An Algonquin elder has written and illustrated a children’s book about how to avoid West Nile virus and Lyme disease, weaving the latest health information into traditional Indigenous storytelling.
Albert Dumont, a storyteller, poet, self-taught artist and traditional teacher from the Kitigan Zibi Anishinabeg First Nation near Maniwaki, Que., partnered with Ottawa Public Health (OPH) to tell the story of 13-year-old Mahìngan and his grandfather, Mishòmis.
In the book, Grandpa’s Wisdom — An Algonquin Reflection on West Nile Virus and Lyme Disease, Mahìngan shares information sent home from school about the mosquito-borne West Nile virus, and Lyme disease, which is caused by bites from infected ticks.
Mishòmis reads the material, then sets out with his grandson to visit his hunt camp, where he shows him the bush can still be enjoyed safely by taking basic precautions.
Forest ‘like medicine’
The book reminds readers to respect all animals, even pesky insects or those that can be carriers of disease. Black flies, for instance, help pollinate wild blueberries, said Dumont, while mosquitoes serve as food sources for certain birds and bats.
Dumont said he wanted to convey the need for caution during bug season, while still encouraging people to enjoy nature and experience its healing power.
“[When] I was a boy … my family was living in a community where we were the only people that were identifying as First Nations,” said Dumont, now 70.
“Even though most of the people were welcoming and open-minded, there were some people who would shout at us to go back where we came from — even though we were right in the heart of Algonquin territory. I really needed the forest as a sanctuary and a place to go to process life.
“The forest was like medicine,” he added. “I’ve got grandchildren now and I want them to see the forest the same way. I don’t want them to fear the forest.”
Dumont agreed to tackle the subject on behalf of OPH in part because he sees it as an act of reconciliation by the City of Ottawa, but also because his brother, who lives in Stittsville, contracted Lyme disease.
“He was very sick. It was really bad for him,” said Dumont. “He took the antibiotics and he recovered.”
In the book, Mishòmis’s brother is bitten by a tick and gets a tell-tale circle on his arm before seeing a doctor and being prescribed antibiotics.
Dumont included OPH’s recommendation to use “Health Canada-approved insect repellent” to ward off bugs, along with traditional methods Indigenous people have used, like rubbing skin with spruce boughs or clay.
‘Tangible representation of reconciliation’
OPH commissioned the book and collaborated with Dumont because it wanted to let people in Kitigan Zibi and other Algonquin Anishinaabe communities know that infected ticks are making their way into the region.
Health messages sometimes must be adapted to fit the “lived experience and learning styles of the diverse populations that we work with,” said Kimberley Trottier, a knowledge exchange specialist with OPH, in an email.
The English, French and Algonquin-language book was also conceived as a “tangible representation of reconciliation” that merges Indigenous and non-Indigenous knowledge in a way that helps restore the Algonquin language, Trottier said.
“[OPH] contributed technical aspects of West Nile virus and Lyme diseases and through his writing and illustrations, Albert conveyed a message in the tradition of Algonquin storytelling,” said Michael Ferguson, OPH’s health hazard response manager in an email.
“The end result of this project is beyond my wildest dreams.”
Printed copies of the book will be distributed to communities of the Algonquin Anishinabeg Nation, as well as local schools and libraries in Ottawa. Downloaded copies will be available for purchase.
Dumont has yet to hold one of the 1,000 books ordered, but he’s looking forward to it.
“It’s something that my grandchildren and even my grandchildren’s grandchildren are going to look at,” he said. “They’ll be proud of their grandpa, and I think proud of their Algonquin bloodline as well.”