up addressing youth suicide; the long-term impact of residential schools on one Indigenous community in BC; poverty; the underfunding of Indigenous social programs; racial discrimination in the workplace; the tremendous challenges faced by Indigenous youth to acquire post-secondary education and then make their way ahead in the workplace (having to work twice as hard to be considered half as good as white colleagues); government corruption; the tremendous struggle to advance Indigenous rights on the international stage; cultivating an attitude of optimism and joy in spite of all of this.


It’s clear in both your books that you’ve had remarkable relationships sustain you through your life. Tell us why, in spite of these connections, you signal that your life is incomplete?

I can’t emphasize the importance of the early support of my sister Debbie, and my high-school, workplace, and university friends. The love between Debbie and I was profound and we did our best to support each other emotionally.

Mentors of every type were critical to sustaining me. A friend provided the necessary motivation when I was tempted to abandon my university degree. French professors, a married couple, became mentors, guides, and champions, and two indigenous Elders, Catherine Bird and Mary Thomas, became my guides. There were angels along the way at every critical juncture, where everything could’ve so easily fallen apart. While some family members were too busy with their own struggles to help me, my sister Gaylene provided all the love and support she could while dealing with her own challenges, as did my Auntie Rosie.

I say my life is inachevé or incomplete because I didn’t have children and in Nehiyaw culture, having children and grandchildren is the epitome of life’s accomplishments. I also was unable to bring enough healing to have a spouse or partner… I have wonderful very close friends who bring me such joy and confidence, but I’ve been single for over 20 years.


Your careers in education, federal land claims, and Indigenous governance seem to have been significant factors in grounding you.

Once I dedicated my career to working with Indigenous peoples and communities, I met amazing indigenous professionals who gave me such support and strength, and continue to do so to this day.

With the acceptance of professionals in the workplace and of peers I admired and respected tremendously, I began to cultivate good habits—exercise, good nutrition, a positive outlook, and nurturing my spiritual and intellectual being. Music was a constant through all of this—playing music, singing, and listening to music were key to my happiness and success.


Yes, you didn’t just survive, you really made a great life for yourself, ending up being an award-winning author, jazz singer, and even a budding stand-up comedian. Can you tell us a bit about this?

The angel who brought me to music is a world-class jazz guitar player from Mexico City. We started out with guitar lessons and that morphed into him accompanying me while I sing jazz standards. In our first year working together we were given a weekly show at the Jazz Foundation in Puerto Vallarta for a few years and have produced theme-based shows in a couple of great venues. In the spring of 2019, we recorded an album of jazz with a touch of blues and funk.

I’ve been a closet comedian for a long time and it’s time to bring this out into the open. Stay tuned.


Darrel J. McLeod is Cree from treaty eight territory in Northern Alberta. Before pursuing writing in his retirement McLeod was a chief negotiator of land claims for the federal government and executive director of education and international affairs with the Assembly of First Nations. He holds degrees

in French Literature and Education from UBC. Peyakow is McLeod’s second memoir following the events in Mamaskatch: A Cree Coming of Age (Douglas & McIntyre), which won the Governor General’s Literary Award for Non-Fiction and was nominated for the RBC Taylor Prize, George Ryga Award for Social Awareness, and the Bill Duthie Booksellers’ Choice Award. Darrel lives, writes, sings, and plays jazz guitar in Sooke, B.C. and Puerto Vallarta, Mexico.

Mamaskatch: A Cree Coming of Age

Darrel J. McLeod (CA)

Published: Sep 15, 2018 by Douglas and McIntyre (2013) Ltd.
ISBN: 9781771622004
Peyakow: Reclaiming Cree Dignity, A Memoir

Darrel J. McLeod (CA)

Published: Mar 20, 2021 by Douglas and McIntyre (2013) Ltd.
ISBN: 9781771622318