I’ll tell you a story: Storyteller Kung Jaadee (This Moon Woman) of the Haida and Squamish Nations


Excerpted from an interview with Daniel Baker-Tremblay for Windspeaker Radio

(Editor’s Note: Since 1996, Kung Jaadee has been storytelling at festivals, schools, museums, conferences and Indigenous festivals throughout North America. She is the author of the children’s books Raven's Feast and Gifts from the Raven.)

My cousin heard me perform the story Moon Woman. It really is about the berry picker and the moon and how the stars came to be. She saw me many years ago and she said ‘oh, you do your name great honour.’ And I smiled and I said ‘Well, what name is that?’ because I didn’t have a clue.

And she said, ‘Well, your name, Kung Jaadee, of course.’ And I said, ‘I don’t have that name.’ And she said, ‘Oh, maybe I’m supposed to give you that name.’

So, there was a memorial potlatch honouring my great uncle. He was hereditary chief of my clan. In August 2008 we had this memorial potlatch or feast to remember him. And everyone that was in my clan, they came to Haida Gwaii to honour him and, if they wanted a name, then they brought gifts so they could distribute to make their names good.

So, I went. I let my cousin know right before a came, because she’s been dealing with health issues. She came out to the event, to the feast, and she explained to me how unwell she was and how she never leaves her home. And she said she came out for me, and she gave the most amazing story about how we’re related to each other and how she was given the name. She was sharing it with three or four other women, and how they are all named, Kung Jaadaa (which means “moon woman” or “berry picker and the moon”... And she wanted to name me totally different, so she called me Kung Jaadee, which literally means “this moon woman” … I was so completely touched. I was so happy…

I didn’t know that I was Squamish until I was 18, so that was way back in 1985. I grew up believing that I was only Haida on Haida Gwaii in Haida territory. At that time, it wasn’t actually OK to practice a lot of our culture. It wasn’t OK to speak our language. It wasn’t even OK to have a traditional name. Neither of my parents have one, because their parents attended residential school.

There were language speakers back then, but because they all attended those schools, they felt… They didn’t want their children to get punished the way they were so they only spoke English to their kids. I speak our language today but, you know, my parents don’t understand what I’m saying, so I always translate when I speak it…

I did not want to be a storyteller. I was extremely reserved. And I was really ashamed of who I was, because in my community…in New Masset on the northern end of Haida Gwaii, an Armed Forces Base moved into our community and they built their own grocery store, they built their own recreation centre, they built their own houses, all built in circles, and their own school. And you had to be one of them in order to go to those places.

But the Haida school, and it wasn’t Haida because they were teaching any of the culture at all. It was settler teachers who really hated Haida children, and we weren’t allowed to practice our culture or anything. But the Haida school had become too small. So the principal of the Haida school went to the principal of the Armed Forces school and asked if students could start attending their school and the principal agreed. So Kindergarten to Grade 7. And that was the first year I went. I was in Kindergarten.

And those (settler) children were given misinformation about us, and they used to bully everyone… I do remember one day it was 17 kids against me. And one day when I was a little bit older, it was a hundred kids against me. It was only two of my cousins that blocked them away from me, because they would have pulverized me.

They just really had this hate-on for Haida Indigenous children. And I thought to myself, there’s so many of them it must all be true, so I was ashamed of who I was until I grew up and got married and I had three kids.

And when my eldest son started Kindergarten, something inside me just changed completely and I realized I no longer had permission to be ashamed and hate myself, because my children would learn this hatred too.

So I brought in my button robe made by my great grandmother and I talked to my son’s Kindergarten class about how she was 86 years old when she made it for me and how she has over 100 grandchildren and great grandchildren and how I’m fortunate to be one of her eldest grandchildren, because even my little sister and my little brother do not have a robe made by her hands.

I talked about how she gave it to me at my high school graduation and it took her six months to make it. That was my first story. We were living in Victoria at the time because I was working on my first degree at the University of Victoria. And I remember the peers in my son’s class looking at him and saying ‘Wow, you are so lucky.’ And my little boy sat up really tall with the biggest smile and, I thought, I have to do this for him.

This is my 30th year of telling stories, and I really didn’t want to tell stories. I remember the whole school of teachers lining up outside his classroom door and they all stood there all smiling and they said ‘When are you coming into my class?’ and I’m like, ‘Uh, no, this is a onetime only.’ And they said, ‘No, no, no, no. You’re coming into my class. They insisted…

My mom’s younger brother… I remember, he called me up and tricked me into getting down to his presentation one day. He said ‘Bring your drum. Bring your whole family.’ And I thought, ‘Yay, I’ll get to sing with my uncle. I’m so excited.’ He was performing. He was singing and drumming… And he called me up. So, I took my drum and I stood and thought ‘Oh, good, we’re going to sing now…’

And he introduced me to the audience and said ‘This is my niece and she’s going to entertain you with a story.’ And I’m like, through gritted teeth, I’m like, “Uncle, what story am I going to tell? I don’t have a story.” He’s like, ‘Tell your story about your drum… There were 200 people. Way more than I had ever seen. I quickly told the story, and I left out one part on purpose (thinking) ‘I’ll just sit down quickly. No one’s going to notice. Uncle’s not really listening anyway…’ (But he was listening and told her in their language to finish the story.) I said “Uncle tells me I forgot this one part on my drum. And now I have to tell you….”

I’m so glad. I thanked my uncle years and years later for doing that. I didn’t get to thank those teachers at my kid’s school, but I did go back and I performed in their school…I thanked my uncle and said you’ve given me a really great life. This has been such a blessing. I really didn’t want to do it, and now I did it.

I remember 20 years in I was thinking ‘Yes, storytelling helped my kids. It healed my kids.’ And I was walking in my house, and I stopped and I said, ‘Wait a second. Storytelling helped me. Storytelling healed me’…

I completely love it. I tried to be that vessel and just let the stories tell themselves, because that’s what it feels like to me.

The stories know exactly what the audience needs. I don’t, but the stories always do…. The stories have their own spirits, and they know what you need to hear.